Picture this: soft piano music plays. Sunbeams peek through window curtains. A manicured hand pours water through a coffee filter into a ceramic mug. They smile at you in their floor-length mirror as they show off their autumnally colored outfit with matching tote. The camera pans around the room to show off their potted plant or book collection. As they step outside, you can almost smell the rain-kissed orange leaves as they’re shuffled through by feet in leather boots and wool socks.
All this in 15 seconds, before scrolling to another video. Like many other young people, I’ve spent a lot of time on TikTok, especially during the pandemic. I’m captivated by this genre of video in that it reflects a practice that I’ve seen permeate from social media into our perceptions of our own inner and outer worlds: romanticization (think cottagecore or dark academia). To romanticize the mundane is to recognize its inherent beauty, and to actively seek and imagine it. In the context of social media especially, this can be dangerous in that it obscures reality, creates unrealistic beauty standards for life, and can even romanticize aspects of our lives that are harmful (e.g. mental illness). But in obscuring reality, romanticization also brings us closer to a world of fantasy. Is it possible to use the instinct to romanticize our own lives to create fantasy worlds instead?
I’ve found that when I’m consuming content that is actively romanticizing mundane aspects of life (like drinking coffee and walking through dead leaves) I am more conscious of the details of these occurrences as I’m experiencing them. I’m present and more perceptive of beauty. I feel the way the sun hits my face and smell the hint of rain in the air. I stop to look at a view of the mountains glimpsed through the trees and notice a pair of friends laughing as they walk through campus to class. I catalogue sights and senses in a way I might not otherwise. These are the same types of sights and senses that bring worldbuilding to life. Instead of coffee and college campus, think instead about the worn oak wood of the bar at the medieval tavern, the crackling heat of the hearth, the taste of dry bread and salty soup. These are the similarly portrayed details of a high fantasy world, whose aesthetic stems from an excessively romanticized vision of life in the real world—in medieval Europe. What we look for in fantasy is rarely realistic depiction, but fantastic worlds made visceral through romanticized depiction.
Romanticizing the mundane in everyday life helps to identify the most compelling minutiae of place that bring a world vivacity and fantasy. When we imagine a fantasy version of our own lives in which the autumn colors and scent of rain are at the forefront, we can interrogate what makes those sensations pop. We can recognize throughlines between what makes romanticized TikToks and romanticized fantasy worlds good. Perhaps it’s nature, food, weather, clothing, mood, smells, music, colors, etc., all working in concert to create a cohesive aesthetic. What is the aesthetic of your fantasy world? What are the images and sensory details you recognize as being notable and romantic in your life or in the media you consume? Are similar images and sensory details present in your writing? Are these images and details consistent with the aesthetics of your world? For example: consider this passage from Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making in which our protagonist, September, and her wyvern companion, A-Through-L, are waking up to embark on their journey.
September bit into a fat, juicy persimmon. Well, something like a persimmon. Rather larger, greener, and tasting of blueberry cream, but it looked terribly like a persimmon, and so September had resolved to call it that. A-Through-L still worried a poor tree, which was so tall and stubbornly thick that no small girl could ever have hoped to climb it, even if she had known that there was a fruit up there in its yellowy-silver branches… September insisted she was full between peals of laughter, but the Wyverary seemed to delight in charging the tree with a cheerful snarl and smacking into it full force until the helpless fruit gave up and came tumbling down. After each blow, A-Through-L sat back on his enormous hanches and shook his head, sending his whiskers a-flying. The sight of it kept September laughing, helplessly, her skirt tumbling-full of oozing, green-orange, blueberryish persimmons.
The sun hitched up her trousers and soldiered up into the sky. September squinted at it and wondered if the sun here was different than the sun in Nebraska. It seemed gentler, more golden, deeper. The shadows it cast seemed more profound. But September could not be sure. When one is traveling, everything looks brighter and lovelier.
In this passage we see the descriptions of fruit and nature, including details like laughter, clothing, taste, and body language and actions. These images work together to contribute to a bright, quirky, whimsical aesthetic which romanticizes travel, adventure, and the “other world.” When romanticizing elements of real life, we can use those same tactics to romanticize elements of fictional lives and create enticing fictional worlds. While romanticization in the real world is often negative, it is a core element of fantasy and can be incorporated into writing as such. Next time you see a sunrise, think of September and ask yourself if it looks gentler, more golden, deeper. Next time you write a sunrise, remember that feeling.