Breaking the Rules in World Building

One of the most satisfying (ideally) aspects of reading fantasy or science fiction is good world building. Where you are immersed in a world by an author who knows what they’re doing. World building, at its heart, is just establishing a set of rules for what does and doesn’t happen in your world.

When I’m reading a manuscript and a cat starts talking to the main character on page three (this is probably the inciting incident), I need to know a few things before we ever get to Fluffy. Do cats talk in this world? What role do animals play in terms of animal/human relations? When Fluffy opens his maw, I should know immediately: this is or isn’t normal according to the world building.

The more rules we’ve established, the clearer the world comes across. There’s logic and order imposed. Which becomes all the more important when you decide to break one of your own rules. This is what I want to get into here.

I talked a bit about this stuff in a much earlier post. Basically, when you’re dealing with magic powers, you want them to be well-defined, so that your character isn’t getting out of trouble by pulling never-before-seen tricks out of her hat. That’s lame, and it betrays your world building. Why bother creating any rules when you circumvent them at every turn?

You might think that, since I’m advocating for rules, I am against breaking the rules. Not true. Breaking well-crafted rules in world building is exciting. It raises stakes and tension. Let’s stick with magical world building. What happens when someone tries a spell that nobody has tried before? The answer to this question lies in more rules, not fewer. The better your reader knows the world and the parameters of the magic, the more they will start to anticipate what might happen when the character goes “off the grid,” so to speak.

“Will it be like using Power X or Spell Y? Will the outcome be A or B, like that one time the character did something like this?” This anticipation builds because the reader knows what to expect in the world of your story, and it’s only after this familiarity is established that we start to truly engage. And when flirting with breaking the rules starts to become fun and interesting.

If your world has no limits or rules, everything is a free-for-all. How can you build anticipation when literally anything can happen? The best stories become their own worlds, constantly referring back to what has come before as the action moves forward. Without strong world building rules, none of the stuff you’ve done so far in the book matters, because it’s not precedent for anything.

If there’s magic, we need to know the limits, how it works, etc. If there are different races/classes of people or creatures in your fantasy hierarchy, we need to know what each does, means, and how they relate to one another. If you’ve established that the dragons hate the polar bears and will do anything to start a war, once a dragon shows up, it better not be a low stakes event. And if it is, it’ll be that much more surprising, and you’ll get a reaction out of the reader. This is conscious rule-breaking.

Set yourself up to succeed in world building by nailing down all of your key elements, and only then can you start to mess with them.



4 Replies to “Breaking the Rules in World Building”

  1. I really like the idea of the “forbidden” type of magic, but like you say that’s only interesting when the reader knows of the consequences for that.

    Breaking world building rules and what happens after if it’s not what’s expected could be an excellent plot twist!

    Great post 🙂

  2. Wow! How did I miss you until now? The good thing about taking so long to find you is there’s a treasure trove of posts ready and waiting for me to savor — and, hopefully, put into practice.

    Will be back often!

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