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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Background

In my last post, as sort of a prelude to the complex topic I’d like to discuss here, I talked about ways to create fantasy cultures based on real cultures and the advantages and disadvantages of this method.  I’m going to start out this post by talking about such counterpart cultures again, but this time, I’m going to focus on the difficulties of creating a truly original culture and how the common use of counterpart cultures undermines such attempts.

 

So, counterpart and generalized Earth cultures make up a great deal of the fantasy landscape.  The exert an enormous influence.  On both the types of stories that are common, and on reader expectations.  I’m going to talk about reader expectations first.

Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book.  These are based on the cover, the blurb, the author.  But also on their past experiences with the genre.  If they’re used to parsing and relating to stories and characters in a pseudo-medieval European setting, they’re going to have difficulty relating to a character in a different setting, because setting informs character.  Also, writers and readers in the genre have developed a set of short-cuts for conveying various forms of information from the writer to the reader.  A reader is familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre, and writers can and almost inevitably do manipulate this familiarity in order to both meet reader expectations and violate them without going into a wall of text explaining the violation.

Both the writer and the reader of high fantasy have an understanding of the concept of the knight.  Or at least the version in Europa, our faux medieval European setting in which so many fantasies take place.  So when a writer introduces a character as a knight, it’s shorthand for a great deal of information which the writer now does not have to explain with long info-dumps about the history of European chivalry and feudalism.  There’s a strong tension in fantasy between world–building and not info-dumping, because for the most part, info-dumps get in the way of the story.  You don’t want to drop craploads of information on the reader all at once because it interrupts the story.  But you need them to understand the background in order to put the story in context.  Why would a fighter give his opponent a chance to ready himself and get on an equal footing when the stakes of the battle are the conquering of the kingdom?  Because his culture holds honour as one of the highest moral values.  Would sneaking up behind him and stabbing him in the back be easier, have a higher chance of success, and not put the kingdom at risk?  Sure.  So would shooting him with an arrow from behind a tree.  Or two hundred arrows in an ambush as he walks through the forest.  But it would be dishonorable.  And then he might do the same to you.  The same reason why parley flags are honored when it might be so much simpler for one side or the other to just murder the guy.

People do all sorts of dumb shit because it’s “the right thing to do” or perhaps because due to complex cultural values or humans being shitheads, the short-term loss helps uphold a long-term gain.  The tension between the obvious solution in the moment and why it might be foolish in the larger context is a powerful way to drive conflict in the story.  But teaching the reader larger context is a heavy burden when they don’t have any real previous understanding of it.  By using Europa as our setting, we get all that context for free because the reader has previous experience.

The same goes for any sort of counterpart culture.  Rome or Japan have a large collection of tropes in say Western English-speaking society.  Readers will be familiar with those tropes.  So if you want a bit of a break from knights and princesses, why you can take a quick detour through samurai and ninjas.  Or legionnaires and barbarians.  Sometimes these are just trappings on top of the same style of story.  Sometimes these new settings and tropes introduce new things to the story that are really cool.  But because even then, audiences have less exposure to various renderings of these tropes or perhaps the real history underlying them, they can be even more stereotypical or empty than Europa fantasy.

And even in terms of world-building they can do the same.  The writer has to communicate less technical detail to the reader and they don’t have to world-build as deeply because they have less need to justify their setting.  When you just know that knights and princesses and stone castles are real, even if you don’t know how they work exactly, you don’t worry so much about the details.  When something is clearly made up and not based on real Earth history, the questions about how things work and would they really work that way given the frame the author has built can become more of a suspension of disbelief killer.  There’s a joke that some things are just too strange for fiction.  Sure they happened in real life and we have proof.  But in stories, most people most often expect a sort of logical cause and effect and that if a thing happens, it has a good reason based in the story or world-building.  If something could happen once in a thousand tries based on sheer luck and it happening in your story is an important plot element, readers are much less likely to suspend disbelief than if it happens 754 times out of 1000 in the real world.  So your world-building needs to make some sort of logical sense to the reader if you want your plot to hinge on it.  And when you have the weight of genre history behind you, readers are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt than if you’re the first person doing it ever.

