Blurring the Line: How Reality Helps Build Better Fiction by Scott A. Johnson from Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons In Writing Popular Fiction strongly articulated the use of reality in fiction.
Until several months ago, I actually had no idea that Nicolas Flamel was a real person. I, just like many others I suspect, first heard this name from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and assumed that Nicolas Flamel was a character that she created to bring depth to her own stories. A few months ago, I read the Alchemist series by Michael Scott which all dealt with the secrets of the immortal Nicolas Flamel. It was at that point that I realized Nicolas Flamel was a real character and has become creative fodder for several current works of fiction. Seeing this reference in the article helped to bring the ideas of character development in fiction to a much clearer perspective for me, especially when the article talks about how, “J.K. Rowling and Bram Stoker blurred the lines between their realities and ours just a bit, enough to make the reader think ‘what if?’” And that’s exactly what happened with me. As a writer, you start to see the people around you, or read stories about news-worthy events, and start adding that extra bit of fiction to known events or people. You make something potentially believable out of something that might be familiar to other people. As a writer, you start to lay the groundwork for other potential scenarios or how to take a familiar person and turn them into a monster.
Another part of this article that really stuck out with me was the idea of working with “fantastical creatures that do not exist on this or any other (known) planet” (Blurring the Line page 101). This section brought up a lot of key issues about how sometimes writers will create monsters, creatures, aliens, or situations which go against common sense or actual scientific capabilities. While the writer is responsible for creating new and fascinating worlds, the idea is to make that world or those creatures believable. Believable creatures and world-building encourage the readers to ponder their own concept of reality in regards to their own perceptions of the world around them. The article even goes on to talk about how to make your creatures that much more believable. “Doing simple research on the various aspects of your creature’s physical structure, creatures with like attributes and needs, can help you create beasts that give the reader pause and make them wonder if such a monster could exist, and where.” (Blurring the Line page 101). Isn’t that what fiction is all about?
Some of the classic horror movies from my younger days were more classified by what you couldn’t see than by what you could see. The article discusses this aspect of horror from pages 102-103 and I can add a couple of examples from my own youth. The top two examples of this for me were the movies Jaws and Alien. In Jaws, you didn’t see the shark until the very end, and then it became a little bit more ridiculous and slightly less frightening. My imagination definitely took many liberties with my sensibilities by constantly asking exactly how big this shark must be in order for it to cause so much damage to the boat and to be able to eat people so easily. My imagination did even more spectacular things with Alien because the crew is isolated in space and you don’t really see the alien clearly throughout the movie. You only catch small glimpses here and there through flashing strobe lights or dripping water. You see parts of the alien, but never the whole alien until the very, very end. And even at the end of the movie, the alien blends so well with its surroundings that you question what you see or what you think you see. They’re battling the environment as well as the creature and that adds more depth to the levels of human terror.
Using known or familiar settings can give the readers shivers or goose bumps when used correctly, like the house in the Amityville Horror. That house really exists, just like Stephen King used a real hotel as the inspiration for The Shining. Places that are real locations can feel extremely familiar to the readers and create a sense of uncertainty because those real locations are known to us. Someone who reads The Shining and then visits the mountains and Colorado will always wonder if the hotel they’re staying in was the one that Stephen King modeled his story after. And if the hotel feels real enough to be real, then couldn’t the events have really taken place? I’d say that when it’s done well, the possibility that what they’re reading may not be fiction adds to the emotional response to the story, but if done poorly, it might feel like a cheap gimmick.