A piece of writing is surreal when it is disorienting and dreamlike — kind of like a fantastic hallucination that feels strangely familiar yet undeniably alien. It transports you to a place that you can picture, but can never in your wildest fantasies imagine existing.
When I think of surreal literature, I think of classic writers like Edgar Allan Poe and modern authors such as Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami. Each of these writers practices his crafts in very different genres — from poetry and dark fantasy to science fiction and magical realism.
The following two playlists follow different moods, different tones, different genres. But both are rooted in the surreal, the otherworldly not-quite-thereness that captivates so many readers and writers.
Fantasy is uni-age. You can start it in the creche, and it follows you to death.
― Terry Pratchett
In honor of Terry Pratchett, I’ve hunted down some of my favorite instrumentalfantasy mixes on 8tracks. These three playlists will take you from snow-capped mountains and veiled northern lights to the clink of mugs and smell of woodsmoke in a lonely tavern. As you write, follow the wise words of Mr. Pratchett: start in the creche, and strike your journey until death.
Imagine that you’ve just sat down to dinner and someone sets an enormous plate of all your favorite foods in front of you. Mmm. For me, it would be baked ziti, my dad’s famous purple potatoes, and bread. Lots and lotsof bread.
Supporting everything — from the meaty bits to the peas and corn to the loaded baked potato — is your trusty, sturdy plate. Your plate might be beneath everything, it might be obscured by the pasta or muddied by the gravy, but it’s everywhere, upholding everything, keeping it all together, all the time. Your plate is vital to your dining experience, even though it’s not the part that you actually eat.
In fiction writing, the surrounding world is vital to your reading experience, even though it’s not the center of the actual plot.
The plate is the world, the ziti and potatoes are your plot and characters, and this is my attempt at a worldbuilding metaphor.
Terrible analogies aside (I apologize profusely), I’ve compiled a few of my favorite go-to sites for inspiring rich worlds in my writing. Dig in!
Holy mother of Middle Earth, this site never ceases to amaze me. From every fantasy, sci-fi, realistic, and ridiculous character name you can think of to the names of bridges, film studios, space stations, weapons and the like, FANTASY NAME GENERATORS has everything you need to get started on this vast worldbuilding frontier.
If you’re suffering severe writer’s block, they even have description generators of castles, societies, cultures, holidays, and diseases.
2. For beginnings:
Behold the majestic CHAOTIC SHINY, for here all great nations are born!
Ok, but seriously, this site has made me think about worldbuilding in ways that I never thought possible. Here you can build constellations, establish laws, develop civilizations, and map out demographics.
My advice would be to play around with some of the generators until something piques your interest (I found the crowd generator very helpful for writing descriptions of citizens in a village), and then see where it takes you!
3. For languages:
What’s the saying? “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” [x]. Well, never fear, because now your world can be limitless as you craft languages with SCRIBOLY.
Building a language from scratch is no easy feat, and depending on the depth of which you want to go in your writing, it doesn’t have to be time-consuming! Maybe a character will sprinkle their speech with foreign words, or maybe the language is only used in passing. To keep the meaning and syntax consistent, try out SCRIBOLY by typing in your desired phonemes and translating your text.
No world is dominated by just one language, so if you have more than one culture/civilization, play around with the word patterns and see what unique sounds you can generate.
If you can’t seem to get a solid image of what the geography of your world looks like, flip through some random map designs until you find one that works for you. Knowing the layout of your world is important for keeping cities, trade routes, and ports consistent as your character traverses the land.
5. For religions:
Every respectable universe needs to have an abundance of religions to tear it apart. Or maybe it’s one to unite it? You decide at BELIEF SYSTEM GENERATOR.
This site is especially interesting because it breaks down the origins of your world according to beliefs, minor/major deities, nuances in afterlife, morals, rituals, and clergy. Again, I’m not saying that you should copy every detail that you randomly generate — it’s just a great place to start.
