In Other Worlds by Tom Rich
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about why I like stories set in secondary worlds so much. I have a 45-minute commute, you see, and have to pass the time somehow.
As a reader, the appeal is fairly obvious: I grew up with those sorts of stories, so they scratch a very deep itch at this point, and they provide a great deal of escapism. It's fun to see what sorts of things a writer can come up with when the setting is so unconstrained. All fiction involves wandering around another person's imagination, and a secondary world represents the particular sort of imagination I enjoy wandering around in.
As a writer, though, the appeal is a bit different. One of the things I struggle with is feeling like I'm stealing someone else's story. For instance, I once got around 500 words into a story about a divorced woman for a fiction class, but I couldn't make any progress on it because, having grown up with two married parents, I felt like it wasn't my story to tell (also, in this particular case, because the story wasn't any good). My computer is full of half-started stories that petered out simply because I didn't feel comfortable continuing them.
Of course, part of the problem here is that it's simply difficult to write about some things, and personal experience can make it easier. Much like some bodies are built for sprinting and some for distance, different writerly imaginations stretch in different ways. But the question of ownership vexes me, constantly: is this my story to tell? Am I stealing it from somebody else? And, if I try to publish it, is it something I'm comfortable selling?
Working in a secondary world is good for getting over these hurdles, at least for me. It provides a certain degree of distance from reality, a sort of stamp that says, "We're all on the same page. This is very much fiction. Everyone relax." I suspect that this is true for the reader, too. A bit of distance, a safe buffer zone, and everyone's more comfortable. For a certain breed of reader, it's easier to enjoy a story when you're quite certain it's not about a real person's suffering.
Whether or not the story is set in the real world or not isn't the only thing that can provide this sort of buffer zone. The style may make it easier or more difficult for a particular reader to enter your story and hear what you're saying. For one reader, hard, spare realism draws them in; for another, it's too sharp. Fiction, after all, can enlighten, educate, illuminate, change: but one of its first goals is to entertain, and to do that the reader needs a certain degree of comfort. It doesn't have to be all roses and sunshine; we all try and make our readers squirm, shudder, and shriek from time to time. But it does need that willingness of the reader to play along, and, for some, a bit of added distance from reality helps with that.
There are other reasons to write in a secondary world, of course; it's a great blessing that things are always more complex, more complete than they seem at first. May your stories and your readers match up, and happy writing!