Balancing Fantasy and Reality
World creating is an all-encompassing and immersive task. A writer must sit down at his or her desk and give birth to entire realities, histories, ideologies, people and places. World creating isn’t an undertaking for the faint of heart, and it presents its own unique challenges on top of all the other myriad struggles involved in writing a novel. One of my favorite quotes on the subject is:
“Writing is like sausage making; you'll all be happier in the end if you just eat the final product without knowing what's gone into it.” –George R.R. Martin
I think it’s especially telling that those words come from an undisputed legend in the field. World creating represents its own mountain to the mind of an author, but what happens when a writer has conceived of a story that blends a fantastical world with the real world? This story arc is more common than one might think, and it ranges across genres from Harry Potter and His Dark Materials to X men and Superman. It has a particular prevalence in science fiction, where a given story arc often imposes a new technology or phenomenon that acts to jettison a “real” world into the realm of genre.
These “hybrid” stories present their own unique dilemmas for a writer. On top of the world creation itself, there is now another variable in the equation: the collision of worlds within the story. That was the situation that faced myself when I sat down with the initial storyboards and notebook scratchings of my debut novel Anthem’s Fall.
To orient you to the task I faced, here is the pitch for Anthem’s Fall:
When the fallen emperor and a banished exile of the same herculean race ignite into battle over New York City’s rooftops, a brilliant young scientist discovers a technology that can defeat them both, yet might be more terrible than either. (*Disclaimer: getting it down to a one-sentence pitch was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do!)
As you can probably guess, my process involved world creation and the presentation of a familiar world. I simultaneously introduced modern New York City along with the brutal, futuristic world of Anthem. It took a long time and a lot of rewrites to get it right.
Here’s what I learned along the way:
1) One world can strengthen the other
Introducing two distinct worlds and two separate narratives presented a unique opportunity to deliberately juxtapose and relate one seemingly dissimilar place to another. The fantasy of Anthem could strengthen and add implicit tension to the scenes in New York City. The stripped down realism of New York City’s streets could anchor the fantastical vision of Anthem. Combined, the two worlds could coalesce the familiar and the unfamiliar to form a more dramatic setting than either could have attained alone.
2) Creating a world is hard, but it’s even harder when that fake world is held up against a real place. With such a novel, a writer’s fantasy must compete with reality on the believability scale.
As I developed the world of Anthem, I learned how many rules a made-up world requires. Amid the editing process, I found myself catching more glitches and flubs in my own constructed reality than the mistakes I made with the streets of New York. I never would have imagined how strict a writer’s own rules have to be in order to achieve believability in a made-up world. This is especially true when the made up world is constantly being interspersed with chapters that take place in modern New York City.
With Anthem I wanted to create a world that looked more like an ancient society than a world one might normally associate with science fiction. Anthem is futuristic, and home to advanced technology, but I wanted the world and its people to be more reminiscent of an ancient barbarian culture than an advanced dystopia. It’s a society controlled by a dynasty of brutal warriors, and despite the long history of Anthem, it’s clear to the reader that Anthem is more barbaric than New York City.
I wanted the connection there. I wanted the reader to flip from chapter to chapter and think about the similarities and differences between these two worlds. A reader knows that these worlds are eventually going to collide, so I wanted them thinking critically about each along the way.
What I found by the time I finished my final edit run was that my rules for Anthem had become more imperious and unflinching than the rules of writing about a modern New York City. If one fell out of equilibrium, they both would fail.
3) Balance must be found
When simultaneously introducing two worlds chapter by chapter, a writer can play an extraordinary game of tug of war with the reader’s imagination—grounding it with normalcy on one page and then lifting it up to thundering heights when the time is right. However, when “world creating”, there are so many factors to consider. What is this world’s history? How do its people think, and what ideologies do they cling to? In order for the reader to care about Anthem’s fall (as in, Anthem’s Fall) he or she first has to care about Anthem.
Forming the back-story of a world and its people is an incredibly enjoyable experience, but one in which I had to be very careful. Long exposition spent describing Anthem’s history could kill the story flat. I learned that divulging the back-story of an entire world is an exercise in subtlety. Because you are writing a novel, not a history book, you have to allow the reader to connect the lines and draw their own inferences from hints and suggestions in the text.
Going in depth about the ancient history of Anthem would have been as extraneous as discussing ancient Rome while introducing New York. Incorporating the “real” world into a fantasy story forced me to strip down unnecessary details in Anthem and focus on simply letting the story roll.
Above a horrified New York City, genetics and ethics collide as the fallen emperor and a banished exile of the same herculean race ignite into battle over the city’s rooftops. In the streets below, a brilliant young scientist has discovered a technology that can defeat them both, yet might be more terrible than either.
Set both in modern New York City and in the technologically sophisticated yet politically savage world of Anthem, Anthem’s Fall unfurls into a plot where larger than life characters born with the prowess of gods are pitted against the shrewd brilliance of a familiar and unlikely heroine.
It had its certain comforts and learned familiarities, but New York had never felt like home. The initial novelty of Manhattan and all of its cultural and architectural grandeur had long waned, and what she once regarded with wonder, she now felt only a moldering cynicism. These days Kristen Jordan considered the soaring edifices and crowding streets to be the material shape, the substance, behind the insatiable and thoughtless ambition of the modern. Nudging her straw against the melting ice cubes at the bottom of an empty vodka tonic, Kristen looked about the shabbily decorated and dimly lit college bar. Glowing neon beer signs and television screens hung on walls that enclosed a dozen booths and tables. A distinct smell of stale beer and hot wings hung in the air, yet the nearby conversations of fellow academics, exultant and self-assured, ignored this atrophy.
Kristen studied genetics at Columbia, and her brilliance was unrivaled. Sitting quietly and gazing across the young faces of the bar, Kristen wondered if she stood out among her outwardly preoccupied and self-satisfied peers, or if they too were all carrying unspoken anchors of anxiety and doubt. On some level, though, she knew her general restlessness was an unfortunate byproduct of her intellect, and not an affliction shared by the masses.
From across the table her fellow graduate student Steve Armstrong had started rambling over the loud rock music, his hand clutching a perspiring glass of beer. “My point is that there’s a difference between intelligence, or even consciousness for that matter, and awareness. They’re two entirely different phenomena that are always lumped into the same category. Don’t you think?”
Kristen Jordan groaned and rolled her eyes, which elicited a laugh out of another graduate student sitting beside her, Cara Williams.
“I don’t care, Steve,” Kristen said, her voice distracted and leaden. “I hardly think it’s a topic worthy of lengthy discussion. There’s no way of knowing for certain because that kind of technology doesn’t exist.”
“Are you kidding me?” Steve gulped his beer and glared at her, his words faintly slurred. The alcohol added a note of indignation to his tone. “You’re saying we shouldn’t consider how a new technology will operate?”
S.L. Dunn is the debut author of Anthem’s Fall, a novel he wrote amid the wanderings of his mid twenties. He has written while living intermittently in St. John USVI, Boston, Maine and Seattle. Raised on big screen superheroes and pop science fiction, he sought to create a novel that bridged a near-sci-fi thriller with a grand new fantasy. He currently resides in Seattle with his girlfriend Liz and their dog Lucy, and is hard at work completing the next book of the Anthem’s Fall series. Get in touch at www.sldunn.com.