Now, don’t tell me you’ve gone to all this trouble to make a world that is just the same as ours. Of course not! Right? Even if your fictional world is grounded in our reality, there will be something to set it apart (like a magical subculture – Neverwhere, Harry Potter, Skulduggery Pleasant…)
As with my previous posts on the subject of world building, I am coming at this from the perspective of a Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer; so, having covered the physical and human elements of creating a fictional world, it’s time to turn our attention to something much more creative: the extraordinary element.
There is literally no limit to what this can be. This is where you get to ask the question “What if…” and then attempt to answer it yourself.
More than likely, this element of your world will be whatever has inspired your story in the first place. And it is likely going to be the device that you use to drive the plot forward (or at least be a contributing factor to that device).
So, what is it in your world that makes it truly different from our own? Is it magic? Aliens? Great technological advancements (or regression)? Social or political change? Maybe a key event in history that has gone the other way?
Whatever plot gem has set your imagination buzzing, there are a couple of things you will need to keep in mind as you develop it into your world.
1: Make the Rules
If you’ve been building your world along the lines of my last couple of posts, you will have, by now, established a physical world and populated it. Whatever extraordinary element you envision, make sure it fits with the world you have created. For example, if your extraordinary element is to have a society run by vampires, they wouldn’t get very far in a world that is perpetually sunny (unless they happen to be brooding, shiny vampires; but let’s not open that can of worms just now).
Of course, there is nothing to stop you from going back and tweaking your own world until everything works the way you want it to.
Just as our world has the Laws of Physics to keep it running smoothly, you may want to think about whether these laws still apply in your world. Stars may be something entirely different in your fantasy world. Or gravity may work in pockets and not elsewhere.
As long as it makes sense for your world and your story, you can establish any sort of rules you want, as long as they work towards the story you want to tell.
2: Stick to the Rules
This is the hard part. After all, rules are made to be broken, right?
WRONG!! In this instance, the rules are most definitely NOT there to be broken. If you make a rule for your world, you HAVE TO STICK TO IT! If you don’t, your readers will know. Instantly. And they will call you out on it.
And why is this? Because people like to be able to make sense of what they read. If you are throwing an entirely new world their way, they will very quickly latch on to any morsel of information you give them about it. If you then throw out the rule book for no good reason and change things around on every other page, your readers will get confused and frustrated and angry (probably in that order), and will eventually stop reading.
If you find you have written yourself into a corner and the only way out is to break one of the rules of your world, you pretty much have two options:
Option 1: Go back through your story so far and work out just how vital that particular rule is to the plot. Odds are it will be important, otherwise you wouldn’t have put it there in the first place. If you decide to change that rule to help your characters out of their current predicament, bear in mind you may have a lot of re-writing on your hands to fix other points in the plot where that rule has been followed already.
Option 2: Kill someone. I mean in the story, of course, not in real life. That is generally frowned upon. But a character nobly sacrificing him/herself for the greater good is usually a sure-fire way to get out of most situations, while at the same time reminding your readers that no-one is safe (for more on this, have a look at my post on Gateway Deaths).
Of course, it may be simpler to just rethink that particular scene and see if there is a less drastic solution that can be found. As long as it follows the rules you have established.
3: Break the Rules – SPARINGLY!
Yes, I know! I have LITERALLY just said DON’T BREAK THE RULES ON PAIN OF CHARACTER-DEATH! I know, but hear me out, OK.
There are ways of breaking rules without actually breaking them. Think of it more like bending the rules.
To illustrate this, I am going to fall back on trusty old Stargate SG-1 (I’ve mentioned my love for this show, right? No? Well, now I have).
The rules for opening a Stargate are quite simple:
1: It takes a combination of seven chevrons to establish a wormhole between worlds (six to confirm the location of the destination and one for the point of origin for a course to be plotted).
2: Matter (i.e. people, objects, etc.) can only travel in one direction through an open wormhole. If you open a wormhole from Earth, you will be able to travel through it to the other side, but you will have to break the connection and dial back in from off-world to get back again.
3: A wormhole can only stay open with nothing coming through it for approximately 38 minutes.
All three of these rules are engrained in the show, pretty much from day one, but in the course of ten seasons, each one of these rules is broken (bent really) at key points:
1: If you are trying to connect with a planet in another galaxy altogether, a combination of eight chevrons is needed, instead of seven (like needing an extra few digits to dial an international phone number). Of course, a massive amount of energy is needed for this, so don’t try it if you’re building a Stargate in your basement!
2: Even though Matter can only travel one way through a wormhole, radio signals and other types of energy waves can travel in either direction. This is pretty much taken as a given every time the team communicates with the base via radio through an open Stargate.
3: Thanks to the above rule twist, [SPOILERS FOR SEASON SIX IF ANYONE HASN’T SEEN THE SHOW!] Anubis is able to keep a wormhole connected to Earth for days on end and nearly blows it up in the process.
Each time one of these rules is bent, the established universe of SG-1 expands a little further and an extra layer of complexity is added. Not to mention the stakes are raised as a result.
If you are able to find ways to bend your own rules without breaking them (and without stepping into the realms of absurdity), then do it. Just keep in mind that it has to be believable. If you spend pages and pages trying to convince yourself and justify the twist, odds are that your readers will be fairly sceptical (and no-one wants that).
Your world with all its extraordinary and unique elements should, when all is said and done, make sense. That’s not to say that you have to stick to things that make sense in our world. Let’s face it, even Wonderland makes a sort of sense (if you look hard enough).
As long as you are clear and consistent in your world, you will be able to get away with all kinds of madness.
That is, after all, the joy of world building!