How to create a fictional world

This blog often questions “What makes a good story?” and “Why can some stories absolutely entrance, bewtich and transform us?”

How can human-made squiggles on a page, reflect lights into our eyes, that sends signals to our brains, that we logically and emotionally decode as complex narratives, that move us to fight, cry, sing and think, that are strong enough to hold up a world that is completely invented by the author, but also to change the readers perspective on the real world that resumes only when the final squiggle is reached ?

This short video explains how writers weave their magic. Writers can paint fantastical fictional worlds with intricate rules, maps, lineages, languages, cultures, universes, alternate universes within universes.


The key is believability. If your characters understand their world and its rules your readers will – and will inhabit it with them. Taking the fictional world utterly seriously is the first step to architecting the narrative that follows.

The truth is your imagination and a willingness to figuratively live in your own world are all you need to get started writing a novel.

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Mean Tweets

Celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves has been turned into a popular comedy spot on US talk show, Jimmy Kimmel Live.


The appeal of the slot comes from the ubiquity of social media. Famous faces reading the mean things written about them is cathartic. It’s a clever anti-bullying campaign.

The “mean tweets” feature also highlights how words are powerful. The author of the adage,

Sticks and stones may break my bones,

But words will never hurt me.

does not appreciate the power of words to bless or curse. Ancient cultures acknowledge the power of words, rendering sacred words taboo, eliding names into titles and coining euphemisms. Verbal pronouncements do carry weight and matter, like sticks and stones.

What reading mean tweets does is it takes the energy of a curse, and renders turns it into comedy. It essentially sucks the venom from words and spins them into gold.

This is the power of art, of story, song and poetry. The artist, the story teller, the song writer and poet, can take the venom of hatred, the agony of anger and loss and turn it into a thing that brings relief, joy and blessing.

May we have more art please?

To love and be loved

The reason for our being is “to love and be loved”. This is a universal human experience; no matter creed or colour, humans love and are loved.

Stories, songs, poetry and art help us to understand each other and so to love. They help us to empathise and so to love. They help us to forgive and so to love. They help us hope and so cling onto love.

So why do we need God? Isn’t love enough?

Unless God shows up in the greatest of stories, to show us the greatest of loves, which teaches us the greatest of understanding, empathy, forgiveness and hope.

greatest story ever told

The Cave of Shadows

Plato had a theory of existence in which we are prisoners chained in a cave, watching shadows play against the cave wall. We do not experience reality first-hand but in fact, far behind us there is a reality casting the shadows we see.

In this way Plato accounted for how we can see beauty in our minds eye, but upon examination of any person or object in reality, we always see an irregularity or a flaw.

cave of shadows dualism

Plato can be understood because he was a mathematician and thus he dwelt upon seeming transcendantal laws of ideal regularity, beauty and pefection. To him mathematics showed the existence of a realm of perfection distinct from our distilled version of copies. This world, it seems,  is not quite the perfection intended.

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Plato’s thought has influenced nearly all of western civilisation, including western literature.

For example, narratives to us cast an ideal. In Jane Austen novels, men articulate their feelings with depth and grace. We all know that mortal copies fall far short.

cave men of austen

Dualistic reading of literature means that characters in stories are heroes. We look to them to give examples of being. We are the flawed copies living out an imperfect version of an idealised script.

cave of shadows idealism

Do we live in a cave of shadows ? Is there a supernatural realm of ideals of which we can only partake of a inferior copy?

The Hebrews didn’t think this way. They are not dualists but rather see this world as the realm of good and evil in one. This world is, even with the presence of God, one of chaos in which humankind works together with the divine to bring beauty, order and shalom.

