When I approach creating a world for a story, I ask myself, “How real do I want this world to be?”
This might sound like a trite question, but it’s not. More than 400 years ago, William Shakespeare was born into a world where playwriting had become rigid and stagnant in its traditions. In his day, it was believed that a play should be set in the town where people lived. For example, if you lived in London, your plays should be set in London. Why? Because the local bumpkins wouldn’t be able to imagine anywhere else. And of course a story also needed to be set in the current day. Why? Because the hicks couldn’t imagine a story set ten years ago, or ten years in the future.
Shakespeare was a fantasist, of course, and a great one.
Of course Shakespeare couldn’t limit his stories that way. He was all over the map, moving from Denmark to Italy to Rome on his locations, and even into fairytale settings. And he set stories thousands of years in the past, hopping from one millennium to another. He couldn’t confine his work to the realistic tropes of his day. He often wondered in print if he suffered from some sort of madness that forced him to write about such things, yet he also recognized that one man’s madness is another’s genius.
In the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare explored the role of fantasy in a story versus realism. The play really has two storylines—one fantastical (about a man who is turned into an ass), and one that becomes hyper-realistic (about some gentlemen who hopes to win some money for writing a play).
What is interesting about the two plot lines is that the fantastic line ultimately fascinates the audience, but doesn’t really provide much in the way of emotional payoff. It doesn’t jerk any tears. Meanwhile, the realistic storyline actually becomes quite boring—but it does manage to evince powerful emotions. I believe that this is important. The world that you create will function in much the same way. The more fantastical it is, the more likely it will be to hold a reader’s interest.
But for us to become emotionally invested in your world, you need to “bring it to life,” portray the world in a manner that convinces us that it is real.
In short, when you look at a world like Middle-earth, or the world of Avatar, our interest in the world is first piqued by its curious nature. But our emotional investment in that place doesn’t occur until after the author brings it to life. The great world creators aren’t people who imagine strange places, they’re people who bring places to life by creating an illusion so substantial that the reader becomes engrossed.
I like to imagine that as I’m writing, there are little switches that I flip with each sentence. The switches are like those old electrical switches that turn a charge on or off. Your switch can move to on or off mode quickly. The on mode might be considered “fantastical.” The off mode might be called “realistic.”
As you’re writing, you might create the illusion of realism by embellishing fairly common details about your world.
For example, you might have Frodo and his hobbits traveling through a marsh. Anyone who has ever been stuck in a bog can relate to the problems the character will face—midges, mosquitoes, quick-mud, slogging through water up to your knees, feet sinking in the mire, the sweat on your face, leeches biting into your ankles, and so on. Those are all realistic details. We can relate as an audience.
But suddenly Tolkien would pull us out of the real world and tell us about ghostly faces peering up from the water, trying to suck Frodo down, down, and drown him. That’s riveting stuff! Right? Tolkien flipped the switch from realism to fantasy, and grabbed our attention.
In fact, anyone who has read that scene from Lord of the Rings probably remembers it quite vividly. What the reader forgets is that for every little paragraph of fantasy element, there are pages of realism. Tolkien prepared you for that incident carefully. In short, we read about travel through the bogs, the sweat, the hunger, the feeling of being trapped as we look for a path, the lack of good water—then we get hit with an occasional fantastic element that really takes the world creation to a magical level.
So as you create your world, you need to make a decision. What level of the fantastic do I want to have in my world? A little? A lot? None? All are valid choices.
Why? Because when it comes right down to it, you don’t need to have your world as the fantastical element that drives your story.
You see, your tale has six major elements—setting, character, conflict, plot, theme, and style—that can each drive the tale forward by having its own fantastical aspect. A character that is shown doing something out of the ordinary is fantastical, and will grab your reader’s attention. An unusual conflict—such as a gunfight or a tawdry romance—will do the same.
A powerful theme that forces the reader to think about matters that he’s not accustomed to pondering can also grab your reader’s interest.
Of course, your own personal treatment of a tale, the style and voice that you use to express yourself, can be fascinating. If you speak in heightened language, you’ll rivet your audience. The power of your metaphors, the uniqueness of your characters’ voices, the poetry in your word choices, all combine to create interest. Why? Because the reader will admire your language and think, “Ah, that’s beautiful. I never would have thought to say it that way!”
So with each element of your story, you’re always throwing the switches—choosing between the mundane and the fantastic, with the goal in mind of either grounding the reader in reality so that you can heighten emotional appeal, or else raising the level of the fantastic so that you can gain the reader’s interest.
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”