Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.47: Believable Worlds Part 1: The Illusion of Real

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Fonda Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler

Writers are illusionists, and worldbuilding requires no small mastery of that particular magic. In this episode we’ll explore the creation of believable illusions through the techniques of similarity, specificity, and selective depth.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take your latest work-in-progress, and pick something you can describe in depth to enhance the illusion of your world’s reality.

Thing of the week: Starshipwright One, by Jeff Zugale.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: To give a secondary world the feeling of reality, use similarity, specificity, and selective depth. Readers believe in a fictional world because of what is similar in it, what they can relate to, what is universal. Situations, every day details, recognizable truths, all can help the reader step into that world. Pay attention to what can go wrong! What do people hold onto? Specific is stronger than vagueness. Go ahead and invent specificity, add names. Selective depths, removing ambiguity or adding emphasis. Depth in one place gives the impression that there is depth everywhere. Where do you want to go deep, and what does the story your protagonist is involved in need to make it work? Put similarity, specificity, and selective depth to work, and make your world come to life for your readers.

[Season 16, Episode 47]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Believable Worlds Part 1: The Illusion of Real.

[Fonda] 15 minutes long.

[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re all real.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Fonda] I’m Fonda.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Howard] I might be an illusion.

[Dan] That’s Howard, by the way.

[Dan] We’re going to talk about how to create the illusion of realness, which is still important even though you’re writing something that is not real. Where do we start with the illusion of real?

[Fonda] So, I love creating worlds that feel as real as possible. So one of my goals is to create a fantasy world where the reader feels like they could get on a plane and fly to the place and walk around on the streets and go into the restaurants and see the cars and that there is texture and verisimilitude to the fantasy world. Not all fantasy and science fiction worlds are meant to be believable. Some are wacky and comical and outlandish. But if you are trying to create a secondary world that feels very real, how do you do it? I have three principles that I follow. They are similarity, specificity, and selective depth. So, to dive into each of these a little bit, similarity is what I… Is based on the idea that the reader believes in the fictional world, not because of what’s different about it, but because of what is similar. They are going to grasp onto things that are relatable and things that are universal. So, if you have a character who is in a situation where they’re working in a dead-end job and they have this demanding boss, but they’ve got to stay in the job because they’ve got to pay their bills. That is a really relatable situation, even if that character is an apprentice magician working under the thumb of some really demanding high mage. They are also going to grasp onto the everyday details that mirror what they already know. So if you are walking through a fantasy market and you infuse your prose with things like the smell of baking bread or the garbage behind the food stall, those are all things that readers already can very easily bring to their mind, and so they can very quickly fill that in. Then, finally, the last element of similarity is just recognizable truths about our society, about the world, about human nature… We all have… We all know things like there’s inequality in the world, people will sacrifice for those they love, those things, those sort of thematic elements that even if you’re in a far future thousand years from now, or a completely different fantasy world, those are going to make your reader feel like they are a part of that world.

[Howard] There’s a thing that happens on small aircraft where you have a ribbon of stuff next to the cockpit that’s okay to walk on. Next to it, there will be a sign or a shoe print with a red X through it or something saying not a step. Basically saying this part of the wing is not made to support your weight, please don’t walk here for our flight today will not be good. Walk on this part. Putting the no step or not a step label on a piece of a spacecraft immediately makes the entire spacecraft feel real. Because somebody has used this enough to figure out how to use it wrong and what people are going to do wrong. So I love just the no step label as a whole category of things that let me very quickly rubberstamp something to make it feel real.

[Mary Robinette] That’s exactly one of the things that I was going to say, is that one of the ways that I try to make things look real or feel real is figuring out how they are misused and broken. So, like the garbage, the no step, the piece of clothing that you’ve had since you were in high school that you really shouldn’t have any more but you still do. One of the mistakes that I see people make when they’re writing historical fiction is that all of the characters will be wearing clothing from the year the novel is set. No one does that unless something has gone terribly, terribly wrong in your life. So I do tend to look at how things can break and how we hold onto things. I used do props for theater when I was living in New York. One of the things that I had to do was… Like, the set designer would build the set, and I had to fill it with the minutia of a character’s life. It’s those little weird pieces, like when you’re digging in a bag, how many things are there? So, anyway, those are things that I get excited about, the things that break.

