World Building: Do the Rules Matter? (Survey Says Yes)

Fun fact about me: I never received detention, not once throughout all my school years. I was not a rule-breaker and knew that rules established the order of things. I LIKE rules, probably because I am forever and always a goody-two-shoes. Much like in the real world, there are rules that must be built into your fantasy worlds. Whether you’re writing dystopian, paranormal, or supernatural, authors must configure rules into their worlds to set up plot and help readers suspend their disbelief even in a fantastical world. This is different from your culture’s internal laws and the possibilities are endless, even if it’s defying gravity or other impossible-in-real-life situations.

Let me explain further. In Harry Potter, for example, we know that despite the wizarding world being in plain view of Muggles, they are separate worlds. Underage wizards cannot perform magic outside of Howarts, there’s a Ministry of Magic as their form of government, and as Hermione constantly reminds Ron, wizards cannot create food or money from their wands. Those are basic rules that everyone knows and as readers, we understand that these things are impossible because of the way the world is built. No matter how talented Harry might be, he’ll never create a million dollars from his wand, just as Hermione cannot create a delicious feast from nothing. While all the things we read in Hogwarts are unbelievable, we are able to suspend our disbelief because we understand how Rowling’s world works based on a few established rules (and more as we keep reading).

As usual, I’ll compare it to what I know – my Gifted world. Despite the components of a magical circus, there are set rules for the characters that help keep a reader grounded to the story. Much like a wizarding world, gifted beings typically hide themselves in plain sight of regular humans – but it is definitely a secret world and has been since the beginning. Each individual has a unique gift to their “species” so to speak and gifted only have one power (as opposed to X-Men, some of whom have several powers in addition to what they’re known for). That sets a few rules that readers can understand even if they can’t relate, but it helps them settle comfortably into your world because they know you won’t suddenly change things up on them.

Every world is different but provided you’ve set some rules, it will be much easier for a reader to feel involved, even if it’s not an in-your-face fantasy. The witchy thriller piece I’m finishing is set in the everyday world and while there’s certainly a little hocus-pocus floating around, the story is more focused on the murder/thriller plotline. My witch magic is subtle (flickering lights, sudden weather changes, and other explainable things a human wouldn’t blame on magic) but rules are still in place to establish how their world works and how a reader should approach the story. If a reader sees an author breaking their world rules, it can turn them off – who’s to say you won’t keep breaking your own rules and throw everything we’ve just read out the window because now suddenly that one broken rule affects the rest of the story. It’s a cop out, in my opinion, because it means that not only did we not establish a solid world, but now we can’t even get our heroes out of the problem with their own skill set. We’ve then hurt our hero’s credibility! If Hermione could suddenly produce meals out of thin air, that means they shouldn’t starve, shouldn’t feel the hunger pains and accompanying emotions that come along with their frustrated journey to defeat Voldemort. It would’ve taken away a lot of angst, which of course only adds to our character development.

Moral of the story? Establish your world-building and make sure you understand the rules. Ask lots of questions as you jot everything down – can they produce food or money from thin air? Is your vampire still dangerous even though he dates a human? Can Character X accomplish her task once you’ve set up your fiction government control? (And if not, how does she overcome her obstacle?) Once you figure out what works and what doesn’t, you’ll have an easier time writing your story (that I can promise you!) because you know the boundaries of what your characters can and can’t do. Rules will help readers become comfortable with the story as they get lost in a world unlike their own and they can trust you to take them on a fantasy adventure that’s both realistic and unexpected.

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