Authorguy's Blog

How little is too little?

Posted on: August 4, 2011

Once upon a time, there was an author, who wrote stories set in the fictional city of Chicago. This Chicago was a wondrous realm, filled with magic and wizardry, demons and Knights, fairies and angels. And of course vampires because you can’t swing a dead cat nowadays without tripping over a damned vampire.


What it was not filled with was a lot of stuff about real life in real-life Chicago. I’ve seen this in a couple of places recently, blogs and threads where readers complain that a fictional world isn’t ‘real’ enough. As if simply by calling his city ‘Chicago’ our author was somehow honor-bound to represent every detail, whether it mattered to the story or not.

Because that is the standard, the line that authors are not supposed to cross. Every word is supposed to contribute to the story, otherwise it’s wasted verbiage. If a character’s skin color or place of residence doesn’t matter to the story why load the story down with it? I don’t think I even bothered to describe the physical appearance of Joseph Marquand in St. Martin’s Moon, even though he was the hero. On the other hand the interior of the lunar colony got some space devoted to it. In my current project I only mention the MC’s youthful appearance because of its relevence to the story, otherwise I wouldn’t bother. 

I have written stories featuring elves and dwarves on occasion, mainly because doing so allowed me to avoid having to spend a lot of time describing them, a necessity in a short story. In addition it also heightened the comic aspects of ‘Off the Map’ by letting the reader expect one thing and then hitting him with another. Using a real place as a setting would have the same benefit.

I have seen movies where the seamier side of life is shown, but that’s because it mattered. Much of the impact of Last Action Hero would be lost if the dichotomy between screen life and real life wasn’t made so much of, especially when they start to merge. I’ve seen movies where it wasn’t, but nobody complained about those representations of a supposedly-real place. Then again, given the importance of image in the movies, I would imagine that most real places used in a film would stipulate that the good parts be used, sort of like a multi-million dollar advertisement. But that is not a cost of doing business that matters here.

The question is what degree of corroborative detail is required to lend verisimilitude to our otherwise bald and unconvincing narratives, when those narratives are modeled on real-world environments? Is a heightened requirement of detail a ‘tax’ on the added value of avoiding the need to do so much description by using a real place? Or should our fictional author have called his setting Illinois City and left it at that?


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