Rule Bound: Fantasy worlds and Following the Rules

Often if you talk to non-fantasy readers about why they don’t care for fantasy, one of the comments you’ll get is “it doesn’t follow the rules.”  Or, “nothing makes sense in fantasy, there aren’t any rules.”  It’s a fair point.  At least, it’s a fair point if you imagine good fantasy writing doesn’t have rules.

Rules? Where we’re going we don’t need . . . rules.

Gotta tell you, any fantasy writer worth their salt will tell you that a story and the world it inhabits has got to have rules . . . or it just isn’t a good story.  A world without rules means a story where tension and conflict get deflated and lose any sort of meaning.   Fantasy building where magic can do anything and does do anything without price or consequences is pretty much wish fulfillment on steroids.  And wish fulfillment just isn’t storytelling.

Of course, chaos can be fun, on occasion. Especially chocolate rain. But only in small doses.

If a spell can do anything, if any character can come back to life at any time, if the entire evil menace can be taken out easily with magic then the story just doesn’t hold together.  There’s no tension or risk . . . or real conflict. Let’s be honest here, any real villain in a fantasy story is only a threat if it’s hard to defeat them.  And if there aren’t any rules binding what’s happening, then things happen that are bound to irritate the reader.  When the rules are broken, it should be significant and within the story arc for a particular purpose.

The difference with fantasy stories is that those rules don’t have to be the ones we’re familiar with in the real world.  A world can exist where people get eaten by dragons, or populated by little blue creatures who live in mushroom houses, or perhaps a world where almost everyone has magic and those few who don’t are considered freaks.  But those worlds only work well when there are rules that are established and then followed.  The world has to be consistent–just like in our own contemporary reality an individual isn’t going to find that gravity suddenly fails or his bank teller is a griffon–that would break the rules.


Oh, Oh, Oh, It’s Magic!

Magic is usually the biggest issue that non-fantasy readers have with fantasy.  To many of them, it seems like the ultimate in rule breaking.  Just wave a magic wand and all your problems are solved. Good fantasy pretty much shuts that party down from the beginning.  While I have my issues with the Harry Potter series (and I’ll mention them in a bit) for the most part  J. K. Rowling follows specific rules and has very specific limitations.  It clearly hasn’t solved all problems–social, cultural and political problems abound in Harry Potter’s world.  But the magic itself is something you have to go to school for, train for and specialize in.  You don’t just get your magic wand and things go the way you want.  There have to be limits and rules and systems.  It’s not that every magical element needs to be mathematically explained, but the author should be clear on exactly how their magic works–even if the characters don’t know.

Magic should almost always come with a price.  Whether that price is someone’s life force or energy, or ambient energy or something else, most readers will not be satisfied with magical sparkles that come out of nowhere unstintingly and can be used with no consequences.  Heck, even the magic on  most children’s cartoons will exhaust the user or be used up at some point.  The price for magic might be fearsome indeed (and give villains the edge who don’t mind killing for power) or it might simply be lengthy (either time to build up, or time to master).  In Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff  the use of magic almost always backfires on the user, catching them up in the tangled web they’ve woven.  In So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane, wizards in their trial periods are given an enormous amount of power to start with, but after they’ve proven themselves must conserve power and prevent entropy wherever they can.

I Want to Talk to the Animals . . .

Talking animals, or anthropomorphic creatures, or humans who understand animal speech isn’t necessarily magic–but it also has to follow rules.  In The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith, the dogs can speak with each other, and to other animals, but they cannot quite communicate with humans, though they try.    If you look at the world of  Redwall by Brian Jacques with its swashbuckling warriors and food-loving furry denizens, these are all anthropomorphic critters that inhabit a world that has no humans.  All the epic fantasy takes place on the scale of small woodland creatures.  While each group of animals has its own attributes, for the most part they act like various groups of humans.   In The Story of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting, only he can talk to and understand the animals, while the rest of the people in the story do not.  Some stories feature a particular magical animal that can talk to humans, or happens to be a transformed human, like Vivian Vande Velde’s Frogged.  In each case there are rules about how talking animals appear in the story–it shouldn’t be arbitrary.

Here Be Dragons!

