Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Reality Gap -- 
Or Do My Characters Know the Truth?

By
Jos Howick
2003, JosHowick  

 

ou've come up with a fun new world to base your fantasy or SF story in - drawn the maps, named the countries, written the history - and you're all set to start writing, yes?

No.

If you go out into the street and ask ten random people how the world was made, I'm betting the answers will fall into at least two groups: the evolutionists and the creationists. Who's right? Well, unfortunately I can't ask the creator of this particular universe - assuming that there even is such a being - so I can't give you a definitive answer. But as the creator of your world, you have a responsibility to ponder these weighty cosmological issues.

If you're writing a science fiction story, then your world was probably created by the Big Bang or some similar scientific phenomenon; conversely, many fantasy worlds, like Middle Earth, were created by a deity of some kind. (Outside these two genres, it's really up to you whether the origin of the universe is relevant to your story.)  Given the reality that you, the creator, know, you have to decide what your characters believe. There are three main scenarios:

1. The Enlightened World

In this type of world, the characters are in agreement with their creator. OK, maybe they don't know the whole truth, or they may have slightly different versions of it, but they're basically on the right track. This is the usual scenario in hard SF (in fact in SF generally), and it is also prevalent in fantasy; a classic example is The Lord of the Rings, where different cultures have their own religions but they are all worshipping aspects of the same immortals, and those immortals are definitely real. It's also the easiest scenario because, patchy though your characters' information may be, they are conveying the flavour of the truth. You can use the characters to explain the nature of the universe, and the only problem lies in avoiding lectures and infodumps. (Which of course you do, don't you?)

2. The Schismatic World

Our world is more like this one; there are at least two mutually exclusive versions, i.e. divine creation vs. 'self creation' via Big Bang (not including all the different religions and scientific theories), so presumably one of them must be wrong. One could even argue that whichever version is true defines the genre of your fiction. If this issue is important to your story, it seems likely that your protagonists 'know' the truth, so their attitudes will colour the reader's perception; in fact, if the issue is central to your story, there may be definitive proof one way or the other. If it isn't important, your reader will assume that your characters have different beliefs for reason of verisimilitude, and won't worry about it. With a bit of care, this world isn't much harder to write than the Enlightened World, though you may have to be especially sensitive about lecturing the reader on the 'correct' world-view.

3. The Ignorant World

This type of world is mostly found in historical novels and science fiction set in low-tech societies. The universe may well have started with the Big Bang, but your characters don't know that - perhaps even the most learned scholars of the period believe in divine creation (or maybe your rational atheist characters are in for a big surprise...). In order to be accurate to the society you are presenting, it may be necessary for characters to have a wholly mistaken view of what is going on, but this runs the risk of misleading or confusing the reader.

For this reasons this is perhaps the hardest kind of world to write, especially if the setting is invented. After all, we know that some medieval people believed in witches and demons, but the reader of a historical novel doesn't assume these things are real just because the characters believe in them. Your problem with a work of speculative fiction is that the reader knows you have invented the world and that he is therefore dependent upon you to explain what is going on. If you start off with spaceships and then throw in a bunch of gods and monsters, some readers might think you don't have control of your genre. So what do you do?

If you're writing fantasy in SF clothing, you have some leeway; in this situation you're probably trying to jolt the reader out of their twenty-first century complacency by revealing the cosmic truth to which the atheist characters are blind. In a contemporary setting, this is an established sub-genre called "urban fantasy"; if you're imposing fantasy on a futuristic setting then I'm afraid you're beyond my area of expertise, so good luck to you!

If, on the other hand, you are definitely writing SF, you have to establish your credentials early on. That way when the fairies do appear, the reader will say to herself "nah, this is SF - I'm sure there'll be a rational explanation eventually" (and there'd better be!). You can do it in an upfront way like Anne McCaffrey did in Dragonflight, which has an introduction carefully couched in SF language: "Rukhbat, in the Sagittarian Sector, was a golden G-type star." This is safe, but not exactly subtle!

What I try to do is be sufficiently offbeat in my worldbuilding that the reader knows this isn't a generic Earth-like fantasy world, even if it has humans with a pre-Industrial culture and some familiar Earth flora and fauna. My world has a ring system and an exaggerated axial tilt; the composition of its crust means that everything from rock colours to native flora and fauna are distinctly different from Earth. Hopefully, by the time the reader gets to the beings that my characters view with superstitious awe, they will seem to fit into the SF world instead of being a contradiction...

Maybe by now you're thinking that this is all too much, and you want to stick with a world where characters - as well as readers - know The Truth. You're probably right, and if the description of Enlightened World that I gave above fits your writing then go ahead; you'll be in top company. But at least you'll have made that decision knowingly - and when it comes to building a world, the more in control you are, the better your writing will be.