Books are magical things, aren’t they? Novels don’t have the visual components of television or film to tell their stories, but reading a well-written book can be just as immersive an experience, transporting you away from your daily life in the turn of a page.
Think about it for a second. When you’re reading a book you love, do you think about the object in your hands? The paper and ink and glue? Of course not—you’re in the story. You’re “seeing” the action, “hearing” the voices of the characters. You’re practically hallucinating… all because of some words on a page.
That’s the experience you want to create with your own books, too. You want to take your readers to new worlds, to hear your characters’ voices just as loudly and clearly.
Building a Consistent Fictional World
How’s the trick done? The answer, friends, is consistency.
To truly immerse your readers in a fictional world of your own creation, you need to write with a consistent vision—and carve away anything in your novel that distracts from that vision.
For example: imagine you’re reading one of the Harry Potter books, and out of nowhere the main character’s name is spelled “Pottor”… or he’s suddenly in possession of a certain magical artifact you knew nothing about… or inexplicably turns evil and kills another character?
Not only are these choices inconsistent, but they distract from the experience of reading. Instead of thinking about the story, the reader is forced to think about the physical words on the page—and question the intentions of the author that wrote them.
You want to avoid this at all costs… and we’re here to help. Our proven 4-step guide will help keep the nitty-gritty details of your world straight, and assist you in creating a consistent fictional universe your readers will love getting lost in.
1. Consistent Characterization
What does it mean for a character to act “out of character?”
After all, fictional characters are supposed to grow and change, right? That’s the basis of any good character arc, and makes for interesting and three-dimensional characters.
But there’s a big gray area between making a static character and a totally inconsistent one. No matter how you’ve designed their personalities, there have to be some things your characters cannot do. Batman won’t kill. Sam Spade can’t fly. And Rick Astley’s never gonna give you up, among other things.
And if your characters aren’t consistent, they stop being distinct from one another. They merge and blur together. They jumble. The reader mistakes one for the other, muddling your drama and draining tension from your narrative.
In short, your characters can change—so long as they still act “like themselves.”
Creating Character Sketches
A great way to keep your characters consistent is to write character sketches for each of the major players in your story.
Think of these like profile pages for your characters. Include physical descriptions, of course, but go into their background and psychology as well. Who is this person? How does she talk and think? Where did she come from—and where does she want to be? What are her goals? Her dreams? Her creepy-crawly fears?
Not only can returning to these sketches again and again help keep your characters “in character,” but the very act of writing them can better establish each character in your head, even before you begin writing their story!
2. Consistent Rules for Your World
Our reality is an elaborate game, one with plenty of strict rules that make it playable. Gravity pulls us down. The sun rises in the east. Water is wet. The Pope is Catholic.
Without these rules maintaining the consistency of our world, how would we live? Our lives would be thrown into chaos, and nothing would make sense.
Well, the same goes for fictional worlds, too.
In order for your readers to fully lose themselves in your fictional universe, a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required. More is required for “unrealistic” genres like science fiction and fantasy, but even stories meant to take place in our own reality require at least a little.
Consistency in your world-building facilitates suspension of disbelief, because it makes everything line up—the reader can ignore the exact content of the rules, because they all fall into place together; in contrast, violations of that consistency will jolt your readers out of the story.
Remember: Worlds can act “out of character,” too—just like characters can.
Internal consistency means that the rules that govern your story on page one will continue to govern it on page 100.
A good way to ensure this kind of internal logic is to actually sit down and write out the rules your fictional world should follow. If your story uses a magic system, how does it work? What do spells cost, and who can use them? If your story is set in a dystopian future, who’s in charge? What terrible, oppressive laws are in effect? And how did things get so bad?
Consider creating supplementary materials for your story: fictional histories, books of rules and laws, family histories, or even maps of your fictional setting. Not only will these help you keep your world in order, but you can publish them along with your novel as entertaining appendices.
3. Consistent Labels: Names, Places, and Terminology
Names have power.
