Written by A Guest Author July 28th, 2022

Writing Realism in Unrealistic Settings

By Ashley Taylor Clark

Reality is the basis of all fiction. No matter how bizarre or fantastical your story may be, its foundation is built on and around the rules of the real world. This may seem like a limitation at first glance (why write fantasy at all if it needs to be reined in by what’s realistic?), but it’s actually a valuable tool. Reality helps you ground your story and make it believable, giving you more room to distort and explore within the setting.

Your story doesn’t need to be realistic in order to be believable. Readers are less concerned with realism than plausibility — you just need to create a world that readers can believe in, even with the fantastical elements. Suspension of disbelief goes a long way, but it’s up to you to do the legwork that allows readers to feel at home and comfortable in your story without questioning its logic at every turn.

There are a lot of different ways to do this, but the key is simply making things make sense within the world you establish. Here are a few tips on how to write realism into unrealistic settings.

1) Establish grounding details.

There are certain universal concepts that will root readers firmly in the reality of your world. Most fundamental laws of physics and biology will carry over unless otherwise indicated — gravity exists, for example, and people need to breathe.

Spend time establishing details that readers will recognize, and they’ll be more accepting of the details they don’t. As long as gravity exists for the majority of the world, readers will be okay with the occasional character that can fly. As long as people need to breathe, readers will allow them to breathe underwater or in alien environments.

Just be sure to hit the ground running — the longer you spend trying to convince the reader that your world exists, the less time you spend actually immersing them in the story.

2) Be consistent with your rules.

Once you’ve created the rules of your world, stick to them. Those aforementioned laws of physics may be different than in the real world, but they likely don’t change rapidly and erratically. The reader’s suspension of disbelief is immediately ruined if they’re asked to extend or shorten it at a moment’s notice.

It’s not just your setting that’s affected by inconsistency, either — the story itself will suffer if you don’t follow your own rules. In her essay “Engineering Impossible Architectures,” Karen Russell discusses how creating “a world without consequences” results in readers simply not caring about the story. Constantly changing the way your world works eliminates any sense of urgency or stakes — if the rules don’t matter, neither does anything else.

Be creative with your words and worlds, but make sure to stick within the confines of what you yourself have established as fact. Otherwise, your story becomes detached from a world that already lacks consistency.


3) Focus on character.

Fantasy worlds are a lot easier to understand when viewed through the eyes of someone who lives there. Emphasizing the human element of your story (even if the characters aren’t technically human) goes a long way to making your world more palatable.

Realistic characters can carry an unrealistic setting. If your characters make sense within the world you’ve created, then the world itself will make more sense as a result. Focus on characterization — let the world inform who your characters are, and let your characters’ experiences inform their perspectives on the world around them. By doing so, your characters become a grounding detail that readers can use to better connect to the setting and story.

Make sure your characters are relatable and well-rooted in your world, and they’ll serve as an effective anchor point that you can build your story around.

It doesn’t take much to make unrealistic settings feel real. Establishing important ground rules and sticking to them goes a long way toward immersing readers in your story, and giving readers believable characters to follow makes even the most fantastical worlds feel alive and lived-in.

Bio: Having spent all her life in the rainy PNW, Ashley knows the value of spending time inside with a good book. She turned her passion for stories into a career as a freelance fiction editor, sharing her expertise and enthusiasm with her fellow writers.


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