Worldbuilding, part 4: Let's talk about exceptions

Annd... we're back!

Once again THANK YOU EVERYONE for all your awesome support for my *squee* book deal last week! (Are you tired of my saying thank you? I hope not, because I'm not even close to tired of saying it.) If you haven't entered my Thank-You Contest of Amazingness yet, check it out. I'm giving away all kinds of fun and random stuff.

Now back to worldbuilding!

found at annastan.com

In my last worldbuilding post, I introduced you to the principle of internal consistency, which states that everything in your world should mirror the real world as much as possible, with deliberate exceptions.

However, one of the great and wonderful things about fantasy is the ability to let your imagination loose, to create a world where impossibilities abound. So with that in mind, let's talk about the exceptions.
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I have three basic rules for exceptions:

1. Exceptions should be intentional

Stretching the bounds of worldbuilding is a bit like bending the rules of grammar. You can get away with it if you know the rules well enough to break them on purpose.

There are a couple of reasons for this, and the primary one is that seven times out of ten, an unintentional exception will be a cliche. It's almost inevitable because of our mass media culture. Everyone's head is stuffed with cliches. The best thing to do is acknowledge them, and then decide how best to use them. 

Which leads me to to the second reason why you should be intentional with your exceptions. There is a fine line between cliche and archetype and it's a line you can only walk successfully if you know exactly WHY you're doing what you're doing.

Harry Potter is a classic example of this. The series contains a lot of things that could be classified as cliche, the wise old wizard, the mark of destiny, etc.  But because J.K.Rowling is a master of fresh, intentional worldbuilding, they became more than cliches, they became archetypes.

2. Exceptions should be useful

The wonderful power of exceptions is that they set up an expectation in the readers mind. Readers are smart people and they notice exceptions: if you make your main city a cloud city, readers will naturally expect that to play some part in the setting and plot. And it should. Every exception is a box full of potential awesomeness, as long as you use it fully.

found at artbypavel.com

Take the cloud city for example. It's a fun exception, but don't just leave it alone. Make it work for its keep. How does living in a cloud affect people with a fear of heights? What kind of slang and descriptions would arise in a place where no one ever sees the ground? What kind of pets would people prefer?

This was something I ran into when writing House of a Thousand Dolls. I decided early on that the sky in the Bhinian Empire would be gray. And not cloud gray either, but smooth, unbroken gray, like a roof over the world. There are no such things as clouds or rain or snow or sun or stars.  And this created a challenge for me in the last place I expected it: description.

I couldn't use any similes or metaphors that had anything to do with weather or sky. Do you know how many common descriptors have something to do with the sun? Or how often we compare things to rain or snow? It basically forced me to come up with new ways of saying things. And that's one of the hidden benefits of a good exception.

3. Exceptions should be fun.

As regimented as some of my rules may sound, the bottom line is that exceptions are supposed to be fun. After all, why make something up if it's going to be boring? Rowling could have come up with other wizardly ways to send telegrams--or just had them come normally--but she used owls. And I firmly believe that Rowling's sense of fun is one of the reasons that Harry Potter was such a knockout success.

Your imagination can and should go wild at times. Because if you're not having fun, your reader isn't having fun. And no one wants that.
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Now none of this is first draft stuff, at least for me. I go crazy in first drafts, and put in anything that sounds fun. But when you're going back through your story, I invite you to look at your exceptions. Measure them against the rules, try to find a good reason to keep them.

And if the only reason you can come up with is "Because I like it" then it's a darling.

And you know what we say about darlings....

found at sharetv.org

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Fabric art in the header by Carol Riggs.