How to Build a Fictional World

Because I love grand fiction that involves the creation of other “worlds” – Tolkien’s Middlearth or Lewis’ Narnia or Collins’ Panem – I found this animated video from TED-Ed really interesting. The question that bestselling children’s author Kate Messner seeks to answer in it is, “How do you build an alternative world that people will find believable?”

Her answer has a lot to do not just with stories per se, but with us: we humans who are to the core deeply narrative creatures. Because narrative has the benefit of ordering events in a way that makes sense – that doesn’t mean it’s right, mind you, or the only way to order events, but only that the narrative order makes sense – we don’t just prefer stories but actually can’t live without them. Sometimes these are big stories that explain how the world works and explore our destiny within it, and sometimes they are much smaller stories that seek to explain why a friend seemed to snub us the last time we were together. Stories, as I’ve often said, are the common currency that help us make sense of and share our lives.

And the key to believable stories is that they have texture and depth – that is, they explain various facets of the world in question – and that they are consistent. When we live within these multi-layered, rich, and consistent imaginative worlds, we being thinking about and even absorbing the rules, norms, and values of this world and, over time, allow ourselves to be affected by them. This is why, when you’ve been immersed in a particularly compelling story in a book or on film, you leave that experience thinking about your life – the “real” world – on the terms of this narrative.

This is also why what we read matters. What stories are we paying attention to, what programs do we watch, what games do we play? I don’t want to sound too Victorian about that, as if I or anyone else can stand above and judge narratives on the basis of some predetermined set of values. But I do want to encourage us to think about the values and assumptions of the stories we consume and that, over time, consume us. At least if we are intentionally surfacing the consistent values of our favorite stories we can not only be influenced by them but also call them into question as well.

All of this, I think, is something to which people who care about the Bible should pay attention. For the Biblical world is also, as Barth once said, a strange and different place, with customs not our own, written in languages we don’t speak, with its own idioms and assumptions. When we preach or read the Bible, therefore, we need to immerse people in it, not necessarily translating everything into our terms – any more than you can translate Gandalf into a contemporary or historical person or the magic of Harry Potter into some element of our lives – but rather give folks just enough background and information for them to fall into the story themselves.

For when they are immersed in the grand story of God’s great love for the world, then all kinds of pretty incredible things may happen.

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