The birth of communication across vast distances and the ability to become self-informed of near any topic you desire is both a blessing and a curse to a creative writer. Back in the day a writer could stretch the limits of a readers imagination and make far-fetched statements about things that were either not agreed upon, not well known or just simply not something that people would care to take the time to research. But now, in the age of the google machine, any written detail is under the immediate scrutiny of the more observant readers. We as writers need to adapt.
In order to stretch the rules and limitations of what a character or story is capable of, we must first gain a grasp on what the actual true limits are. It’s like the old saying, you must first know the rules before you can break them. This is no different when it comes to pushing the boundaries of believability in a story.
Some of the largest items to keep in mind as you are driving your characters through your story are:
Physical Limitations – Blood loss, lack of food, speed, strength, stamina, lack of sleep and broken bones. These are all things that happen when a character faces physical trauma or conflict. Understanding and defining the limit of what their body can take is important to keep them vulnerable and interesting. An invincible character becomes boring very quickly.
Mental & Emotional Limitations – PTSD, psychotic breaks, emotional spikes, mental disabilities and mental limitations. These are all things that are just as real and harmful to a character in a story as the physical trauma. While it may not be deadly to the character these emotional or mental problems and the stress of whatever conflict they are put through will leave scars just as real as a dagger to the skin.
Travel, Distance & Technological Limitations – As humans, we have journeyed through many different ages. From the time where wheels were revolutionary to the days before cell phones and computers. Technology has developed at different paces in different parts of the world and in a story, it is important to define how far in the evolution of technology for both personal use and travel has come. This allows you to set realistic travel, knowledge and access to education. Saying that there’s a laptop in Sherlock’s original office will throw off the whole vibe and swap it quickly to Doctor Who instead.
Material & Environmental Limitations – One of the most overlooked limitations is the environment around your character. Buildings made of steel will be harder to crash through than one of stucco and glass. Being hit by a wooden beam is a lot different than a plastic one. All of these items or materials around the character must be taken into consideration when the character is directly interacting with them.
While this all may seem like a lot of work to do to just tell your story, you have to keep in mind that any large holes in a story that stick out as glaringly wrong or impossible actually pull the reader out of the trance of their own imagination. Suddenly they start to focus in on the annoying detail that seems too far-fetched instead of the heart of the story the author wanted to tell them. It is in the writers best interest to avoid this pitfall and do all they can to keep the story flowing without piquing the reader’s interest for the wrong reason.
Another argument against setting limitations that I have heard multiple times is that their story is not set on earth or in a close approximation type setting, so their limits are nonexistent. While to a point, yes, it is true that the limits are simply that of your imagination when writing outside of the known reality around us, but limitations are still a requirement. Actually, I believe that the limitations in a fantasy or sci-fi world are doubled in complexity due to the fact that you must build your world first before applying the limitations of what could or could not happen.
The only exception to the rule that I have seen thus far in writing is when the creatures, gods or beings you are dealing with are meant to seem limitless or are entities that are not supposed to fit within the perimeters of what the main character should be held to. But be careful with how you use this. An unrelatable character in a story is the fastest way for a reader to close their book.
All in all, I think Jei said it best when we were discussing this post. “Define the rules of your world and stick to it, it’s as simple as that.”