Ah, writing a new world: drawing strange landscapes, giving life to fantastic creatures, constructing societies… Sounds fun, right? Liberating? Heady even? It is, but it comes with a price. Lack of constraints can easily trip the unwary fabulist and the derived enjoyment has given speculative fiction a bad reputation: it’s escapism, fluff, too much fun to be of any real consequence…
Well pffft! Let me tell you the dark little secret: even the most grounded and realist writer of fiction (and a lot of so-called non-fiction) creates a world that is, be it ever so slightly, different from reality. ALL fiction is fictional, it’s only a question of degrees.
What’s more, inventing other worlds is a fundamental aspect of human intelligence. Margaret Atwood posits that the ability is within us from infancy, that the limited confines of the crib make us imagine an elsewhere, that then our first encounter with death forces us to confront the idea of an after-world. Then we grow up, we forget… but we keep doing it unconsciously, for framing reality with our values often distorts it.
Let’s get back to writing a Fantasy world. Not all writers of Fantasy feel the need to do this. The basic tenet of the genre only asks that we naturalize the supernatural, and this reality has proven most accommodating: over the centuries, authors have dropped in hordes of wizards, vampires, werewolves, witches, gods, aliens, and so on, without readers batting an eyelash.
So how does a new world come into being? It’s a well-known fact that there are two sorts of writers: the ones who plan their story in advance (planners) and the ones who let the story write itself (pantsers). Typically, a planner has outlined all the parameters of their universe before writing the first sentence. Me, I’m the other type. I didn’t realize I was setting up an Elsewhere until I was quite far into the story, it just kinda… happened. Who’s right? Who knows? The Church likes to profess that God has a plan, but if you ask me, it all makes a lot more sense if you think of God as the create-as-you-write sort.
Jokes aside, whatever kind of world creator you turn out to be, there will come a point when you need to stop and think about your creation, define its rules. This is when you must start taking your readers into consideration, for a fictional universe cannot be anything but incomplete: if it is born in the writer’s imagination, it is fulfilled in the reader’s. The latter has to be able to penetrate it, believe it. In the name of what some call “suspension of disbelief” or “impression of reality”, this world will need to possess a structure somewhat similar to the primary reality and a coherent equation of cause and effect. And while these concepts are important for any work of fiction, they are absolutely essential to any work touching on the supernatural.
Then you will need to think about your aims as an author, and if you don’t know what these are, it might mean digging deep into your unconscious. Fantasy has the potential to be didactic and moralizing: it simplifies life and by doing so, allows an author to enlarge society’s defects and draw the reader’s attention to real problems by changing their setting and magnifying them in contrast. Moreover, the removed standpoint permits the subtle handling of difficult, often delicate subjects. By using echoes or flipping the reader’s perspective, it becomes possible to reveal absurdities while sparing sensibilities… And they call it fluff ;)
This being said, always remember that the more you diverge from the primary reality, the harder it will be to debate concrete notions and critique society. Sadly, this means that most imaginary worlds will be parasites of our own, but how? Will your creation be linked, or completely independent? What will be its mechanics?
You can choose the oldest trick in the book: the geography or spatial angle (think Jules Vernes, Gulliver’s Travels, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), in which the distance traveled by the hero explains differences and where comparison with the primary society is built in.
Or you can reverse the Science Fiction thing, make your world a blast from the past, or something that feels like it could be our past (even if you set it in our future). Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, along with our fascination for Arthurian romances, has made this the conventional choice of High Fantasy. In these realities, traditional and heroic values of days yore are often imbued with a nostalgic glow to denounce the evils of our modern societies.
You can go Quantum, create a parallel dimension. This sort of world will usually be linked to ours, be it by a rabbit hole (Alice’s Wonderland) or a wardrobe (C.S. Lewis’s Narnia), thus permitting comparisons. There are exceptions, especially in realities only slightly different than ours, although this means you cannot define it as a parallel dimension in the story itself. You can do a Harry Potter and use a pocket dimension existing within our own. Of course, you may find a wholly new way – Bravo! – or you can mix everything up and create something in the lines of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. You may want to explain your world, or not, or just leave tantalizing clues.
At page thirty of Incompetent Gods, I realized I had created a parallel dimension. I opted to explain it, for its genesis was directly responsible for its society. My world split from ours two thousand years ago, when the ancient pagan gods, sickened by the spread of atheism (and perhaps the arrival of new competition), decided to rip the fabric of time and space, and leave this reality for a new one. This time, they said, we will live amongst the humans, so they will never stop believing. They didn’t realized that knowledge is not faith… Forward two thousand years, a couple of centuries after the end of an era marked by global warfare where gods had become the equivalent of atomic bombs, and they are now safely ensconced in Gods Incorporated, a huge multinational that regiments the relations between mortals and immortals.
Mine became an exercise in extrapolation (or retrogression for some parameters – remember I was already on page thirty), perhaps closer to Science Fiction than Fantasy: change a variable, and see where it takes you. Divine beings exuding it like we expel carbon dioxide explained the omnipresence of magic (while its unreliability dictated the need for technology). The combined existence of pagan gods, by definition promiscuous and weirdly shaped, and breaches in the space-time continuum that permit teleportation (and resulting splicing accidents), justified the presence of mythical creatures. And in a society where divine intervention is expected, miracles and acts of gods became bought and paid for commodities.
Whatever your model of choice, whether you choose to explain it or not, you will need to know how your world works, what is possible and what isn’t, for the smallest inconsistencies can shatter the illusion you have worked so hard to create.
References & suggestions for further reading
Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds. SF and the Human Imagination.
Stephen King, On Writing.
Ann Swinfen, In Defense of Fantasy. A study of the genre in English and American litterature since 1945.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf. Including the poem Mythopoeia.