[Dan] Yeah. The clothing point is a really good one. There’s a YouTuber that I love to watch named Bernadette Banner who talks about historical costuming in movies and television. One thing she will always point out if there’s a show that has done their costuming really well, one of the things that they will often include is having the servants wearing clothes that are 10 to 20 years out of date, because they can’t afford the new stuff. They saved up and they finally got this one thing or they got it secondhand and they just keep wearing it. Because that’s the best thing they can afford even though it’s out of fashion.

[Howard] Yeah. I recall Michael MacLean telling a story about I think it was Jimmy Durante. Mr. Kruger’s Christmas? Is that Jimmy Durante?

[Dan] It’s Jimmy Stewart.

[Howard] Jimmy Stewart. James Stewart. Yeah. Going through the costuming department and looking at what the costuming people were offering and him saying… Touching the fabric and saying, “No. No, that’s the right time, but old Mr. Kruger, he would not be comfortable in this. But this. This is about five years older. Kruger would have kept this coat.” Going through… Old man going through the wardrobing and helping with the worldbuilding by saying, “This is what this guy is going to wear.” Fascinating.

[Fonda] Yeah. That sounds pretty well to the second point…

[Dan] Before you start the next point, let’s do our book of the week.

[Fonda] Sounds good.

[Howard] Oh. Book of the week. I have that. I have that and I will hold it up for the camera that nobody but our guests can see.


[Howard] Starshipwrightone. That’s starship, then w.r.i.g.h.t. All one word. One by Jeff Zugale. This is not a novel, it is not a short story. It is a… For lack of a better term, it’s a coffee table picture book of Jeff Zugale’s starship designs that were not tied to any particular project. It is a delight to flip through, because as you flip through and look at these starship designs, these spaceship pictures, you start to do the same thing the artist does, which is imagine how is this vehicle being used. Who built it and why? What was their budget? How did they make some of these decisions? Why does it have a red stripe? Why does it… And, there’s little notes from Jeff all the way through about his thinking and his process. It is a fantastic reference, mostly for sci-fi writers, not because you are going to steal Jeff’s ship designs and put them in your own books, but because you are going to fill your head with pictures of spaceships and reasons why these spaceships look the way they do. Full disclosure, I wrote the introduction, but I’ve already been paid. I’m done. I’m out.


[Dan] All right. So, Fonda, let’s talk about specificity now.

[Fonda] Yeah. So, the idea behind this is that when you’re writing and describing something in your prose, specific is more powerful than vague. So, let’s say you have a line in your story and it says, “She drove the car down the road.” That’s a perfectly serviceable sentence. Everyone who’s reading it is going to think that they know what that means. But that is a lot less powerful than “She urged her 1997 Honda Civic down the I 5 freeway.” Now you have information about her car, that it is old and is probably on its last legs, and she is somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. Right? So this goes not just for contemporary fiction, but also for speculative fiction. You can absolutely invent specificity that conveys more information and does the heavy lifting of worldbuilding for you without really being noticed. I love to do this by creating names for the luxury car in my world. The restaurants. The businesses. The street names. The districts in the city, like all of that invented specificity does a lot of worldbuilding without stopping to explain anything. Like, there is a… There’s a line in actually my young adult science fiction novel. It is… If you were writing that in a non-science fiction story, it would be, “He heard the helicopter descend.” But I wrote it as “He recognized the distinctive thrum of a micro fission T 15 self copter.” Like, what the heck is a micro fission engine T 15 self copter? Who knows? I made it up. Right? But, like, the fact that he recognizes that noise says something about the protagonist, and it orients the reader as this being a military sci-fi in the future. So that’s the sort of specificity that can really on the edges make your worldbuilding more fun and feel more real.

