An imaginary world isn’t just a place that we make up in our heads. It’s an escape that many of us to get away from the harsh realities of this world.
It’s an escape.
One that many of us use over and over again. It could take the form of a book, movie, or a game, but its function remains the same. To escape.
To find someplace where fantastic things happen and all wrong is (usually) righted in the end. And it’s our jobs as writers and creators to build a place for people to escape when things are grim.
We need to make those worlds come alive and suck our readers into them. And that’s what today’s article is all about.
What is an Imaginary World?
This wouldn’t be an article by me unless it had some sort of definition. So we’ll look at it now:
Imaginary World: the construction of entirely fictional universes, found primarily in fantasy genres.
In simple terms, it’s a world of your own creation.
But if you want to know what an imaginary world is or how to build one, ask a child. They are the ultimate world-builders. They come up with scenarios, people, and places that have their own rules and societies.
The only difference between your average child and writer is that the writer has to have rules for their world. If they don’t, they risk some unpleasant reviews or emails from upset readers. (If you’ve watched The Lego Movie, you’ll know what I mean.)
Imaginary worlds are most often associated with the fantasy genre. But they can also be found in science fiction, romance, children’s fiction, fairytales, comics, etc. And to give you some context as to what type of worlds you can find imaginary worlds in, here’s a list of examples for you to check out:
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Hogwarts and the wizarding world are completely made-up places brought to life with their rich cultural and societal depth.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by C.S. Lewis. Alice finds an absurd and mind-bending world at the bottom of the rabbit hole.
- Peter Pan by James Matthew Barrie. Neverland is a world filled with pirates, Lost Boys, a vengeful fairy named Tinkerbell, and a crocodile that ticks. Something you probably won’t find here on earth.
- The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The Land of Oz is rich with magic, witchcraft, and flying monkeys. It has captivated audiences for years and has sparked many retellings of this old tale.
- The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. One. of the most famous examples of a well-built imaginary world is Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Imaginary World Resources
First off, I’m going to give you a couple of links:
- Welcome to World Building. My post contains lots of excellent information on creating your world from the ground up. It includes questions, tips, and resources.
- How to Create an Alternate Reality. You may want to create a world that lives unseen alongside ours. My handy guide will help you craft the perfect alternate reality. Some tips from that article apply to this one (i.e., creating a map, asking what-if questions, etc.).
- Setting as a Character. This post will help you bring your world to life and make it a character in its own right.
- The Dabbler contains links to various websites and resources. They have everything from free world-building courses, question lists, generators, etc. So if you need some that I may not list in this article, you can probably find it here.
- This TedEd talk may also be helpful to you:
Tips for Building an Imaginary World
Coming up with a brand new world from scratch can be difficult for some, but here are some tips to help make that process a bit smoother:
Pick a starting point.
One of the most overwhelming parts of creating an imaginary world is knowing where to start. My suggestion is to pick one aspect that most interests you and start there.
Others believe that you should start from the ground up – literally. So start with the geography and topography of your story to get a lay of the land and then build the more complex aspects, like culture, politics, magic, and religion, for later.
You may also want to start with the conflict of your story and build everything around that, according to Writer’s Digest. Think about what type of place will best showcase this conflict and how the people in this world differ from us.
Ask questions about your imaginary world.
World-building questions are a great way to get to know the world you are creating. But I think we can take this up a notch.
Pretend you are writing a report for school on this imaginary world and need to gather vital information to get that A+. You will want to find statistics on the population, diversity, crime, and death and mortality rates. You’ll also want to look at the customs, beliefs, festivals, etc., to round out your report and give you an overall view into this society to form an opinion.
What do your findings say about this world? Is there any outlying data that can skew your perception of it? Would you travel there someday?
Or sit down with a friend and explain the world to them. Make a note of what they want more information on or find doesn’t make sense. Fix what needs to be fixed and expand on what needs more fleshing out.
Don’t forget the small stuff.
Most of the world-building you’re doing focuses on big-ticket items, like magic and culture. Honing in on those things is important, but you also need to ground it for your readers.
This can be small stuff like how people dress or relax. What do they aspire to be in this world? What types of teams do they cheer for?
Rowling did a great job of this. She incorporated Quidditch into her world and created teams that had fans for it. She integrated those normal types of moments in this fantastic world to make them seem real. Rowling reminded us that people live.
The same goes for Tolkien and The Hobbit. He made Bilbo a regular person by focusing on his home and fussiness in appearance, propriety, and manners. Even though we went on a fantastic journey with him and did spectacular things, we knew Bilbo was a real person living in a world with real consequences.
