World-building is one of my favorite parts in the writing process. You can be as creative as you want, you can make civilizations and histories and literally move mountains, but you have to follow the rules.
What rules, you ask? The rules of the world you create.
Let me explain.
Let’s say a mermaid falls in love with a charming, but broody young merman, and they spend their days frolicking in the seaweed (much to her father’s dismay), daring each other to swim too close to the jellyfish (which only stings if you’re a wimp), and trapping tuna (which are slippery, but not altogether too bright). They don’t have a religion, apart from worshipping a metal hairbrush from the surface (we’ll just call it a Dinglehopper), and their biggest dream is to win the all-star synchronized swimming contest.
But building a world isn’t just about combining brilliant (award winning, really) ideas, it’s about consistency. A story is only believable if the characters have some limitations – gravity maybe, or human restrictions, like the one I always neglect, sleep. It needs to have rules, just like a body needs to have bones in order to stand.
For instance, let’s just say our mermaid friend finds her dark brooding merman catching crabs with the mergirl from across the pond. Would she burst into tears? Well, that depends. If she’s submerged in water then probably not. You’ve just bumped up against one of the constraints of your world. You need to find another way for your characters to show the emotions behind the tears.
Maybe she’s not sad. Maybe she wants to stand her ground and tell him off. Would she say, “What the hell? Get your filthy paws off of my merman!” Maybe. But probably not. Because 1) what would our underwater heroine know of paws (I doubt she had a puppy growing up)? And 2) you’ve set up a world where mermaids worship Dinglehoppers, and to reference Hell implies a traditional, surface-dweller’s religious belief system. Anyway, she’s probably not going to “stand” very well with a tail, and I don’t know about you, but the last time I tried to say anything underwater it didn’t go very well.*
You get my point.
When it comes down to it, we use words and phrases every day that reflect the world we live in. I was breathing like I’d just run a mile. Don’t be such a baby. Piece of cake. He’s born again. That costs an arm and a leg. I’m having a bad hair day.
Most of us know what they mean, so we assume our characters do too. But we have to be careful. Just
because it’s fiction, doesn’t mean anything goes.
Welcome to some of the joys of world-building!
*Anne Greenwood Browne has created a very unique communication style for the mermaids in her book, LIES BENEATH (2012). Check it out! It's awesome!