Opinion – Consistency in a Fictional World

How to not look like your major plot point was pulled out of your ass

You remember when it happens. You’re watching a movie or playing a game about superheroes or wizards and they do something that doesn’t make sense. They reveal a power or bend a rule that seems off with what came before. The incongruence seems odd, if only because the basic plot deals with topics that violate the rules of reality in the first place. The situation raises a basic question: Why does Wolverine shooting lasers from his hands seem wrong when he’s spent his comic history doing equally impossible things like healing major wounds and slashing things with giant metal claws?

The justification for most reality bending aspects of stories is usually flimsy. Consider Bioshock’s plasmids. Yes, the reason everyone can possess machines or set each other on fire is because they drank a tonic that grants these powers. Take the explanation one step back and plasmids make no sense. There is no scientifically justifiable reason that plasmids can grant magic powers. They just do. The same can be said of mutants in the Marvel world or wizards in just about any universe where they exist. The basic underlying principle for all of these concepts is a small justification and, well, because that’s just how it is. These are decisions not made to be consistent with the universe as we know it, but rather to make an interesting world that people will want to hear about.

As flimsy as the justifications are, they are still the basic building blocks of the world that the player/reader/listener/viewer accepts as a barrier to entry. The justifications create a rule that the audience needs to acknowledge if they are going to enjoy the work. When a piece of media establishes a rule in its world, that media is effectively telling its audience that this is an area to suspend disbelief. It is a contract between the creator and the audience where both acknowledge that, to achieve the desired effect, the audience must accept some oddity. This creates a special space where the artist can suspend the rules, but it also creates a limitation. By asking the audience to make exceptions to the current rules, the artist must then stick to those rules or risk undermining the contract. Allowing someone to fly as a result of their genetic code means that they can’t then summon lightening using magic. The rules need to be consistent.

The goal of suspending disbelief is to create flexibility, but the system can buckle under the strain of too many exceptions. The audience must have some grounding in the world to understand the ramifications of actions. Change a few rules, and the audience can still relate to the work as the world still largely resembles their own. Constantly change the rules or change too many of them and the audience feels adrift. It’s hard to understand a world that constantly changes as it is hard to place an action in the appropriate context. If Superman dies and stays dead, then the reader knows this is an event of importance and can react appropriately. If Superman dies and revives, then it’s hard for the reader to take any subsequent death or danger seriously. The writer can really mean for him to die and stay dead in a given issue, but the readers, having seen his death before, don’t know that this time is different.

The new rules can also feel cheap. If the new rules are introduced as answers to a problem that was previously insurmountable, then the answer feels alien to the context of the universe. It raises the possibility that every answer is a miraculous, unknown power that will just happen to show up at the moment it is necessary. As the answer is not woven into the story line, the answer feels like what it is: a way to resolve a problem that the artist couldn’t think out. It would be far better to build the solution into the narrative so the audience knows that it’s there and can accept it as part of the world sometime before the last possible moment.

Perhaps the greatest problem is when a rules change violates the exceptions created before. When the artist asks the audience to make an exception to a rule and then violates it, they are breaking the contract they have made. The audience then disengages with the world because they notice the disagreement with what camp before. It’s a bit like noticing a gun in a game set in medieval times. The end result is something that looks cheap or, in the worst case, doesn’t make sense at all. Consider the end of Final Fantasy XIII. The game sets up an impossible scenario where the player must kill the god that is levitating the city that the player is trying to save. If the god dies, the city comes crashing down. When the player finally defeats the god, one of the party members conjures a crystal tower to hold the city aloft. This power had never been mentioned before and contradicts everything we’ve seen about this characters abilities. No explanation is given. The end result is not a satisfying conclusion, but instead it feels like the player has been robbed of an ending that didn’t need a totally made up power. Final Fantasy XIII asks the player to invest themselves in a world and then undermines it at the last moment.

This is all to say that the rules of a universe, however fantastical, must be handled with care. Don’t ask too much from your audience and don’t expect them to hang in there for every twist you can think of. Think through the necessary changes and work them into the narrative. A well written story will establish all the necessary elements before they are needed. Only by treating the universe with care can an artist convince others to accept it.

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