Written by author Leonora Meriel
Creating new worlds in books is one of the most satisfying things an author can do. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons that writers are drawn to spend those hours typing and editing to perfection – to build new, wonderful places for their readers to visit.
But how do we make those places believable?
There are many degrees of worlds in the fantasy realm. The most extreme is the world where everything is different. There is no relation to Earth, to humans, to the familiar. Then there are the “wardrobe” worlds, where we start off in the familiar Earth society we know, and step into an alternative world. And then there are worlds, which start off unfamiliar and lead into other new worlds. And everything in between.
Writers tend to prefer one method over another. Those who start in the familiar prefer to keep familiar elements throughout their work. However, those who start creating entire new worlds tend to find the power addictive and to follow their desire to create more and more of those complete worlds.
Whichever category you fall into, here are some methods of making those worlds believable and taking the reader on the most rich and rewarding journey possible.
1 – Use intimate details to make the reader believe they are there
Who can forget the homely world of the shire? Whether you are a Hobbit fan or prefer the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the sense of incredible adventure, struggle and desperation is always experienced in relation to the warmth and safety of Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam’s homes in Middle Earth. J. R. R. Tolkein created such a strong picture of their lives in the shire, using intimate, familiar detail, that by the time they set off on their adventures, we felt we knew the characters and their background like our own.
“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floor tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats…” – From “The Hobbit”, J.R.R. Tolkein.
In my own novel, set in a village in rural western Ukraine, I use many everyday details to make the reader feel they are truly there. I wanted my reader to be able to stand in the middle of a cottage and look around, see the colours, smell the soup cooking, hear the rustling of the spring wind. This was the background I used to set a strong scene so that I could then take the reader on a magical journey.
“The cake is rising in the oven, and I run outside to fetch the shallow metal bucket which is balanced on top of an old rabbit hutch next to the outhouse shed. I carry it carefully into the kitchen and put it down on the wooden table. Mother is waiting for me, holding the comb that we share from the bedroom next door. I peer into the water to check for leaves and insects, and I dip my finger into it to catch a floating petal and a few flecks of dirt.”
2 – Talk to the subconscious
If you are using Magic Realism, or elements of fantasy within an otherwise “normal” world, then a great way to make this believable is to work with the subconscious. C.J. Jung told us that there is a “universal mind” and we are all programmed into different archetypes of people. This comes out in our lives as dreams, paintings, writings, even creating the structure of our belief systems.
If you are writing Magic Realism, then tap into this subconscious world, because the reader will find it wonderfully familiar. You are only writing what they already know to be true!
Nobody does this better than Gabriel García Márquez, in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
“The boy who had helped him with the mass brought him a cup of thick and steaming chocolate, which he drank without pausing to breathe. Then he wiped his lips with a handkerchief that he drew from his sleeve, extended his arms, and closed his eyes. Thereupon Father Nicanor rose six inches above the level of the ground. It was a convincing measure…”
In “The Woman Behind the Waterfall” I use the idea of a river below the river, to express the difficult emotions a young girl is going through:
“I lie on the bottom of the river, which is clear like a sheet of glass. Below me, pale spirits from that other river — the river below this river — rise up and bring me flowers. Women in ragged white with long trailing hair made from the riverbed strands. I hold out my hands.
Take them, my Nightspirit says.
I take the flowers and the women sink back into the depths.
The riverbed clouds over into silt and weeds and stones.
I rise to the surface.”
3 – Use the familiar to build on the extraordinary
The more extraordinary the world, the more the reader looks for points of reference in their own world, to understand it. In “Titus Groan,” Mervyn Peake created an incredible fantasy castle with a discontented heir and a web of intrigue and treachery. One of my favourite characters and the one which kept me rooted most closely to the story, was the teenage sister Fuschia. Sullen and angry, resentful and ungrateful, funny and intelligent, naïve and then heartbroken, Fuschia allows us to live in this castle of extraordinary characters through her entirely genuine teenage character. Who wouldn’t feel like that if they were ignored in favour of a younger brother who was to inherit the entire kingdom!
“As his lord stared at the door another figure appeared, a girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered.”
In “The Woman Behind the Waterfall” I paint the picture of a sweet seven-year-old girl – before I have her transforming into a bird, and then a plant, and then the air.
