Writing Fantasy – Rules for Fantasy Worlds

Novice fantasy authors too typically let their imaginations run wild when they create their fantasy worlds and characters. While fantasy and science fiction may overturn the rules of the natural world as far as what is possible, readers will not suspend their disbelief if that disbelief is tested too much. Making the unbelievable believable in a fantasy world requires adhering to some rules, even if they are completely make-believe rules themselves.

Fantasy worlds are wonderful places where readers can escape from the everyday world, but also where visitors might return with new knowledge, courage, strength, or wisdom to face the everyday world. Equally, science fiction allows anything to happen, often through marvelous technical inventions or the possibilities of what life might be like on another planet. But amid all these possibilities, “less is more” is a good rule to follow. And it is important to set up rules and guidelines to make the fantasy world believable.

What many starting out novelists don’t understand is that if anything is possible, a writer risks creating a nonsensical world that is far from believable. “Alice in Wonderland” (1865) is a prime example. Nothing in Wonderland makes any sense, or if it does, Alice is unable to figure it out. While “Alice in Wonderland” was one of the first fantasy novels, it is far from one of the best and retains its popularity more on its classic reputation than its merit. The book is almost completely without plot and character development, but it did serve as a building block for much better fantasy novels.

Successive fantasy novelists, such as L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900), set the tone for creating more realistic and believable fantasy worlds. Okay, a talking Scarecrow, a Wicked Witch, and flying monkeys may not be that believable in general, but when the reader is transported to Oz with Dorothy, suspension of disbelief is removed and anything can happen—within the rules Baum set up for the fantasy world. The same is true of any of the great fantasy novelists, including C.S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles, J.R.R. Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings series, and J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter novels. Each of these authors went to great lengths, not only to create wonderful, stunning, fantastic worlds, but also to create natural (or supernatural) laws by which these worlds must operate.

Let me give one example from Baum’s Oz books. (Yes, books. He actually wrote fourteen novels about Oz). In the first book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Baum set up a magical land where it seemed anything was possible, but as he continued to write the series, he developed that land, providing a history of how Oz became a magical place, explaining how the inhabitants could not die, providing reasons why normal humans from civilized countries could not find Oz, how he was able to communicate with Oz so he could tell children about the wonderful things that happened in that fairyland, and finally, how inanimate objects could be alive in Oz. We’ll just focus on this last rule for a minute.

In the series’ second book, “The Marvelous Land of Oz” (1904), Baum introduces the Powder of Life. To create this magical powder, extremely hard-to-find ingredients are required, and the process includes using four pots that must be stirred without ceasing for six years, only to produce a very small amount of the powder, but such effort results in a potion that can bring inanimate things to life. With a few exceptions, almost all the non-animal fantastic creatures in Oz—Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, the Gump, the Patchwork Girl, the Glass Cat etc.—have been brought to life with this powder, and consequently, they are a wonder even to the people of Oz. The great lengths and details Baum went to so he could explain and make believable how inanimate things could be alive in his fairyland were well worth it because both children and adults delighted in his books. The Oz books were as loved a century ago as Harry Potter has been in this century.

The Oz books were so popular that when Baum died in 1919, his publishers wanted to continue the series so they hired new writers for the successive books. One of those writers was the longtime illustrator of the Oz books, John R. Neill. Neill was a wonderful illustrator, but hardly as visionary an author as Baum. And he had a tendency to make Oz ridiculous by breaking the rules Baum set up for how Oz would function. For example, in his first Oz book, “The Wonder City of Oz” (1940)—the thirty-fourth in the series—Neill was imaginative, but he let his imagination run wild to the point where so many things were happening that they could have filled many books, and a sense that “anything can happen” ran riot over the pages.

Neill’s most egregious error was that he broke the rules Baum had set up for how things come to life in Oz. Without any explanation, Neill has the houses in the Emerald City become living creatures who decide to go on strike. The houses just pull up their foundations and walk about the city, causing all kinds of mayhem. Baum himself never would have allowed such a thing to happen, and if he did, it would have required the Powder of Life being sprinkled on one house, and there would have only been enough powder for one. In other words, imagination must be tempered with reason and logic to make an effective fantasy novel. It’s no wonder that the publishers discontinued producing the annual Oz book a couple of years later.

This one example should be sufficient to make my point, which namely is that to create a believable fantasy world, the author must set up reasonable and logical guidelines for how that fantasy world functions, and the author must not break those rules if readers are willingly to suspend their disbelief.

How do you create the rules for your fantasy world? A good place to start is to decide your world functions along the same rules as the natural, humdrum, everyday world. Then, make a few changes. Ask yourself, “What if…?” about just one or two of those rules. Just bend a couple of natural laws, and bend them in limited ways. Don’t break the law of gravity for everyone on your planet, but maybe you can bend it a little for a certain group of characters, and then find a logical explanation for how that magical or unlikely element is possible. I’ll give you two examples.

Perhaps gravity is not as strong on your make-believe planet, but as a result, the creatures on that planet tend to be heavier, so when a human visits the planet, he is lighter than native creatures and can consequently leap higher and jump over the other creatures when he fights them. Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known today for his Tarzan novels, created just such a scenario in his wonderful Barsoom (John Carter of Mars) series (1912-1964).

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912), dinosaurs are alive and well in the modern world, but they exist on an almost unreachable plateau in South America where the modern world has not interfered with them and they have been able to survive. Later, the television series of “The Lost World” (1999-2001) did an excellent job of setting up mystical properties for this plateau; the mystery regarding why the plateau had such magical power consumed the characters as they tried to learn the source of the plateau’s power throughout the series. The program did an excellent job of setting up rules and making the viewers so curious about understanding those rules that they willingly suspended their disbelief.

I’m sure we can all think of other books and films where we are fascinated by a fantasy world that has specific rules that make it operate. Even something as simple as Superman being indestructible, save when faced with kryptonite, provides a law the storyline must abide by that results in entertaining plot twists galore.

It doesn’t matter if your story takes place in outer space, medieval Europe, or a complete fantasy world. By setting rules for how magic or what would be unbelievable in the real world can happen in your fantasy world, you will make your imaginative world believable and enticing. Follow the rules of fantasy by creating your own rules for your fantastic realm and your readers will have a fantastic read.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.