ABC’s of Fiction Writing: U is for Universe

Posted by on Mar 22, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Me & RebeccaWhy do we read fiction? We read fiction because we want to forget about the realities of our own lives — our overdue bills, our tyrannical bosses, our failed relationships, dreams and aspirations.

Simply put, we read (and write) fiction to escape.

Every work of fiction takes place in it’s own universe. Even those that are historical in nature are never a 100% accurate representation of the actual events, though many are pretty good facsimiles.

And then, on the other hand, there are those FICTIONAL universes, that inhabit worlds so far away from our own that they defy logic — the dystopian, Big Brother-dominated Airstrip One from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and its most famous student, Harry Potter; or the BookWorld from the Thursday Next series of novels, where literary characters literally jump off the page and become real people (and where England and Russia are still fighting the Crimean War 150 years after it began).

Completely ridiculous. I mean, despite what Michael Crichton may have told us, we all know Velociraptors have been extinct for millions of years. (Right?)

And yet, we all buy into it. We allow ourselves to inhabit the characters of these novels, root for them as if they’re family.

How does that happen?

If you’re a confident writer, you can convince your readers of anything. You can create a universe where electricity doesn’t exist, or where Minnesota has been overtaken by cats who secede from the United States to form their own feline utopia. And if you write it well enough, everyone will feel as if it’s real.

You can make your fictional universe as bat-shit-crazy as you want it to be. But here’s the key: the non-fictional, “normal” part of your universe has to be as it is in our world. Because then, the readers will feel it. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, people battle for political power. They love. They lust. They keep secrets. Harry Potter had schoolboy crushes. You can create a fictional universe where hippos are extinct and the Triceratops still flourishes, if you allow the Triceratops to inhabit the role that hippos play in our world.

Conversely, I used to be the fiction editor of an online journal, and we’d get submissions of stories that took place in fictional universes that I thought were wild and crazy and fun,  but none of the characters acted like real people and I found myself rejecting these stories before I got to the end of Page 2. I couldn’t identify with anyone on the story, and ultimately I couldn’t become invested in the story’s universe.

So take your writers’ paintbrush and canvas and let your imagination run wild. Write a novel that takes place in a world where the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. Where The American Revolution was crushed by the British and we’re still The 13 Colonies. Where the dodo bird had become an invasive species across the world.

But once you’ve established that world, color it with your dreams, your fears and your emotions. Because your characters will be the wheel that keeps your fictional universe moving toward a satisfying conclusion.

Phil Lemos has published three short stories, had an essay published in Now What: A Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA, and once wrote a poem for a Facebook status. He also writes the blog “Life in the Philloverse” and earned an MFA in Fiction Writing from Fairfield University. A bunch of people have asked him if he’ll ever finish that novel he’s writing. When he’s not working on all of the above, he terrorizes associates at the convenience store he manages.


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