Posted by: Alastair Rosie | June 23, 2012

The rules of your imaginary universe-creating believable worlds.


One of the many hats I have worn over the years is the reviewing hat. I review books, usually for no monetary reward although I do score a few freebies. It gives me the chance to see how other writers have handled subjects that I’m writing about and experience new genres I haven’t bothered reading before. It also gives me the chance to serve writers and readers to hopefully create better fiction or decide whether a book is worth shelling out hard earned cash for.

Being an Aussie, I’ve acquired a certain tolerance for other cultures and points of view, downunder you can be pretty much whatever you want as long as it doesn’t involve child abuse, drug dealing or murder. As a reviewer that attitude put me in good standing when reviewing. I could read almost anything, even gay fiction and sloppy romantic love stories. I look for what’s good in a story and does it read right or has the author been in such a rush to complete his or her book that they’ve accidentally changed Mary’s eyes from blue to green and back to blue again? 

I guess the fact I’m editing my latest novel, The Deepening Dark, an epic fantasy set in a fictional world has highlighted once again the value of a damn good edit. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read books that could have been so much better if only the writer had paid attention to crucial details and I’m not talking about misplaced commas or delinquent semi colons. I’m talking about your world, your universe, the place where your characters live and breathe.

Many years ago I reviewed a book, whose title escapes me, about a wronged woman driven into exile where she meets her hero, a pauper and through a set of circumstances and trials manages to attain her freedom and of course falls in love with her hero. But at the very end a stranger walks up to them and announces that the pauper is really a prince whose birth was hidden from everyone. He is really rich beyond his wildest dreams. Up until that point I actually liked the book, I think it was about a 4/5 but with that ending I downgraded it to a 2. There was no foreshadowing, no warning. It was thrown in to spice up the ending with a twist in the tale and it failed miserably, it felt tacked on and I mentioned that in the review. The writer hadn’t been true to her world and it showed in spades.

The moral to the story is of course creating a plot that progresses in a natural sequence of highs and lows, and gives your characters something to overcome. My first novel, The Boston Slasher is a case in point right up until the end where I had my protagonist Lisa swap places with another detective made up to look like her in order to reach the slasher. He had a fixation on Lisa and how he managed to not notice he was dealing with a made up double was stretching the plot. I’ve often reread that bit and thought, if only I had put Lisa in that situation all by herself it would have been better. Other books I’ve read have Navy SEALs working as accident investigators or archaeologists. The types of guys who become SEALs tend in general to move into security or bodyguard work. You won’t find one working as a cook. On the other hand a former Marine is okay, there are far more of them but a SEAL is a highly specialised operative. 

Another book I’m reading at the moment is an epic fantasy set in a fictional world and there is a reference to Spanish Moss, which does exist on Earth, but a fictional world? Wouldn’t it be better to call it by another name? It’s clumsy. I could go on and on with examples like this, a Freudian slip, French doors, these are all terms specific to a person or architecture. You can of course have horses, swords, unicorns and the like in your fictional world but don’t have a Clydesdale horse or a Samurai sword unless you’re in our world. Straight away it puts you in the amateur league. I’ve got elves smoking what must be an opiate but I’ve called it elf smoke rather than marijuana or opium. I have lions but they’re Haydutian lions not African lions. I have Argillian horses rather than Arabian horses. I have oak but not English oak. Pay attention to these oh so familiar terms when colouring your fictional world, if you’re wincing then you’re in good company, most of us have done it.

Language is another issue. I recently read a Simon Scarrow novel where I felt he’d superimposed an 18th century British army cloak over the Roman army, the language was wrong and I know he’s a popular writer but it feels wrong. In your fictional world of gods and goddesses, would your character say ‘oh my God’ or ‘god’s balls.’ I think it would be the latter because God refers to the God of the bible. While I’m on the subject, be aware of region specific dialogue and be sparing in its usage. Writing an entire book in Glaswegian will sell well in Glasgow and perhaps Scotland but not the world. Readers in general don’t like having to mentally translate every line of dialogue. It might sound clever but you’re selling yourself short and costing yourself sales. Contractions like don’t, won’t I’d are of course your own choice.

The rules of physics. In this world, people can’t fly through the air without some kind of propulsion system or being able to utilise a hang glider. The laws of physics make it impossible. In Phillip Pullman’s Dark Matters series however witches can fly on broomsticks. In his world it’s not impossible but he is consistent with his rules. The general idea being if you break the rules, break them consistently and you don’t have to explain them in great detail. You’re writing fantasy or science fiction, not a peer reviewed paper for Scientific American. Readers are smarter than you realise. If you start with Once upon a time in the land of Mendadia there lived an elf queen we know elves exist, you can tell us more about your elves as the story progresses.

One of my pet peeves with action movies are guns that never run out of ammunition. It seems that filmmakers have begun to realise this as well. The same with books, count your bullets or arrows, go through the scene in your head, is it believable in your world? Have you got a child wielding one of those old Scottish longswords? It’s too heavy for him, so go through the paraphernalia, is it realistic? 

In closing don’t worry if you’ve published a novel with one or all of these mistakes sprinkled through it, build a bridge and move on. But don’t skimp on the editing process. The last chance you’ll get before reviewers and readers get a hold of your book is right here and now. Do yourself, and your characters, the honour of that final edit, you and they will be glad you did, especially the child with a sword bigger than himself!

Happy editing and keep dreaming!



  1. Yep, it’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it:-) I always say with fiction you get to make it with the most beautiful people and kill all your enemies…best of all we get paid to do this:-)

  2. Those are really great points….I’m glad I don’t write fiction! 🙂

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