I’m becoming a big fan of the concept of Reality unless otherwise noted. It is a fairly new idea when it comes to modern fantasy, a natural offshoot of the Urban Fantasy genre. Although it’s actually much older. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne usually set their stories in the real world unless otherwise noted. It only seems like an otherworldly place now because of the passing of time.
Yet in the fantasy genre, your average person is often confused by the concept of a world where everything is the same as ours EXCEPT for a few fantasy elements. An important distinction here is that there’s no “masquerade” of normality, no hidden world of the fantastic. The fantastic is just part of the everyday world and nobody is terribly surprised by it. This is how DC and Marvel Comics universes work. The history of their world is nearly identical. It just has flying people and radioactive spiders. And Hitler was killed by an android and came back several times, dying a horrible death each time. But Hitler is still dead, and the end result of WWII, even with superheroes running around, is exactly the same. There’s a Metropolis and a Gotham City, but they haven’t replaced New York or Chicago. They’re just additions to our universe.
My novel Divine Misfortune is set in a world where the gods are real, myths are true, and everything came out the same regardless. Because that’s the setting that works best for the story and allows me to tell the story I want to tell. I wasn’t interested in exploring how gods would change the world. I was more interested in seeing how the world would change the gods.
The Automatic Detective takes place in a retro-future setting that actually occurs in some purposely ill-defined time between the 30’s and 50’s. And while the world outside Empire City isn’t important to the story, it doesn’t change the fact that James Cagney is still a movie star in this world and Jane Austin’s novels exist. Because what’s the point in creating a completely new culture when the story is about a robotic tough guy beating the crap out of mutants and evil-doers?
In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, everything is normal except for absurd moments and the video game logic that pervades the film. But nobody seems to notice that because that’s the world they live in. Shaolin Soccer is another great example. As is Kung Fu Hustle, though that one does have a justification at the very end. And Comedy Central’s Ugly Americans lives and breathes this concept, taking place in a world where monsters and mutants are just considered minority groups in a familiar version of New York, aside from a things like the Grand Canyon being created by a demon and other bits of color that give us the same end result.
Worldbuilding is a great tool, and I’m not going to discourage anyone from using it. But it’s okay to admit it isn’t always necessary and that it can even get in the way sometimes. It’s cool to say “This story is not about how WWII played out if magic was real. This story is about gods sitting around on a couch, watching television, and trying to make a living.” It’s not being lazy to say that. It’s being focused on the story that is trying to be told instead of the story you have been conditioned to expect. Sometimes, the best thing in the world is to just say, “Here’s our world PLUS X, and that’s all you really need to know to enjoy this story.”
If the story is good, if it connects with the audience, then regardless of how little world building went into it, it works. And if the story fails to do that, then it doesn’t matter how much fake history / geography / physics / politics went into it because I’m not reading a story for any of those things (though I know some people are). World building is great if that’s what you’re going for. But if its absent, it doesn’t mark the writer as a failure. It just shows his efforts are being placed elsewhere.
There is no default way to tell a good fantasy story. There are only stories that work and stories that don’t. Regardless of whether or not the Axis had jetpack gorilla commandoes, Atlantis is still around and kicking, and some people have the psychic ability to control time.
Though, regardless of the justification, I’m always in favor of a good jetpack gorilla story.
Fighting the good Fight, Writing the good write,