In “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien warned us against conjuring “the dreamlands,” saying, “Next, after travellers’ tales, I would also exclude, or rule out of order, any story that uses the machinery of Dream, the dreaming of actual human sleep, to explain the apparent occurrence of its marvels. At the least, even if the reported dream was in other respects in itself a fairy-story, I would condemn the whole as gravely defective: like a good picture in a disfiguring frame.”

It seems to me that he’s talking about the literal dreamscape, in which all sorts of fantastical things happen then the protagonist wakes up and we’re “treated” to that great cop-out ending: It was all a dream!

Except, actually, in that case it wasn’t all a dream, was it? Just the parts that made it seem like a fairy story.

But looking at the overwhelming majority of fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories and novels I’ve read in my life, which has been spent reading an inordinate number of fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories and novels, I’ve found “the dreamlands” are, indeed, that story’s real world, an alternate reality from which our hero (and villain, and everyone else) will not ever awake. Once we begin the process of worldbuilding, once we drop even one weird thing into even an otherwise realistic present day, real world story, we’ve invited our readers on a tour of our special land of make-believe.

That might sound a little “airy fairy” to my hard science fiction friends, but any science fiction novel still has to include some sense of make-believe or it isn’t science fiction at all, is it? “Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again,” said Ray Bradbury. “As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.”

And isn’t that what, as both writers and readers, we love about these genres? They take us to Arrakis or Narnia or Barsoom, or to some plausible near future or alternate past. In “On Writing: An Abecedarian,” Priscilla Long wrote, “Books allow us to drift in the space of a reality different from the one we are reading in.” Readers want to be transported somewhere, somewhen, and somehow… out there. That makes one of the more repeated bits of writing advice, “write what you know,” a lot more difficult, doesn’t it?

I don’t know how to cast a spell or power a faster than light starship. I have no idea how to either bring down or communicate with Godzilla. I haven’t been trained on the reanimation of dead flesh by use of electricity. No one has ever checked me out on the proper use of a phaser. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors don’t just break that “write what you know” rule every once on a while, but by default every single time. And that’s fine by me, since that advice should always have been “write what you feel.”

In “The Written World and the Unwritten World,” novelist Italo Calvino wrote:

In a certain sense, I believe that we always write about something we don’t know: we write to make it possible for the unwritten world to express itself through us. At the moment my attention shifts from the regular order of the written lines and follows the mobile complexity that no sentence can contain or use up, I feel close to understanding that from the other side of the words, from the silent side, something is trying to emerge, to signify through language, like tapping on a prison wall.

We might be writing about the crew of a starship or the ragtag fellowship united to prevent the coming of the Demon Prince, but we don’t really know shit about starships and Demon Princes. We do, however, know how to inhabit and bring to life the people (aka characters) who crew the starship or unite against the Demon Prince. And since none of those people literally exist in the real world, we have to make them up. In “Where my Characters Come From,” Haruki Murakami summed it up like this:

I might, at one time, become a 20-year-old lesbian. Another time I’ll be a 30-year-old unemployed househusband. I put my feet into the shoes I’m given, make my feet fit those shoes, and then start to act. That’s all it is. I don’t make the shoes fit my feet. This is not something you can do in reality, but if you toil for years as a novelist, you’ll find you’re able to accomplish it because the enterprise is imaginary. And being imaginary, it’s like things that take place in dreams. In dreams—whether ones you have while asleep or ones you have while awake—you have hardly any choice about what happens. Basically I go with the flow. And as long as I’m following that flow, I can freely do all sorts of things that are hardly possible. This is indeed one of the main joys of writing novels.

Here, Murakami makes clear that distinction between the figurative dream and the literal dream that Tolkien warned us about. We conjure the impossible as a matter of routine, because sometimes the routine just won’t do. But inside that impossible is the living humans we’ve conjured to deal with it, even if that character can’t be anything like us. “…speculative writing, now and forever, belongs to dreamers, there is no argument,” said author Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas. “Because some have a greater need to dream than others, and so that’s what they do. Because imagination is required to recognize the other as another just like us.”

And though it all might seem frivolous—who cares if the crew can repair the star-drive before the quantum reactor goes critical when none of this stuff exists in the real world?—well, according to Stephen King

In every life you get to a point where you have to deal with something that’s inexplicable to you, whether it’s the doctor saying you have cancer or a prank phone call. So whether you talk about ghosts or vampires or Nazi war criminals living down the block, we’re still talking about the same thing, which is an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it. What that shows about our character and our interactions with others and the society we live in interests me a lot more than monsters and vampires and ghouls and ghosts.

So let’s take our readers, who are real people, on a tour of our lands of make-believe, via the people (characters) we’ve created out of a real connection to ourselves and all the people we’ve ever met, seen, or read or heard about every day of our lives. And even if we can’t know everything about everybody, remember what Michael Moorcock said: “I have always written ambitious fiction on the assumption I’m being read by a smart, imaginative reader. I like to offer a sort of reflecting crystal ball into which that reader can stare and use their own creativity to add further dimensions, extra narratives to what I’ve done.”

The readers we’re taking on a tour of our lands of make-believe are willing participants. They signed up for the tour, paid the price of admission, and carved the time out of their busy day because they’re just as excited about the visit to these lands as we are about their creation.

—Philip Athans

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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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