What gives an imaginary place life? You can see its landscape across the written page so clearly that you could very well be watching a movie. You can touch the objects around you, smell the air, hear every sound. The author has successfully transported you from this world into theirs. You’re on a journey with a cast of characters you’re just getting to know, swept along the road to wherever the plot takes you.
Some books make for a fast, entertaining read. They are enjoyable in the moment, but ultimately forgettable amidst a growing mound of other books you’ve read over the years. But other books stay with you. For whatever reason, they speak to your heart, burn into your memory. When you think of that imaginary place, there is a deep sense of longing within you. You want to go there again and again—you want to believe that it is not just imaginary…that it is real. When the book ends, you go into a form of silent mourning because you’ve left a little piece of yourself between the pages. The only way to go back is to read it again, and so you do, and over time that place becomes part of who you are.
How does the author do it? There’s no simple answer to that. What speaks to one person’s soul might put a different person right to sleep. In addition to a well-crafted plot and lovable characters, there are certain qualities that seem to exist in each of those unforgettable imaginary places that withstand the test of time.
- The world contains wonder and beauty, so vividly described that I can imagine myself there. Going to that world is like taking a vacation from my own, and I care what happens to it as the plot progresses. When a world contains nothing but darkness and hardship, I can’t get away from it fast enough—what incentive do I have to stay?
- There is still an element of mystery. The world of my daily routine is pretty tame; well-groomed and largely cemented over. Convenient, yes. Inspiring? Not especially. But I won’t be braving the wilds of the Alaskan frontier any time soon, so getting to explore an unknown landscape is fun, even if I can only do it from my recliner.
- The world has its own distinct history and culture. I lived in Germany for 6 years, and driving just a few hours in any one direction could take me to a completely different country, with its own language, traditions, and history. Each culture was distinct and fiercely guarded. The best imaginary worlds are those that feel as authentic as the real one, as if I could hop in my car and drive there (or walk, or ride a horse, or take a boat depending on the era). Authors who can infuse their worlds with a rich history and culture really make us believers.
- The people have a faith, or at least a mythology, that ties in with its history and culture. This has been part of our humanity from the very beginning—it is who we are. The nature of our beliefs may be diverse, but we all believe in something.
- The way people live is real. A whole world full of royalty, or perfect, rich, Hollywood types would make me roll my eyes and close the book, I fully admit it. While interesting in small doses, that’s not the kind of life experience I can relate to, and what makes me keep reading is the ability to make a connection. I need to be able to empathize with what the characters are going through and put myself in their place.
- The author doesn’t gloss over the details of daily life, but lets the reader see how people work, eat, play, sing, learn, and create. This puts me one step closer to being a character myself, and becoming immersed in that imaginary world. When I can mentally make a life for myself there, and all of the other elements of a good book fall into place too, I’m hooked.
For all of you who have fallen in love with other people’s worlds over the years, what won your heart? What is the source of that internal ache, that longing to go back even when the adventure is long over?