What’s more, you can even compare multiple religions side by side to see how they might interact in your potential world.
6. For mythology:
A lot of what shapes culture comes from the wild tangles of imagination and the supernatural. Draw from a plethora of real world myths to inspire your own folklore and legends at ANCIENT MYTHOLOGY.
It was at this site that I first read about Zoroastrianism, and from there was inspired to create a series of fables for my novel. Most of what we create is based off history, so why not take a look at some of Mother Earth’s greatest stories? May it be Japanese mythology or Mesopotamian superstitions, I’m sure that something in the archives of ANCIENT MYTHOLOGY will inspire you.
7. For tropes:
Some writers try to avoid tropes like the plague. I say, take advantage of them! Find something done before and make it your own atTV TROPES.
Explore different world settings (Medieval European Fantasy or Space Opera?), cultural ticks (Martyrdom Culture or Immortality Seeker?), and religious whims (Robot Religion or Easy Evangelism?). Of course, I’m not advocating for anyone to adopt these tropes (they’re called tropes for a reason — because they’re overdone), but I think that sometimes the most ground-breaking, striking worlds are ones that take tropes and twist them.
8. For questions to answer:
SFWA has composed an extensive and impressive list of questions to keep in mind when worldbuilding. Please, read through the questions. You’d be surprised at some of the seemingly mundane things that really make a world pop.
9. For asking questions:
Can’t come up with the right answer to one of those questions? Go ahead and ask it at STACK EXCHANGE WORLDBUILDING. This is a great site for getting technical. I myself am woefully uninformed on physics, and if not for these forums, my world would probably lack gravity.
10. For music:
What’s a rich world without a rich soundtrack? Head on over to 8TRACKS or another internet radio of your choice and check out the fantasy, writing, and soundtrack tags. Sometimes, the right mood music can get you in the right frame of mind for making up cultures.
Be sure to check out my personal music suggestions on Music Mondays!
Ah, there’s nothing like a hearty plate of well-done worldbuilding.
It was a rancid day, to be sure. The sun beat upon the three ladies’ bonnets, nipping the tops of their ears and bruising the tips of their noses. Wind whipped their curls about their cheeks, and they joked that they were bound to turn over like tumbleweeds into the sea. They sat in white wicker chairs on the deck of the SS Sophronia, with cocktails in hand and gossip in mouth, their talk fluxing from complaints of the weather to devious fits of giggles. Behind each stood an attendant extending a parasol, and a lone fiddler scraped away at his instrument before them. Constance claimed that it was the perfect tune for wine, winking, and journeying to the edge of the world.
“Did you expect the weather to be so harsh?” Clementine asked.
Cordelia snorted. “When Martha — that incompetent cow — made the trip, she had nothing but praise for the climate. ‘Mild skies and still water, and then the drop was but a dream…’Please!”
“Oh, but I’m certain that once we get to the edge it’ll be much nicer,” Constance said. She pointed to a line in her pamphlet. “See, it says here that upon arrival, the tourist will ‘be wrapped in a balmy breeze and pleasant aroma as the insignificance of his puny existence is thrust upon him.’ I think that sounds quite agreeable.”
Cordelia plucked a deviled egg from the platter in her attendant’s hand and popped it between her lips. “It’s common knowledge that Martha’s a filthy liar,” she said between mouthfuls,“but I’m still determined to have a better time than she.”
“I’m sure we all will, dear,” Constance said, and she rested her pamphlet in her lap.
The SS Sophronia chugged along, belching mushrooms of smoke into the sky. She was a fine steamboat, all polished wood and bright paint, with a hardy paddle that scooped up the sea. And what a restless sea it was — for as the wind blew stronger, the waves peaked higher and the deck dipped lower. The fiddler’s bow skittered across his strings with each dip, and one attendant’s grip on his tray suffered such shakiness that the Arab salad was tossed across the deck. The ladies were too astir with excitement to notice.
A serious look folded into the lines of Clementine’s brow. “Suppose we fall off?”
