Imagine this: you’re trying to create a new dish with unlimited ingredients at your disposal. Full freedom. You can whip up the best thing anyone’s ever tasted, knocking chocolate off the pedestal. Ambitious, but possible. You could create a working computer made entirely of vegetables, if you set your mind to it. Wanna try?
The kicker is, you don’t have full freedom. If you’re planning to cook something edible, or write something readable and enjoyable, there are rules. In cooking, we could call them “common sense.” Things like “don’t add poison,” “no dish needs a bucketful of salt,” and “char is not edible.”
That's enough culinary wisdom. Let's talk about how you create a world in fiction. At what point does worldbuilding go from just-crisp to burnt-and-inedible?
Too Much Freedom Spoils the Broth
My first attempt at a novel was in the romance genre… for about twenty chapters, before the time-traveling robots arrived. I was thirteen, and I learned something new as I stared at the mess my imagination had cooked up. Too much freedom is a recipe for disaster. Let me explain why:
As a reader, there are many books where I’ve just wanted a magic fairy to pop up at the first page and save the characters from all the pain and misery that was written for them. As a reader, I can afford to entertain such notions. You, the writer, cannot. “The writer saves the day by making the antagonist get hit by a bus.” Nobody wants to read that book. If you kill a character because you “felt like it” and “it was a bad day,” you’re not doing justice to your story or your readers.
Fun fact: Ever heard of Darren Shan? It’s a vampire series. Twelve books.
I enjoyed eleven of them. The punch line--because I now consider the series a joke--was that in book twelve the main character, Darren, goes back in time and prevents the inciting incident, which means that every other book erased itself from that particular fictional world. It never happened. Nothing ever happened. I felt cheated.
Moral of the story: control your urge to play the hero. That’s not your job. The struggles of your characters are opportunities, not things you need to solve with time travel in a world without time travel.
You should not have complete freedom. Complete freedom ruins stories.
Add a Pinch of Freedom, but Keep It
So, how do you keep just enough freedom to allow creativity without ruining your story?
Here’s one way:
Create a rulebook. The Bible for your imaginary world.
Thou shalt not screw with the rules of thine Bible. Especially not in emergencies. I know how it is. Your character is going to die, and the only way to save him is to tweak a rule of your world to suddenly give him magical powers, and-- hurray!--the day is saved.
No. Don’t do that.
What Should You Put in the Rulebook?
That’s simple: everything that shouldn’t fluctuate while writing.
1. The geography of the worlds you’ve built
Make a list of the places where your story takes place, and keep maps handy at all times. If the place is fictional, create a map. Add it to your rulebook. You are now forbidden from changing any detail. Got a problem? Work around it. Get creative.
This will help you remember all the names, landmarks, roads, buildings etc., so you don’t accidentally mess up. You can plan better when you have the maps in front of you. They give you a solid location for the scenes you’re imagining. If you’ve got car chases or hidden treasures in your world, the use of a map and a set of rules is obvious.
Do not change the rules. You made them, you’re gonna stick by them. You can’t allow portals one day and label them impossible the next. (Guilty.) You can’t relocate a scene every time the impulse strikes. (Kinda guilty.)
2. Consistent Rules
If you have monsters, magic, futuristic tech, or anything of the sort, decide beforehand what’s in the realm of possible and what isn’t. Don’t create a gadget that does one thing today and when convenient, can do other things too.
The story is about the characters. It’s about everything that happens to the characters, everything they do, and the results. As such, when you’re writing, you don’t want anything to distract your mind from the most important part of your story–the people it’s about. You can’t give them your full attention if the worldbuilding is part of the writing process. How are you going to orchestrate a magical encounter as an inciting incident without having any idea what the magic does? Again: You can’t focus on characters, when you also have to create a world as you go.
Your fictional world doesn’t need to have the same rules as ours. It doesn’t need to follow the laws of known physics. It just needs unbreakable rules. You get to decide what they are.
Which means you can’t break the rules “just because.” Your characters can break the rules, if they work at it. Rose Hathaway, in the Vampire Academy series, spent a whole book looking for a way to turn vampires back to human. And there was three books’ worth of setting the scene before that. Enough motivation, no other options, lots of hard work, tons of trouble. You can do anything you want, if you know how to pull it off. The second you take the easy way out and create shortcuts for your characters--that’s when the story stops being any good.
There was a moment in Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series that’s relevant. A sword disguised as a pen, which the main character had for five years, was used as a pen for the first time. I let that one pass, mostly because it’s funny. Also because the reveal fits the characters’ personalities perfectly. The pen works as a pen. Now that isn’t a use anybody would complain against. If it suddenly got the capacity to fly and sing, we would have problems.
Well, Jack is a sword that can fly and sing. Also, date. But he could do that from day one and the humor element is off the charts with him, so no problems there, either.
Getting Your Rulebook Started
- Start with names of places, magical objects and creatures, if you have any.
- Avoid creating new objects, creatures or places on a whim. If you can, use the ones you already have.
- List the capabilities and limitations of all objects and creatures in as short a way as possible. For example, “grumpy camel who’s a brilliant mathematician,” or “emotionless killing machines, slave to their creator.” This gives you enough direction to go on with but leaves enough room for creativity. An ideal combination.
- If you like things visual, draw or find pictures to add to your rulebook.
- Make sure no rules contradict each other.
- Make sure you can follow all the rules. Don’t make rules you don’t like, or your story is doomed from the start. At the writing stage, especially the first draft stage, the only person who needs to enjoy the story is you. Or it’s never getting finished, let alone published.
- Don’t use the rulebook as a way to procrastinate working on the actual story.
- Have fun with it. See how your characters deal with it. If you wanted, you could create weird rules on purpose. It’s something I’d do. A world where everyone wears animal costumes for twenty-four hours every month. A world where people never figured out what trees could be used for. A world where every shoe has wheels on it. An underwater world. A different planet. The sun didn’t work for a day. Have fun.
Like with anything else, you’ll get better with practice.
Create a World That Rocks!
I'll repeat: Your world needs to be consistent. Back to Darren Shan, naming your Dumbledore “Destiny” (Mr. Desmond Tiny) doesn’t exempt him from the laws of your world. Or, it shouldn’t. There’s one question that makes or breaks fiction. Is it believable? Within the world and the rules you’ve created, is the story believable?
Point to be noted: the rulebook is meant to be a map as you traverse the dangerous waters to fish out your story. It’s not meant as a handicap, so don’t think of it as one. The purpose of the rulebook is to stop you from merging ten ideas that all deserve their own story into a single mess. It’s to keep your focus on the story, and not the mechanics of how the world works.
So, test drive this approach. Write a short story. Or pick an idea you’ve wanted to write for a while and create a world with a rulebook for it. Don’t forget to share the results!