Did I just invent a new term? Probably not, and I’m certainly not the first person to do what my new term is intended to describe. In fact, long before Tolkien, or maybe Lord Dunsany, or perhaps George MacDonald, or even possibly Horace Walpole, introduced the world to what is now known as alternative world of secondary world fiction, storytelling arguably always occurred in a reality-proximal way. The oldest fiction, logically, took our real world as a point of origin and branched out imaginatively from there, and only much, much later did we begin to ‘create’ worlds whole-cloth in which to set our stories. Ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh or The Story of Burnt Njal are written as much as descriptions of real-world events as they are in any fantastical sense, despite what we would today call overt fantastic or supernatural elements. To the ancients, these elements were not supernatural at all, but simply a part of the world, so that spirits could affect your destiny as surely as gravity caused rain to fall down to the ground and not up into the sky.
Even today, most writing would probably fall into this ‘reality-proximal’ category, even in speculative fiction. Most science fiction takes the real world and real history as its starting point to extrapolate into the future, rather than attempting to create an alternate world in which to explore their central ideas, and even in the fantasy genre this might be more common than not. Urban fantasies take our real world and add fantastic elements, like in The Last Raven, or there’s Terry Brooks’ Shannara concept of a post-apocalyptic world in which magical elements that existed all along emerge. All of these would fall under the heading of ‘reality-proximal’ (although Shannara is a stretch, since many of the core books can be read as secondary world fantasy without needing any knowledge of the backstory Brooks later provides). Quite simply, writing reality-proximal stories can be easier, both for the author and the reader.
If we take the complete, whole-cloth invention of a new world, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Sanderson’s Cosmere, as one extreme, and reality-proximal stories set firmly in our world, whether in the form of historical fiction like the Lymond Chronicles, or future-setting science fiction like Rocheworld, as the other, then what I’m really interested in talking about today, and what prompted this entire post, is the middle ground, somewhere between these two extremes. It might not seem like that middle ground even exists – how can something be both based on our world, and set in a completely invented alternate world? – but I would argue that it does, and it is exemplified by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series.
In case you haven’t read them…well, you should go read them. But so that you don’t have to commit to a lengthy fantasy trilogy in order to read this post, suffice to say that Williams sets Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn in what is firmly an alternate or secondary world, but one that is what I have taken to calling ‘historically adjacent.’ In fact, I’m thinking of inventing a new sub-genre name: historically adjacent fantasy. The names, the places, the exact events and cultures represented in Williams’ world are invented, but they are strongly based on, inspired by, parallel to, real places, events, and historical contexts. There is a religion that is not Christianity, but is obviously intended as a parallel. There is history and context to match the Charlemagne era of real history, but it is not exactly the same. It is an alternate world, but it is deliberately similar to our real one.
Coming off Sanderson novels with their amazingly intricate and original world-building (especially Roshar), it might be tempting to describe this idea of historically adjacent fantasy and world-building as simple laziness or lack of creativity on the author’s part, but that would be a mistake. Rather, it is a deliberate, artistic choice that affects how the story is received and the emphases of the storytelling. When you write to the extreme of secondary world fantasy, with a wholly invented world or even universe, that will necessarily be a major part of the reader’s experience. Whatever story you want to tell in that context, whatever plot, whatever characters, will be affected and filtered through the world-building, and readers who pick up such books are signing up to actively engage with an invented world and the thought experiments implicit in that creative process. There is nothing wrong with that – I love alternative/secondary world stories, the more imaginative the better – but sometimes it can interfere with the story you are trying to tell.
When that happens, historically adjacent fantasy can be the perfect solution. It allows you as the author to jettison the baggage and research requirements of setting a story actually in Earth’s history, while not diverting the reader’s attention and the story’s emphases away from that upon which you really want to focus. Instead of creating your secondary world from scratch, you can start with a given time and place in Earth’s history as, not so much a template, as a guideline, and then diverge from there as the story requires it. That’s what I’m doing with Impressions. Sure, I could sit down and create a custom map, a few thousand years of history for several different cultures, a custom set of physical laws, and so forth, but that’s not really what I want for the story. In my opinion, doing that much world-building would distract from the story that I’m really trying to tell, so, instead, I’m creating a world that is…adjacent to the real one. Not in any crossover sense, but in the sense that there are similarities and parallels. Think of it like historical fiction that takes another few steps deeper into fiction. You’ll get a better idea of what I mean by this when I share Impressions with you.
Maybe none of this is new to you. Certainly the concepts are not new, but this framing of them has proven quite helpful to me in my storytelling. I try to avoid setting stories in the ‘real world,’ because I find that brings along too much baggage (and too large of research requirements) for me to a) do it justice, and b) tell the stories I want to tell, but I also find that inventing completely new worlds for every story is prohibitive for the way that I write, and actually interferes with stories, too. The historically adjacent option gives just the right amount of latitude and familiarity to enable stories like Impressions or Thorskgold the Bold.
Have you encountered other examples of this sub-genre I’m coining? Are you interested in exploring this concept further? Did I even manage to explicate it in a coherent way? I may not have invented it, but I find it a fascinating and incredibly useful concept, and I look forward to engaging with you about it in the comments.
One thought on “Reality-Proximal Storytelling”