Creating imaginary worlds seems almost as old as humanity itself. From Plato’s conception of Atlantis, more than 2000 years ago, through Thomas More’s Utopia to Tolkien’s Middle Earth and George Orwell’s dystopian visions, writers and thinkers have sought to imagine worlds where different rules and patterns of thinking might prevail, where unique geography might constrain or condition human behaviour. Essentially, such worlds create a ‘sand box’ where human beings might be tested and observed under conditions of our choice. By so doing, we explore aspects of what it is to be human that might not commonly be observed in everyday life, that test characters to the limits of their capabilities. To quote ‘A Moment in Time’
‘It is only on the wilder shores of experience that the human spirit grows to its full stature.’
It might be argues that there is an element of indolence here too. To set a book in a world of your own imagining obviates the need for the kind of research that might be necessary if you were to create a convincing context for a crime novel set in the 19th Century, for example. On the other hand, to create a convincing imaginary world it must conform to various standards that the reader may expect if we wish to ensure that they fully embrace our creation. In order to create a world set in the past, a thorough knowledge of the past is essential, in terms of language, thought and behaviour in order to avoid jarring inconsistencies. Consistency is paramount in this respect, as it is in most world creation. One must be careful not to contradict oneself, to create circumstances in one instance that are evidently at odds, either logically or in physical terms with circumstances elsewhere referenced in the work. If one is creating a world, the rules need to be clear in order to create a convincing frame of reference for the reader. Does it conform to normal geographical models in terms of climate, vegetation, settlement etc. Is it peopled by humans or three headed purple lizards. In order to ‘suspend disbelief’ great attention must be paid to providing the criteria for belief.
I remember when I was at school, doodling imaginary continents during some of my less engaging lessons, placing rivers, mountains and forests, locating cities in likely situations and giving them names. My maths teacher might have disapproved of such illicit activity but history and geography teachers would perhaps have approved my reapplication of what they had taught me regarding the flow of rivers and their tributaries, the placement of cities at the confluence of such streams, their location where trade might be thought to be concentrated. Such understanding underlies the creation of convincing other-worlds because they locate such entities within the context of real-world behaviour. Even etymology has a role to play. Place names reflect historical realities over thousands of years, the movement and settlement of peoples within the landscape. For a British example, names ending in ‘by’ or ‘thorpe’ are associated with Viking settlement and so largely limited to the north and east of England. Any author imagining a version of England with such names in the south-west of the country is bound to strike a discordant note with at least some readers, unless they have good reason for doing so. In order to create a convincing other-world one needs to have a good understanding of real-world history and geography. The rich and beautiful world that Tolkien created in Middle-Earth is at least in part a product of his being steeped in medieval history, legend and belief. The incredible detail of such a world allows it be vividly summoned into our minds in a most compelling way.
I can only aspire to such standards in my own work but I try to ensure that my own imaginary worlds behave in a way that is credible and consistent. Whether I succeed in this…..well, I’ll leave you out there to decide!