Friday, September 14, 2007

The World Building Impulse

Why does imagination take the forms it does? As a kid I wandered our farm and through the woods and fields for miles around, and while I walked I invented stories. But more than stories, I invented whole worlds and painted them with cities and deserts and rivers and strange animals and plants. The first world I invented was Thanos, and it was actually a future earth after aliens had invaded, conquered, settled and then abandoned it to the savage humans who remained. New cities had arisen, new tribes of humankind, and there were "leftovers" from the conquered years.

When I told my parents or siblings about Thanos they laughed and shook their heads. And when I told my friends they looked at me like I was weird. People said I was imaginative, but to me it just seemed natural. I wondered why everyone else didn't do it too. I also knew that plenty of other people had good imaginations and told inventive stories. My dad told some whoppers, but his stories were much more versions of the "tall tale," and always involved the world "almost" as it was.

As an adult I find that my writer friends are highly imaginative and tell wonderful stories. Candice Proctor and Laura Joh Rowland take the misty features of history and turn them into concrete realities that a reader can see, hear, and smell. They reinvent the past so that it becomes current reality. Sidney Williams takes the environments of small rural towns and common people and slides them a little to the left so that they're overlain by a world where vampires and werewolves and stranger things play. Wayne Allen Sallee writes of a real Chicago, but in ways that warp the perspective, that make you feel things you've never felt.

But Wayne has told me that he doesn't feel that comfortable when he tries to step out of the real Chicago with his writing, and I know that Candice is just not that interested in wholly imaginary worlds. (Forgive me Wayne and Candice if I've misrepresented you. Please let me know.)

Why is this? Do I love imaginary worlds because I want to escape? I don't think so. I like the real world OK. I'm not unhappy or desperate to flee an intolerable existence. I just like inventing weird stuff. I like it more apparently than Candice or Wayne or Laura, although Sid is a bit closer to me here. What accounts for these differences? I'm glad they're there. If you depended on me to write the books about historical Japan or England you wouldn't have very many. Those worlds are not where my imagination lives. But I like to read those sorts of books. I like to be transported to historical places. I'm glad that every writer's imagination doesn't take the same form. I just wonder why?


Travis Erwin said...

I too fall in the real world class of writers. I have trouble stepping out of the known in my storytelling.

I can't really say why since I do read a bit of fantasy and enjoy losing myself in an imaginary world.

But I can really screw up my characters lives in varied and interesting ways.

Bernita said...

I like to find the myth in the mundane and the auguries in ordinary things - which puts me, I think, partly in the real world camp.
It may be your basic brain is inductive/deductive wired opposite to theirs, Charles, and so you approach the "what if" from the other direction.
Or maybe, you just have a more creative imagination.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis, thanks for dropping in.

Bernita, I don't think it's "More" creative but differently creative. You have a point with the inductive/deductive comment. Maybe I like to start at the top and work my way down toward the real while some others start at the real and work themselves toward the unreal.

Sidney said...

That's a good question. I know I grew up with some degree of isolation in rural areas, which made demands on my imagination, and I had some genetic influences as well.

My father was given to tall tales too and I guess I inherited some of that.

cs harris said...

History fascinated me as a child, so I suppose it's natural that the stories I told myself had historical settings. I don't remember reading fantasy. Perhaps if I had, my imagination would have sparked in that direction, too.

Angie said...

I write in whatever setting the story seems to need. The one I just sold is SF set in a multiverse of slightly-different Earths (not bad for 3300 words, huh?) but I have others which are grounded firmly in the real world, some urban fantasy, some classical fantasy.

I like historicals but I was a history major at uni and I'm obsessive enough about it that I'd likely spend years researching a historical novel, even if it were set in one of my long-time areas of interest. I've been fighting the urge. [cough]

Real-world history's a great source to mine for fantasy, though, and worth studying just for that, as is anthropology. It's a lot easier to come up with a really alien society (whether in SF or fantasy) if you're aware of some of the hugely wide variety which exists or has existed right here on Earth. One runs across SF writers whose aliens all sound like they're from Iowa; one feels a strong urge to bean them with histories and ethnographies (hardcover!) until a few brain cells are jarred loose. [wry smile]


Scott Oden said...

I got the rural thing going to, and I prefer wholly imaginary worlds to the real one. I think it has to do with the possibilities that exist in imaginary places. I step outside my house and I see rolling hills clad in hardwoods, narrow blacktop roads, ancient clapboard houses consumed with kudzu . . . but no dragons. No goblins live in the caves under the bluff. Our bridges are troll-less. I think that's the big difference, for me at least.

And to really muddy it up -- I write ancient historicals with accurate history AND Conan-esque swordsmen. It's like I don't know where to go: history camp or fantasy camp ;)

Lisa said...

This is really a great question. I was mulling it over and trying to figure out why I seem to only be interested in realistic, primarily contemporary stories -- specifically, really character driven internal stories. I'm fascinated by the universal qualities that make us human and exploring them from different perspectives. I'm also very sympathetic to human weakness and flaws -- hmmm, I'm sure a good therapist would probably have an opinion about that ;)

Travis Cody said...

When I examine my stories in the context of this particular question, I find that my characters are dealing with very basic emotion and conflict. And sometimes they do that in the known world, sometimes in an imaginary one.

Now I should ask myself what the world environment is adding or detracting from the basic emotions and conflicts.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

What a great post! I am an admitted lurker over here. I see you all the time at other blogs and I think you have the coolest blog title! This question is very intriguing! I love history. I love the research involved in writing history. It is through the research that I am able to develope my characters and my stories. For someone like me, I think it would be impossible to create a whole new world from scratch. Where would my research come from? Where would I even start? I think it is just very different mindsets that are creative but work in differing ways. Cool post!