Thursday, April 21, 2011

A to Z Challenge: Rules and Realism

To me, rules and realism are some of the most important things that I focus on. Particularly the rules, because the realism aspect usually grows organically from the obedience to the rules.

Without the rules, my fantasy world doesn't make sense. I have to work out why things are possible, make sure that the reader understands and make sure that the rule is carried to its full extent. I.E. Say I had fairies who were vegetarian. The rule is then obviously NO MEAT. Good. One thing done. We also now have a glimpse into the culture.

But now, this begs the question... Do they hunt? Instinctively, my answer will be no... After all, if they're big on vegetarianism, I don't think they'll want to wear fur. Nor do I think they will want to use the fats or bones for anything either. In fact... I think they'd see any part of a dead animal as an abomination. (Maybe vegetarians don't. Have no idea. I'm just rolling with the fairy culture thing.) That already opens up a myriad of other questions.

Does their taboo about killing things extend to warfare? Will that make them pacifists? If they are, do they have defenses? Can they in fact be pushed to fight back? How far must they be pushed?

All those considerations just from one rule. And if I get those right, I've taken another step towards realism. Easy, right?

Not always. Sometimes, there are more subtle cultural norms that are in fact norms, but that might not be hard and fast. Say... equality. Women might be considered equal... to men in their castes. So yes, a culture could consider itself to be egalitarian while they are still just as obsessed with ranks. But what would that mean? Oh... perhaps richer/more powerful girls get to have an education. Perhaps they get to fight in the army. Perhaps there isn't such a culture of chivalry. On the other hand, the ladies might get a larger measure of respect, because they're not just seen as baby breeders.

It all depends on other things. History, for one thing. Other rules, for another. Some rules overlap to cause a different outcome to the more obvious one.

That's why carrying through the rules are so very important. Because if the rules aren't carried far enough, you might miss a point where they overlap.

The reader might not.

And that will severely limit the realism in the story.

So... how do you approach rules in your writing? Want to write down some interesting examples in your writing and the effect they have? Or point out some things I missed in my examples? I would love to get a glimpse into the way you think about things. Not to mention that it's fun. ^_^


  1. Rules are so important in fantasy. I'm working on an urban fantasy now and figuring out the 'rules' is the hardest thing.

    I always think of JK Rowling's 'You can't apparate or disapparate inside Hogwarts' grounds!' rule, which she stuck to throughout (even when Harry and Ron forgot!). Equally, introducing the Time Turners in Book 3 (even though they were all destroyed in Book 5) was dangerous. It begged the question why they could be used to save those two lives but no more, and even though I loved Book 3, I think it undermined her very concrete the-dead-do-not-come-back rule.

    Really liked this post!

  2. My biggest rule in writing poetry is the flow. Which I listen for reading out loud. Then if need be I research if I need more information about something. For instance, the symbol of certain tree. Then with my column I research like crazy. I have to see prove of the truth of something in more than one place.

  3. Interesting questions. If it's against their rules to fight, that that would be such an internal struggle and would make a great conflict in a story. Imagine someone you loved was being killed and the rules of your culture forbade you to fight to protect.

  4. I think you missed one very important thing: WHY do the fairies not eat meat? To me the reason for the rule is much more important than the rule its self.

  5. Great post! It's also good if the culture that the culture that a character is in is also a conflict. Maybe the fairies are vegetarians against their will. I know I would be :) This could a be a rule that is stifling and could cause added conflict on top of others in the story.

  6. Great post. The rules are all important. Following through gives you great scope for conflict here. The fairies might be against warfare, but are all around them.

  7. When sculpting a new world, it's important to have ground rules, but it's impossible to foresee all the consequences of the rules. Sometimes, things don't appear until Book 5. So, it's important to keep a flowchart or log of the rules lest you find yourself in the weeds in later stories--nothing worse than a disconnect.

    Also, one has to keep in mind that even though there are societal expectations and norms, families can have expectations and norms that layer onto the higher-level societal ones or that completely contradict them, which is where rebels come in.

    So many possibilities...So much fun!

  8. These are excellent points. I also think that when rules are overcomplicated, the reader can get lost. Introducing a fantasy world can be really tricky if there are a lot of contingencies; finding a way to make it understandable is so important! When my co-author and I wrote our first book, we ended up with WAY too many complications, and sliced out a ton of things to simplify. Even then, it was a challenge to present the information as organically as possible. I think it's gotten easier with each book I've written since then.

  9. Even if we're not creating a new world, we have to stay true to our characters. I hate reading books where characters do things that feel off, just for the obvious purpose of prolonging the plot. Makes me crazy.

  10. When I think of rules about writing, what comes to mind is usually rules on the mechanics. I never really thought about the rules of a fantasy world. At the moment, I can't think of any that I've implemented in my story (besides the fact that humans can't go through the tunnel, which is totally broken). This must be something I need to work on.

    And don't forget. I posted your interview today.

  11. Hmmm. Rules? I like breaking them, but when it comes to writing and world building to create a believable environment you can't be a hypocrite. Great post, Misha!

  12. I set my stories so my problems are more likely to be about breaking rules.
    For example how does a female character have any kind of independence at a time in history when she can't even have bank account with out her husband or father's permission?

  13. Ellen, you have a great point about the time-turners. Once they could travel back, they could have gone to the very beginning and Sirius wouldn't have needed to be saved.

    River, I'm also very fixated on flow when it comes to my poetry. More so than rhyme. Research-wise, I also like to have more than one source agreeing on a point.

    Em that's so true! And it could even be better if the person who has to choose between fighting and not fighting chose to fight. Would he/she be banished?

    Sarah that's so true. I also try to go back as far as possible in order to find out why rules are as they are.

    Hey Shelly *waves*

    DUO I'd also be forced into it against to my will. However, if you are raised in a culture of vegetarianism, it's possible that you wouldn't even know any different (because to you eating meat would never even be an option).

    Ann that's a great point. Conflict can definitely come as a result of rules and norms within a culture.

    Emma I agree with you that disconnects suck. That's why I am fully intending to do a list of rules and norms as soon as edits are done. Because edits might reveal some stuff that negates some rules. Also, you have a great point on expectations and rebellions. If I think about it like that, rules become the foundation on which I build more levels in my world. ^_^

    Laura, the way I approach that aspect of rules is the same as I approach back-story. The important thing is that I know, so that I can keep things consistent for the reader.

    Jolene, I agree. Characters have to act "in-character" no matter what.

    Thanks for the link, Brooke! I'll tweet it and include it in today's post.

    Thanks Samantha! I agree with you. When writing you can't even break a rule a little, because that's when readers wonder why certain things can't just happen.

    Al, that's a good approach to have, because then the rules create internal and external conflicts for your characters.


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