And that’s why fantasy counterpart cultures are so popular.  We know from Earth history, our only referent of a real history that actually occurred, that the things thus depicted (sorta, kinda, if you squint a bit) really did occur and function in a world rigidly bound by physical laws.  Unlike a world bound only by words on a page written by one dude who probably doesn’t even remember the six credits of world history he took in high school.

And as a very meta example of my point, I have now written two long posts full of info-dumping that I’m demanding you read before I even start talking about what I promised to talk about: how to overcome all these hurdles and actually create unique and original worlds and cultures for your fantasy story.

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Quote of the Night

Prospective valedictorians take heed:

“A child’s future should not be defined by how much longer they must work their ass off until they can do what they enjoy—because the answer is ‘forever’.”

~Kare Kano: Reflections on a Compulsory Education

 

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The Two Types of Urban Fantasy

Looking at the genre from one angle, there are two types of Urban Fantasy, Type-P fantasy and Type-D fantasy.

Type-D, named after Harry Dresden–because he is awesome and I saw the TV adaption on the Sci-Fi channel (before they came up with that ridiculous re-branding “SyFy”), and because someone over on AW used it– is fantasy where the MC is aware of the story’s supernatural elements.

Type-D can further be divided into stories where magic is “out of the broom-closet”, and known to the world at large, and the much more common set of stories where it’s a Big Fuckin’ Secret. You might guess which one I prefer. It’s probably due to my bias from secondary-world fantasy, where even if it’s a distant existence, both physically and mentally, magic is usually known to the general populace.

Type-P, named after Harry Potter–which is one of the more famous examples currently–is fantasy where the MC discovers that magic exists.

These stories come in two common varieties, stories where the MC does have magic, and stories where they don’t. The latter are usually the most popular.

Both types have their advantages and disadvantages:

Type-D can throw you right into the action. The plot is to the fore and it is where most of the attention is focused. Demon-hunting, vampire cabals, changeling conspiracies. A great example is Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire. MC knows about magic, is involved in magic, and is going to have a great time hunting down the “bad” kind.

Type-P is different. You might have some action at the beginning, such as the kid-napping or murder of someone close to the protagonist–or of the protag themselves. But then you have to deal with the fact that, “ZOMG! Magic!” Whether you’ve got a reluctant protagonist or one who Jumps at the Call, they have to process their reaction some time. You get a lot inner dialogue, friction with more worldly allies, and a great deal of shock and awe. All of these contrive to distance the beginning of the story from the real plot.

Which could go either way. Sure, their twelve-year-old sister got kidnapped, but… “Level 12 Fireball!” How can that not be cool? And that’s one of the major differences.

Type-D is often about the surface events, the plot, even though it is likely to be quite “character-driven”. Type-P is often more about the character arcs, the themes. Of course, these are only generalizations. You can still have fantastic character arcs in Type-D UF, and run around collecting plot coupons and fighting bad-guys in Type-P.

But if you look at my examples, you might notice something. How old are the characters in Dresden Files and Child of Fire? How old in Harry Potter? What about, dare I say it, Twilight? You can argue that it’s PR, not UF, but the genres are pretty close, and there’s a great deal of crossover. If you look back at most of the recommendations in my original post, you’ll see that the trend continues.

Now, I’m not dumping all Type-P UF in the YA category–although if you look at the whole Fantasy genre, you’ll see it follows the trend closely as well. There are counter-examples, naturally. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, for example, has a discovery plot and an adult MC. And it is not alone. Nor do younger characters always qualify a story as YA (or MG). But it’s a trend.