Nothing remains static.
Nothing remains the same in our world or an imaginary one. Society is constantly changing as it adapts to new things, but usually in an incremental way.
Let’s go back to The Hobbit. When Bilbo returns, he notices that life has gone on without him, and many believed him dead. As such, they were thinking about getting their hands on his home and moving forward without him.
While most of the people in his hometown did not change, Bilbo did, and that changed the dynamics of his village and family structure. And it’s because of those changes that we get The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
And sometimes things change in a big way, and it sparks a revolution, for instance, and you must fight to bring your world back to a new stable norm.
The Hunger Games is an excellent example of this. Katniss’s compassion and salute to District 11 following Rue’s death is the moment that sparked the revolution in Panem. It’s seen as an act of defiance because Katniss isn’t just trying to survive like the other tributes.
She’s looking to escape, and her break from tradition is the final straw for the Districts.
Show, don’t tell.
There’s always a fine line between giving us information on this new world and overdoing it. It becomes overwhelming when we slip into telling our reader about his world instead of showing it.
Those big chunks of text where you explain how the political system operates won’t be as enjoyable as showing us how it does or doesn’t work. So don’t forget to let your characters interact with the world they inhabit as a way to get that setting and world-building across.
Draw inspiration from real life.
Coming up with entirely new events and battles can be hard to do, so don’t feel bad about drawing on real-life for some inspiration. Writers like George R. R. Martin have incorporated historical events into their novels to help cement them in reality and more familiar to readers.
Just remember to do your research and get your facts straight. You may want to bend the rules a bit and rewrite history, but it’s good to be aware of them beforehand.
Try clashing reality and fantasy.
You can take a page out of the alternate reality playbook and blend the real world and the imaginary world.
The most famous example of this is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Rowling’s magical world is hidden away from the muggle world. They coexist side-by-side, but without the muggle world knowing about the magical one.
Keep the rules of your imaginary world consistent.
This tip is essential for those of you who are using science and magic. If you explain to your audience that something works one way and then it doesn’t do that, you’ll tick many readers off. And if you do need to “break” a self-imposed rule, then have a good explanation for why you broke it.
Avoid creating one-dimensional beings.
You’ll probably make up different races and beings to inhabit your new world, and I urge you to give them more than one trait to identify them by. It’s 2021, diversity is a much-needed thing, and we know that reducing anyone down to one or two traits can be damaging.
Instead, focus on creating round and dynamic groups of people and characters.
And if you do want to represent different cultures, try to avoid stereotypes and portraying villains as characters of color. Be respectful and question why you are using particular cultural aspects.
Tap into your inner child and have fun.
As previously mentioned, children are great at using their imagination to create all sorts of worlds and scenarios. And. I think it’s because they are given the freedom to create without restriction and explore that world without rules.
As adults, we’ve had that trained out of us, and it can limit our potential to explore possibilities and have fun with our world-building projects. It’s all about the rules, closing loopholes, and making everything work. And it’s a bit of a buzz-kill.
I don’t think it’s much of a surprise that parents created beloved worlds for their children as bedtime stories. These stories are filled with grand adventures and magic, and fantastic beasts. They’re entertaining to all of us for those reasons and because they had to engage a child’s active imagination.
So tap into that inner child of yours and have fun with coming up with whatever you want. Hang the rules for the time being. Get the story out on paper. Then add those rules we adults are used to – if you wish.
An imaginary world is where you’ll spend most of your time creating a new universe. It’ll be full of new religions, languages, races, cultures, etc. It’s a place for your readers to escape to.
It’s also a place for us writers to stretch our muscles and explore problems in unfamiliar places. To pit good against evil and have the hero emerge victoriously. It’s about bringing readers on an adventure of a lifetime.
Building an imaginary world is easy and complicated at once and can be one of the most fulfilling experiences we can have. And if you ever get stuck, I’m sure there is a child in your life waiting for you to ask them to help bring your vision to life.
What’s your favorite imaginary world? Are there any resources that you love to use? Did I miss any tips, or do you have any more to share? Please let me know in the comments below. I love hearing from you!
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.
Tolkien’s world speaks of a lot imagination, and a LOT of organization and building. I’m sure he spent years building it before he wrote a chapter of a story.
He did put in a load of work creating his world, and I agree. I think he spent a significant amount of time plotting it all out before writing any of it down. It wouldn’t surprise me if his kids had a hand in helping him shape things as well. 🙂
Thank you very much for sharing this 😀
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