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  • Karina Sokulski

World Building Taboos You Should Break

As I'm writing my fantasy novel, I've come across some bits of good advice from my fellow writers on what taboos to break when world-building to avoid the inevitable cliché's that make us stumble in later drafts. It's important to note that the advice I've received is not "avoid the clichés all together" or "avoid writing this certain way or else it won't sell," but make sure to make concepts, familiar or otherwise, entirely your own. As ever, I'm not blogging to tell you "the correct" way to write. I'm blogging as an excuse to warm up and connect with the world because I like to share thoughts and get my brain pumping.

There are a million and one reasons we as writers put thought into everything and every aspect of what we write. Everything we add to the story is to forward the plot, strengthen our characters and add that extra emotional punch to the delivery of our themes. On occasion (or in my case some of these happen more often then I realize), the latest trend can once in a while blur our pure motivations to tell a great story, and we end up with a few world-building taboos. Some of these taboos are cliché's or plot holes we find ourselves having to scratch out later or pause to work through or even have to dispose of entirely and start over. The first draft will never be perfect, but it's worth one's time to actively cliché and plot-hole dodge from the get-go.

1) Hot Button Issues Without Research

Here's one I didn't quite expect to hear about, primarily when it was the first bit of advice I received. "Hot Button Issues" are controversial issues that are relevant to today's world. The short and casual explanation is every topic you see everyone heatedly debating nowadays. Controversy in your story (fantasy or otherwise) is always a good idea but should not only be a part of your account because it has relevance to plot and character motivation but don't do it lightly.​

I'm referring to the "anti-write what you know" rule and not limiting your imagination with boundaries. I'll revisit this topic in another blog post because it is one I had an extensive conversation with another writer recently and realized "write what you know" is still very much limiting writers all around. Now is not the time for that, however, so back to Hot Button Issues. Maybe your fantasy world has a prejudice against certain races that many would identify with being from a minority group.

Your concern with proceeding with this idea though is that you were never a minority or experienced this first hand. That in no way means you cannot write a character who is. You want to tackle this Hot Button issue because it matters to you enough that you want an element of your story to target it. Perfect! Is your critique group commenting that they find your character's reactions off? Excellent again! Ask for advice, or better yet, if anyone in your writing community offers why don't you interview them on how it feels? Research.

"Write what you don't know" means challenge yourself to learn something new and add to the conversation.

2) Fake-Out Deaths & Resurrection

This is where we talk a bit more on clichés and carelessly adding resurrection to a story. You've probably most recently heard a debate on this topic from people comparing Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy with Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. The former resurrected the reverent wizard Gandalf after his tragic death and the latter kills characters in waves who stay dead. Martin commented that he didn't agree with Tolkien's decision reserrect Gandalf as it "cheapened his death."

Many fans of both stories either agreed or vehemently disagreed with the opinion. I was left wondering. In fiction, it is arguably frustrating when resurrection gets tossed into the mix because not only does it make death seem less tragic, but it does also lead to your reader questioning if they need to value death in the story going forward. I'll reserve which I lean more towards in terms of Tolkien versus Martin but will say what the debate got me thinking in terms of having resurrection in your story or not.​

Resurrecting the dead in fiction comes with a risk for your readers as many will see the first sign of death no longer being the end as a significant red flag that will make them hesitate to turn the page. In fairness, grief is something all readers and writers want to experience either with or for a character. The harsh reality is something everyone will have to face, and any reader will appreciate the topic being taken seriously because it means the author is taking them seriously. If resurrection is to occur in your story, remember you are dealing with life and death. Any manipulation of life versus death should come with a significant enough cost that should leave your readers to question if the resurrection was worth it. Whatever the circumstances around this resurrection, make sure your readers can wonder if it was worth it. A better story is you are resurrecting a character from the dead wasn't worth it.

Fake-out deaths follow in the same vein. The worst thing you can do as regularly tease whether a character has died or not--especially if you do it multiple times. This unfortunate cliché begins to do the opposite of getting an emotional rise from your audience and in turns trains your readers not to trust you when you dangle the possibility before them. Of course, there's nothing wrong with demonstrating your character's good fortune or overcoming overwhelming odds that claimed the lives of many, but tread carefully as this can lead to an unintended Mary Sue.

Interestingly, the Martin versus Tolkien debate also had me thinking that Martin, for me, has developed the opposite problem. Throughout Martin's epic fantasy where no one is safe and playing the game of thrones proves deadly, I quickly found myself focusing on fake-out...survival? While Tolkien resurrecting a character gave many readers pause, Martin's dropping seven in ten characters has developed a game of audiences simply counting the chapters or episodes until the characters finally bite the dust. What's worse is this ultimately trains an audience to cease becoming attached to any characters that join the cast later and become less invested in any characters in the story because they're all seemingly on borrowed time. The point? There's a fine line whichever direction you go in.

3) It Was All a Dream

Here's one that probably made you groan because it made me groan. There's only one story that did this right (Lewis Carol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and by extension stories inspired by this, The Wizard of Oz comes to mind). Outside of this, audiences don't like it, and this can come off as lazy writing. An author will write something the reader thinks is real, but then absolve themselves of the responsibility of what this dream world established by simply revealing it was all a dream.

This will be the one rare time I will say avoid this as much as possible. What I like to do instead with dreams in fiction is make the most trippy, nonsensical amalgamation of events that are so obviously a nightmare playing in the character's head and make it mean something. Whether this odd dream state is offering the reader character progression, is situational or a memory that will reveal a forgotten truth, have it mean something. Better yet, have a dream mean something then have a consequence come with it.

4) The Motivation Behind World Building Taboos

I have a golden rule I apply to my writing to avoid getting discouraged. Everything I write is a cliché until I can work out of that cliché and make it unique. Let's add to that: every taboo I work will be a taboo until I can make it work. The key here is your motivation behind what you're doing with that resurrection or that dream. Make a revival come at too high of a price. Make it visible to the reader that it's a dream, rather than trying to trick your reader, and have fun with it.

Want to address racism and why it's wrong in your story? Splendid! Just be sure not to add this element to your story for shock value or an excuse to provide character motivation. Add your commentary on racism to spread awareness or to show how you'd like to see changes made on the subject matter through your story. Pure motivations will provide real results.

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