Things We’ve Forgotten: Make-Believe

Did you have a vivid fantasy life as a child?

I just finished reading Jo Walton’s Hugo-winning novel Among Others, and one of the (many) things that struck me about it was how real make-believe can be for kids. I’m not talking about the fairies in the book — those are meant to be read as real — but about the names Mori and her twin use in their playing. Osgiliath, Glorfindel…of course on one level they know they’re conflating stories with reality, but on another level, those names are true in their heads.

When my sister and I were children playing explorers or servant girls or pirates, we had much the same experience. We knew our snowy backyard wasn’t the Arctic, but it didn’t matter. We knew the playground near our house wasn’t a sailing ship surrounded by sharks, but at the same time, it absolutely was. (Or a robber fort, or a medieval castle, depending on what we needed it to be.) We hadn’t yet learned to fear cognitive dissonance.

I’m reading Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons right now (more about that soon!), and the same thing is jumping out at me. The children in the story know what’s real and what’s not — they just don’t care. When I read Ransome’s books as a preteen, I understood exactly how that mindset worked. He captures it beautifully.

Returning to that mindset now is hard. I remember thinking that way, but I’m so far removed from it now (and I don’t have kids to remind me) that reading about it is an odd process. It’s surprisingly hard to suspend my disbelief.

I say “surprisingly” because I have no trouble believing in all sorts of unlikely worlds within stories — after all, SF and fantasy are my favourite genres to read and to write. But to hold two levels of reality in my head, and think of them both as true, is a struggle.

Maybe this is also why I have trouble with unreliable narrators in movies. I assume that what I’m seeing is true within the story world, unless I’m given strong cues that it’s a dream or a vision or something. So when I watch a scene and later find out that I wasn’t supposed to view it as fact (Black Swan comes to mind), I have difficulty reconciling the contradiction.

And yet…supposing someone from one of my favourite story worlds showed up and asked me to jump through a portal into their world. Aslan, Gandalf, Masterharper Robinton, Captain Picard, the Doctor, Professor McGonagall. If you think I’d hesitate for a second, you’d be wrong.

And, of course, I’m a writer, and make-believe is precisely what writers do, underneath all the layers of plot and structure and craft.

Maybe I’m not as far removed from my childhood make-believe sessions as I think I am…

Your turn! Did you have a vivid fantasy life as a child? Do you remember how it worked in your head?


3 responses to “Things We’ve Forgotten: Make-Believe

  1. “We knew the playground near our house wasn’t a sailing ship surrounded by sharks, but at the same time, it absolutely was.” <— ME: "If you touch the sand, the sharks get you! DON'T TOUCH THE SAND!"

  2. I’m rather envious of all your reading! I seem to be reading so little these days. To answer your question… I don’t think I did as a rule. I just took myself into books, rather than bring fantasy worlds to this one. Oh, we played games, but not in the sense I think you mean.

  3. J. Ng – Exactly!

    Ellen – Interesting how differently we approached books, especially since we both ended up as writers…I always assumed that story writing naturally arose out of a vivid fantasy life, but that’s clearly not the case for everyone!

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