Breaking the Rules When You’re Creating a Fictional World

Creating a fictional world is one of the most challenging aspects of writing fantasy. If done well, it’s also one of the most satisfying (ideally) aspects of reading fantasy or science fiction. Where you are immersed in a world by an author who knows what they’re doing. Worldbuilding in writing, at its heart, is just establishing a set of rules for what does and doesn’t happen in your world.

creating a fictional world
When you’re creating a fictional world, you have to establish the rules for magic before you can break them.

Establish Rules Clearly and Early On When Creating a Fictional 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 writer’s worldbuilding.

The more rules we’ve established when creating a fictional world, 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 about fantasy worldbuilding. 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 worldbuilding. Why bother creating any rules when you circumvent them at every turn?

Can You Break the Rules You’ve Established?

You might think that, since I’m advocating for rules when creating a fictional world, I am against breaking the rules. Not true. Breaking well-crafted rules when worldbuilding in writing is exciting. It helps raising the stakes and tension. Let’s stick with magical worldbuilding. 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.

You Have to Set the Rules Before You Can Break Them

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 rules to govern worldbuilding in writing, 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 (check out tips for writing YA fantasy here). 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 with worldbuilding in writing by nailing down all of your key elements, and only then can you start to mess with them.

If you’re working on creating a fictional world, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.

5 Replies to “Breaking the Rules When You’re Creating a Fictional World”

  1. Christina C. says:

    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. June Sullivan says:

    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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