Fantasy Rules and World-Building

In my daily life, I am fascinated with the rules of our natural world. I’m always trying to find out the how and why behind things. How does gravity work? Why are snowflakes different from each other? How do whales navigate? Our world follows specific rules, and these rules help define our reality.

However, the reason I initially chose to write fantasy is because I thought there were no rules. You could let your imagination run wild, no holds barred. Anything was possible. Of course, this belief was founded on Disney fairy tales, where there are generally limited, amorphous rules. Some people, like the wicked witches, have magic, while others don’t. Magic allows people to change shape and mass without any regard for the laws of physics. The old fairy tales are riddled with logical contradictions, because when they were originally written, we didn’t know as much about natural laws and the need for consistency in order to have a working system. I thought fantasy novels were unbound by any laws. Authors didn’t have to worry about creating a consistent, functional world.

Then, in high school, I discovered the works of J.R.R Tolkien. He was a master at world-building. He created a complex world that was defined by specific rules. For the first time, I read a book that not only included magic, but explained where magic came from and what its limits were. Gandalf was not a demigod, unfettered by nature. He had to operate within the boundaries his creator had set in place. I learned that although fantasy writers have considerably more leeway than, say, historical fiction writers, they still have to use logic when designing their worlds.

This is why careful world-building is an integral part of the writing process. One of the reasons I love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is because Harry Dresden’s world is filled with magic but also makes sense. Harry is a wizard, but he is limited by things like gravity and the conservation of energy. He has to operate inside a specific set of rules. If he conjures fire in a confined space, he could hurt himself, because fire must behave according to the laws of thermodynamics. There are some situations where he can cheat and sidestep the rules, like when he uses magical portals called “Ways” in order to travel across the country in the space of a few hours. Most of the time, though, he must cooperate with the laws set in place by nature.

Now that I know more about creating a consistent, believable world, I’ve had to go back and revise my own writing. When I started building my magical realm, it relied heavily on imagination with very little logic to ground it. It was like trying to hold down a hot air balloon with a packing peanut. Like in all things, balance is key. The best part of fantasy writing is letting your imagination run loose, but you also have to remember that everything must be consistent. If, for example, a king has the ability to create gold with a wave of his hand, then eventually gold will lose its value. If dragons have the ability to create storms, these storms will in turn influence the weather patterns of the entire region. Magic does’t happen in a bubble. It will effect its surroundings, for better or worse. All actions have reactions, and every world-building choice will have its own consequences.

People sometimes ask why I spend so much time obsessing over the intricacies of my fantasy world. They assume that because it’s fantasy, it doesn’t have to hold up to scrutiny. In reality, it’s the exact opposite. Because my novels are based on fantasy, they have to be more detailed than novels based on reality. No one questions why Brian is trampled by a moose in Hatchet. We all know that moose are notoriously temperamental. It’s an accepted fact. Readers grimace with sympathy at his plight and move on. But if a character in my book is suddenly stricken with a curse, readers will want to know how the curse works and why he was chosen as its intended victim. In Beauty and the Beast, if the prince was attacked by a wolf, I wouldn’t question why it happened. However, I’ve spent plenty of time wondering why the witch decided to curse an eleven-year-old, why she chose a rose, and why his twenty-first birthday marks the expiration date for his salvation. When you write realistic fiction, you can safely assume that the audience already knows and believes in the rules of the real world. Once you enter into fantasy, you can’t take this belief for granted. You have to earn your audience’s trust by making a world with the same consistency as the one they live in.

Needless to say, world-building is one of my favorite topics of fantasy writing, and I’ll be revisiting it again in the coming weeks.


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