Everything we do as fiction writers is basically to try and make others believe something is or could be happening that is not. We basically have to be able to lie. Really, really well.
And here’s the kicker: the person you’re trying to bull knows you’re lying right from the start. They know you’re making it up. They open your book, start with word one on page one and subconsciously they’re going: “Right, bub. I know this hasn’t happened, but convince me otherwise. Make me forget. Make me believe.”
The slightlest hint that you’ve made the whole thing up and they’re off like a jack rabbit. Unless you have some killer premise or hook that’s worth following through on less-than-convincing language. Or you know some very polite people.
The first stage of making people believe your fibs is believing in them yourself. You have to see, hear, think like and even be able to smell your settings, your plot turns and, most importantly, your characters. And their motivations. Smell their motivations! Smell them, I say! You have to know them backwards. If you don’t, a reader will see straight through them.
“Stop! I’ve been conned. This bugger doesn’t exist! No way he’d do that after just saying that.”
Dredge through every inch of them in your mind. Know everything about them. What they like to eat, who their friends are and why, what they like to wear, what they do for a living, where they live, how they wear their hair.
I think most writers find it pretty easy to bring up a visual image of their characters. Physicality, I think, is usually easy. It’s certainly the first thing that comes to me mind when I start to map out a character. But here’s another kicker. What they look like doesn’t often have a vast impact on what they do or why they do it. And it’s the what and why that make the lie more credible, not the ins and outs of what they happen to be wearing at the time. It’s important to maybe know this for yourself, as the writer, but it’s not vital to convince the reader.
Know your characters inside as well as out. You need to get under their skin, get into their heads, look out through their eyes on the world they’re moving through, the other people that are in it with them and think about how they feel about them. The more characters you have, I have found, the harder this becomes. But it doesn’t become any less necessary. You will still need to have an impression of the innkeeper that only appears for once sentence to serve a drink, in order to make his walk-on part convincing. Does he come back to serve again, does he short change them? Does he ignore them, does he spill the drink or try to draw them into a conversation? Or does he pointedly do none of the above?
I’m not saying you have to figure out the intricacies of every single person that passes through your story, but you at least have to consider their general mood, motivation, character and reason for being where they are and doing what they’re doing.
Here’s another kick in the proverbial. You will most probably not even mention most of what you have mapped out. In fact, most of the time, it’s best that you don’t. But you, as the writer, need to be aware. Make them real for you and they will be real to the reader.
It’s the throw-away details, after all, that make a lie believable. And every little helps. After all, depending on your genre of choice, you may find yourself called upon to deal with some real whoppers. Magic. Spaceships. The end of the world.
Blimey. Who’s feeling hot under the collar?
I may be forgetting that there is a ray of hope in all of this, however. The reader wants to believe. They wouldn’t be reading if they didn’t want to be convinced. But they are investing time in what you have created and if you want them to stick it out you have to meet them halfway at least.
Landscape, setting, character, voice. All need to be so real to you that you can almost forget where your world ends and the real one begins. Obviously if you’re dealing with spaceships, magic, dragons, world-destroying explosions or humanity-eliminating plagues, this might seem a bit of a tall order. But get in there anyway and nose around. You made it. It’s yours. It can be however you like it. Explore thoroughly. You want lists of places and significant dates in your world’s history. You want maps, maybe, and flow charts of alliances and enemies. You need to know everything.
Oh, but don’t tell everything, by the way. Keep the details relevant and not excessive. There’s nothing like over-explaining to make someone think there’s something fishy going on. But they need to be there, in some shape or form, even if it’s just in your mind or on your flowchart. If you are letting your plot develop organically, driven by the decisions and motivations of the characters, then you should find the correct places for detail just crop right up as you go.
And then you edit like anything. You get it to the point when you can convince yourself that this all could, would, did or will happen. Then you see if you can convince someone else. And then someone else after that.
It may sometimes seem like a daunting, unending and possibly even fruitless endeavour, but you’ll find the more you fib the better you get at it. And when you have the final project as complete as you can make it, as convincing as it’s ever going to be, you set it forth under its own steam and hope you can deceive everyone that comes across it.
Here’s to creative bull! It’s a muddy journey sometimes, but it ain’t half fun.