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Hebrew literature does not paint for the reader a realm of ideals but instead shows  a murky realm of reality in which heroes behave with both chaotic and noble intent. When we reflect on Hebrew narrative, we must be careful to identify the polygamy, greed, racial xenophobia and misogyny as an ideal cast by the authors. In fact, when read with sensitivity, we see the chaos wrought by the actions of the protagonists rendering them in constant need of being rescued.

cave old testament

Hebrew and Old Testament narrative is a picture of history unfolding in time.  It is a world created with both good and evil – one in which humans were created to work together for shalom, to cultivate the jungle garden and bring peace to the world. The flawed humans fail and fail again, caught in the catch-22 of their own inability to attain perfection. The only solution is an intervention by the divine, out of myth and into history.

Moreover, the ultimate end [telos] of history told through the Hebrew narrative is not an escape from this world into a transcendental wonderland of ideals, but it is instead a bringing to completion of peace into this world. This shalom is not represented as the arrival of a world of perfected forms, but of the presence of God with humanity, “Immanuel”.

Travel Narrative

It’s curious that traveling can stimulate the imagination.  For centuries, writers have used road trips or journeys to bring up deep emotions and thoughts, much the way a brisk walk might stimulate the heart.

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There seems to be a definite parallel between the journey one makes across land and the journey one makes into ones own heart. One experiences life differently while traveling.  It’s like an exercise in relativity: ones experience of time is relative to the speed one is moving.


An earlier post examined the relativity of time in narrative. Stories take us out of time into another world, sending us on a journey into our own hearts to be deeply changed.

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This for me is why stories are spiritual experiences and should be treasured and should be taken very seriously.



Bear Skin Blog – Health Check

Dear Readers,

This is a message from the author, Jennifer to you. Thanks for following and reading.

Please remember, if you wish to unsubscribe at any time you can simply by clicking the “unsubscribe” link in the footer of your email. If you are on the blog site itself , on the right hand bar of the blog page you can see “you are following” and beneath it the link “manage.” This will allow you to unfollow.

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“Empire of the Sun” a reflection on Memory and Story

J G Ballard’s 1984 novel Empire of the Sun was made into a Hollywood film in 1987. In his article, published in The Guardian he reflects on 40 years of memories and how story re-wrote them.


Memories have huge staying power, but like dreams, they thrive in the dark, surviving for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed. Hauling them into the daylight can be risky. Within a few hours, a precious trophy of childhood or a first romance can crumble into rust.

I knew that something similar might happen when I began to write Empire of the Sun, a novel about my life as a boy in Shanghai during the second world war, and in the civilian camp at Lunghua, where I was interned with my parents.

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Coming to England after the war, and trying to cope with its grey, unhappy people, I hoarded my memories of Shanghai, a city that soon seemed as remote and glamorous as ancient Rome. Its magic never faded, whereas I forgot Cambridge within five minutes of leaving that academic theme park, and never wanted to go back. The only people I remembered were the dissecting room cadavers.

During the 1960s, the Shanghai of my childhood seemed a portent of the media cities of the future, dominated by advertising and mass circulation newspapers and swept by unpredictable violence. But how could I raise this Titanic of memories? Brought up from the sea bed, the golden memory hoard could turn out to be dross. Besides, there are things that the novel can’t easily handle. I could manage my changing relations with my parents, my 13-year-old’s infatuation with the war, and the sudden irruption into our lives of American air power. But how do you convey the casual surrealism of war, the deep silence of abandoned villages and paddy fields, the strange normality of a dead Japanese soldier lying by the road like an unwanted piece of luggage?

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I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.

In fact, I found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story. We had lived together in a small room for nearly three years, eating our boiled rice and sweet potatoes from the same card table, sleeping within an arm’s reach of each other, an exhilarating experience for me after the formality of our prewar home, where my parents were busy with their expat social life and I was brought up by Chinese servants who never looked at me and never spoke to me.

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But I needed to move my parents out of the story, just as they had moved out of my life in Lunghua even though we were sharing the same room. They had no control over their teenage son, were unable to feed or clothe him or pull those little levers of promise and affection with which parents negotiate domestic life with their children. My real existence took place in the camp, wheedling dog-eared copies of Popular Mechanics and Reader’s Digest from the American merchant seamen in the men’s dormitory, hunting down every rumour in the air, waiting for the food cart and the next B-29 bombing raid. My mind was expanding to fill the possibilities of the war, something I needed to do on my own. Once I separated Jim from his parents the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet.

