Research and fiction – How to investigate when something does not exist

My first thought in answering this question is that it exists, in the writer’s imagination. And so it is to the writer’s own experience, to his own recollections of him, to his own observations and wisdom that we turn for our research. But my second thought is this: when, as a creative writer, you’re writing about something that doesn’t exist, what is the most desired result? It is this: that his reader must, while reading his book, believe in him. During the process of engaging with your story, your reader must feel, react, respond, exactly as if this existed. So how do we achieve that?

We make use of a device with a well-established name: “the voluntary suspension of disbelief.” It’s what happens when we’re engrossed in a Doctor Who story, or an Arthur and Merlin tale. It happens to all those who read and love “The Lord of the Rings” or the Narnia stories… and of course all the successful novels in the fantasy and science fiction genre. As we read, we believe. That’s not because we really think Middle-earth is real, or that it’s possible to walk through a fur coat closet into a snow-covered forest. It’s because, in the face of powerful storytelling, we willingly suspend our disbelief.

The magic that the author uses to achieve this is essentially in psychological reality. And that can be expressed through truthful characterization and classic story structure. Both are so important precisely because they correspond to psychological realities in the lives of all of us; and so we recognize them. These are the archetypes Carl Jung was referring to. They can 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 aware of them: the hero, the ally, the trickster, the mentor, the wise fool, the common man, the labyrinth, the death trap, the trap moral, the dangerous trip, enigma, most intimate cave, trophy of conquest.

Such is our faith in the classical structure of the story that we will believe the narrator based on it. When we as readers see that it’s there, we can let our guard down, we can go into what the narrator has for us, and we can say, “I believe the promises this author makes. I want to know the answers to the question he poses; And I think it will provide satisfying answers that will pay off all the time you spend reading this story.”

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