K.S. Marsden is a Fantasy writer from Yorkshire, England. Her first book, The Shadow Rises (Witch-Hunter #1) was published in 2013, and is free to download from all platforms. Since then, she has been working on the Enchena series, proving that unicorns are cool.
She is also a blogger and book reviewer at The Northern Witch’s Book Blog, which helps promote indie writers.K.S. Marsden
Rules are incredibly boring.
They are also everywhere.
Whether in fiction or in real life, we are surrounded by little rules that we naturally absorb and rarely question. This includes knowing that we should offer our seats to the elderly and infirm; knowing that you shouldn’t step out in front of speeding traffic; and (especially if you are British) knowing that if you try to queue-jump you risk death by glares.
Most of these rules are so ingrained in us, that we accept them and never have cause to bring them up. Which is a fantastic platform for a Contemporary/Romance/Thriller/Historic writer to start with, they don’t need to bother covering the minutiae of human life.
What about Fantasy writers?
You are asking your readers to believe in something completely made up. Whether it is a creature or species that lives alongside humans; or a completely alien world; you want to encourage your readers to suspend their disbelief and join the adventure.
Ask readers what they like about their favourite Fantasy books, and most will say how real it is. Readers want something immersive, they want a world or society they wish they can be a part of. For that to happen, it has to make sense.
One option is to use something that is already established and has its own rules.
Let’s use vampires as an example.
If you want to write something quite light involving vampires, take the popular rules that absolutely everyone has heard of: drinking blood; immortal; burn in the sunlight; a stake to the heart kills.
All you have to do is mention “vampire” and most readers automatically accept those four rules.
As a writer, if you are happy with those rules, you can work them into your story to show how your character approaches them. Are they blood-thirsty or hate being leeches? Are they depressed with immortality, or gods above mere humans? Whatever you decide – STICK TO YOUR RULES.
If you want to write something more intense and with extra depth, there is a plethora of vampire lore across the many fields of books, films, historical studies and myths. Have at it!
Will your character be related to Vlad the Impaler, with all his violent tendencies? Will your vampires take after Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with the ability to control the mist and fog and enchant young women? Will they be the ugly, demonesque enemies from Buffy? Or will they be glittery vegetarians, as shown in Twilight?
There is no wrong answer, this is your creation. Again, I would caution – STICK TO YOUR RULES.
Another option is to use something that is entirely your own creation.
The perks of this includes no limits on your imagination, so if you want a pink flying rhino called Steve, that likes to knit, that’s fine. If you want a world made purely of volcanoes and fire-creatures, go for it!
You just have to understand that this all exists outside the everyday reader’s knowledge base. You can’t take for granted that the readers know that Steve the pink rhino will only eat cucumbers, and the fire-creatures suffer from hay fever. You can design any rules that you want for your characters, as long as you STICK TO YOUR RULES.
As long as you treat your fabrications with respect, so will everyone else.
Whichever route you take, and whatever fantastical element you decide to use, there are four little tips I would give:
Establish your rules
A lot of writers remark that they get lost in their own world – this is a good thing! If it doesn’t feel like a real, tangible world for the writer, how is the reader supposed to believe it?
Personally, I would recommend writing down all the background information in a notebook. This works equally well for an in-depth research into the life of Vlad the Impaler, and keeping track of all the nuggets of mythology that interest you; or for Steve the pink rhino and all of his favourite stories.
You might never include the information in your published work, but it’s this background that will give your stories a sense of reality.
Make your rules fair
Also known as “give your character a hard time”.
Nobody wants to read about a character that cheats all the hard bits of life. How are readers supposed to get excited and root for a person who glides through the story because all the rules benefit them?
Likewise, it’s hard to really feel the tension and danger your hero might find themselves in, if said hero has X ability that means he’ll always win. It just wouldn’t happen in real life, and as I always say – life would be dull if it were easy.
It might be tempting, to make a rule that will automatically benefit your character, especially if you’ve written yourself into a corner and can’t see any way out without introducing a new rule. That’s the quickest way of a potentially great scene making a reader feel cheated.
I recommend sitting back and trying to come at it a different way. You might surprise yourself!
Remember that your readers don’t know your rules
After you’ve spent months, or even years, with your new world, it almost feels like a second home. You know it inside out, you know the background and circumstances behind every relationship, political tension, and story.
Please, please remember that your reader does not.
Try not to jump straight into the deep end without a few clues to guide your readers along.
I would definitely recommend getting some readers (these can be beta-readers, friends, or random people) that have no knowledge of your work, and see how easily they grasp the story. I know this is common practice for a lot of writers as part of their editing process, but it’s best to check how it is received by laymen.
Stick to your rules
You’ve picked these rules, now stick to them.
There may come a point in your writing where you realise a rule just doesn’t work for your story or hero. That’s fine, you can cut it or change it, just make sure you everything you have already written is edited to meet this new rule change.
There is nothing worse than reading a story with one set of rules, which jumps to a new set, with no warning or explanation.