Cordelia examined her nail bed. “Off what, dear?”
“Well, the edge.”
“Nonsense. This is a civilized affair, an elite destination. I’m sure they’ve set up ropes.”
Clementine didn’t seem so certain. “But I’ve heard of ships that get too close, and then the water sweeps them into the void, never to be seen again. What if we’re swallowed by oblivion?”
“Pish,” Cordelia said with a flick of her gloved hand. “That’s just the common crop, poppet. We are on a luxury steamboat, with luxury service. We’ve paid good money to see the end of the world, not be sucked into it.”
“Just wait, it’ll be grand,” Constance said, and she once again quoted from her pamphlet. “‘At the edge, the visitor will be offered a pair of binoculars so that he can peer into the nothingness and search for meaning. Complimentary drinks will be served as atmospheric music is played.’”
“Oh, that does sound grand,” Clementine said, a smile perching upon her lips.
“Not if this horrid heat doesn’t let up!” Cordelia snapped her fingers forcefully and turned to her attendant. “You! Manservant! Raise and shade; you’re shaking about something dreadful!”
“Apologies, ma’am,” the man mumbled, and he lifted the parasol higher.
The swollen sun dangled low over the smokestacks of the boat, growing more bloated with each passing minute. But through all the wind and the heat and the rocking, the ladies still talked both small and large. Eventually, the fiddler’s bow was snatched from his hand by the wind, and he rushed into the cabin for a new instrument.
Constance gripped the laces of her bonnet as the wind howled about her neck. “Think of it, ladies! Many a scholar has travelled to the edge to question his greater purpose, to search for a god looming in the black! And us — we are to be one of those great seekers of truth!”
“Yes, but do you think we’ll be able to take home a souvenir?” Clementine asked.
The olive in Cordelia’s cocktail rattled against the glass. “Lord, we had better!” she exclaimed. “Else I will have nothing to shove in Martha’s insufferable face.”
Constance’s laugh was gobbled up by the roar of the waves. “But honestly! What a quest we’ve undertaken!”
“Really, I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about,” Cordelia said with a shrug.
Clementine clasped her hands in her lap. “I do hope I can bring home something.”
It was another tumultuous half hour before the ladies realized that the horizon was drawing closer and closer. “We are fast approaching!” Clementine squealed. “How dramatic!” was Constance’s reaction. Cordelia even tutted a “well, well.”
Then they were upon it.
Somewhere in the unimaginable deep, far beneath the steamboat and far beneath the quaking sea, a beast growled. Their bones shook. Their teeth rattled. It was a thunder that melted their very marrow — the sound of an ocean throwing itself off the edge of the world.They saw a waterfall, but a waterfall that fell into nothingness.
The sunburnt sky filtered off into streaks of orange and smoke and obscurity. What unfolded before them, past the edge of the spilling sea — well, the girls could not put words to it. It was expansive yet singular, empty yet somehow aware. They would need to get a more magnified look before they could ponder ‘the insignificance of their puny existences’.
The steamboat’s engine shuddered to a halt just before the bow could slide off the rushing edge. Indeed, there were ropes of red velvet that stretched across the brink for as far as the eye could see. A bell clanged from the mast, and the ladies were ushered to their feet by the attendants. As they were served champagne and caviar on toast, the fiddler returned with a new bow and the captain emerged from his cabin to ask them how they had fared the journey. They chatted for a bit over the rumble of the falls, commenting on the majesty of the oblivion that stretched before them. “Now, I’ll let you get to your sightseeing,” the captain finally said, and he left them on the deck with a pair of binoculars. The ladies handed their glasses to the attendants, and turned eagerly to look over the edge. Clementine was the first to lean over the railing and press the binoculars to her eyes.
“Oh, God!” she soon cried.
“Darling, what do you see?” Cordelia asked.
The poor girl stuttered. “Th-there’s…there’s…nothing!”
“Nothing?” Constance squinted into the void. “That can’t be right. Define nothing.”
