The Familiar vs Unfamiliar World

If you’ve been reading my blog for quite a while, you may remember how I used to publish posts under the heading “The Writing Files”. While I did abandon these quite a while ago, I am now resuming them as I delve even deeper into the world of writing. Though I am by no means extremely experienced in the field, I will attempt to give advice or to write on the topic to the best of my ability. Just a lil’ advice. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.

In keeping with this week’s theme of globe-trotting and world-surveying, I thought I’d do a little blog post on world-building. No, I’m not going to be talking about the typical stuff like how to make your world feel more real or how to come up with interesting new species to inhabit the planet alongside humans. What I’m going to teach you about today is a bit of a pre-world-building decision that influences the dynamic of the story in an important way. Today, we will be talking about the familiar vs the unfamiliar world. If you don’t know what those are, in today’s post I will be trying to illustrate the difference using an example from two of arguably the world’s biggest film/book franchises of all time.

First, lets examine the unfamiliar world. Coming off of the backs of television shows like Star Trek and My Favorite Martian, shows that had obvious references and even settings of the era they were filmed in, a brand new space saga emerged that broke the mold. While one could argue that the hairstyling choices of numerous characters are still hip with the era in which these movies were filmed, these are quite possibly the only examples of the fact that this film was in fact filmed inspired on planet Earth.

I am, of course, talking of the magnificent space fantasy opera, Star Wars.

What makes the Star Wars franchise an excellent example of the unfamiliar world is how apart it is. In these films there is no Earth, no New York City, and no George Washington. There is no such thing as a constitutional republic of the Americas, nor disco music, nor even a Great Wall of China. What makes the world of Star Wars unique and captivating for audiences is that it is a world unto itself that always has something new to explore. It is an entertaining way to tell the story, with the characters being the heart and consistent thread of the series that keeps us still interested in what is going on in this strange galaxy.

Star Wars succeeds solely on the merit that the galaxy itself is a fresh, unique setting that demands more exploration. This is an excellent example of the unfamiliar world sort of story. You may assume that this sort of world is standard for fantasy/sci-fi entertainment, but in truth, the second possibility is more often to be seen than the former.

In 1997, a brand new children’s book series debuted. It was both engaging and magical and what took the world by surprise was how relatable it felt. Perhaps the next owl to fly by our window could be the one that brought us our acceptance letter to a very special school. Perhaps that odd gust of air we’d felt on our morning walk was from someone riding a broomstick with an invisibility cloak. The books certainly explained the frustration one could feel with the government: evil wizards had invaded it.

You might have guessed by now that I was already speaking of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The familiar world is excellently presented in this series. Despite the fact that Harry does go to a secret school for witchcraft and wizardry, much about Hogwarts, the wizarding world, and his normal life intermix. Many of the mysteries of life that children ponder have unique and fun answers given the existence of the wizarding world and the way the two often coincide makes this a story that feels much more close to home than a world far, far away.

Harry Potter succeeds because, just like Star Wars, the characters at the heart of the story are the thread that keeps us interested in this unique world that is so close to our own.

So what is the biggest difference between these two types of worlds? And which truly works better? Mostly, the biggest difference between the familiar and unfamiliar world is the amount of exposition required. With the familiar world, less explanation is needed for the real world, which most of us understand generally. It is only the dual side of this world or perhaps the faint strains of fantastical elements that need exposition. Whereas, the unfamiliar world requires time and energy to lay out and make simple for the audience to understand. Star Wars does this flawlessly, building upon the universe with each movie. The unfamiliar world lends itself more effortlessly to a series, given the fact that it is so far away and therefore often has more to work with. At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of choice.

What do you think? Do you prefer reading/watching a galaxy far, far away or do you prefer a world that’s a bit closer to your front door?

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2 Responses to The Familiar vs Unfamiliar World

  1. I prefer watching something far from my front door, but close to the back door, as long as the back door remains locked.

    Oh, and for the record, there is no such thing as “a democratic republic of the Americas” (if by that one meant to reference the USA). We’re a “constitutional republic.” The Founders avoided democracies at all cost because such systems historically result in mob-rule. In fact, technically, we don’t even have democratic presidential elections (i.e., election by popular vote). We have an electoral college system to prevent one (or a handful of states with large populations) from bullying and controlling all the other states. About the only federal representatives democratically elected are senators (but even congressmen can’t really be said to be democratically elected insofar as gerrymandering skews what an actual popular vote would look like if districts were not arbitrarily drawn to influence an outcome).

    • trinitygrau says:

      I just couldn’t remember the term “constitutional” because I wrote this at 12:30 AM so I wrote democratic. Now that I remember (or rather, you reminded me), it’s fixed.

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