This is part nine of my ten-part world-building series. As always, I’d like to point out that what’s presented here isn’t absolute gospel. There are many ways to world-build, and many paths to get to the same destination. I’m not the all-knowing guru, but rather a geek who’s sharing how he goes about it. Ready? Let’s go.
Today we’re talking rules. Your world has them, or should, even if you don’t know it yet. The rules establish how things work, how the viewer navigates through the space you’ve created, and how your characters operate within this creation you’ve presented.
But it also sets up how you can break them. “Bwuh?” you might exclaim. YES. I am giving you permission to throw them out the window, but only when the time is right. Follow along.
Where the Rules don’t Matter, and all the Points are Made Up
Pictured: A valid response to rules-lawyers in tabletop. Use wisely.
Firstly, the rules are important for your world to function in a consistent, and coherent way. If you’ve established how certain things like tech, magic, hell even the general weather works in your world, then it falls to you to stick to that playbook. Deviating from them without any forethought is only going to confuse the viewer. Creating the world means you’re creating the physics of it. So if you tell the audience essentially that “what goes up must come down”, then you can’t just turn around and turn off gravity.
Not without a purpose, anyway.
See, establishing your rules for how your world works opens the door to those instances where you can break said rules, but in an intelligent way. It has to be reasonable, logical, and most importantly serve the story of the world in a way that fits what came before. Breaking the rules ironically establishes new rules for what follows.
To use the gravity analogy again, if you’re going to turn it off, there needs to be a reason. An artifact, a device, a doomsday weapon, whatever. There must be something reasonable that fits within the established world, or you’re just going to leave your visitors confused, frustrated, and angry. Whatever new things come out of it should follow the natural progression you’ve already worked hard on setting up.
If your magic works a certain way, it follows there should be a reason and logic to when it suddenly works another way, and therefore interesting consequences that still feel like they are at home in this place.
Remember the outcry in the Star Wars fandom concerning midichlorians and the force? That was a cautionary tale on breaking world rules in a very real sense. Don’t do that. Got it? Got it.
Treating Your World like SimCity
Pictured: Factually accurate.
If for some reason you’ve never played or managed to never hear of SimCity, here’s the lightning summary: you create and manage a digital town and hopefully turn it into a thriving metropolis.
Sounds like world-Building. It is. Kind of. But the reason I bring it up is that those of us who have played it also know of one of the most fun aspects of the game, particularly in those times we get bored just building better traffic systems: DISASTERS.
Admit it. At least once, you unleashed a selection from that game’s grab-bag of catastrophes just to see what would happen to your little digital burg. Some of you might have even seen what fun there could be with rebuilding from the destruction. Well, you can absolutely do that with your world. In point of fact, you probably should.
Your world should be—through your efforts, mind—a living, growing thing. It should develop and flourish. A stagnant world that’s fixed in place is hardly something that will give you great story fodder. And that being said, sometimes the only way to get that pool of ideas to ripple is to throw a stone at it.
“What if” serves you well here. To keep flogging the theme, don’t be scared of turning that Godzilla knock-off loose on your town. Half the joy of world-building sometimes is putting the pieces back together in new and engaging ways, after all.
There is no Perfect World, and that’s Awesome
Harsh truth time: your world isn’t that great. In point of fact, there will be people out there who flat out think it sucks. Others will think it’s okay. Others just might love it with the same gusto that you do. Some fans will be on board, and still whinge about certain aspects of it.
In short, if you’re in this to build a perfect world, you’re screwed. And that is AWESOME.
You need to embrace those shortcomings and triumphs, and that starts by taking note of those same things in any of the other fictional worlds you like to visit. Acknowledge them, learn from them, and sling that knowledge of the good, bad, and very ugly to your own efforts. Just keep in mind that you’re not going to hit the mark across the board.
Failure is absolutely an option.
Only by accepting failure will you give yourself the freedom to try new things, and the foresight to forgive yourself when certain constructs just don’t pan out. It’ll also give you more insight into how best to roll with and learn from critique of any stripe.
You’re never going to make a place that everyone digs on. Ever. But here’s a little food for thought to ease the potential sting:
The first person that needs to be happy with the fictional world is the one who created it.
Ugly is the new Beautiful
For the love of God, JUST DO WHAT IT SAYS.
Symmetry is the enemy of good design. This is something you’ll hear bandied about pretty often in graphics and illustration circles. It holds true for your world as well, albeit from different angles.
It’s not about having a land that is good balanced against a land that is evil, or even one den of wickedness that is pitted against the rest of the generally wholesome world. It’s about being willing to have extremes that overbalance the scales, or things that don’t seem complimentary that lend a sense of reality to your own creation.
Having a verdant, gorgeous world is fine, but it’s the imperfections and aesthetic wrong-turns that make it that much more enticing by comparison. In short, you can’t understand beautiful without ugly, and you need not have those in perfect ratios to get the optimal effect.
You don’t have to tit-for-tat with your world. You need not have a valley of lava just because you stuck a valley of ice somewhere else. Our own world is wondrous because of its diversity, and made interesting by the acts of love and beauty in the face of often monstrous hate and loathsome quality.
The real world will forever remain the benchmark against which all other worlds are measured. It ain’t much, but it’s ours. Don’t skirt that in your journey to build a better one in your own mind.
Next time, on the last of the series, we’ll be covering your world from the outside looking in, and how you can latch onto that concept to add polish to your work.
Until next time, Horns Up.