And one of the reasons for it is the ability to use magic as a metaphor for just about anything we don’t know about, or are uncertain of. Including growing up, love, getting out of the school environment, learning that life isn’t so simple as you thought, etc. And Type-P UF, and Type-F for that matter, handles these themes very well. Issues of self-discovery, personal identity, social identity, cultural identity, sexual identity. All of these have been addressed within Type-P. Being a wizard, a shifter, a vamp. These are all things that separate someone from the rest of humanity, just like being gay, or black, or female might set someone apart.

In Type-D, characters are usually more stable in their identity, more confident. They aren’t dealing with so many first, so many new things. They’ve already honed their skills, learned their lore, chosen their profession. And this allows for all sorts of stories that you couldn’t have in Type-P. It makes for different approaches as well. Whereas a twelve-year-old is not going to go undercover in an ab-dead dreamshit ring, a thirty-year-old were-falcon cop could do so easily. And vice-versa. Middle-aged investment bankers aren’t going to be wandering around in the attic, or playing hide and seek in the wardrobe. 9-year-olds certainly won’t be hunting down strange sorcerers who turn children in burning piles of grubs that burrow away into the soil.

There are many other ways to divide or classify urban fantasy. There’s N. K. Jemisin’s Stylistic vs. Contextual UF, over on Jeff VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days. You could classify by protagonist type: “Kick-ass broad” vs. suave vampiric playboy. Or smart, tough, magic detective. There’re the various lineages and influences I mentioned in the last post. The list goes on. They all provide some insight, and some context.

Next time, we might talk about those lineages a little more in depth. I think the term “lineage” in general makes for a great sub-category of “sub-genre”, unless you’d prefer “sub-sub-genre”? Either way, we’ll explore the idea soon.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2010 in Authors, Fantasy, Genre of the Week, Themes

 

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How to Create a Believable Magic System

ETA:  This is pretty much my most popular post, and I’ve come to the conclusion that’s because of SEO advantages such as a convenient titles as opposed to great content.  So an edit is in order.  I’m going to leave the original post unedited below, so feel free to read all the way down if you like.

One of the most common questions about writing fantasy is what to do about magic.  How do you create a good magic system?  How do you create a believable magic system?

What Do We Mean by Believable and How do I Accomplish It?

First, let’s touch on what we mean by “believable”.  A believable magic system in my view is one that allows the reader to maintain their willing suspension of disbelief. (Don’t feel obliged to read every single link if you know what I’m talking about.  PS, link one is to TVTropes.  Reader beware.)  There are several reasons why readers might give up their suspension of disbelief:

  1. Deus ex Machina:  When your magic system makes things too easy.  As the third link above says, you get a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from your reader–I’ll call them confidence points, and you can use it up.  Especially by solving your main plot conflict by using your magic system in a way you haven’t shown that it can be used.  Your fire mage suddenly learning they can use water magic when that’s the easiest way out of the situation is a deus ex and it’s going to use up most or all of your reader confidence points.
  2. Your magic is too easy.  There’s a common sentiment that magic requires a cost.  That’s often understood in the sense of mana points in a video game.   But there can be many “costs” to a magic system.  The important point is that your magic can’t just solve the plot problems for free or with little or no effort on the part of your protagonist.  Your cost can be in mana points if you want, or maybe it’s less concrete and logical such as losing an arm or a life.  Maybe you get a crippling migraine and can’t do anything for three days so you miss work.  But there has to be a trade-off.
  3. Your magic only solves problems but never creates them.  In our migraine example above, Hero Protagonist misses three days of work and gets fired.  Sure, he got rid of the poltergeist haunting his little sister, but he had to pay a cost for it.  And in this case, that cost caused new problems even as it paid off his old debts.  Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is a great way to price your magic.
  4. Your magic is all powerful.  Not only does that seem pretty unlikely, it’s kinda boring.  Why am I walking halfway across Middle Earth if I can just nuke Sauron with a passing asteroid?  There are famous memes tackling this very question.  Similarly, why didn’t they just fly to Mordor on eagles?

