Worldbuilding for Retro Magic Realism: Part 2 — Windows to Other Places

Christine Hart
The Fragile Receptacle
4 min readFeb 25, 2021


Photo by Abhishek Tanwar from Pexels

The explosion of digital publishing in the last decade has made me think long and hard about each and every story idea that pops into my little head. After all, when the book market (YA in particular) is so insanely saturated, what am I doing thinking about writing yet one more novel?

The reason to write The Electric Girl wasn’t necessarily rational. It was more of a compulsion than anything else. It’s partly that I needed to get this bizarre story out of my head so I could get on with my life; that’s true of every book or bauble to ever leave my hands. I had to write this book to indulge in the pure magic of living in my own imagined reality. I needed the worldbuilding.

CAUTION: Minor Spoilers Ahead!

Can You Build a Believable Alternate Reality?

I love speculative fiction. If you catch me surfing Goodreads or Netflix for my next read or watch, I’m looking for sci-fi, fantasy, and generally all things weird. So, I’m a genre chick at my core. I like to think about how worlds, lives, even the nature of existence might be different out there, somewhere I’ll never see or even know for sure really exists. I write, not to flex my wordsmith muscles, but to imagine something magical and try to bring it to life.

Why? Pure Pop Culture Fun

I’ve always loved indulging in nostalgia. And I’m a sucker for pop culture. I find it fascinating that an object or image from the past can evoke strong emotions. And when it comes to pop culture, I love to puzzle over what makes something a popular and trendy thing. As a society, why do we love the things we do? For a start, what makes unicorns so compelling as a fantasy creature? More so than say, a chimera or a griffin?

In the first chapter of The Electric Girl, the imagined version of a unicorn that lives exclusively in my primary protagonist Polly’s head is so real to her that it’s real enough for a shape-shifting alien to telepathically copy. But the shift doesn’t hold and my secondary protagonist, Psyche, becomes a human girl.

The idea of a unicorn becoming a girl was inspired by on Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. When I pictured Psyche opening portals across time and space, often crossing a dimensional barrier, I pictured the many doorways from Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.

I know that in a larger sense, the after-school television I watched in the late 80s and early 90s — from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Twin Peaks, to The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories influenced ideas like non-corporeal entities and seemingly impossible scenarios.

More recently, watching Stranger Things reminded me just how fun it is to have an adventure in the past — specifically, the gloriously campy world of 80s genre stories.

Photo by S L on Unsplash

What? Exoplanets & Alternate Dimensions

Each moment in The Electric Girl that occurs outside our world is a far-flung terrain completely alien to us. When we first meet Psyche and her nemesis, they’re battling on an exoplanet in the middle of a dust storm. Instead of rocky outcroppings, they dodge gigantic quartz shards. And Psyche’s first alien form is a multi-winged serpent, something between a snake and a dragon.

The nature of the shape-shifting aliens who travel to these locations allows them to quickly adapt to the new environment by taking on a native life form. It might seem like a plot device, but the reason for this trait is much deeper. Being non-corporeal, but needing to take shape to travel and learn, is fundamental to the entire society of nearly extinct aliens I called morphlings. Their species was inspired by the general idea that so many celestial daydreamers latch onto, that there are aliens out there somewhere monitoring and preserving both knowledge and life. Such a thing seems both impossible and essential, therefore it’s extremely compelling to me.

How? Balancing Research & Imagination

The task of bringing pop-culture influenced alien worlds to life calls for equal parts investigation and creativity. As a soft science fiction project, this book didn’t need a lot of exploration into the mechanics of how these planets functioned.

So, rather than getting into details like where they fit in their solar system’s habitable zones and how their rotation and orbit affected their seasons, I spent more time thinking about exotic terrain and odd-yet-relatable life forms. When we’re there for short scenes and brief flashes, I wanted those moments to feel as different from Earth as possible. Yet, they needed to be believable to not jolt the reader out of the story.

Although it came out after I wrote my book, I recommend Netflix’s Alien Worlds to anyone who wants a visual cue for their next worldbuilding project.

Photo by Miriam Espacio from Pexels

Weird Worlds

Whether you define weirdness as something outside the norm here or something unknowable ‘out there’, either way, you’re treading on ground I’m going to find interesting. And I always employ the logic that, however weird I might be, if I like something, someone else will too. If I like an image or an idea, my fellow weirdos are out there. So, I hope The Electric Girl finds many like-minded readers in the coming months.