In fantasy, we ask a lot of favours of our readers, the key one being suspension of disbelief. We take liberties with reality, and for this to work, the reader needs to accept those departures as fact. If they don’t, the entire plot will fall down.
This is true across the whole gamut of fantasy sub-genres (and a lot of science-fiction too). If you’re writing an urban fantasy about an underground society of werewolves, or vampires living amongst us, you need a plausible reason why humans haven’t noticed. If they’re running around killing people indiscriminately and leaving a trail of bloody corpses, the reader isn’t going to accept no one’s noticed.
This is why often these societies in urban fantasy have rules about not killing/feeding on humans, or have particular methods of doing so. Men in Black, while science fiction, has a similar problem – one solved by the neuralyser device. This is all worldbuilding – adding elements to the real world to explain and/or allow the reader to accept the departures from reality that we write about.
In high/epic fantasy, we take it a few steps further and build a world from the ground up. It’s often a completely different planet, with different people, different culture, different laws, ethics and societal values. You can do almost anything within the framework of a high fantasy world.
Provided it’s consistent with and explained by your world.
You can’t, for example, set up a society in which women have no power or rights, and then have your female protagonist blatantly disregard the rules. In reality, she’d be arrested, stoned, killed, or punished in some other manner. If, in your book, she’s not, then that’s unbelievable (an early mistake of my own).
You make the rules, but you have to play by the rules you invent.
Another thing said about fantasy is that it’s even more important to ensure the characters behave true to our understanding of human behaviour than in other genres. The reason for this is because we are already asking the reader for so much suspension of disbelief in relation to the world of the story that the reader is more likely to notice when characters don’t behave true to form.
Why is this relevant to worldbuilding? Because characters are a product of their world, their time, their culture and society, and their personal experiences.
Am I belabouring the point? Maybe, but I have a reason.
You may have seen my review on The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. I formed certain views about the sexual practices in that book amounting to the torture and debasement of humanity for no reason except sexual gratification – and I mean psychopathic torture, not consensual BDSM. A few people have remarked ‘but yes, it’s fantasy’ – and I’d like to make the point that it doesn’t matter. I’ve been reading fantasy for 22 years, and writing it nearly as long. ‘It’s fantasy’ isn’t an excuse for poor writing.
So let’s look at worldbuilding using that book as a case study.
The reason the book didn’t work for me isn’t because of the sexual practices depicted, but because of the worldbuilding – or lack thereof.
So here are a few of the questions I asked that should have been answered by the worldbuilding and weren’t:
- Why were Princes and Princesses offered up by their parents to this kingdom knowing the physical and sexual abuse and humiliation and degradation their children would be subjected to? I’m a parent, and I can attest to the fact that the maternal instinct to protect is very powerful. Even the notion of someone treating my daughter this way stirs a primal, even feral, violence. It’s very difficult to accept a parent would tolerate this treatment. I assume the reason they do is twofold – one, they underwent the same experiences, and are essentially broken i.e. they were mistreated to the point their will broke and they will now do anything to please their tormentors. A kind of Helsinki syndrome. Two – the threat of political retribution, war, total annihilation and destruction of their kingdom. Unfortunately, neither of these reasons are spelled out – I’m making assumptions;
- Assuming my assumptions are correct, why should I not be enraged that these people have been essentially tortured to the point their will is broken? No good reason for my acceptance of this act as anything other than vile torture is offered. Also, in all the hundreds of years this has been going on, I’d think one father would have snapped and marched to war rather than see his daughter or son mistreated, but if so, no mention is made of it.
- Why does an entire society (not just a few sociopathic individuals) think this behaviour is OK? I got pulled up by an editor because a scene in which a tavern full of men accepted, condoned or participated in a rape was unrealistic. How much more so then a whole society? Terry Goodkind does a good job of this in his Sword of Truth series, offering religious and political ideologies fed down from the Emperor, and condoned and encouraged at his order by soldiers and priests, as the reason an entire culture behaves in a given way (albeit some of this compliance is procured solely by fear and there are still a few non-conformists, as in any society). No explanation is offered by Anne Rice, and we see none of the members of this society fighting against or protesting it’s cruel practices. Historically we have examples of cultures that were fairly brutal, but these are cultures in which essentially ‘might makes right’, and women are treated hardly any better than animals. How do we explain the apparently cultured and educated mistreatment of captives in Sleeping Beauty by a culture where women seem to have relative equality? I can’t.
- Even if there was a good reason, my god, wouldn’t you get bored? I was bored just reading about all the spankings. Submersion in even the vilest kind of debauchery eventually gets boring. This is why serial killers escalate in violence – they need to engage in more extreme behaviour to get the same high. And I’m expected to believe this culture has existed for hundreds of years without varying the boring old spanking routine? Puh-lease.
See what you get if you don’t build your world properly? A reader asking very hard to answer questions. If a reader develops this kind of attitude to your book, they won’t be coming back for more.
Please, build your world properly. Make sure it explains and moulds the behaviour of your characters. Make sure your characters aren’t flagrantly breaking the rules of the world with no consequences. Make sure there are rules, because in the absence of a compelling framework for this new world, we’ll default back to our own.
Getting your worldbuilding wrong can make getting anything else right very difficult. ‘It’s fantasy’ is not an excuse.
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