Why do we do so much background research?

Have you ever googled something random in an attempt to make your daydream more realistic? If so, you’re not alone. My personal weakness is houses. Even though almost all my daydream characters are fictional, they still need to live in a house that actually exists. I once set a daydream plot in a village a few miles from where I live. Once I’d found a house for my characters, I actually went there and peered over the back fence. I was unreasonably annoyed to see a rear extension that wasn’t on the floor plan I’d downloaded from the last time the house was sold!

But it’s not just houses. Have you ever used Google Street View to walk around the neighbourhood where your daydream is set? Or researched facts about the country and culture if it’s not your own? The list of things we might randomly need to know in order to build our daydream worlds is endless. Some daydreamers google obscure medical conditions that a character happens to be suffering from. Others wonder whether a character’s actions would be legal in the country they’re living in.

And daydreamers like me with fantasy/sci-fi paracosms aren’t immune from this. I’ve spent hours researching how my aliens’ spaceship could travel here from another star without breaking the laws of physics. And I’ve downloaded scientific articles on exoplanets in an attempt to find a possible home world for my aliens.

If you base your daydream characters on real-life celebrities, things can get really complicated. The desire to make your daydream as realistic as possible can lead you to stalk the celebrity on social media. You might watch every video of them you can find, and try to memorise every detail of their life.

But why do we do all this background research? We know our daydreams aren’t real. We know they’re fantasies we create in our own imagination for our own entertainment. Why does it matter whether or not they’re realistic?

Why we shouldn’t do research

There are very real risks of doing too much background research.

What happens when the celebrity you admire or have a crush on turns out to be an asshole? I ended a daydream relationship for this reason and the entire paracosm collapsed. I lost the opportunity to explore a very juicy end-of-the-world scenario, which wasn’t even connected to the relationship.

Or what if your research sends you on a quest for information that won’t even affect your daydream? I recently spent three days researching someone who isn’t in my daydream, just because they happened to look like one of my characters.

And do you want to risk exposing a gaping hole in your plot? If I can’t place my aliens’ home world within nine light years (and I haven’t found a realistic option yet), my entire timeline is screwed.

Why do we do it?

But despite all the potential problems, many of us still feel compelled to do this background research. Why are we willing to risk finding out something inconvenient? Why do we feel the need to constrain our unlimited imagination by injecting a dose of reality?

If I’m honest, this is still a mystery to me. So the following is probably not an exhaustive list. But these are some of my motivations:

I want it to be “good” fiction
I’ve decided I’ll never turn my daydream plot into a novel. But I like to think that’s a choice I’m making because it feels too personal. I don’t want to think my story would be a rubbish novel because my plot doesn’t hold together in any logical way.

I want to continue exploring
Why do I have aliens in my plot? Because I’m fascinated by the concept of intelligent life on other planets. I want to know what they’d be like, to what extent evolution would work the same way it does here, how their world and biology would shape their beliefs and culture. And although nothing can match actually meeting them in my imagination, I’m still interested in what scientists think is actually possible.

I want to establish something that won’t shift
There are certain things in my daydreams that I like to experiment with. I’ll run the same scene over and over, trying out new possibilities. But there are certain things that I want to be the same every time. I don’t want to reinvent the whole house just because I’ve put an extra person in the kitchen in a key scene. Basing a daydream house on a real house fixes it in my imagination. I can then imagine it the same way no matter what variations I make to what happens there.

I want to make the daydream complete and consistent
Although I can choose where in the timeline I drop into my daydream world on any given day, I still need to feel that the timeline is complete and consistent. There are things I “know” about my daydream world that I’ve never consciously daydreamed – details about the characters’ backstories, or those mundane periods where characters are building skills or deepening relationships without anything overly exciting happening. Adding in little bits of background research helps my daydream world come to life. It fills in some of the details that would otherwise remain undefined. And it allows me to see my daydream world as my other life.  

In conclusion, I’m not convinced that the benefits of doing background research outweigh the risks of finding out something you’d rather not know. But if you’ve ever googled something you’d find hard to explain in your search history, or you’ve had to redraft a major section of your plot because it’s not compatible with something in the real world, you’re definitely not alone. Background research is something many of us do. And I think it’s because, no matter how fantastical our plot, we need to feel that a little part of it is real.

[Photo by Francesco Ungaro]