(Material for this blog is adapted from my recently published book: The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt Handbook)
The world you create for your work is the place where your story happens. It could be a world, a universe, or inside someone’s head. It is characterised by factors like geography and culture, climate and religion, commerce and politics. A story may have one or many settings; so for example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is set at the turn of the 19th century, in Hertfordshire and London.
Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is set in the late 1940’s, mainly in a little fishing boat off the coast of Cuba, near the capital Havana.
Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom is set in that city in 1940, just after the civil war.
Ian McDonald’s Brasyl is set Brazil across three time periods: 2006, 2032, and 1732.
Some books are set in places we know and could visit, others are set in places which are either fantasy, like Middle Earth, or are an amalgam of the world we know and the fantasy world of the author, like the world inhabited by Harry Potter.
Whilst there is a wide range of possible settings for a story, there are only two fundamental requirements for your world-building to be successful, and these are that it be credible and immersive. In this post we look at what makes a setting credible, and how we can give our world the credibility that will gain it the trust of the reader.
The Credible Setting
The dictionary definition of the word ‘credible’ is something that is possible to believe, something that is convincing. This definition nicely encapsulates the nuances of this first requirement because a setting – the reader must find it believable, in the sense that they might believe in a character; but the setting, like the character, does not have to be real.
This distinction between ‘credible’ and ‘real’ is important because it reinforces that fact that stories don’t work because the things they describe exist, they work because the reader is prepared to believe in them. Perhaps our main task as writers is to encourage the reader to place that kind of trust in our work.
So, for example, not every James Bond action scene has to be true to life. Most of the fight scenes we see, or read about, aren’t a true reflection of actual violence. Humans are not that resilient; real fights would not last as long or be as choreographed as fictional fight scenes, but in the context of the story this doesn’t matter; we watch the film and we believe.
The reader needs to believe in what’s happening in the worlds we create, and then they can forget about the elements of setting, and immerse themselves in the story. To do this they need to believe in the setting so that they are not distracted by it, not trying to pick holes in it. Rather, at the subconscious level they accept the world you have presented, and so can focus on the story.
To achieve the required level of credibility, the world we build must be consistent within itself, so it must not contain errors which, if the reader spots them, will throw her out of the story.
Readers make all sorts of assumptions about a setting when they start a story, especially if this is a genre story like a fantasy, a police procedural, or an historical novel. The reader willingly suspends their disbelief, and will continue to do so as long as the story seems to be authentic, and true to itself.
To give you some extreme examples of this, just imagine reading The Lord of the Rings, and finding that when Gandalf is stuck at the top of the Tower at Isengard, he simply gets his cell phone out and calls for help. It might be temporarily funny, but in the long term this huge error would destroy the consistency of the setting, and damage the story itself.
Or imagine a police procedural where there are simply not enough clues for the reader to have any chance of working out who the murderer is.
This needs for consistency applies to characters as well as setting. It’s frighteningly easy to jar the reader out of the story with even a small inconsistency. If one of the features of a character changes: hair colour, height, a tattoo, whether they’re left or right handed, this slip will jolt the reader out of the story, unless these inconsistencies are a specific conceit of the novel.
Our world must also avoid simple factual errors, in so far as the setting is relevant to them
So for example, if you set your story in London and have your character walk from Waterloo Station to the National theatre in ten minutes, that’s believable because the distance is less than half a mile. If your character walks from Waterloo Station to Camden Market in ten minutes, readers who know that this distance is about three miles will calculate that your character has been ‘walking’ at an unrealistic 20 miles an hour. They will then start to question this aspect of the novel, and maybe the novel itself.
If your story is set in 1966 and includes a moment where all the characters stop because President Kennedy has just been shot, many of your readers will be jolted out of the story, because they know that Kennedy was shot in 1963.
The reason this is important isn’t just because you want to do a good job with your story setting. The main problem with inaccuracies, and inconsistencies, is that while your reader is thinking about the implausibility of what you have written, they have left the story and they might not come back; or if they do, they won’t trust your setting so well from now on.
You can think of your setting as the seat your reader sits in. The question your reader will be asking, albeit subconsciously, is: can this seat hold me, am I safe with it? If the reader sees something inconsistent or wrong, it’s the literary equivalent of the seat collapsing under them.
A good way to reinforce this credibility of the setting is to think about the boundaries of the setting and, therefore, the story.
Defining The Boundaries
Establishing clear and consistent boundaries is an essential part of that process of reassuring the reader. These boundaries form part of the implied contract which we have with our reader.
This principle applies across all genres. The boundaries might be technological, historical, cultural, and even magical. In Pride and Prejudice the main protagonists are Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, but you won’t find them addressing each other as “Liz” and “William”. The sensibilities of the Regency period require that the principal cast refer to each other as ‘Miss Bennet’ and ‘Mr Darcy’.
This principle is even more important if the novel we are writing is in one of the fantastic genres. In a fantasy story with wizards, to keep with the convention we would most likely make the use of magic significant but limited in the sense that a wizard cannot just appear out of nowhere, kill all his/her enemies and then magically transport themselves back home. You can look at characters like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, or the wizard Bayaz from Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series to see how this works. These characters are powerful, but they must operate within the rules of the setting of their universe, rules which must be believable.
If you are writing a murder mystery, there are rules and boundaries to adhere to. You can’t, for example, have the mystery solved by the detective because she has access to a crucial piece of information that you have withheld from the reader. Neither can your reader discover, on the penultimate page, that the murderer is in fact a character who has not even been introduced until that very late moment.
Establishing the boundaries is about being consistent, and playing fair with the reader.
One of the best examples of the application of boundaries occurs in the Harry Potter series. The author J K Rowling allows the magical world and the ‘real’ world of the Muggles to interact, but only in certain ways. Harry can stay with his Muggle relatives, but they can only have a very limited understanding of the realities of the magical world. Wizards and witches can use real world items, but there is a limit; neither side in the conflict can suddenly acquire machine guns or rocket launchers for example.
We see a subtler example of boundaries in C S Lewis’s Narnia series. The world of Narnia is more thoroughly sealed off from the real world than is the case in Harry Potter, but also there is an age limit for the human children who visit Narnia; once they are too old they can’t visit the land of Narnia anymore. In applying this boundary, the author emphasises the other-worldly nature of Narnia and the ephemeral senses of a child’s perspective on that land.
In the next blog in this series we will look at the techniques we can use to make sure our setting is immersive as well as credible.
© Andrew J Chamberlain 2017