Writers are con-artists: and why that’s a good thing.
There’s a lovely old term called the “willing suspension of disbelief”; if wikipedia is to believed, it’s two hundred years old next year (coined by Samuel Coleridge, no less). As applied to story, it refers to the importance of getting your reader to put aside their “this is impossible” critical faculties, and accept what is taking place on its own terms, thereby achieving audience investment and immersion. The challenge facing writers (and film-makers, for that matter), perhaps the most important and pivotal of all creative challenges, is to achieve this goal: if we fail, we fail to engage the reader, and they will give up on us in short order.
So how to achieve it? Simple: as a writer of fiction, you must pull off a con. You have to present something that tells a lie (i.e. a completely made-up story) without setting off someone’s bullshit metre. If you want truth, stick to non-fiction.
This is actually the narrative reason behind fantasy worldbuilding. Yes, it is an awful lot of geeky fun, but the real heart of it is trying to achieve a consistent setting. If you can achieve that – present a world that operates within its own internal logic, whether or not that internal logic is explicitly delineated in the text – you are well on the way to pulling off the con. Note that the key with such worldbuilding is not mere quantity of detail (quality of detail is more important to the authenticity to your setting: the specification of certain points, from which the reader can infer the rest, rather than an irrelevant and exhaustive laundry list). Instead, to create and maintain the necessary suspension of disbelief, you must ensure that what you have said on page 50 is not blatantly contradicted by page 350. A setting where literally anything can happen is no setting at all – which in the context of fantasy means that if you have magic, there must be some limit on what it can do, and you as the writer must respect that limit.
In more general terms, this is also where one runs headlong into that ugly piece of received wisdom “write what you know”. While there is a grain of truth in there (in the sense that the best lies contain a few half-truths), it ignores the idea that all fiction is an illusion. Most authors (myself included) have never actually killed anyone; if we do choose to write a murder scene, our job as writers is to nevertheless convince the reader that, yes, this is what a murder looks like. Indeed, this can (and does) lead to the perverse situation of a fake-but-seemingly-realistic element being preferable to a real-but-seemingly-unrealistic one. Aesop was writing about that thousands of years ago, but the real lesson to take away is that the rules of the page are not the rules of real-life. It’s a con, remember – it’s not real, but must look like it is.
How to write something convincingly if you have never done it? Research. Draw on knowledge or experiences you do have (this is the grain of truth to the write what you know nonsense). Best of all, provide enough key details to convince the reader of authenticity, and let their imagination fill in the rest. To take an example, let’s say that you’re writing a battle scene (the fantasy genre has always liked to throw in a war or two: external conflict paralleling internal). Let’s also say that you have never studied military tactics or strategy. What do you do? Well, you could brush up on Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, and study famous battles and generals. Nothing wrong with that at all, though for goodness sake, don’t throw a barrage of technical terms at the reader: you want to convince, not confuse. Alternatively, you could familiarise yourself with some very basic principles to avoid overt embarrassment when your swordsmen charge a line of pikes (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson), and just have your characters act without context. Describing an act without providing wider context is great for an arse-covering literary con: have a character order “manoeuvre left, chaps” (without going into contextual explanation of how or why), show the enemy in tatters afterwards, and you’re ready to go.
Like any con, the true danger is that you will run into someone who knows more about the subject matter than you do. No matter who you are, there is always someone like that, and they will be more than willing to poke holes in your text. This is actually one area where fantasy starts with an advantage over other genres: if Tolkien writes about, say, Lampwright Street in Minas Tirith, no-one is going to call him up on inaccuracies, so long as he is consistent in his depiction. If I write a story set in New York or Paris, two real-life cities I have never visited, I will need to ensure that a combination of research and arse-covering “no wider context” is enough to sustain the all-important willing suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, fantasy has its drawbacks too: writing about Minas Tirith or King’s Landing requires including more (quality) details than writing about New York or Paris, since your reader will have no clue about an imaginary city outside what is in the story, whereas people have some idea on what to expect from the real-world. The con of setting is easier to pull off in this genre, but it requires more work, if that makes sense – and there is always the trap of the infodump, which can (and will) bore the reader even before suspension of disbelief becomes an issue.
But let’s consider the dystopian nightmare of “write what you know” – the idea that the smoke and mirror methods I’ve talked about are no substitute for actual personal experience in terms of maintaining reader immersion. In short, what if writers ceased to be literary con-artists? Leaving aside the question of what happens to fantasy, fiction suddenly becomes tied to autobiography. Only soldiers could write about war, and only musicians could write about music. People could not realistically write about other genders, ethnicities, religions, or sexualities (nothing makes me more depressed than encountering claims that white people cannot properly represent the experience of non-whites. A world where white people only write about white people is a world I do not want to be a part of). Oh, and it would mean that virgins could not write sex scenes (sadly, I have actually seen people make that claim too). Yes, most adults have had sex, which means the “more knowledgeable audience” thing comes into play – the average virgin needs to do more work in pulling off a believable sex scene than the average non-virgin. That doesn’t mean someone without previous sexual experience is incapable of research and effective imagination.
So, yes, those of us who dabble in fiction are bona fide con artists, employing a host of smoke and mirror tricks to create the illusion of reality so important to the reading experience. Consistent setting and worldbuilding, research, and manipulation of detail presentation are all part of the authorial tool-box – tools occasionally so effective that the audience falls in love with them simply on their own terms (c.f. the enduring appeal of Middle-earth). But if giving structural foundation to narrative flights of fantasy is an integral aspect of fiction, we really can’t have it any other way without undermining what fiction is: the attempt to vicariously experience something different from our own day-to-day lives. Don’t write what you know, write what you imagine.