Even then, I had to leave out many things that belong in a memoir rather than a novel. Lunghua camp, with its 2,000 internees, was a grimy bidonville, a slum township where, as in all slums, the teenage boys ran wild. There were unwatched screwdrivers or penknives to be snaffled, heroic arguments with a bored clergyman about the existence of God, buckets of night soil to be hoisted from the G-block septic tank and poured into the tomato and cucumber beds that were supposed to keep us alive when the Japanese could no longer feed us. In a bombed-out building I found a broken Chinese bayonet, sharpened the stump of blade and used it to prise away the bricks of the kitchen coal store, filling a sack with precious coke that would briefly break the chill of our unheated concrete building. My father said nothing, feeding the coke into a miniature brazier as he rehearsed his lecture on science and the idea of God. I ran off, and nagged the off-duty Japanese guards in their bungalows until they let me wear their kendo armour, laughing as they thumped me around the head with their wooden swords.

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In 1984 the novel was published, a caravel of memories raised from the deep. Enough of it was based on fact to convince me that what had seemed a dream-like pageant was a negotiated truth. Curiously, my original memories of Shanghai still seemed intact, and even survived a return trip to Shanghai, where I found our house in Amherst Avenue and our room in Lunghua camp – now a boarding school – virtually unchanged.

Then, in 1987, like a jumbo jet crash-landing in a suburban park, a Hollywood film company came down from the sky. It disgorged an army of actors, makeup artists, set designers, costume specialists, cinematographers and a director, Steven Spielberg, all of whom had strong ideas of their own about wartime Shanghai. After 40 years my memories had shaped themselves into a novel, but only three years later they were mutating again.

Hazy figures now had names and personalities, smiles and glances that I had seen in a dozen other films: John Malkovich, Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson. With them was a brilliant child actor, Christian Bale, who uncannily resembled my younger self. He came up to me on the set and said: “Hello, Mr Ballard. I’m you.” He was followed by an attractive young couple, Emily Richard and Rupert Frazer, who added: “And we’re your mum and dad.”

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Coincidences were building strange bridges. Thanks to the film studios in Shepperton, many of my neighbours worked as extras, and now called out: “Mr Ballard, we’re going to Lunghua together.” Had some deep-cover assignment led me to Shepperton in 1960, knowing that one day I would write a novel about Shanghai, and that part of it would be filmed in Shepperton?

Spielberg, an intelligent and thoughtful man, generously gave me a small role as a guest at the opening fancy-dress party. Warners had rented three houses in Sunningdale to stand in for our Shanghai home. When I arrived at the location I found an armada of buses, vans and coaches that filled entire fields and resembled the evacuation of London. Bizarrely, it also reminded me of the day we were bussed into Lunghua from our assembly point at the American club near the Great Western Road. I can still see the huge crowd of Brits, many of the women in fur coats, sitting with their suitcases around the swimming pool, as if waiting for the water to part and lead them to safety.

The Sunningdale house where the fancy-dress party was filmed closely resembled our Amherst Avenue home, but this at least was no coincidence. The expat British architects in the 1930s who specialised in stockbroker’s Tudor took the Surrey golf course mansions as their model. Past and present were coming full circle. The Warners props department filled the house with period fittings – deco screens and lamps, copies of Time and Life, white telephones and radios the size of sideboards. In the drive outside the front door, uniformed Chinese chauffeurs stood beside authentic Buicks and Packards. A 12-year-old boy ran through the costumed guests, a model aircraft in one hand, racing across the lawn into a dream.

