Monday, September 3, 2007

Guidelines for World Building

Suspension of disbelief is the willingness of the reader to accept the premise of a work of fiction, even if it is fantastic or impossible. That’s never truer than in paranormal fiction, because you’re asking the reader to throw away many of their established notions of the world as it is and step into a world they’re not familiar with.

So as writers how do we do this? For starters, just as with any other fictional world, we use setting and description to establish rules for our paranormal characters and the paranormal world they live in. Rules, you ask? Wait a minute--there are rules? Well, to paraphrase Captain Barbossa, “they’re more what you'd call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Really? Well, yes and no. Maybe it’s true for the Pirates of the Caribbean, but for authors dealing with the paranormal realm, you need to set up some pretty solid ground rules for your world and stick to them.

But author beware: when world building, avoid a huge info dump in the beginning. Nothing bores a reader more than page after page of setup, so try to filter it in with action and dialogue as much as you can. And don’t over do it! Avoid unnecessary lectures about your world, its history and your character’s society. Once established, you don’t need to beat the reader over the head with all the minutiae of your world. Trust them to get it the first time. Paranormal readers are a smart bunch. They pick up on the aspects of alternate realities pretty fast because it occurs in almost every paranormal book they read. As long as it’s not too far fetched, they tend accept it and move on.

Now, not every writer’s paranormal society is going to live by the same rules. One author will have the commonly accepted silver bullet kills the werewolf or the vampire is turned away by a silver cross, while another author will have her creatures laugh at a human character’s attempt to use these clich├ęd items against them. But if you’re going against pre-established rules made by other authors, written years or even centuries ago (Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Ann Rice’s vampire series), then you need explain the rules you’re breaking and why.

For the most part (from popular movies, TV and books), we all expect certain paranormal creatures to behave a certain way:

• They're allergic to silver bullets
• They only turn at the full moon. That means they only get furry once a month. You have to be careful in your story -- you can’t have them change when they want to or when they get angry ala the Incredible Hulk.
• But if you want them to be able to change when they want to or as a result of extreme emotional stress, establish that rule early on and stick to it.

• They're allergic to daylight, crosses, holy water, and such
• They drink blood
• They don’t show a reflection in mirrors
• They sleep in coffins
• A stake through the heart is the common method of doing away with them

Example of an author who broke the well-known vampire rules and it worked:
Susan Sizemore created a vampire series and in her paranormal world, they have come up with a medication that allows the vampires to handle sunlight for limited amounts of time. She set it up well, made it believable and it worked for me. On with the story.

Example that doesn’t work:
I once read a bestselling author (who shall remain nameless) who broke her own rules and jerked me right out of the story. What happened, you ask? This author created a vampire society and she established early on that the vampires do not drink human blood, they drink from each other. All right. Not the usual vampire lore but I’ll go along with it. So then what did she do? She had the villain use human bait to draw out a vampire with the scent of human blood. Which it does--the vampire pounces on the body like a starving dog. But wait a minute . . . didn’t the author have as one of the rules for her vampire society that they didn’t drink human blood? So why would the villain use human blood for the trap and why would the vampire fall for it? This author broke one of her ground rules and in doing so, broke my suspension of disbelief in her world. If the author expects me to believe in her paranormal world, she can’t decide to break her own rules later to suit her plot. Needless to say, I haven’t read her again.

To recap:
• If you jar the reader by breaking their disbelief and pull them out of the story, then you’re broken that connection and it’s very hard to get it back.
• Don’t establish rules for your world in chapter 2 and then break them later in chapter 17 just because you’ve painted yourself in a corner with your plot and it makes it easier to get out of.
• Be conscious of the boundaries you establish and you (the writer) and your characters need to stay within them.
• If your characters need to step outside the boundaries, you better make darn sure you come up with a good reason why and/or how they can break the rules and make it believable to the reader.

So yes, there are ‘guidelines’ for world building, but don’t bend them so far that they break.


  1. Great post! I'm a stickler for sticking to your own rules and it drives me crazy when an author doesn't. Puts me in a bad mood all day.


  2. I've frequenly seen the "rules" broken because the protagonist is the super-special version of whatever paranormal entity is otherwise hemmed in by rules. This can work if properly telegraphed. This can also Mary Sue up the place :)

    Jody W.

  3. Fantastic post with excellent advice for novice and veteran. Logic is one of my pet peeves and I am very aware of it. I am all for going along for the ride but you had better not break the established rules without a darn good reason. And the same goes for character. Building a character is like building a world only in human form. Don't make your character act out of what is natural for him or her...UNLESS you have a very pausible reason. A violation of either breaks reader trust.


  4. Good post. You're right about world building rules and creating "guidelines" both you and your characters can live with.

  5. Excellent post. I really enjoy the research it takes to get those guidelines consistent when worldbuilding. When an author does it well, I absolutely love the book and will pick up the next in a series.

  6. Oh, the dreaded info dump...excellent point about that. I'm working on it, but I tend to get all excited and then have to go back a couple of times to clean up my oh-so-informative mess. Keeping track of the rules can be a big ol' pain in the butt, but it's worth it in the end. Great post!

  7. Great thoughts, Lori. It speaks to the dedication and discipline we need as writers, and how we have to work hard to make what we write work for others.