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Monday, September 14, 2009

Fantasy World-Building: Magical Rules

World-building is different for those of us who write speculative fiction than for people who write stories based in the "real" world. Rather than examining the past for factual details, we have to make up alternate worlds. One of the most important tasks, then, is to establish the world's "rules," or perhaps more accurately, the laws.

By laws, I mean the factual kind that recur in nature. You can jump upwards as many times as you want to, but as long as you’re dealing with a g of gravity, you will always come back down. You can do your darndest to stop the ocean tides, but as long as the earth keeps spinning and the moon keeps pulling, there will be tides.

The same thing has to happen with magic. There must be laws to any magical universe, and to create them, a writer must ask herself things like

* Who can use magic and who can’t? Only people who are trained? Only people who have certain genes? Only people of a certain gender or race or culture? Why only those people? Must the power be awakened, or is it there from birth?

* What is magic? Where does it come from? Is it a force of nature, neither good nor evil, or is it a spiritual or eschatological kind of power only angels or demons can grant?

* How is magic used? Must the user cast spells, or is magic more of a generalized energy? Must he rely on herbs, or blood, or eye of newt, or are spell components obsolete in your world? Are sigils, runes, or incantations used?

* What price must be paid? If you fight gravity by jumping, eventually you’re going to wear yourself out. That’s the price. So what happens when one uses magic? And are the consequences the same for any kind of magic, or do they vary with the kind of spell?

* What are the limits on magic? If your character can do anything and everything, there’s no tension in the story, so what can’t she do with magic?

* Are there different types of magicians with specialized powers -- like necromancers and alchemists and prophets -- or are they all the same?

Your answers can’t be random, either. They have to make sense, just like the laws of our universe do. And you can’t be whimsically changing them because your character suddenly needs to be able to do this or that kind of magic. You should write your rules down and pretend they're set in stone.

One more thought: It's challenging to come up with new rules if you write in multiple fantasy universes. When you have a logical, well-defined set of rules that you carefully abide by, it can be hard to think beyond them for another story. This is part of the reason many authors set different stories in the same universe. If you have trouble coming up with multiple sets of rules and keeping them straight, don't feel bad about setting things in the same universe!

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she runs Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and an associated blog. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource. 

Have a psychology/writing question? Send it to me (using my email address to the right) and you may see it answered on the QueryTracker.net Blog!


Stina said...

Great post, Caroyln!

Reesha said...

Awesome. I like this.

I think it's also important to think about how to convey these rulse to the reader. Explaining the 'rules' of the physics in our world is boring to most people, and they actually live in this world! So it would be boring to describe every single law in a new world.

I love the sneaky but oh so cliche device of having a visitor from our world end up on the fantasy one. That way, you can just explain things to the character as you go along, and the character/visitor becomes a querier for all the questions the reader would want to ask/should ask.

My favorite example is Neil Gaiman's book "Neverwhere".

Windy said...

I've been thinking about this for a wip. Thanks so much for the break down!

Rebecca Knight said...

Great post! :) I struggled w/ this while writing my manuscript, and had to go back and flesh out my rules several times to make sure everything made sense.

Isn't there a famous quote about fiction being harder to write than fact because it has to be believable? ;)

Bill, the Wildcat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill, the Wildcat said...

A great post, and so very true. Magic is one of those things that I find intimidating as a fantasy writer, and the truth is that I usually don't think of anything in the stuff I write as "magic." To me, magic is the unexplained. As the writer, it should all make sense to me and lack the mystery that any magic might possess for the reader.

Speaking as a fantasy writer, "magic" is just half the story when it comes to world-building, though. To me, a good fantasy writer has twice the research and prepwork of a non-fantasy writer.

My wife and I have a manuscript we've written for a medieval fantasy novel that is set on another world. Just because it was a different world, it didn't let us off the hook on a lot of research. We had to research castle structure, sword-making and armour construction.

Then we had to write the history of the world. How did the country we focus on in our book become the way it is? What are the countries on this same continent that were all part of an empire? How did the empire rise and fall? How does this country's economy work.

Then there's the structure of the country's army (most of the main characters were part of the knighthood). How did the clerical heirarchy work (another central element to the story), and just what were the prominent religious beliefs? How is the government structured and what kind of squabbles existed among those in power?

We also needed maps and not just for borders and roads, but for the terrain... rivers, mountains, etc. How long would it take to get from one place to another (we did cheat on that a bit. We never named distance in miles or kilometers, just dictated a certain distance that a rider on a horse would be able to travel in so many hours).

Good fantasy does not offer many (if any) short cuts where research is concerned. If anything, fantasy writers who take their craft seriously have to work twice as hard when it comes to developing the setting.

Whew! This reply ended up a lot longer than I expected. Thanks again.

Tara McClendon said...

I don't tend to think about the rules, but my wonderful husband does. He keeps track of them, and when I read him something that breaks the rules, he points it out.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Great points, Bill! I think that's why fantasy novels often have maps and such at the beginning...the writer has to do so much work developing and researching all the things you mentioned!