Monday, May 20, 2024

Building a Galaxy by Daniel Dickinson


PART 2: Gaiman’s Galaxies

“If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies—Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.” – Neil Gaiman

In contrast to Tolkien’s lush but laser-focused realm of Middle Earth stand the vast worlds and dimensions of Neil Gaiman. A “feral child who was raised in libraries,” as he calls himself, the award-winning author of Stardust, American Gods, and Coraline among others, uses broad paint strokes to create a larger-than-life world where mythology and denizens of alternate dimensions play a key part in expanding the borders of reality. Deep, dark, and dreary, Gaiman’s strange domains are equally as vibrant as Tolkien’s. Where the two authors differ substantially is in their approach to world-building.

Where Tolkien’s Middle Earth emerges of necessity as his characters move through their journey, Gaiman’s alternate realities play an integral part in his stories. For example, American Gods uses gods, themselves, as characters— diving deep into their milieu to drive the narrative. Thus, although the story takes place in a recognizable U.S., the Old and New Gods’ otherworldly mythology is very present.

Here is an example from Chapter 6 of American Gods to illustrate: “When the people came to America they brought us with them. They brought me, and Loki and Thor, Anansi and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Kobolds and Banshees, Kubera and Frau Holle and Ashtaroth, and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean. The land is vast. Soon enough, our people abandoned us, remembered us only as creatures of the old land, as things that had not come with them to the new. Our true believers passed on, or stopped believing, and we were left, lost and scared and dispossessed, only what little smidgens of worship or belief we could find. And to get by as best we could."

Giving these unearthly characters the freedom to roam both current and past timelines of a familiar quasi-reality instantly expands the scope in which he’s writing. Gaiman’s skill is such that he accomplishes this feat without its ever feeling heavy handed or out of place. As he explains, “When you start writing you’re in a profession which involves making stuff up and inventing stuff. You’re making up people, you’re making up places; you’re talking about things that manifestly aren’t true.“

As in American Gods, the title character of Coraline dives into an alternate dimension of her world. Dark and twisted, it has its own set of rules that govern reality as she moves through it. In one world she finds herself ignored and alone; in the other she is the concentrated focus of attention and is given everything she ever wanted. Gaiman economically presents the “through-the-looking-glass” dimension in this excerpt from Chapter 10:

"Stay here with us," said the voice from the figure at the end of the room. "We will listen to you and play with you and laugh with you. Your other mother will build whole worlds for you to explore, and tear them down every night when you are done. Every day will be better and brighter than the one that went before. Remember the toybox? How much better would a world be built just like that, and all for you?"

Gaiman plays a multiverse of realities to great effect in most of his books. Typically, several realities simultaneously exist within his novels. Even if only briefly hinted at, like those in American Gods, these multiple existences expand time and space and give the reader a sense of grand scale. “Everybody has a secret world inside of them,” he says. “I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world—I mean everybody—no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds... Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.” 

Like Coraline, some of Gaiman’s stories focus solely on one or two dimensions; however, the presence of a greater cosmos outside the characters purview is there, ever-present in the shadows of the story. His novel, Stardust, unfolds in a multiverse: The star that fell had to come from somewhere. As readers, we have previous knowledge regarding time and space of real-world, earthly England situated in the Milky Way; in another dimension, we also have Stormhold and its galaxy. By using his readers’ prior knowledge and understanding of how the world works, and their preconceived notions of time and space, Gaiman has freed himself from the necessity of writing minutely detailed descriptions—as Tolkien was obliged to write of Middle Earth. 

While the multiverse of his stories is expansive, he tethers an alternate reality to a character’s story arc in a way that makes it relatable to a reader. Gaiman uses the established notion of mythology as a springboard for the metaphors distinguishing many of his stories. Threads of this can be seen around the religious aspects of Gaimen’s world-building: He uses various spiritual beliefs and deities to bring together a greater diversity of thoughts and imaginations.

“Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all,” he says. “God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you—even, perhaps against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.” 

Gaiman’s approach can seem daunting if you’re just beginning. However, as I previously mentioned, it has one major advantage: You don’t need to build what you already have. Almost everyone knows what a stop sign is, understands a gas station, or can imagine a certain American or British town or city. Thus, by utilizing a story set in a world that you, as an author, already inhabit, you put much of the world-building into the hands of your reader.

You may run into issues when the world you’re building becomes fantastical, or rockets through space at near lightspeed, and you suddenly find yourself responsible for an entire cosmos of information, history, conflict, and environments. But that’s where the real fun begin

Beginning at the age of ten, Arizona native Daniel Dickinson has spent a lifetime inventing realistic realms for his fictional characters. His fantasy world, Xonthian— created during his teen years—is an entire domain that allows his characters’ journeys to unfold in a diverse setting. He enjoys giving educational presentations about world-building and fantasy genres, in general. Daniel’s published works include the short story, Escape from Ogre Island; a two-story horror book, Don’t Close Your Eyes: Two Thrilling Tales of Terror; Aggression Factor; and Gathering Tide. More about Daniel at and

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