 

So how can you make your magic system more believable for your reader?  It’s not that it has to be understandable in real world terms.  That’s not what we mean by believable.  After all, you’re writing fiction and we know magic isn’t real.  What you’re really trying to do is convince your reader that this is how things would turn out based on your description of how magic works.  Let’s try answering each of the complaints listed above:

  1. Don’t do it.  Don’t let magic all by itself solve your conflicts.  You can let it solve part of your problem, but make your character use other tools, too.  Cleverness, for example.  Maybe you can cast an illusion or change the text of a document with magic.  But your character has to figure out what illusion or change to make.  Maybe your supporting characters can hold off the evil minions with magic, but your character still has to beat them in a sword fight.   Or perhaps your main conflict can’t be solved with magic at all.  Perhaps it requires persuasion, or compassion, or strategy.  And please, please, for the love of the fantasy genre… don’t have your magic do something that breaks a rule you’ve previously established for it.  This includes giving your character unique powers you’ve said your system doesn’t have, giving them a new power–especially with no foreshadowing–right at the key moment because otherwise they’re screwed.
  2. Magic is too easy?  Make it harder.  You can put costs on it as I mention above.  You can make it take awhile.  You can require it to be prepared ahead of time like the old D&D trope of memorizing three spells at a time and forgetting them as they are cast.  Maybe it requires specific ingredients.  Maybe you have to learn a magical language or writing system.  Or complex magical theory.
  3. Have your magic create as many problems as it solves.  This is a pretty common method for non-magical plot solutions, too.  You steal the artifact to trade for your dad, but now you’re a wanted criminal.  Like Nick Cage in National Treasure.  Or consider something like my migraine example above.
  4. Limitations help to make magic believable.  After all, everything in real life has costs and or limitations.  You might be able to walk 20 miles a day.  A car can take you 600 miles a day.  But it can’t cross the entire planet.  A pallet jack in the back of Walmart can let you pull over 1000 lbs, whereas you can only carry 75 lbs.  But it can’t put them on the shelf, and you can’t take one home when you buy a futon.  Magic doesn’t have to work exactly like science or technology do on Earth, but if it can do anything you have to wonder why we’re not all living in palaces waited on by djinnis with zombies plowing the fields for us.  As an example perhaps your fire mage can manipulate fire, but they have to create the first spark through natural means.  If magic that can do anything isn’t believable, then all you have to do is not let it do everything.

Now, I realize these are general abstract principles rather than concrete suggestions.  That’s because the possibilities of magic are by definition almost endless when you consider all the systems together.  I can’t precognitively diagnose your specific problems without knowing what your system is and can do.

Scientific Magic Systems

To address the giant elephant in the room, one common way people have claimed you can make a believable magic system is by having a “scientific” magic system.  You can read that post if you don’t know what that means.  I’ve ranted a few times about the misunderstanding of what constitutes a scientific magic system, but the link above covers the gist of it.  This is one method, but it isn’t the only method, and it has its own problems.

Most “scientific” magic systems are not scientific but rather logical.  You list a few base premises, and then–in theory–by combining these premises the characters and the readers can figure out exactly what the system can and can’t do.  I discuss this at length in my post about The Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding.  The idea is that if your reader knows exactly what your system can do, they can be confident that the conflict won’t be solved by cheap tricks.  (A truly scientific magic system is slightly more complex and involves the idea of limited information, where we don’t have all the rules laid out for us.  Then the reader must make hypotheses, and seeing whether these turn out to be correct is one way to create believable tension.)

A logical magic system is a promise to your reader that you won’t undermine the tension of the story by solving your conflicts with cheap tricks.  They know the dire situation really is dire because by the rules of your magic system the protagonist can’t just wave their hands and say a few words and “Poof!” the bad guy bursts into flames.  Of course, there are two ways to deal with this.  One is to meet the readers’ expectations, and the other is to cleverly subvert them.  This is where a lot of logical magic systems fail to suspend the readers disbelief.  When they aim for subversion but actually just straight up cheat in the reader’s eyes.  It’s a tightrope.