In fiction, what something is called is often the first thing readers learn about it, and it’s therefore the first bit of characterization it receives. Names all have unique sounds and feels to them, and can conjure different emotions in the minds of readers simply based on intuition.
And sometimes a name is all you need.
Consider the following: Is Judd Applebaum the distinguished physicist, or is Horace Kirkhope? Is the Infanto-Ray the villain’s engine of ultimate destruction, or is it the Dirge Cannon? What is the name of the vampire-infested structure, Castle Tiggs or Castle Greyspine?
Your decisions may be at least partially influenced by genre conventions, of course, but never discount the snap judgements your readers will make based the mere sounds of the names they read.
So: if names are so important, then consistent names are doubly important.
And this is a little more complicated than just calling certain things by one name all the time—though even that can be tricky. What if your novel has fictional titles for its royalty and nobility? If a character’s name is Michael, do his friends call him Mike or Mikey? Which is bigger, an F-class starship, or an M-class? Does your novel include any dialogue or words from a fictional language, and if so, what do they mean?
Consistency in naming means consistency in naming conventions, and special care must be taken to safeguard it.
Consider creating a glossary for your fictional world. For characters, spell out their full names and titles, as well as any nicknames other characters might have given them. For locations like cities and named buildings, include a list of where they are, who lives in them, and what their significance is. And for words you’ve made up, define them—and use these definitions consistently.
You don’t have to publish this as part of your novel—in fact, having a cast list at the start of the book can turn readers off, making them think that it’ll be too hard to follow along—but for your own use as the author (and maybe for that fan site down the line when you’re famous!), it can be a lifesaver.
4. Consistent Timeline
Chronology is essential to narrative. A novel’s plot needs an established line of cause and effect not only to be engaging, but simply to be understood.
Here’s the deal: your readers need to know not only what’s happening in your story, but when it’s happening.
This is relatively simple if you tell your story in a straightforward manner, but there are many stylistic choices an author can make that can complicate things. Flashbacks, time travel, multiple concurrent plotlines or perspectives… the list goes on.
And to make things more complicated, issues with consistent timelines can be the most distracting of all the flaws a novel can have!
Imagine you were reading a book where the narrator flashed back to a traumatic moment from his youth—say, to when his mother was tragically killed. Know what would really ruin the drama of this scene? If his mother was alive in the present day.
That’s why a consistent chronology is so vital to a good novel. The other issues on this list are distracting and can take a reader out of the story, but timeline problems can break a book.
Luckily, the answer to these problems is really quite simple: create a timeline for your book.
Even if you plan on telling your story out of order, Pulp Fiction-style, it’s important to establish the story’s true chronology first. Lay out the events of your narrative and label each plot beat with the appropriate date. Chart each character’s status and location whenever you can, and make note of what new information your heroes gain at each juncture. This way, even if your novel has a hundred different intersecting storylines, you’ll have a clear visual of when and where everything is taking place.
Consider laying this out visually, either using timeline software or by creating an inspiration board, then refer to it regularly as you get cranking on the writing.
Your Editor is Your Friend
One final note: while we’ve pointed out in the past that the author is the last line of defense against mistakes in a manuscript, having a second pair of eyes on your writing is the best way to check for any consistency issues your manuscript may have.
For this purpose, we recommend hiring a pro. While your family, friends, or peer reviewers might mean well, a professional editor is trained to spot errors other people might miss, and can give you expert advice on how to correct them.
Maintaining consistency in your writing is one of the most difficult tasks a novelist faces—but it’s also one of the most rewarding.
A good story entertains readers, well-written characters can charm the pants off them, but consistent, immersive writing can submerge them in your worlds of fantasy… and draw them back for more again and again and again.
Looking for more crafty tips on creating absorbing fiction? We’ve got the goods right here:
- What Are Fantasy Maps: How to Create a Whole New (Fictional) World
- How to Write Better Dialogue Tags: Improve Your Novel with Great Dialogue
- Explaining the Monomyth: 6 Lessons from Joseph Campbell’s Theory of “The Hero’s Journey”