“Oh, there’s nothing! Nothing at all! It’s all empty!”
“Give me that,” Cordelia said sharply. She snatched the binoculars from Clementine’s fingers and pressed the eyecups to her sockets.
Constance rested a hand on her shoulder. “What is it really?”
“Why don’t you believe me?” Clementine wept. She shook her head, back and forth, up and down, thrashing violently. “There’s nothing out there, there’s no purpose, nothing exists —”
“Have some propriety, girl!” Cordelia said with a huff. “I see…now wait a minute…I see…well, it’s almost like a glass, like a large mirror. And there’s me…and there you are, Constance, and Clementine too, and…” Her voice darkened. “…and Martha — the loathsome goat — and my mother and uncle and the estate and everyone! Everything! I see everything, our world, reflected and renewed!” She brought the binoculars down, revealing an agape mouth.
“That’s silly!” Constance said. “You can’t see everything the same as it is here. Likewise you can’t see nothing!”
Cordelia turned a taut expression on Constance. “Then do tell me, dear, since you’re so educated on the matter: what is one meant to see when she peers off the edge of the world? For I tell you, I see everything!”
“Mercy, mercy! There’s nothing!” came Clementine’s cry.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Constance said over the younger girl’s hysterics. “You’re supposed to find meaning, to see the truth. Your mind is to be enlightened! And everything can’t be meaningful, and nothing can’t have purpose!”
Cordelia sniffed the air, and handed off the binoculars to Constance. “By all means, search for your truth. Enlighten your mind. I eagerly await your insight.”
“I shall!” Constance said, and she glared into the lenses.
The SS Sophronia buckled beneath their feet, and off towards the stern, Clementine could be heard moaning as she slid across the deck. Cordelia and Constance gripped hard to the railing, but the three attendants and fiddler tumbled to their knees, champagne glasses shattering and fiddle strings snapping.
“I’m waiting, dear!” Cordelia shouted over the turbulence. “What is your scholarly conjecture?”
Constance frowned into the binoculars. “I — I can’t see clearly…”
“NOOOOOOTHIIIIIING….!” Clementine’s wail was made distorted by the wind.
“Isn’t that rich!” Cordelia’s bonnet ripped from her hair and spiraled over the edge, but she paid it no mind. “You — you who have all the answers — you can’t even understand what lies before your own eyes!”
Constance flung her arms wide, and the binoculars went sailing into the abyss. “And you!You see everything as you want to see it, because you’re soft of mind and vain of heart. You see yourself and your affluence, and it has no meaning, but you relish in it!”
“Better to relish in what I know than to shriek at the prospect of nothing!”
“How dare you drag Clementine into this! She’s simple!”
“Ma’am.” Constance felt a hand grapple her ankle. She looked down from her outrage to see that one of the attendants had crawled across the slick deck to her. “Ma’am, we must turn back now,” he gasped out. “Captain’s orders. If you please, come under the awning now, ma’am.”
Cordelia heaved a sigh. “Oh, if we must.”
“Thank you, good sir,” Constance said curtly. She stepped over him, and Cordelia followed. “Come Clementine!” she called across to the stern.
It took a while for the attendants to procure new chairs (for the old wicker ones had been swept off the deck into the sea), but soon the three ladies were sitting again, and the steamboat’s engine purred to life. The horizon lagged further and further away, and so did the girls’ spirits.
“I didn’t even get a souvenir,” Clementine pouted.
Cordelia downed the contents of her glass in one shot, and grimaced. “Martha will be pleased, I’m sure. I can hear her petulant voice already. ‘Oh, Cordie, it’s a shame that you didn’t bring back a piece of nothing.’ Or is it…everything?” She shuddered.
Constance stared blankly into her wrinkled pamphlet. “Oh look. There’s to be a reception afterwards. Tea and biscuits with the captain. How grand.”
Clementine blinked up into the sky. “God, why’s it so hot?”