mimesis – (noun), imitation of the real world in literature, art, etc. Art imitates life.
We want our writing to be mimetic, to draw readers in as though they’re looking through a window — or into a mirror — that shows them a world that feels as real as their own. This is what a reader is looking for when they say they want to relate to a character; they want to feel like that character, and their story, is real to them. The most immersive creative works play out almost like a documentary — not in style, but in experience. You leave the film or the book feeling as though you watched the real life of a real person. When that suspension of disbelief breaks, the immersion shatters; when you’re aware that what you’re watching or reading is fake, it’s harder and harder to keep yourself in the right headspace to enjoy the story. That’s why good writers want to achieve a level of mimesis — you want your art to feel real.
But how to create that level of authenticity? How do we bring our fictional worlds to life?
One of the writing classes I’m taking had a forum discussion where writers posted some of their most prominent worries when it comes to their novels, and one of the questions posted really struck me: the writer felt like their fantasy story was whisking from one location to the next too quickly. The reader, they worried, would get whiplash zooming around their fantasy map, seeing too many locations without any one of them leaving a deep impression.
Cue me quietly sweating onto my keyboard, because this is the realest concern, for any fantasy writer.
When you’re writing speculative fiction — or, really, any story that has a big, big world for the character to explore — there’s an instinct to show off that world. To move your character around a lot. Usually, it’s because the story requires it — characters have quests to go on, wars to fight, journeys to undertake, sacred mountains to hike up, haunted forests to fight through, scaly slobbery monsters in vast acid-filled lakes to bring fabled jeweled tea cups to — you get the idea.*
* Is this … not … a normal plot point for any novel?
But, sometimes, we writers can get carried away. It can be fun, and fruitful for your story, to take your characters on a dizzying roller coaster ride across your fantasy map. But how do you know when you’re taking your readers on too dizzying a ride? How do you keep that fantasy map from becoming one big, confusing, smeary blur in your readers’ heads?
Your character, especially in a quest or journey-based fantasy novel, shouldn’t just be walking through a sideways scrolling sequence of set dressings. Every location you showcase in your story should be there for a reason.
As far as I can tell (and I am by no means an expert on this), the trick is to make sure the locations have emotional context for the characters, and to root your settings in your story’s plot. Make your locations matter, in other words, to both your characters and to the story at large.
Let’s get a little deeper into what that means…
Rooting Your Locations In Your Story’s Plot
Let’s say your character is going on that epic journey where they hike up that sacred mountain to retrieve the mythical teacup, fight through that haunted forest to reach the acid lake, and then row across the poisonous waters to meet the sea creature whose ire can only be assuaged by the delivery of that bejeweled cup. You might have noticed something about each of those locations I listed…
They all have a clear purpose related to the story.