Don’t Forget the Rules

books fantasy and sci-fi stories

For the inaugural post, I thought I’d talk about perhaps the most important part of any secondary world, whether it be science fiction, fantasy, or paranormal: obey the laws of your world. Nothing is more vital to the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief and accept your world as you present it.

Allow me to explain what I mean when I say obey the laws of your world. Certainly your characters don’t have to obey the laws of their governments; it would probably get a little boring if no one broke any rules along the way. Obeying the laws means that everything that happens in your world follows the rules you have set in place. Those don’t have to be the actual laws of physics in the real world. If you want every third daughter in a family to be able to create fire or vampires to be able to survive outside only on the nights of the new moon or a universe where 2 + 2 = 5, have at it.

Young witch with flame isolated
Shouldn’t we all get fire?

But, and here’s the big catch, once you create a law for your world, you can’t break it. All new laws that are created as you write or expand your world must exist alongside the old laws and not contradict them. So you can have a world where vampires can only go outside on nights of the new moon, but then you can’t send one outside on a crescent moon because the plot requires it. You have created a law of your world and it needs to be obeyed.

So why is this so important? After all, you’re the author. You’re basically a god to your world. What’s the harm with tampering with your own rules?

The answer: Suspension of Disbelief.

This is vital to any secondary world. No matter if you have mermaids, sorcerers, or alien creatures, your reader has to say, “I accept this.” Each time you break the rules that you established, you are telling the reader this world isn’t real, don’t trust it. No one explains this better or more eloquently than George MacDonald1, a 19th century Scottish author, which just goes to show these ideas have been around for a long time. MacDonald writes,

. . . the inventor must hold by those laws.  The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible.  To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed.  Those broken, we fall out of it.  The imagination in us, whose exercise is essential to the most temporary submission to the imagination of another, immediately, with the disappearance of Law, ceases to act.2

As an example, let’s look at the TV show, Charmed. I use this because 1) it is an amazing example of ignoring their own rules to the detriment of the world, and 2) I watch reruns everyday as I get ready for work, so I’m very familiar with it. For those of you who didn’t grow up in the late 90’s and are unfamiliar with the show, the premise is three (adult) sisters learn that they are actually born to a family of witches and are destined to be the “Charmed Ones,” exceptionally powerful witches that protect normal people from demons and other supernatural dangers.

In the first five or so seasons, Charmed sets up numerous rules about the world, the creatures in it, and how magic works. While there are a few minor slips (e.g., spells that needed a potion suddenly not needing a potion, spells requiring all sisters being cast by just one), the writers in these seasons are consistent with the rules. Of course, it’s easy to follow the rules when it’s the first time you’re using them.

Charmed - Piper

Piper thinks the writers need to get it together.

Unfortunately, in season seven and eight the writers seemed to have thrown out all the rules. (It begins in season 6, but not to the extent and blatant rule breaking as the final two seasons.) In fact, the world has so devolved in the final season that I generally pretend it doesn’t exist and loathe when it comes on during my morning routine. All rules seem to be up for grabs if the plot requires it, and if you think things like this aren’t noticeable, allow me to name a few just from memory:

  1. Fairies can only be seen by children or adults under a spell to think like children—ignored in later seasons.
  2. Muses are invisible. A spell is needed to see them—ignored in later seasons.
  3. Whitelighters and witches becoming romantic is forbidden and very, very rare—Season 8 has a witch/whitelighter come to court Paige because being part whitelighter was a prerequisite.
  4. The Hollow can only be contained if good and evil say the spell together—only good says it in the final season.

I  could go on—I really could—but you get the point. These infractions are memorable because they broke the rules that the show set up. Some are small, such as the fairies and muses, but some ignore long-established rules set up over seasons and that matters. It matters because every time you break a rule the reader (or audience) is pulled out of the fantasy and forced to see the world for the shattered creation it is. The story is no longer a world you visit, but instead a lazily-written creation you can no longer immerse yourself in. Or, to quote MacDonald again,

Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy the journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroider their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, his is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.3

I really do love MacDonald. Whenever I think of suspension of disbelief, I remember “The Fantastic Imagination.” I’d suggest it to anyone researching fantasy.

So the thing to remember is whether you’re building your first world or your tenth, think about the rules you’re setting up, because once they’re there, you have to follow them.

Have fun till next time!


1George MacDonald was a precursor to notable authors such as Tolkien, Lewis, and Carroll. He wrote Phantastes, Dealing with the Fairies, and The Princess and the Goblin, among other classic tales.

2 MacDonald, George “The Fantastic Imagination.” A Dish of Orts. London: Edwin Dalton, 1908. Rpt. in Fantasist on Fantasy: A Collection of Critical Reflections By Eighteen Masters of the Art. Ed. Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J Zahorski. New York: Avon Books, 1984. 15. Print.

3 Ibid., 16.

4 Comments on “Don’t Forget the Rules

  1. Few things bother me more than a story that establishes a steep price for using a power, the hero chooses to make that sacrifice, but for the sake of a happy ending the story decides to double back and declare that through some intense act of will or emotion, the hero is saved from the consequences of their choice.

    Granted, there are some stories I’ve seen that manage to build a road to that kind of thing. One such would be Log Horizon, an anime that establishes that there are rules that were inherited from the “game” that is no longer just a game, but they also establish that a person can break some rules, if they are creative, and keep trying until they uncover the right combination of variables to exceed what is normally possible.
    But it is a tricky balance to strike, no doubt about that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Comics are notorious for things like that, constantly bringing people who made the ultimate sacrifice back from the dead cause they’re so popular a character. Granted sometimes they allow the multiverse to do the work of explaining why, but all too often they make a lot of work arounds. Sometimes I wish they’d simply not kill off the characters.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed. One of the big problems of an ongoing story like a comic is not being able to plan the true big finale. They want a big moment, but then next year they have to tip it.


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