Including a variety of mythical and unreal creatures in a story automatically signals a departure from the rules.  But unless that critter has been brought in from another universe or summoned by some form of magic, it should be an accepted part of the natural/unnatural world of the story.  In How To Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks dark and disturbing creatures called bogles exist in dank shadows and love to eat children.  So it stands to reason that there would be bogle catchers, much like there would be rat catchers.  In Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George dragons used to be a common part of the country, but dark deeds in the past have left the remaining  dragons in hiding.  In Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, magical creatures had been kept out of the world for centuries by a magical veil, when that veil is banished they all flood back into the land, and human’s quickly find themselves having to deal with entirely new creatures and sentient beings.  Adjustment isn’t easy and friction happens all too often.  In truth, a good fantasy will always make even the most fantastic of creatures as an indelible part of the world rather than a big shiny impossible thing just plopped down for adventurers to fight.

They Might Be Giants (or elves, or dwarfs, etc)

Similar to critters, mythical races signal the story is a fantasy.  A good fantasy will create a history for any races that inhabit that particular  story.  J R R Tolkien, of course, was particularly good at creating histories for his various races of creatures.  Terry Pratchett’s Pictsies from Wee Free Men have a unique history all their own that includes “Drinkin, Fightin and Stealin” and they are a perfect fit with the landscape they call home.  The Littles   and The Borrowers (Mary Norton)  both live within the walls of human’s houses and fear being seen by a big person.  The house elves in Harry Potter exist mainly in a sort of docile servitude to humans unless they are freed from service when given a piece of clothing by their master or mistress.    Elves, goblins and the like don’t exist in a vacuum (though dust bunnies might).  They don’t just appear as a supporting cast for a story to show it’s magical.  They will most certainly be bound by rules, though they may not be the same rules as humans.

Ooooh shiny!

One Ring to Rule Them All

Magical artifacts and holy items are an entirely other form of fantastic that often creeps in to the story.  Often they are the subject of quests.  Or our protagonist may come into possession of a certain special item.  Most of these artifacts, while incredibly powerful are wrapped around with limits, conditions and dangers that keep them from being used all that often.  For instance, the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings is amazingly powerful, but corrupts its user and destroys any good intentions they may set out with.  The Blue Sword Gonturan from Robin McKinley’s book of the same name can only be wielded by women, or very young men and has a personality of her own that may try to manipulate the weilder.   The magic mirror from Snow White is only useful if you know how to ask the right question.  And some stories about the mirror require that question must be spoken in rhyme in order to work (got to be a decent poet to get any kind of results!). The strict rules for how an artifact works keeps the artifact from shattering the rules of the world it exists in.

Breaking the Rules

It’s not that a story will never break the rules.  In Charlotte’s Web  barnyard animals all talk with one another, but they can’t communicate with most humans (even Fern’s understanding is more as a spectator).  Yet the whole point of the book is that the spider breaks the rules in order to save Wilbur the pig.  She writes words in her web, communicates in fragments to actual humans.  It makes for a great story because it’s the exception.  If all the animals in the story had the ability to try and communicate with people it would be a bizarre story indeed.  In Harry Potter there’s a big rule breaker in the third book.  The device called the Time Turner that allows individuals to spin the artifact to go back in time and change the past.  The plot of the third book hinges on this device and I have to admit that despite my grumbles about the Time Turner, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite.  But this is an example of an author getting away with breaking the rules of her own world (if such things as Time Turners exist why would they not be used by both our heroes and villains all the time?  If there’s only one in existence why would it be given to a school girl so she could attend more classes?)  The time turner never gets used again after the third book.  Which makes sense, since it would be a huge game changer.  It’s why I feel J. K. Rowling a good story teller, but not a good fantasy writer.

In the end, while occasional rule breaking might work for a writer, the hallmark of a good fantasy is that it creates and sticks to the rules once they’ve been created.

What are your favorite rule-bound fantasies?  And which books do you know that take the risk and break their own rules?


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on June 21, 2013, in General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I remember reading a short story the name or author of which I have no idea about now, but which I remember thinking must have been some kind of an early attempt at doing the fantasy genre before the genre was really born. Some kids explored a magical alternative world and kept coming across weird people and things. Basically everything happened by magic and there was no logic to it. That would be an example of not having any rules. King’s The Dark Tower had some of that too – sometimes random things would magically show up to solve the situation, though there certainly were enough rules at other times to give the characters a challenge.

    • I have to confess I have not read the Dark Tower series. I think there are always a few stories out there without a lot of rules in place. What comes to mind for me were a few old Raggedy Anne and Andy fantasy stories where it just seemed one big dream come true fantasy world for kids to visit.

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