February 24, 2024


Science It Works

Research and Fiction – How to Research When Something Doesn’t Exist

My first thought upon answering this question is, that it does exist – in the writer’s imagination. And therefore, it is to the writer’s own experience, own memories, own observations and wisdom that we look, to conduct our research. But my second thought is this: when, as a creative writer, you are writing about something that doesn’t exist, what is the most desired outcome? It is this: that your reader must – while he is reading your book – believe in it. During the process of engaging with your story, your reader must feel, react, respond, exactly as if this thing does exist. So how do we achieve that?

We make use of a device with a well-established name: “the willing suspension of disbelief”. It’s what happens when we are absorbed in a Doctor Who story, or a tale of Arthur and Merlin. It happens to all those who read and love “The Lord of the Rings” or the Narnia stories… and of course all successful novels in the fantasy and science fiction genre. As we read, we believe. That’s not because we actually think Middle Earth is real, or it is indeed possible to walk through a wardrobe of fur coats into a snow-laden forest. It’s because – in view of the powerful story-telling – we willingly suspend our disbelief.

The magic the author uses to achieve this may be found, essentially, in psychological reality. And that may be expressed through truthful characterisation, and classic story structure. Both of these are so important precisely because they correspond to psychological realities in the lives of all of us; and so we recognise them. These are the archetypes that Carl Jung referred to. They may also be identified as “the tropes” of any particular genre; in other words, the expectations that readers have of this genre, whether or not they are consciously aware of them: the hero, ally, trickster, mentor, wise fool, common man,maze,death-trap,moral trap,hazardous journey,riddle, inmost cave,trophy of conquest.

Such is our faith in classic story structure, that we will believe the story-teller on the basis of it. When we as readers see it is there, we can let our guard down, we can enter into whatever the story-teller has for us, and we can say, “I believe the promises this author makes. I want to know the answers to the question she poses; and I believe she will provide satisfying answers which will reward all the time I spend reading this story.”

SC Skillman