Worldbuilding in the Real World

Novels that invent locations in our reality

Last summer, in the early days of this never-ending pandemic, I read two fantastic novels that were perhaps the purest examples of worldbuilding I’ve ever read… and yet both took place in our world. “Worldbuilding”—the construction of an invented setting/culture/civilization/etc. in fiction—is a term that is ubiquitous in the SFF world. But the term is rarely mentioned in literary/MFA circles where realism still dominates. There is an argument that all works of fiction by definition involves “worldbuilding,” since all works construct their own reality: “We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world,” Nabokov once said.

I’m not going to be that expansive with the definition here. It’s not wrong, per se, but the techniques used to build a magical realist city or a hard science fiction alien race are very different than the process of writing a realist story set in, say, contemporary NYC. In SFF, one has to think through the logic of this new reality and explain nonexistent concepts to the reader. In realism, the reader comes to the work understanding the world and its components (hopefully) and what’s left is the author’s aesthetic take on the setting.

But what about authors who worldbuild inside of our reality?

The two novels were The Glory of the Empire by Jean d'Ormesson (1974) and Hav by Jan Morris (technically two novellas, published in 1985 and 2006). The first gives a historical account of a Mediterranean empire (called the Empire) that is a rival to Rome and other powers of that time. The second invents a fictional (also Mediterranean) city-state in more modern times.

Because genre definitions are so vague and contradictory, I’m sure there are people who would say that The Glory of the Empire and Hav are fantasy or even science fiction. Indeed, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s intro to Hav she calls it SF and claims “serious science fiction is a mode of realism, not of fantasy.” The boundary of these genres is a topic for another newsletter (or two or three or ten), but suffice to say that neither book has any overt science fiction or fantasy elements. There are no dragons or wizards or invented technology. Both are set in our world and our history. And yet the countries, cultures, and histories do not exist. Thus they pose different worldbuilding problems (and opportunities) than inventing an alien world whole cloth or else imaging a past or future planet earth with speculative elements.

These books provide two different models for worldbuilding in the real world. I might call them the Borgesian and the Calvinoesque. The Glory of the Empire is Borgesian. It’s essentially a fake history book that—like say a history of Rome—starts with the near mythical origin story and then moves to better documented times complete with references to scholarship and historians. Like Borges, d'Ormesson has a lot of fun mixing the real references with fake ones. You’ll see Bertrand Russell name dropped in footnotes alongside wholly invented figures.

Hav, instead, reminds me of a book-length version of one of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Structurally, the book is presented as a travelogue with Morris—an IRL famous travel writer and historical—presenting the book as accounts of her own travels to the city in 1985 and then later in 2005. The first novella (Last Letters from Hav) is more purely Calvinoesque, feeling like a whimsical and wild adventure in a strange city. We learn about the city’s famous rooftop race, local delicacies like snow berries, as well as anecdotes of famous figures from Hemingway to Hitler who allegedly visited. The second novella (Hav of the Myrmidons) switches gears. This is more overtly allegorical and concerns the new dystopian government and its ideology. (I assume this is where Le Guin counts it as science fiction.) The first was shortlisted for the Booker, the second shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke award.

What are some other books that fit into sub-sub-genre of fictional settings and cultures inserted into real world history? An obvious one is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, whose narrator is either an actual exiled king of a land called Zembla or else simply an insane person who believes that. Either way, Zembla and its costumes and history are a major part of the book and certainly worldbuilt in interesting ways.

Structurally, the wildest book in this sub-sub-genre is Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel by Milorad Pavić (1984). The Khazar ruled a large area of Central Asia from 650 to 850 BC but the historical record is extremely sketchy and leaves Pavić plenty of room to invent. Pavić bases his book on this real people and empire, but most of the characters and events are imagined. The book takes the form of three (!) encyclopedias (one Jewish, one Muslim, one Christian) with the various myths, characters, and events cross-referenced and retold between them.

All four of these books use formal moves like footnotes, scholarly references, and journal entries to lend an authenticity to the inauthentic locations. But it doesn’t have to work this way.

Ways to Reinvent Real World Settings

Fictional settings are nothing new. They are probably as old as fiction itself. If we’re thinking of how to create new settings in our reality, we could probably tease out some different categories.

1)     Stand-ins for specific places aka “thinly veiled” settings (such as “West Egg” in The Great Gatsby standing in or Great Neck)

2)     Stand-ins for generalized places (countless examples here, but perhaps Winesburg, Ohio as a sort of a small midwestern town).

3)     Contained invented settings (perhaps Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or The Bottom in Toni Morrison’s Sula.)

4)     Invented settings that destabilize the real world (aka the category I’m writing about here.)

The border of these categories is porous of course, especially 3-4. And of course thee are more categories here, including invented settings that are allegories or impossibilities (say, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities) and ones that exist in a fantastical version of our world (Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude). But what interests me in this newsletter is category 4 and how the real world hovers over the text. When I read The Great Gatsby, I’m not thinking about what history or geography has been changed. It’s the equivalent of reading a memoir in which real world people have had names changed or details fudged to protect their identity.

When we get to category three, we are getting into real worldbuilding in my mind. The Bottom in Sula is as fleshed out and complex as any character—to use that old cliché—and Morrison invents a whole history and geography to the place. Faulkner’s “apocryphal county” Yoknapatawpha had everything worldbuilt out including the kind of maps you normally only expect to see in high fantasy novels. (Macondo fits here too, in terms of worldbuilding techniques, although Marquez’s magical realism puts it in an alternate real world that’s a different reading experience.)