A Metaphor!

And here I’m going to digress a bit.  A truly good magic system (or story) doesn’t rely on the reader to suspend their own disbelief.  It provides the harness itself and suspends the reader’s disbelief for them.  When the magic breaks a promise to the reader, such as that you can’t bring back the dead, it’s like cutting one of the ropes holding the bridge up over the chasm.  If you cut enough of the ropes, even if there are still some there, the bridge comes loose and drops the reader into the chasm of broken trust.  What makes for a really spectacular climax is when you drop the reader into the chasm but then at the last minute they find an intact rope to hang onto, restoring their trust and suspension of disbelief.  But if the rope you leave dangling for them is too slippery, they can’t grab ahold and still fall to their death.

The most basic answer to the question in the title of this post is that you establish trust with the reader by making promises with your magic/story and then keeping them.  If you promise a harrowing ride with death-defying leaps, it doesn’t really work out if the safety net below your characters is too obvious.

Conclusion

In the simplest terms, a believable magic system is one where the reader can believe what you tell them about it and one where they can believe that the story and the world it’s in really would turn out like this given what they know of how the magic works.  I haven’t addressed the latter point quite as thoroughly as I did the former in this post.  But it is a very important point from a world-building perspective rather than the story perspective through which we looked at the first point.  I hope to address it better in a later post.

I hope this time I’ve done a better job of answering your question.  For more concrete or specific suggestions for creating a sense of trust in the reader and then living up to it, please check out the “Magicology” page which links to all my posts on magic systems.

Original Post:

For the last two posts, I took a break from discussing magic to lay some basic groundwork on how stories function. To sum up:

Stories are kept interesting through conflict and suspense. These are created through tensionSuspense is built through external “story” tension, and conflict is built through internal “character” tension.

If you haven’t read those posts, I suggest you do. But if you understand what I just said, you’re good to go.

How do you create a believable magic system?

The first step is to decide on your goals for the magic. Ask yourself these basic questions:

  1. Does it create suspense? Perhaps the Dark Lord has the power to turn all the seasons to winter, and your characters are on the verge of starvation. Or maybe he can’t. But you as the writer must know which.
  2. Does it create conflict? You know vampires? And all the angst that fantasy has decided comes with being one? That’s magic-derived internal conflict. But magical conflict isn’t only about whether Louis wants to drink blood or not. How would you feel if you couldn’t give your daughter a proper burial because that bitch Carnival had sucked her dry? Or what if the dragons are taking back their country dammit, and themselves take whoever is getting in their way.
  3. Does it resolve suspense or conflict? For example, are your characters allowed to escape a situation by using magic? This is fireball country, people. Brutes or brains? Or both? Lavan Firestorm burned up an entire invading army that seemed destined to overrun Valdemar. And Dirk Proven saved the world by figuring out when the next eclipse would occur—and lying about it.
  4. Does it create a sense of wonder? Who wasn’t impressed by the Nazgul, or Shelob? But I bet you don’t know where they came from, or how their power works. Good thing it didn’t matter. Now, Lackey’s ley-lines were fun, and you might even have wanted to be able to use them, but were they mysterious and awe-inspiring? No. Just a way to move along the plot. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But is it what you—as an author—want?
  5. What themes will your magic express or explore? Yes, themes. I know you had enough of analyzing literature in high school. Or not. But whichever it was, this is still something you need to think about. Maybe you’re a panster, and you only know the themes after you’ve written the book. But they’re there all along, and it can be much simpler to follow them if you know what they are in the first place. Maybe you’re an environmentalist. Would you prefer a story about ghosts or trees that would rather not be cut down? What about the pollution of sacred sites? Ursula K. Leguin tackles this with the story of how one of the great cities used the Lips of Paor as a garbage dump. I bet they were really willing to help when our friend the Mender needed his powers temporarily removed.