[Howard] We did that so much in Schlock Mercenary and the Planet Mercenary world book, the role-playing book where I had to sit down and fill in the holes. I’m like, “Well, I created a couple of restaurants.” I’ve got the Popsill Vending and I’ve got the Taco Bufa restaurant, which… Dan’s already grinning because Taco Bufa… Bufa is Puerto Rican for to throw, as in to throw a fark. So I love that name. But I then had to go through and fill out the rest of the universe with at least three more restaurant names and at least three more manufacturer names. The whole place just comes to life when you start naming things. Even if you don’t know why it’s named like what it’s named.

[Dan] We’re using a lot of science fictional examples for this because it’s very easy with brand names and stuff. But even in historical or in fantasy, you can still do this. An example that leaps to mind is the first scene with William Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean, the very first Pirates movie. Where he arrives and he shows the governor or mayor or whoever it is the sword. He gets very specific about the type of hilt that it has and where the tang is and all of these aspects of the sword that still ground you in the world and then make him look very competent and tell us, “Oh, he knows what he’s talking about. This is a world where swords matter.” And all of these… This specificity, but in a kind of fantasy non-technological way.

[Mary Robinette] Which I’m going to used to segue us to Fonda’s final point, which is about selective depth. Because you don’t want to do that with every single thing that your character interacts with. So when you’re trying to make choices about when, the metric that I use is you’re trying to choose places that remove an ambiguity or add emphasis. So, adding emphasis that this is a slightly stranger place or removing ambiguity about this. But the other piece for me is… Relates to something we talked about previously about things like character interacts with. If my character is going to interact with a sword, and it’s going to be an important plot point later, I want to make sure that they have an interaction with that sword in three… I’m making up the number three, but like in three different ways. Otherwise, if every time they have an interaction with that sword, it’s exactly the same kind of interaction, it’s telegraphing to my reader how that’s going to be used in the big climactic plot point. It also makes it seem very flat and artificial. Like, a butter knife is normally used to spread butter. However, in the past week, I have also used a butter knife to unlock a door…


[Mary Robinette] And to scrape paint off some tile in our new bathroom. These are not either of them approved uses for butter knives, but if I were doing that in a novel, that butter knife would feel absolutely real and very much part of the world. So when I used it in a fourth unanticipated plot specific way, it wouldn’t, as… It would both be a surprise, but also it would be an established piece of the world and it would feel very real and lived in.

[Howard] Butter knife as flat head screwdriver in order to get the computer cabinet open because the screwdriver I picked was a little one, and the screw was too tight, so I needed the leverage of a great big long handle. Don’t @ me bro. That’s… Yes, I’m using a butter knife to open my computer.

[Fonda] I think sometimes where you choose to apply selective depth is also on the expertise level of the author. I use this example of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy has so much detail on the language. I mean, he was a linguist. So he created an entirely different language, and then also partially created something like 10 other languages. So, languages were just his jam. That part of Middle Earth feels extremely well developed. But it’s not like he really went into the economics of Middle Earth. Like, I still don’t know how orcs got paid, like, I don’t even know what… How people are making money. But in a… Sometimes, when you go really deep in one area of the world, you kind of create the impression that that depth must be everywhere else as well and people will kind of give you credit for where you did an A+ job. While in contrast to that, that is to say Pat Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind, where he’s not a linguist and he does not create 10 different languages. But Pat has said he’s a geek for old coins. So his, like, the currency in that world is very well described. Like, he has even little… Makes them and auctions them off for his fundraiser. So he’s gone deep in a very different area. So, sometimes there’s an element of where you want to go deep as an author. What’s your protagonist, the story that they’re involved in, and the needs of the narrative, right? If you have, let’s say a jailbreak as a really big part of your story, you’d better do the worldbuilding around like prison security really well because that’s so vital.

[Dan] All right. That is a perfect segue into our homework, which is also about selective depth.

[Fonda] Yeah. So, this week, I want you to use your own project, whatever you have in progress, and consider where you might want or need to go into selective depth in your worldbuilding to create the greatest sense of real in your world.

[Dan] All right. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.