How much scrutiny should your fictional world building stand up to?

Bad world building. I have spoken about it before, and how annoying it can be for a reader. Usually, I define bad world building as a fictional world which does not make sense, a world whose structures fall apart under detailed scrutiny. This leads to an important question: what level of scrutiny should good world building stand up to?

Some fictional universes stand up to detailed scrutiny, such as Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which fills in the entire history of humanity from now until the future with enormous attention to detail. Some works of fiction do not stand up to scrutiny, such as A. A. Attanasio's The Last Legends of Earth, which leaves a lot of key questions unanswered. Where did the zōtl come from? How could something like the zōtl evolve naturally?

Last week my favourite podcast, the podcast from the news magazine New Statesmen, released a special 100th episode which looked in detail at politics, economics, education and sex in the Harry Potter universe. This was approached in a spirit of both serious debate and also light-hearted fun between Harry Potter fans. What became quickly apparent is that the universe of Harry Potter does not stand up to the level of scrutiny that a newspaper gives to the politics and economics of our world.

The issues identified by several the New Statesman's writers were mainly around three unanswered practical questions about the Harry Potter universe: can wizards vote in muggle elections? do wizards vote at all? The Minister for Magic is appointed, but by means which we do not know. This does not sound very transparent or accountable.

Other unexplained issues include why are the Weasleys so poor, when their father is a senior civil servant and wizards seem to exist in a post-scarcity society? A major problem is caused by the fact that the wizarding world is closed to letting many muggles in and their population appears to be heavily skewed towards the elderly. Without the ability to bring in cheap labour who will look after all the old wizards? From the outside, the wizarding world looks on the point of collapse.

It is unreasonable to expect even a world as detailed as Harry Potter to make perfect sense when put under the same microscope that we use to analyse economic and political issues in our world. No fictional world can stand up to that level of scrutiny, as it would have to be as complicated as our world. Even enormous virtual worlds, such as Eve Online, with huge populations and millions of procedurally generated worlds, still have a simplified versions of our own political or economic systems.

While admitting that all fictional worlds fall apart when examined under a microscope, the process still raises some questions about the writing of Harry Potter. For example, why does Ron not understand some fairly basic stuff about magic (you cannot create something out of nothing), despite being in the last year of his magical education? Also why is a series of books populated by teenagers strangely sexless, and why does every character marry someone who they met in their early teenaged years? The wizarding worlds seems to have some very conservative social values.

These questions about sex and education are legitimate criticism of the writing, but it does not matter that the economy and politics of Harry Potter make no sense because that is not what the books are about. Harry Potter is about a group of characters’ difficult journey into adulthood, and the world around them exists to facilitate this story.

When examining the quality of the world building of Harry Potter, or of any other fictional universe, there are two main issues to consider. Firstly, is it a reasonably functioning world? Does it make sense to the reader? Harry Potter does make sense as a universe while you read the books. The world of the Hunger Games novels make sense – it is a simpler world than Harry Potter, but it still makes sense. The world of Divergent does not make sense: how could such a world come to exist and what keeps its strangely arbitrary social structure going?

The second issue is: does the fictional world achieve the goals that it sets itself? Does it facilitate the story? In Harry Potter, the wizarding world makes Harry's story more interesting. Its structure and power systems also reflect the theme of standing up to intolerance that is explored throughout the books. Divergent meets the second criteria but not the first. Harry Potter satisfies both criteria so it does not matter that detailed exploration of the politics or economics of the wizarding world reveals a lot of holes.

The advice I would give to writers concerned about how much scrutiny their fictional world should be able to stand up to is that it depends on what you want to achieve with your fictional world. Do you want to make a specific point about our world or the human race which will be exemplified by your fictional world? Do you want to explore a specific idea? Your world should make sense to your reader as they read the story, and it should aid the story you are trying to tell. Beyond that, it does not need to stand up to detailed dissection.

No one expects a work of fiction to be impervious to examination, so long as the story and characters are engaging. Despite the fact that any world will eventually collapse under scrutiny, the process of looking in detail at the worlds we enjoy reading about is fun and raises important issues. The New Statesman did this in a very positive way when looking at Harry Potter, and it was done by fans who are passionate about the books and wanted to talk about the issues they raise. This was not about breaking down the world of Harry Potter, but about looking at it in interesting ways. It does not matter how much examination a fictional world can stand up to, just so long as looking at it raises interesting questions.