Now that we’ve gone over choosing goals, maybe we should talk about how to achieve them. There are several things you need to do to make your magic meet your goals:

  1. Know what your magic is and what it can do. Yes, flying is cool, but if your character is a water mage, there’s not much they can do about it. Making them a wind mage is not the solution, folks. The solution is to make compromises. Your character needs to part the sea in chapter 4? Then they can’t fly over the Mountains of a Million Trolls in chapter eight. If your character can do anything, we aren’t going to have much of a story.
  2. Know what your magic is and what it costs. Maybe you can part seas and fly. But it’ll cost you your first-born child. And you’ve already got one. Maybe you know the character will pay for this later. But the reader has a much shorter attention span. The more you can do, the more—and sooner—it should cost you. Physically or mentally, it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s permanent at some point. You can trade the cost as many times as you want, as long as you don’t trade it out of existence.
  3. Make it hard to learn. If your hero can learn the equivalent of a bible’s worth of spells in four weeks, why isn’t everyone and their pet hydra killing bandits and enjoying the magical equivalent of total climate control? If they are, then why does a prophecy about a fire-flingin’ half-elf princess so incredible to them? You’ve got to work out all the consequences. After that, it’s okay to indulge in some judicious ignorance.

Those are the basics, guys. There are way too any ways to create magic systems for me to fill out every little nook and cranny of magic-making theory. Later, I’m going to do some in-depth critiques of various magic systems, pointing out all the places things went right, and all the places they went wrong. And maybe I’ll even make up a magic system just for the Chimney, to really show you how the process looks. Field-work is fun, but “show don’t tell” is a real pain. Why do you think we writers don’t do it?

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Themes, Writing

 

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The Other Side of the Issue

All issues have at least two sides.  Now that people are reading, I think it is time to present the other side of the argument (found here) in a fair and un-biased light.

The article I linked to discusses the shift from TV sf several decades ago, and TV sf today.  One of its main points is that there is now a lot more focus on human relationships in tv sf–as opposed to action, adventure and fancy technobabble.  This is somewhat true.  However, there has never been a strong focus on hard sf in television.  Instead of good ol’ boy space westerns, we have now shifted to “gritty, realistic, human-centered” space opera.  It really puts the “opera” into “space opera” folks. 

BSG has often been criticized as beng just a soap opera in space.  But then, old guard TV sf was just westerns in space, so the idea that female influence on the genre has lead to the end of hard sf on television is a bit misguided.  There has been a decrease in the space western, but the hard sf was barely there in the first place.  And truthfully, BSG had a very large male audience, so one cannot argue that men (and boys) don’t watch tv sf anymore.

The other cotention was that young men will not have the inspiration to go into the scientific fields that they once got from TV sf.  I’d like to propose that sci-fi readers are in fact more likely to enter the hard sciences, and so this point doesn’t hold much water.  Following my proposition also invalidates the Minsky quote, which–to be fair–the author  of the article never claimed was in response to television sf.  But he very quickly went on to apply it thusly, and so he gets very few points for his “honesty”.

Overall, I agree there has been a shift in tv sf.  No denying that.  But I don’t agree that tv sf was ever really a quality influence on young men, as the Spearhead article claims.  Just read the angsty rant by Benedict that they endorsed so bluntly.  No offense to you Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever) out there.  I loved Star Trek, and Star Wars, and the original Battlestar Galactica as much as anyone.  But I’m not going to stand here and claim it is in any way equivalent to high-brow literature–or television.

I am not interested in addressing the claims and/or evidence of sexism or differences between men and women.  It is an interesting subject, yes.  But I do not believe such a conversation will be productive right now, nor is it in line with the focus of my blog.  I picked up on this because it dealt with a shift in a genre I care very much about, and because it’s always good to have a reasoned discussion on themes in literature.  I am not interested in enabling the exchange of tirades and trolling between two sides I find unlikely to reach an agreement or compromise at the current time.

 

The earlier post may be found here.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Gender Issues, Ideas, Themes

 

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