The universe isn’t something that I talk about when I’m writing a book. If I’m cranking out a non-fiction tome (or a chapter for one), then the universe is mostly what data, facts, or reports that I locate on the subject. My job as a writer is to create a coherent story for the reader, using what I’ve dug up to move the story along.
In fiction writing, I have the same job. The world I’m writing about is essential to making what I’ve invented workable, interesting, engaging. But I tend to concentrate on my characters more than anything else. I have to. Characters are people, at least to me. They have all the same dreams, wants, needs, and fears that real people do. They act, react, and interact with each other and run around, doing crazy stuff that I put into words. I love them.
Which makes is all the more problematic when moving, wonderfully engaging characters come off as…off. Something on the screen or page seems wrong, like looking at a painting that’s hanging at an angle. Suddenly it hits you: the world that we experience in reality doesn’t work like that. It’s the sort of thing that goes beyond mere mental blocks. So now I have a choice: change the character to suit the world, or change the world to suit the character.
If you’re a rabid fan of game shows or were raised in the 1970s (or both) then you might well remember a particular show called Password. The game was that the audience would be shown a secret word and one person on each team would try to describe the word to his or her partner. The team that guessed the word first won the round.
Today’s word is: verisimilitude. A six-syllable, million-dollar noun that represents everything essential to building a believable, consistent, setting.
In library work we say, “Look for the hole on the shelf.” Looking for a hole in a plot, setting, or a character’s back story is no different. Where there are holes, verisimilitude has failed. Verisimilitude is the thing that tweaks us when we read a passage, or watch a scene in a film or television show that doesn’t quite work. The illusion of reality that we want to buy in to is noticeably incomplete. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural, the lighting is wrong, the action‘s progression is incidental instead of being causal. The pacing is off.
Verisimilitude fails when a plot in a modern-day setting could be de-railed by one character just having access to a cellphone. But they say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s cut to the case: take a look at this very short film:
Ostensibly this is a film of an interview with an alien at Area 51. It’s creepy, it grabs your attention instantly, and it’s impossible to look away. You need to strain to make sense of the dialogue. It feels real…or at least realistic enough to keep our attention.
The point is not that the film is real—it’s not. The point is that the film hits on all the major feels: a warning of danger; an exhortation of hope that we can survive a self-induced cataclysm; and the idea that death is no more than a human construct we create in order to impose meaning on life. It links us to certain elements of real life that we all understand and rely on to function effectively. It feels solid, coherent, right.
A better, favorite example of mine can be found in the film Pacific Rim. On the surface it’s a vaguely cheesy movie about big stompy robots hitting aliens (and it is). But Guillermo del Toro’s engrossing narrative and his extraordinary attention to visual detail makes the film something more multi-dimensional than its closest big-screen counterpart: Michael Bay’s Transformer films.
To be fair, Bay isn’t going for realism: he’s going for three-dimensional renditions of the cartoon series we watched as kids. His films contain hyper-violent firefights which never actually kill main characters; lots of snappy chatter between characters, whether it’s warranted or not; lots of fast-paced transforming action;and something about Autobots vs. Decepticons. Worse, each film has a habit of contradicting what has gone before. The coherence of the universe fails.
Verisimilitude is never even attempted.
Contrast with del Toro’s film: from the first frame to the last, we are shown that the world on the screen is meant to be our world, invaded by monstrous kaiju. The military invents the jaegers to combat them. World leaders are shown to be well-meaning but ultimately fallible humans. The action scenes often take place in real time, where lumbering mechanical bodies position themselves in space with agonizing ponderousness…until they land that one punch that wipes out their opponent. Despite my affection for this movie, I’m the first to admit the film as art has real problems: plot holes you could drive a truck through, a boring straight white guy main character, a pace and story that feel like the third act of a trilogy instead of the opening of a franchise. But as a coherent universe, it works. It holds together. Achievement unlocked.
I readily admit that although I strive for getting the feel of the world right in my own work, it doesn’t always work. The New York City I created for The Taste Makers rang true as far as my experience in the world of Wall Street and a resident of the city would allow. It’s clearly not our world, as the introduction of magic, monsters, and supervillain Anatole Hunger attest. But it clearly is New York City.
Something similar happened when I was trying to figure out what to do with Digital Idols, my most recent book with another distinctly NYC setting. The problem with this story was the fact that it’s set 150 years in the future, after supercomputing technology had pushed normal human being out of just about every productive job on the planet. In the place of office workers, except at the highest levels of corporate hierarchy, came Genetics, people who were genetically modified to run the whole economy. In the place of local government regulation came weird regulations: Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to regulate sugar came into the story as an underground railroad for illicit sweets. The life of working endless days and more than a few nights in massive office buildings came into the manuscript as workers who can live their entire careers without ever going outside. In the end, I think it worked. You’ll have to decide that on your own (hint, hint.)
A setting will often work, even with holes. The trick is to fill as many holes as you can, and not to create a new hole when you do. Then, verisimilitude: achievement unlocked.
About the author:
Jon Frater is the pen name of Jonathan Frater, who is the Technical Services Librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Jon has been writing science fiction for years but has been slowly bringing his longer fiction into the hands of new readers. He’s written articles on library science for Scarecrow Press and MacMillan, and has contributed to Samuel Peralta’s Future Chronicles series: Chronicle Worlds: Feyland, and Alt Chronicles: Legacy Fleet. His most recent publication is Digital Idols, a cyberpunk thriller. Jon lives in Queens, New York, with his family and too many cats.
Fans of comedy and a more traditional style of fantasy role-playing(read: table-top gaming) can check out the podcast, Sci-Fi Writers Playing Old School D&D, at the website http://oldschooldnd.com. Jon plays Rol Belmondo, a fighter.