Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Three)

As you note, audiences often police the continuity of their favorite franchises, holding the creators accountable to seemingly impossible standards of consistency and coherence. What might your book tell us about the things that motivate this high level of fan investment in continuity?

Tolkien’s concept of “Secondary Belief” sums it up best.  It’s not so much a “suspension of disbelief”, as Coleridge supposed, but rather belief in the secondary world we are experiencing, that makes it compelling.  When one imagines the world, it needs a certain degree of consistency and coherence to produce secondary belief, and this is certainly not an impossible standard to achieve.  Once it is achieved, however, fans will attempt, and often work quite hard at, explaining away any consistencies that do occur; but of course these will be smaller ones that do not destroy secondary belief.

So how much consistency and coherence is enough?  And, of course, the amount of world detail is important as well; that’s why I argue that completeness (or, really, the illusion of completeness) is also necessary.  You can make a tiny world with very little invention or detail, and it will be consistent and coherent, but there won’t be enough there to evoke a sense of travelling to another place.  And the quality of the details matters as well; you can have huge amounts of detail, but still have an uninteresting world which no one will care about.

So if fans are making demands on a world and policing its continuity, it is a good sign, for it shows that they care about it enough to complain; world-makers should accept that as a compliment.  And world-makers should try to be clear as to what is canonical, and also try to be as consistent as possible; while this may hamper the growth of a world, I think it should be seen as a challenge to be met, and which can be met.  There are always ways of expanding a world that do not disrupt its consistency.

 You trace the origins of many of today’s fictional worlds back to the traveler’s tales of the ancient and medieval worlds. What might we learn about contemporary fantasy and science fiction stories if we were to know more -- as you clearly do -- about those earlier traditions? What changes when we move from a world where there are unknown spaces within the real physical world to one where we have to map radical difference elsewhere -- in space, underneath the sea, at the center of the Earth? Are we still dealing with the consequences of that shift?


First, so many things have been done earlier than we realize.  Charles Ischir Defontenay’s novel Star (Psi Cassiopeia): The Marvelous History of One of the Worlds of Outer Space (1854), for example, is certainly ahead of its time in the world-building it does, with its alien cultures, world details, and story arc.  Second, it’s important to know your audience.  The Age of Exploration encouraged worlds to find new locations, and they did, but one can still find more traditional island worlds (like Isla Nublar in Jurassic Park (1990)).

The main difference is that today, audiences are geographically more savvy, and less likely to accept information that goes against what they already know.  A fictional island in the Pacific Ocean still works, since no one knows them all (or even how many there are; according to Wikipedia, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 of them).  But fictional U.S. states are much harder to believe in (at least for an American audience), because most people know them all.

Today, this extends even beyond the earth; most people know the planets of the solar system, making new planets in our solar system more difficult to propose, and conditions on these planets are well-known enough that earth-like civilizations on Jupiter or Pluto, for example, will be thought unrealistic.  Likewise, future settings set too close to our own soon become just alternate realities (for example, the worlds of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).  General audiences have more scientific and cultural knowledge as well, so means of traveling to worlds, and the workings of the worlds as well, are under greater scrutiny.

Just compare the original appearances of the Star Trek galaxy to its later additions, and you can see changes in what is considered acceptable.  So the level of the general knowledge of the audience (and not merely geographical knowledge) have propelled world-makers to a higher degree of sophistication, detail, and consistency, while the greater (and increasing) number of secondary worlds has also established traditions and conventions which also shape expectations.


In my own work on transmedia storytelling, I keep coming back to the idea that most transmedial extensions are designed to serve one of three tasks: explore the world, expand the timeline, or flesh out secondary characters. As I read your discussion of different ways of structuring our encounters with worlds, you suggest a range of different devices -- including maps, timelines, and genealogies -- but they seem to me to fall back on the same basic functions. Would you agree?

Those three things you mention coincide nicely with the three basic infrastructures that I discuss in chapter three; that is, maps, timelines, and genealogies, which correspond the three basic things you need to have a world (space, time, and characters).  Along with these three, other infrastructures (nature, culture, language, mythology, philosophy, and of course, narrative) also have the basic function of organizing world information into a coherent form, by providing  contexts for, and connections between, pieces of world data.  And, these are the structures that all new world information is attached to, and that determine what new material can be added.  So, in that sense, they have a similar function.  Ancillary works can extend a single infrastructure without adding narrative content; a dictionary for an invented language, for example.  This would be an example of a transmedial extension of a world that does not deal with maps, timelines, or characters (although it may provide etymologies for place-names and character-names), but it would still serve the function of organizing world data into a structure.

Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  []