Fantasy and the fine art of rules – Part 2

Worldbuilding Rules Yesterday I discussed the necessity of bounding a fantasy world with rules of some description. I said that the rules should reflect the theme of the story in some way and should build internal consistency.

I also hinted that, while it was necessary for the author to understand the rules governing a fantasy world it was not necessary for the audience or the characters to. That’s what I’d like to elaborate on today.

The Ignorant Character

Characters come in all stripes. There could be characters who are deeply enmeshed in the cosmology and metaphysics of their respective universes. These characters might understand the minutiae of how their worlds are governed. Gandalf is one of the most active and aware members of the Wise of Middle Earth. There are few characters who understand the rules underlying Middle Earth better than he does – maybe Galadriel – maybe…

Other characters might start clueless, but learn over the course of the story. Lyra may arrive at a deep understanding of the universe with Will by the end of the series, but when we first meet her at the start of His Dark Materials she doesn’t have the first clue even how daemons work – let alone any of the deeper secrets beyond that.

Some characters might even bumble through their universe entirely ignorant to how it works, never becoming the least bit enlightened.

But whether it is the high fantasy of Lord of the Rings, the cosmological metaphor of His Dark Materials or the absurdist sci-fi setting of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, all of these books have settings bound by rules – even if those rules are that in an infinite universe the most improbable thing can, and probably will, eventually happen.

Careful with that exposition!

Just because you’ve calculated the universal constants of your fantasy world into a complex set of equations does not mean your audience needs to see it. Exposition is one of the greatest stumbling blocks of genre fiction.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the great masters of early science fiction were just notorious for unnecessary exposition. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the Foundation series, but it was rife with clumsy exposition including frequent occasions where Hari Seldon or his ghost would pop up and explain the story in detail.)

Fortunately, genre authors have gotten much better about this sort of thing.

I can’t rave enough about the Quantum Thief and its sequel, the Fractal Prince. Post-human heist capers with a culture and technology both fully realized and almost entirely alien, these books have sometimes faced some flak for their lack of exposition. I know a few science fiction readers who were frustrated by the book for that reason.

I read it through the lens of a fantasy reader, and thought it one of the best works of science fiction of the last decade. This is because Rajaniemi didn’t bother telling me what gas the spaceship ran on (well actually, he kind of did, but he did it in an off-hand and organic way). What he did do was tell why these things mattered.

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