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Surprisingly, it was the film premiere in Hollywood, the fount of most of our planet’s fantasies, that brought everything down to earth. A wonderful night for any novelist, and a reminder of the limits of the printed word. Sitting with the sober British contingent, surrounded by everyone from Dolly Parton to Sean Connery, I thought Spielberg’s film would be drowned by the shimmer of mink and the diamond glitter. But once the curtains parted the audience was gripped. Chevy Chase, sitting next to me, seemed to think he was watching a newsreel, crying: “Oh, oh . . . !” and leaping out of his seat as if ready to rush the screen in defence of young Bale.

I was deeply moved by the film but, like every novelist, couldn’t help feeling that my memories had been hijacked by someone else’s. As the battle of Britain fighter ace Douglas Bader said when introduced to the cast of Reach for the Sky: “But they’re actors.”

empire of the sun 4

Actors of another kind play out our memories, performing on a stage inside our heads whenever we think of childhood, our first day at school, courtship and marriage. The longer we live – and it’s now 60 years since I reluctantly walked out of Lunghua camp – the more our repertory company emerges from the shadows and moves to the front of the stage. Spielberg’s film seems more truthful as the years pass. Christian Bale and John Malkovich join hands by the footlights with my real parents and my younger self, with the Japanese soldiers and American pilots, as a boy runs forever across a peaceful lawn towards the coming war. But perhaps, in the end, it’s all only a movie.

JG Ballard – The Guardian, 3 Mar 2006.

Got a Redemption Narrative?

This article by Drake Baer was published in Business Insider this week. It’s too good not to share.


Psychologists say that happy, socially engaged people share a remarkably similar life story

Psychology research verifies that the stories we tell ourselves matter.

A new study from Northwestern University shows that folks who fit the classic mould of “good people” — those who care about others while also having high well-being and mental health — have life stories that share remarkably similar narrative arcs.

In two to three hour interviews, researchers Dan McAdams and Jen Guo asked 157 people between the ages of 55 and 57 to describe their lives as if they were novels, complete with main characters, recurring themes, and turning points.

According to McAdams and Guo, the people who cared the most for future generations all told their life stories as “redemption narratives.

From the study’s abstract:

The story’s protagonist

(a) enjoys an early advantage in life,

(b) exhibits sensitivity to the suffering of other people,

(c) develops a clear moral framework,

(d) repeatedly transforms negative scenes into positive outcomes, and

(e) pursues prosocial goals for the future.

In McAdams and Guo’s study, the adults who were the most generative — or socially engaged — acted out a similar story of redemption in their everyday lives.

redemption narrative

In “The Art and Science of Personality Development,” McAdams argues that there’s a link between the suffering felt early in life and the redemption that follows:

Failure may ultimately result in victory, deprivation may give way to abundance. Importantly, the narrator describes an explicit causal link between the prior negative event and the resultant enhancement…

For example, a woman is devastated by a romantic breakup, but then finds the partner of her dreams. A student flunks out of college, then finds a great job. A boy endures extreme poverty as a child, but when he grows up, he comes to believe that early suffering made him a better person.

McAdams notes that while not everybody identifies with every turn of the redemption narrative, adults who are more generative conform to the narrative arc than those who are less so.

If the story of redemption sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a narrative arc that you can spot again and again in our mythological and literary traditions.


One of the most notable accounts is the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. The traditional account is that he was born into a sheltered royal life, but when he witnessed the way people were getting old, sick, and dying outside of the palace, he resolved to figure out how to deal with the problem of suffering. This motivated him to study the mechanics of the mind in meditation, yielding the foundational insights of what we today call Buddhism, a system of understanding that’s helped people for generations.

joan of arc

The Jungian psychologist and comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that historical, mythological, and literary narratives show up in our everyday lives. We find ourselves called to go on quests like Joan of Arc did when she united France; are filled with righteous anger like when Jesus threw the merchants out of the temple; or get caught up in star-crossed love affairs like Romeo and Juliet.

Jesus Christ

What’s fascinating about McAdams and Guo’s study is that it evidences how the narrative arcs that we know so well from our various cultural traditions animate our lives.

It seems that the most pro-social people — the Nelson Mandelas and Aung San Suu Kyis of the world — embody these redemption narratives.