What differentiates novels like The Glory of the Empire and Hav, perhaps, is that they both conjure and destabilize the real world. Reality hovers over the text in a unique way, punctuating it and being punctured by it, because the text itself keeps referencing historical figures, famous events, and so on. When we read about the Empire in The Glory of the Empire interacting with Rome, we can’t help but think about actual Roman history and how this world has changed.

In this way I wonder if these books are almost a setting equivalent of “autofiction” in which the tension difference between the IRL author and the fictional version of the author infuses the text with a kind of quasi-reality. (In Hav’s case, there is also a potential autofiction element in how the book pretends to be one of her nonfiction travel books.) Christian Lorentzen has an essential overview of autofiction here, if you’re unfamiliar. A relevant passage:

One question that I think is pertinent when it comes to autofiction: What’s more important, the auto or the fiction? And I think the answer is: the fiction. It only takes a few gestures toward the real — age and other markers of demographic identity, status as a writer and other career details — to blur the line in the reader’s mind between an author and a character. From there an entire fictional world can be generated, scenarios that never happened or people who never existed

I think this applies to these worldbuilding in the real world books. It only takes a smattering of references to real world history, events, and geography to situation Hav or The Empire in the real world. Then the fun can begin.

When Are We Worldbuilding?

How much fiction is required for the reader to feel unreal? At what point does a realist store go from a story that seems like our reality to one that is in some multiverse version layered on top of us? When does it count as “worldbuilding”?

One of the funny things about “realism” is that most of it invents unreal things. Obviously the characters and plots are invented most of the time. But realist novels mention invented TV shows, unknown bands, fictional celebrities, fake politicians, false towns, etc. There are lots of reasons for this. Using real world people or places brings in a whole other host of connotations that you might not want. You can write about TV star Hayleigh Dasher from Dashing with the Dashers instead of Kim Kardashian and comment on the Kardashian-style celebrities without worrying about piercing the fictional dream by bringing in famous people that readers will have various, possibly strong, feelings about. The same is true of settings. When I wrote more realist short stories, they were normally in settings from my Virginia childhood. But I preferred to make up a street name or invent a town instead of setting it specifically in an existing town.

This kind of fictionalization rarely counts as “worldbuilding,” or at least doesn’t read as worldbuilding in the usual way it’s talked about. You can set a story in your childhood home of Greensburg and call it Bluesburg, or you can have a character watch a debate between two invented congressional candidates and readers (typically) won’t blink an eye. Readers simply expect some fictional names in their fiction. But at some point the reader will pause. Perhaps they skip over an invented small town, but they stop at a major metropolis the size of New York City dropped into South Dakota.

As a general rule, the bigger our fictional elements get, the more likely a reader will notice. Part of that is perhaps just because they can notice—few of us actually know the name of every town in America or every current member of congress—and part is because the larger the change the more it reverberates through the rest of the world. America with a small town in Ohio called Winesburg? Okay, nothing else about reality has to change. An America where Texas is split into three states or we’ve had three women presidents or Inventedism is the dominant religion of America? Now I’ve got some questions.   

Does Worldbuilding Need to be Consistent?

In the examples I’ve talked about so far, the invented settings and civilizations might destabilize the real world but they are themselves stable. But fiction never has to be stable.

Another project I’d add to this discussion is the fiction of Rion Amilcar Scott, whose most recent story collection was the fantastic The World Doesn’t Require You. Scott’s stories take place in the fictional Maryland city of Cross River. His stories run the range of genres. Many are realists, but others involve robots and fantasy creatures. Cross River is the setting, but it looms in the background and appears in bits and pieces, sometimes in contradictory ways. It’s an impossible location—in part because of the flashing genres—which only makes it more fascinating to me.

When I interviewed Scott for BOMB magazine, I asked him about his invented setting:


I’m curious if you had to plan out the recurring characters, events, and geography in Cross River with actual maps, timelines, or any other world-building tools?


I recently came across a notebook I was using when conceiving Cross River. There was a stupid-looking map, and the name of the town was so bad. I hoped it was all a placeholder and that I wasn’t serious. But there are certain things from that map I’ve kept: Ol’ Cigar Park is still in the middle of the town and Cross River is still divided into the Northside and Southside. I’ve tried timelines and a glossary, but I could never keep up with them. I finally decided that I don’t need to do all that. That sort of thing just doesn’t work for me. I keep it all in my head, and if I forget something, then fine. Consistency across works is not important to me. The setting and all the other elements should serve the needs of the plot. Cross River and everything in it is akin to Springfield in The Simpsons; it changes based on whatever’s happening in the episode. Of course, there are recurring elements and part of the fun is remembering, forgetting, and seeing if I can get away with using them differently than when they’ve appeared previously.

[emphasis mine]

I absolutely love this idea! Why does a location need to be consistent or logical? We’re writing fiction. If a reader is reading a short story collection looking to make sure the donut shop is in the same location in story one as it is in story five, that seems like someone who needs some better hobbies.

Or rather, this all depends on one’s intentions with the text. In the case of The Glory of the Empire and Hav the setting is the entire point. One is a fake history of a fake place, the other a face travelogue of it. Consistency is required. A genre-bending story collection? That’s another matter.

If anyone has recommendations for more books that worldbuild in the real world, I’d love to hear them. Now, I’m off to draw a map.

I’m still figuring out the format of this newsletter, but I’ll probably drop bits of personal news at the bottom. Today, I interviewed Swedish author Karin Tidbeck about her great, weird, and certainly worldbuilding-relevant new novel The Memory Theater over at BOMB Magazine.