When I was younger, a majority of the books I read were ones pulled from my father’s shelves. Books which my elementary and middle school teachers often said were too sophisticated for me, too difficult, too beyond my understanding. The Lord of the Rings. I Am Legend. Starship Troopers. Wizard’s First Rule. “Beyond my understanding.” I will never forget that remark. I understand much more than I let on.
One such book, Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, has remained one of my favorite novels to this day. This text came into my life at a time when I was largely disenchanted with the idea that people are inherently good, smart, generous, kind. When I came to the chapter in which we are told what the Wizard’s First Rule is, I felt as though the words had been ripped from my own brain.
“Wizard’s First Rule: people are stupid…[G]iven proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People’s heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool.”
–Chapter 36, p. 560, U. S. paperback edition
As a writer, the Wizard’s First Rule is something I must contend with on a daily basis, especially in writing fiction. I no longer (completely) agree with the assertion that people are stupid, but I do concur that almost anyone will believe almost anything. If I write a story about orphaned twin sisters being separated by the foster system, or a story in which a young man walks to the grocery store to buy Nutella and ends up slaying a dragon in the parking lot, my reader will follow me. They accept this world as being similar to their own, while simultaneously knowing that it is just different enough to still be an escape.
So, the title of this website being “Writer’s First Rule” is my spin on the Wizard’s First Rule. Although I would not say that people are stupid, I think we writers must be (painfully) aware that our reader follows us willingly into the story. World-building is not just what the author creates, but it is also what the reader infers from the text. If our rules are not made clear, then the story trains the reader to navigate the world in possession of a flawed understanding of how it works.
We are guiding them through. They will believe us. What a tremendous responsibility we have, then, to not steer them wrong.