The good news is if you’re not happy with your life story, the research shows that you can edit it, too.


Birdman is a 2014  comedy-drama with a stellar cast inlcuding Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts [among others]. It is an interesting commentary on being an artist in a celebrity mad world.

Most of Birdman appears to be filmed in a single shot.

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The story follows Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a faded Hollywood actor famous for his role as superhero Birdman, as he struggles to write, direct and star in a Broadway adaptation of a short story by Raymond Carver.

The parallels between Keaton [Batman] and Riggan [Birdman] overlap parrallels between the Raymond Carver play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and  Riggan’s own quest for affirmation.


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We follow his feeling of insignificance in an age in which comics make billions and anyone without a Twitter account “doesn’t exist”.

When Riggan is visited by his ex-wife but all he can think of is whether Clooney [another Batman] will be more remembered than him. His wife informs to him that he misunderstands admiration for love.  He is not alone in this delusion however. His charismatic costar Mike [Edward Norton] can only be himself on stage, off stage his life is a mess. Another co-star Lindsay [Naomi Watts], neurotically awaits to be told she has “made it” by performing on Broadway.


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Riggan faces the harshest of New York theatre critics, one who promises to destroy him and delivers the ultimate insult – he is  a celebrity and not an artist.

Ironcially, a mistake causes Riggan to be locked out of the theatre in his underpants and forced to walk through Times Square, causing tens of thousands of shares on twitter, and thus propelling him into the limelight.

Later a failed effort to commit suicide on stage results in him being declared an exciting new method actor by the same theatre critic.


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The film is a reflection on success in art, fame, celebrity and integrity of being. It looks at the pressures and anxieties artists face to have their work scrutinised and destroyed by critics, at the mercy of the twitterverse, seeking to hold onto a feeling of being a part from their artistic creations.

In a profound life learning, Riggan’s daughter [Emma Stone], a world weary rehab survivor, maps out the age of the universe in dashes on a roll of toilet paper. One small square equals the entire time humans have been in existence.

The illustration reduces human hubris to one insignificant square of tissue.

John Ruskin the man who Couldn’t

John Ruskin was a Victorian polymath and genius. Renowned during his own lifetime he was a leading English art critic, draughtsman, watercolourist, social thinker and philanthropist.

john ruskin


Celebrated for his lectures at Oxford he wrote on subjects ranging from geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economics.

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Ruskin penned essays, poetry, travel guides, letters and even a fairy tale. In all of his writing, he emphasised the connections between nature, art and society.


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He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation. He argued that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature”.

He also championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas.

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His work later focused on social and political issues and he founded the Guild of St. George, a cratfsmans guild that endures today.

However, Ruskin was unhappy in love.

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He married 19 year old Effie Gray in 1848 and she filed for anulment of their marriage only 6 years later on the grounds of non-consummation.

In a letter to her parents she wrote:

He alleged various reasons, hatred of children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April [1848].

The Ruskin’s marriage is portrayed in the 2014 film, written by Emma Thompson Effie Gray. 

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Ruskin is portrayed as a stiff and absent husband, coddled by overbearing parents, who only cares for his books and lectures, and uncaring of his young,  vivacious and pretty wife.

Other theories suppose Ruskin was only acquainted by the nude bodies of Greek and Roman statues and so horrified by the reality of his wife’s nakedness and pubic hair.

Other accounts tell of his love for young girls between the ages of 9-17 years. Indeed in a letter to his doctor he wrote:

I like my girls from ten to sixteen—allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me.—I’ve got some darlings of 8—12—14—just now, and my Pigwiggina here—12—who fetches my wood and is learning to play my bells.

Nevertheless, Effie left him and married Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, a disciple of Ruskin’s. They had 8 children together.

Ruskin never remarried.

Perhaps Ruskin’s life was one of profound and deep sorrow. The genius of the Romantic era, a man full of admiration for beauty, truth and nature, had no success in love.

Or perhaps he loved ideas more than he loved the reality he lived.