Imagine Your Characters in Space and Time

One of the challenges of writing fiction is presenting imaginary events in a believable way. Readers have to engage with the story as though it is really happening—whether it is historical fiction or science fiction.

Authors create believable stories in the same way the narrator does in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “An Old Woman’s Tale”: “Her ground-plots, seldom within the widest scope of probability, were filled up with homely and natural incidents, the gradual accretions of a long course of years, and fiction hid its grotesque extravagance in this garb of truth.”

Fiction that lives is built upon convincing details. Is the Millennium Falcon believable? Not in our universe (although you may disagree with me on that). But Han Solo is very believable. We can imagine the fiction of a gigantic flattened tin can rattling through space because we can imagine the ordinary guy who flies it.

The most basic details that lay the groundwork for a believable story are spatial and chronological. This means that as you envision and develop your plot, you need to slow down enough to actually visualize and feel the story proceeding in time and space.

You know that awkward feeling you have when characters on a television show go out to eat, have a quick conversation at the restaurant table, then leave, and you just know there wasn’t time for them to eat those big steaks they ordered? When things like that happen, we start to doubt the story a little.

Get into the habit of auditing your fiction for details like the following:

  • During a particular scene, can I picture where each of the characters is positioned in the room, vehicle, natural setting, or other location?
  • If characters are speaking, are they close enough to hear each other?
  • Have I taken into account how much time would realistically elapse between scenes?
  • If characters walk or drive somewhere, or pursue some other activity, have I allotted enough time to the activity?
  • What is happening in real time to all of the characters outside the scene?
  • Can I map out the action of an entire plot onto the setting?
  • If an object gets moved, how does this impact the rest of the setting?
  • If a person does something disturbing, have I considered how this affects the other characters and the setting, or am I simply caught up in the drama of the unfolding plot?
  • Does the order in which characters do or say things make sense?

Except where Doctor Who is concerned, space and time should never bow to the plot. Spatial and chronological details need to be believable, or the other aspects of your story—the exciting scenes, the crazy coincidences, the imaginary creatures—will lack the necessary semblance of reality to keep the reader engaged.