Unreality in writing: feature or bug?

Blocks of cheese with adorable artificial mice

Different places around the world have their own flavor, their own look. Obvious right? But here’s the interesting bit: it’s also really hard to believe. It’s not that the human mind doesn’t like thinking about differences, it’s that difference is mostly inconceivable, until it’s been felt.

I watched Dr. Who for a long time as a kid (though I haven’t been keeping up much as an adult) and one of the most interesting pieces was when scenes happened in London or the English countryside. Not because I find normal places fascinating (though normal places ARE fascinating, especially if you can throw a monster or an interdimensional portal into the mix) but because it was subtly different. Buildings and names and road signs were all just OFF enough that it added to the feeling of difference throughout the show.

Of course, when I studied abroad in England, I awkwardly realized that what I had interpreted as intentional sci-fi difference was actually reality. Oops.

I’ve felt the same thing in reverse as well. I worked in Spain for a couple years, and once read a fanfic that took place, partially, in the city I lived in. The fic was good, but the city was wrong. There are many places (airports, cathedrals, large grocery stores) that you can grok across national borders without too much trouble, but others where writing from description falls far short of the feel of cobblestones under your aching feet, and the sprawl of a modern city seen from the high walls of an ancient fortification.

So what does this mean as a writer?

Unless you write about very limited things (and are willing to risk the wrath of friends and acquaintances by writing only about them) you will never be able to visit, grok, and perfectly understand every place and thing that you write about. It’s not all going to to 100% accurate to reality. But that does mean that it shouldn’t be TRUE.

Let us always aim to write thing as real as they can be, until we can practically breathe the air, and feel the emotions of our characters beating in our own blood. And that will be good writing, even if it ends up being just slightly and subtly off.

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