World Building: Some Rules Aren’t Made to Be Broken


Every country has laws or rules its citizens have to follow. You can disregard them, but there are consequences. Some rules can’t be broken without a miracle or technology. Try to break the laws of gravity and you’ll fall on your backside (unless you work for NASA). Human beings can’t defy gravity without assistance. There is no such thing as magic. Or is there?

Storytellers create worlds which break all the rules of mundane reality. Within the pages of a book, we can fly, shape shift or even cast elaborate spells. Our story worlds, however, still have rules which must be followed. Why? First – Rules make the fantasy world believable. Second – Rules confine characters thereby enhancing conflict/tension in the story. Who decides what the rules are? You, the storyteller.

Don’t think the rules matter? Who cares anyway? Readers care. If you write Fantasy, sooner or later you’ll be called out on the rules you’ve developed in your story world. It happened to me on my urban fantasy novel, Phantom Harvest.

Phantom HarvestCOVER

One of the main characters, Maialen, is an empath. Her powers are so strong, the slightest touch of her hand upon another person can destroy their mind. Being the anal retentive soul I am, many hours were spent making certain I didn’t break this rule. Maialen never touched anyone unless it was key to the story. She was either interrogating a bad guy or sharing a moment with the only person her powers couldn’t hurt – Gideon, the other main character.

One of my readers thought he had caught me rule breaking. The friendly conversation went something like this:

Reader: “So, if Maialen can’t touch anybody, then why was she able to touch her friend Norm?”

Me, pulling out a copy of the book: “She touched his coat, not his skin.”

I was able to answer this time. Heaven help the storyteller who gets caught with their quill down. You may think an unexplained breaking of the rules won’t be noticed, but you’d be wrong. Readers care and they will walk away from your book if you get sloppy.

Rules for the Rules

They have to make sense in your world. Example – Your character can’t touch black powder. The stuff hasn’t been invented yet. Doesn’t make sense to put it in your story.

They should add value to the story. Example – The rule needs to add depth to your story world. Perhaps the rule shows cultural constraints like the banning of books? Or members of rival families must never speak to one another (a Romeo and Juliet affair)?

There should be consequences if the rule is broken. Example – Each time Gideon (Phantom Harvest) uses the magic in his tattoo, it drains time off his life. If he uses the weapon too often, it could kill him. This adds conflict/tension. It has to be a dire emergency before he uses the weapon. If he could use it all the time, then there would be no sense of danger.

Final Thoughts – Careful not to write yourself into a corner on these rules. Leave your character a way out. I’ll use Return of the Jedi as an example. Luke has confronted the Emperor and now the old man is zapping him, because he won’t join the Dark Side. Darth Vader watches as his son is dying. The known rule throughout the Star Wars Epic for Vader is “I must obey my master.” What if Vader hadn’t been able to finally break that rule? Luke would be dead. The rebellion would have failed. There sure wouldn’t have been all those prequels.


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