Putting the Fantastic in Realism

World building. It’s a term that is generally connected to epic fantasy, sci-fi and dystopian universes. When I say world building, I think about Tolkien slaving over Elvish dictionaries and George R.R. Martin constructing house sigils.

House-Targaryen-a-song-of-ice-and-fire-32439857-565-800Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of Game of Thrones … okay, great. Continue with the article.

But I believe that every writer, no matter how normal their setting is, goes through the process of world building. Creating a convincing world is a necessary part of every type of writing. It is the construct in which the action and your characters are housed. It is more than choosing a setting (I’ve never really liked the word setting – it reminds me of those plywood painted sets from middle school musical theatre).

I like to think of world building as creating the layers that surround your character. It is the awareness that there is a lot going on besides your character’s thoughts. There is a world.

In fantasy, this is thought of more concretely because a world must be constructed from the ground up. The creating is part of the fun, and a lot of times, the world itself is the first thing to emerge during the initial stages of writing. And when you are creating a fantasy world, there is a lot of layering, creating and oftentimes research to be done. In other words, the world building is a substantive concept. It’s like drawing up the blueprints of a house, making sure it’s architecturally sound, that the design is harmonious.

In literary writing, or writing that takes place in the here and now, it is easy o fall into a bit of a slump concerning the world of the book. One might think the world is already created simply because the novel takes place in the present time and in the real world. The trouble is that place and mood can be replaced with a thin setting and the writer focuses on the inner turmoil of the characters, their thoughts, the description of their appearance without ever zooming out to the bigger picture. There is a lot of world building, but it remains within a character’s mind.

Don’t get me wrong. I love me some good inner turmoil and, for the most part, I feel that my main character is what leads me through the story, not the place. But a writer doesn’t simply insert a character into the actual world. A world must be born.

During a panel I attended with Chuck Palahniuk, an audience member asked a question on setting and how Palahniuk goes about writing place. He replied (and I am paraphrasing) that he usually writes his scenes in places that don’t need a lot of description, places every reader can relate to. He used bathrooms as his prime example.


I love this technique and have since tried it out various times. It allows you to focus on action rather than get bogged down with description. A great writing exercise that can transplant you easily into an action-packed scene. But what gets me is how vivid and surreal most of Palahniuk’s writing turns out to be. Take Fight Club for instance (most folks have either read it or seen the movie). This book is set in the world we know and love: there are references to iKea, folks with normal jobs, etc. But the feel and flow of the world he creates is completely unique. The world of Fight Club is not my world, but one that is slightly different than the one I live in. It’s like a door to an alternate universe. Step on through and immerse yourself in the world that has been created for you.

And that’s a big reason why people read: to escape. It is pleasurable to place yourself something new, different. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to have dragons or spaceships, but it needs to feel both exceedingly familiar and new at the same time.

I think one of my greatest handicaps as a young writer was not putting enough fantasy in my realistic fiction. I would describe a room, but find nothing remarkable in it. I would use the same phrases over again to describe light seeping through curtains. Everything about the scenes I was writing felt mundane. To make a reader feel transported by a piece of literature, a writer first needs to be able to transport herself.

At a reading this past year, short story writer Anthony Doerr (who, in my humble opinion, is a master of putting the fantasy in realism) fielded a question about how he creates his the places in his stories. He has a knack for creating worlds that feel both exotic and vividly familiar. He gave one of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard for writers of any age: take notes.

Everyday, start with observing the details and atmosphere around you: your cat snoring at the end of your bed, the rustle of paper on your desk from an open window, the white noise of traffic or the river moving beneath your feet. We are surrounded by a huge amount of sensory details, and once you start practice the technique of reinventing those details on the page, it will come more naturally to you when you start building world out of thin or air.

We don’t need knights and swords and dragons to have fantasy. Writing is fantasy. Period. Hence the creative in creative writing. Our writing needs a sense of realism, of humanity, to be relatable. But what we often forget is that we need a touch of the fantastic to truly transport our readers.

Here is my recommended reading (writers who can add an element of fantasy to their work):


The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

I am a huge fantasy fan as well. I would recommend these titles for phenomenal world building.


Sabriel by Garth Nix

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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