I was reading some writing blog or listserv a few years back, and I ran across a fellow--a writer of espionage-action thrillers--who was trying to work himself out of a plot dilemma. His characters were schlepping across an arctic waste in Norway or Finland or someplace, and there they had been schlepping for a good long while. He felt he needed something to happen, so he was going to drop a village onto this vast arctic waste, a place where his characters could meet some new people, maybe get into a scrape or two. I urged the fellow not to do it. The arctic waste in question is a real place, and there are reasons there are no villages there. I challenged the writer to spend some time pondering a) why there are no villages where he wished there was a village, b) what is there instead of villagers (smugglers? moonshiners? hermits?), and c) what narrative possibilities present themselves. Plopping down a village would be the easy and convenient thing. But by taking that easier route, the author may miss out on some real rewards. Aren't smugglers and hermits more interesting than villagers anyway?
The fiction writer has the luxury of not sticking to the facts on the ground. He can change whatever he wants to change in his fictional world; who's going to stop him? Writers of fantasy fiction have even more freedom in that regard. But there are dangers therein. Imaginative worlds are frictionless worlds. And frictionless is another word for slippery.
I'm a big fan of creative non-fiction. A good essayist limits himself to the facts as he finds them, then rassles around with those facts until meaning reveals itself. The facts on the ground become metaphors and symbols for deeper truths that lie behind and beneath them. There's a whole worldview there. I really believe that good fiction--including fantasy fiction--begins with a willingness to search, like a non-fiction writer, for the meanings that inhere in the facts of the world around us. Different writers will choose to disguise the facts on the ground to a greater or lesser degree. But when they unmoor themselves entirely from the facts of our shared world in the creation of their own, the story suffers.
I'm not through articulating this idea. I imagine there will be two or three more posts on these topics in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the role of the "real world" in imaginative fiction.