Guidelines for World Building
Suspension of disbelief is the willingness of the
reader to accept the premise of a work of fiction, even if it is fantastic
or impossible. That’s never truer than in paranormal fiction, because
you’re asking the reader to throw away many of their established notions
of the world as it is and step into a world they’re not familiar with.
as writers how do we do this? For starters, just as with any other fictional
world, we use setting and description to establish rules for our paranormal
characters and the paranormal world they live in. Rules, you ask? Wait
a minute--there are rules? Well, to paraphrase Captain Barbossa, “they’re
more what you'd call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Really? Well,
yes and no. Maybe it’s true for the Pirates of the Caribbean, but for
authors dealing with the paranormal realm, you need to set up some pretty
solid ground rules for your world and stick to them.
But author beware: when world building, avoid a huge
info dump in the beginning. Nothing bores a reader more than page after
page of setup, so try to filter it in with action and dialogue as much
as you can. And don’t over do it! Avoid unnecessary lectures about your
world, its history and your character’s society. Once established, you
don’t need to beat the reader over the head with all the minutiae of
your world. Trust them to get it the first time. Paranormal readers
are a smart bunch. They pick up on the aspects of alternate realities
pretty fast because it occurs in almost every paranormal book they read.
As long as it’s not too far fetched, they tend accept it and move on.
Now, not every writer’s paranormal society is going
to live by the same rules. One author will have the commonly accepted
silver bullet kills the werewolf or the vampire is turned away by a
silver cross, while another author will have her creatures laugh at
a human character’s attempt to use these clichéd items against them.
But if you’re going against pre-established rules made by other authors,
written years or even centuries ago (Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Ann Rice’s
vampire series), then you need explain the rules you’re breaking and
For the most part (from popular movies, TV and books),
we all expect certain paranormal creatures to behave a certain way:
• They're allergic to silver bullets
• They only turn at the full moon. That means they only get
furry once a month. You have to be careful in your story -- you can’t
have them change when they want to or when they get angry ala the Incredible
• But if you want them to be able to change when they want
to or as a result of extreme emotional stress, establish that rule early
on and stick to it.
• They're allergic to daylight, crosses, holy water, and
• They drink blood
• They don’t show a reflection in mirrors
• They sleep in coffins
• A stake through the heart is the common method of doing away
Example of an author who broke the well-known vampire
rules and it worked:
Susan Sizemore created a vampire series and in her paranormal world,
they have come up with a medication that allows the vampires to handle
sunlight for limited amounts of time. She set it up well, made it believable
and it worked for me. On with the story.
Example that doesn’t work:
I once read a bestselling author (who shall remain nameless) who broke
her own rules and jerked me right out of the story. What happened, you
ask? This author created a vampire society and she established early
on that the vampires do not drink human blood, they drink from each
other. All right. Not the usual vampire lore but I’ll go along with
it. So then what did she do? She had the villain use human bait to draw
out a vampire with the scent of human blood. Which it does--the vampire
pounces on the body like a starving dog. But wait a minute . . . didn’t
the author have as one of the rules for her vampire society that they
didn’t drink human blood? So why would the villain use human blood for
the trap and why would the vampire fall for it? This author broke one
of her ground rules and in doing so, broke my suspension of disbelief
in her world. If the author expects me to believe in her paranormal
world, she can’t decide to break her own rules later to suit her plot.
Needless to say, I haven’t read her again.
• If you jar the reader by breaking their disbelief and pull
them out of the story, then you’re broken that connection and it’s very
hard to get it back.
• Don’t establish rules for your world in chapter 2 and then
break them later in chapter 17 just because you’ve painted yourself
in a corner with your plot and it makes it easier to get out of.
• Be conscious of the boundaries you establish and you (the
writer) and your characters need to stay within them.
• If your characters need to step outside the boundaries, you
better make darn sure you come up with a good reason why and/or how
they can break the rules and make it believable to the reader.
So yes, there are ‘guidelines’ for world building,
but don’t bend them so far that they break.
© 2007 Lori Dillon