Some Thoughts on Magic Systems

Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse

Every magical ability has an effect on the world. This is a principle I’m working to follow as I rewrite Featherfolk. My main magic system consists of special powers granted by spirits. The availability and breadth of different powers alters the setting and plot, but that’s the way it should be.

The poster child for what I’m talking about is teleportation. If characters in a fantasy story can teleport magically from place to place, why would they rely on x for sending messages, and why didn’t they use teleportation when event y or z occurred? Why do social problems a, b, and c still exist? Even with limitations on when or where or which characters can teleport, it’s  hard to catch all these and keep things consistent.

I tend to shy away from teleportation, because it gives me a headache to pin down all the effects such a power would have on economics, politics, warfare, etc, but I still have to be careful with the powers I grant my characters.

Have any of you had to re-work a magic system to match a setting or vice versa?

Happy Yarning.

 

Setting Research: Where Do I Even Start?

I’ve known since early on in the first draft of Featherfolk that the setting wasn’t…well…settled. I covered the mountains with familiar plants and animals because that was the easiest thing, but I knew I wanted to give it a more exotic feel. The only problem with exotic locations and cultures is that I know next to nothing about them. Hence, exotic.

Ever since I hit on the Andes Mountains and the Incas as a possibility for re-flavoring the world, I’ve been checking out stacks of books from the library, searching for documentaries, and scrolling through pages and pages of Google images, just to try and get a taste of the history and culture and climate and flora of such a place.

If I base the Featherfolk on another culture, I want to know more than just the tropes. Shallow knowledge would result in parody, which I feel would be disrespectful to that culture and its living descendants.

It’s quite overwhelming. How do you immerse yourself in a culture long dead, on another continent in another hemisphere, whose languages were not at all related to your own?

How do you start?

Hallo aus Deutschland: Little Things

IMG_3548

I think traveling is the best thing I can do to improve at inventing and writing fictional cultures.

As much as I learned about Germany from my family and language courses in school, being here has been a brand new experience.

In some ways, Deutschland is not so different from home. I’ve seen many tree-covered, rolling hills in the United States. The gas station we stopped at operated much like the ones along US freeways. Many city streets here would not be out of place in a US city.

But no one–no book, no web article–can tell you about all the little things that are totally foreign.

Like that everywhere there’s road construction they make the driving lanes super scary skinny.

Like that orange flavored Fanta is yellow.

Like that toilets flush by pressing a button, not a handle.

Little things.

A fictional character encountering a new culture will not only notice large differences, but little ones. Things about the everyday objects they interact with. In fact, they may not notice large things like government system differences, unless it has a large impact on tourist life.

Anyway, just a few thoughts from Deutschland.

Happy Yarning!

 

 

How Much Worldbuilding is Too Much Worldbuilding?

Can you build your fictional world too much? Not really, no.

The more you know about the culture, customs, geography, dialects, religion, mythology, technology, creatures, magic, and what-have-you of your world, the more you’ll be able to make that world three dimensional for your readers.

You can think of your world in three “dimensions”: Geography, Culture, and Conflict. Pretty much any facet of your world can be stuck under one of those.

Here’s a lovely graphic:

worldbuilding in three dimensions copy

It’s important to develop in all three of these dimensions as you build your world. Also, the dimensions need to be balanced. Drawing a really neat map isn’t much good if it makes no sense in the context of the culture you built; coming up with a language for your main character’s society doesn’t help much if it’s incongruous with conflicts and changes in the society’s history.

Consider how the three dimensions affect each other. For example:

  • How do waterways affect your main character’s society? (Geography -> Culture)
  • How do barrier-type landforms, resource-rich regions, or climate affect current and past conflicts? (Geography -> Conflict)
  • How do religious or cultural differences between groups affect borders? (Culture -> Geography)
  • Do different versions of history create conflict between groups? (Culture -> Conflict)
  • What battle-scars or ruins have been left on the face of your land? (Conflict -> Geography)
  • What group does your main character’s society ridicule or fear because of past interactions? (Conflict -> Culture)

While we all like a well-developed world, character is almost always what keeps readers reading. Whether you build a character within an existing world or you build a world around an existing character, consider how the geography, culture, and conflict affects him or her.

You can’t do “too much” worldbuilding, but you definitely can do too little writing. Nobody’s going to care about your world unless you tell a story (even J. R. R. Tolkien had to tell stories to get people to care about Middle Earth). If you find yourself worldbuilding as a way to procrastinate writing actual words, stop. You’ve got enough to go on. Finish your first draft, and then go back to building the world. Revise accordingly.

In addition, while it never hurts for you to know more about your world, don’t bombard your readers with facts and histories that aren’t critical to the plot of your story. Again, nobody cares how such-and-such overthrew such-and-such unless there’s a story with engaging characters. Maybe you can write more books in the same world to tell those stories, maybe your readers will never know, or maybe someone will publish your notes Silmarillion-style after you’re dead. Either way, resist the urge to explain.

Happy Worldbuilding!