Sometimes we need a space where we can question the problems in our society and find a solution for them. And an alternate reality can help with that.
They’re safe because they give us a glimpse into what could’ve happened if x, y, and z transpired instead of a, b, and c. It provides us with the option to explore a world similar to ours without living in a harsher world. It gives us things to strive for and want in our reality as well.
Alternate realities are the midway point between coming up with something wholly new and relying on real places to bring our stories alive. It’s the perfect blend between real-life and an imaginary world.
What is an Alternate Reality?
As always, there are terms to explore when we’re talking about making things up. So let’s start with our definitions (I’m giving you three of them today):
Alternate Universe: fiction by fan authors that deliberately alters facts of the canonical universe they are writing about.
Alternate Reality: The phrase often serves as a synonym for a parallel universe.
1. (in quantum mechanics) a universe theorized as existing alongside our own, although undetectable.
1.1. (in fantasy or science fiction) a world conceived of as coexisting with and having certain similarities to the known world but different from it in some fundamental way.
What’s the difference between an alternate universe, alternate reality, and a parallel universe?
The three terms essentially mean the same thing. However, alternate universes are based on other bodies of literature and are modified according to the fan’s perceptions of that text.
And some alternate universes have done quite well. For instance, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James started as a fanfiction of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight saga.
E.L. James decided on a sexual retelling of Twilight, but you can see the parallels between the two tales if you look closely. For example, Christian and Edward don’t sleep. They both play the piano and have controlling tendencies, and the girls blindly follow their feelings and have low self-esteem.
Okay, but what about the other two?
As for alternate realities, they are often referred to as a synonym for parallel universes. But I don’t consider it that simple.
Parallel universes are a quantum mechanics thing that intends to discover if two worlds are operating simultaneously and independently of each other. An alternative reality takes something that has already happened and reimagines its outcome based on small decisions or actions.
And there are loads of examples of these two types of stories in a variety of genres. However, it’s predominately found in science fiction and fantasy.
Here are some examples:
- Spiderman. There are multiple versions of Spiderman that all operate independently of one another. Recently, Marvel brought them all together in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.
- A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab.
- The Butterfly Effect (2004)
How Does an Alternate Reality Operate?
I’m letting Writer’s Edit take this one:
“By creating an alternate reality, you [develop] an alternative version of our own Earth, imagining how things could be different and posing questions about what these differences would mean for humanity. Authors often use this style of writing to express their thoughts about the flaws of humanity and today’s world, exploring the consequences these flaws may have [the] potential to produce.”
That’s just a fancy way of saying you need to think about the “what if” portion of your story. You need to think about what you want the reader to take away from it.
The Science Behind an Alternate Reality
I’m not a physicist, and I don’t pretend to be one, but I think the theory behind parallel universes (aka alternate realities) is relevant to this conversation. I’ll let Dummies explain it:
“The multiverse is a theory in which our universe is not the only one, but states that many universes exist parallel to each other. These distinct universes within the multiverse theory are called parallel universes. A variety of different theories lend themselves to a multiverse viewpoint.”
And I’m going to let Scott Overton simplify it:
“The simplest explanation is that, if a particle in motion is able to go left or right it actually does both. Of course, it can’t be in two places at the same time in one universe, so a second universe is split off. In one of them the particle went left, in the other it went right. The two universes had identical histories up to that point, but are never quite the same afterward. Taking a left turn instead of a right might make a big difference, and the differences will grow greater as time goes on. Since these splits could be happening all the time, you can imagine that the number of possible universes is vast.”
What all of this based on are decisions. What we decide to do in one space will have different effects in another one of these worlds. Community did a great job illustrating this point:
Each person who goes to get pizza affects what happens to the other characters. Hence creating different “timelines” or universes in which each scenario is technically possible.
Oh, and if you think this is nonsense, then you might want to check out this Forbes article from last year, explaining we may have proof that parallel universes exist.
Tips for Building an Alternate Reality
Here are some things to keep in mind as you’re writing your alternate reality:
Do your research.
You still won’t escape the need for research with alternate realities, especially if you want to change past events.
For instance, If you want to change the outcome of World War II. You should know what led to the fall of the Nazi empire, so you can change the little things that affect the eventual outcome.
The more you know, the easier it will be for you to a) identify what needs to be changed and b) what you need to include to make your world seem real for your readers.
Don’t be afraid to “go dark.”
Your world doesn’t always have to be happy, war-torn, or under threat by a fire-breathing dragon. Instead, I encourage you to look at apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian worlds too.
They are popular at the moment and can take place at any time. Whether that’s in the past, present, or future is up to you.
What questions are you trying to answer?
Let’s say I’m writing a novel centered around COVID-19. Here are some questions we could ask:
- What if governments worldwide refuse to give up the control they’ve had for the last year (i.e., would travel bans still exist, or are lockdowns still a thing)? Would we fight them?
- What if COVID never goes away but comes back in cycles? How would we prepare for those things? How would it shape society?
- What if we didn’t lock down when the virus was discovered? How would our world look today? Would it have cured global warming? Would the Black Lives Matter movement exist?
- What if COVID was a conspiracy theory designed by the government to gain control of the populous?
What if questions are designed to hook readers into a story. All of these questions can make a fascinating story and. It gives us different timelines and ideas to explore. They help you develop a theme for your story.
Don’t forget your rules.
The thing with alternate realities is that they blend parts of our world with a made-up one. It means you will need to think about all of those world-building elements we’ve already discussed.
Your world will need rules that may differ slightly or significantly from the ones we live by. So map out what you need to know to be consistent in your world, and if you deviate from what you’ve outlined, you need to explain it to your readers.
Use a generator.
If you want to create an alternate reality but can’t come up with anything inspiring, you may want to look into using a generator to get your creative juices flowing. Dimension Name is a good starting point for naming characters and your new world, and Generator Land can help you develop a plot.
There you have it! That’s how you can create your own alternate reality.
Remember to blend the familiar and the unfamiliar and answer a what-if question for your audience. Don’t be afraid to switch things up now and then. Surprising your readers with something other than dragons and a happy ending will surely make them happy.
And don’t forget to check out the science being done now to prove that these things may actually exist. Science is what started our notion of other worlds, and it may demonstrate that we’re not alone. I can’t think of a better spark to your creativity than that.
What’s your favorite alternate reality? Did I miss anything advice-wise? Is there anything you disagree with? Please let me know in the comments below!
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.
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