“I live in Bukovina, in a village that lies between the black and golden flats of farmland and the wolved forest peaks of the Carpathian Mountains. I am seven years old. The house where Mama and I live is a faded brick red, and our windows are painted in a cracked white and bright turquoise blue. There is a wooden gate with a broken latch that opens onto the dusty village street, and a path through our garden leading to a narrow white-painted bench next to the kitchen door. Our land stretches in layers of high grass and scattered flowers down to the woods below…”
4 – Make the seasons clear
We are all subject to the seasons and they play an enormous role in framing the events of our own lives. Seasons in books can be a powerful way to immerse the reader into the story and make them feel that they are experiencing the struggles – or joys – of your characters.
A master of all fantasy, Ursula Le Guin creates a harsh, winter planet in one of my favourite books – “The Left Hand of Darkness”. The winter is so harsh that the characters barely survive it, and I still shudder to think of it. If you want to write something incredibly atmospheric, read this book to see how Le Guin made you feel those levels of cold and that searing wind!
“Winter is an inimical world; its punishment for doing things wrong is sure and prompt: death from cold or death from hunger.”
In “The Woman Behind the Waterfall” I have the opposite season, and I write about the rich, lush abundance of Ukrainian spring. I very consciously put the reader into the season, especially to contrast it later with the harshness of the long, Ukrainian winter.
“She sees that the sunflowers are growing well and she looks over to her neighbour’s garden and the gardens beyond it, lush with greenery, separated by wooden fences and tall trellises woven with vines and honeysuckle. She listens for a moment to the sounds of the village – dogs barking close by; the flutter of swallows’ wings darting up and down; the shouting of children and the banging of the hammer onto metal nails.”
5 – Balance explanation with leaps of imagination
It’s a fine balance in any novel that uses elements of fantasy, as to how far to take your readers at any one point. Any wild jump takes pages of explanation, but sometimes it is better to do the explanation first, and then take the jump. Whichever way you decide to go – it’s a very fine balance between throwing the reader wildly out of the story, or giving them an incredible thrill. Be careful – and learn from the best!
To return to the fantasy masterpiece, Ursula Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness,” she uses one of the most famous lines in fantasy literature – “the king was pregnant.” Le Guin has said in interviews that she started the book with this one sentence, and wrote the entire book around it! So – you can be sure that the timing of the line is perfectly placed. However, she uses this powerful line when the reader already has a clear idea of what it means. Of course, the reader hasn’t thought that it would apply to the king – there is still the shock factor – but the explanation has been perfectly balanced so that there is 100% shock from the fact it is the king, combined with enough prior explanation to keep the reader rooted into the story.
“The king was pregnant.”
For a final example from “The Woman Behind the Waterfall”, towards the end of the novel, seven-year-old Angela transforms herself into a storm and careens through her village, raining down onto everything. By now, the reader has seen her as a bird, a plant and as air, so there is very little explanation needed. This is the way she shows her grief. And by now, the reader is safely rooted into the story.
“I draw the clouds to me, seeking the water from the sky and keeping it close; gathering the thoughts into form, one after another, cloud upon cloud, closer and closer into the darkest place. And I call to the sky that there is no need here for light, and the sky closes as I cover it with my anger, and when at last everything is dark and everything is brought into a tight, furious centre, then I whisper to the clouds around me, “It is time,” and I release a scream into the universe and the clouds let out a deafening roll of thunder that goes on and on and on, and lightning flashes down repeatedly onto the garden and the village and the river and over everything that I know, and when the thunder and my scream are finished, then I pull my arms from around my chest and I hold them out and I let the rains pour down onto the earth.”
Leonora Meriel is the author of “The Woman Behind the Waterfall” (published October 2016, Granite Cloud), called “an intoxicating world” by Kirkus Reviews; “a timeless and universal novel” by Goodreads reviewers, “a strange and beautiful novel” by writer Esther Freud. Her upcoming novel “The Unity Game” will be published in May 2017.
by Leonora Meriel
Heartbreak and redemption in the beauty of a Ukrainian village
For seven-year-old Angela, happiness is exploring the lush countryside around her home in western Ukraine. Her wild imagination takes her into birds and flowers, and into the waters of the river. All that changes when, one morning, she sees her mother crying. As she tries to find out why, she is drawn on an extraordinary journey into the secrets of her family, and her mother’s fateful choices.
Can Angela lead her mother back to happiness before her innocence is destroyed by the shadows of a dark past?
Beautiful, poetic and richly sensory, this is a tale that will haunt and lift its readers.