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Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Narrative vs. History

Putting the “Story” Back in “History”

(A continuation of my Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar series.  For the month of June, I’m looking at the effects of narrative on worldbuilding and its use in writing good stories and characters.)

What do we really know about the past?  What other people tell us.  Go read Ken Liu’s You’ll Always Have the Burden With You.  I’ll wait.  Not only is it a fun story, it’s a perfect example of the fallibility of the historical record.  Human beings are wired for narrative.  It’s in our genes.  It helps us make sense of a world that’s merely a random sequence of events within a given system.  Narratives are our best attempt at making those obscure rules transparent.  In the story, the narrative of a Gilgameshic epic serves the purposes of the head archaeologist.  People like the story, the expeditions get funded.  An alien tax code is boring (not really, but for your average human, it holds little interest), while an epic fantasy with religious overtones is fascinating.  It’s an open question in the story whether the truth really matters.  The main character criticizes an interpretation of the findings that within the expedition team has since been discredited, and yet when the same thing happens with the interpretation of the most fascinating artifact, he refuses to believe it.  or at least bows to the argument of the expedition leader.  It’s unclear if any of the characters notices the irony, although I can only assume Liu intended it to be available to the reader.

This concept is reflected in actual history.  Greek and Roman “historians” have often been suspected of telling fibs to further their agenda.  Did Carthaginians really sacrifice infants, or was that merely a convenient fiction during the conflict between them and the Romans?  Were there really temple prostitutes, or was it merely a way to discredit otherwise comparably civilized opponents?  Does belly-dancing really descend from the sacred dances of the temple priestesses in the Levant?  Or does it just make lessons more marketable to New Age and Feminist customers?

Beyond mere misinterpretation based on imposing our own value systems on alien cultures or just plain old aliens, there’s a purposeful misunderstanding, of which no culture is innocent, that can corrupt true history and misguide us in our understandings of others.

Rather than the truth, history is just the most successful narratives that have survived long enough that no one can refute them.

These narratives can even be so successful that they overshadow living truths of other cultures, or the narratives put forth by the modern descendants of past cultures.  All it requires is a lack of competing narratives.  Whether this is because those narratives are lost to history or are being purposefully suppressed, or because they aren’t available in a given language, or just because they haven’t penetrated popular consciousness, it makes little difference in the end.  Sometimes we can manage to unseat false or misguided narratives.  Sometimes even when the truth is known, it’s just not sexy enough for people to care.

What does this have to do with fiction?  You can take advantage both of narratives and how we apply them to history and apply them to your world-building, to your plots, to your characters, to your themes.  Being able to conceive of multiple plausible narratives for one situation, and being able to point a reader down those roads can be a valuable skill for a writer.  Mystery writers use it to place red herrings, to keep their characters from looking stupid in the multi-suspect structure of many procedurals.  Medical procedurals such as House MD make use of this concept such that a tiny little fact can change what appears to be the most reasonable narrative, or more specifically, the most believable diagnosis given a certain set of symptoms.

The three easiest targets for a narrative are those who are honestly ignorant of a topic, those who are more ignorant than they think they are, and those who are invested in the likely outcome of a given narrative.  Our understanding of economics is rife with competing narratives and confounding factors.  We know many small pieces of the puzzle, but the whole picture eludes us, and that makes for plenty of seemingly reasonable possibilities.

And as a result, what is the general populations view of economics full of?  Conflict.  Various people are invested in various economic narratives for various reasons.  They may or may not believe these narratives to be true, but they act as if they are true, or pretend to act like they are true because of the benefits of doing so.  Trickle-down economics benefits those at the top of the heap; the truth of the theory is irrelevant in that sense.  Plenty of competing theories are guilty of the same.

And that applies to any area of human study or endeavor.  In politics, we may be more familiar with the concept of propaganda, which is a subset of narrative, generally associated with political bodies.

No society is truthful with itself.  Whether they deliberately mislead themselves, are tricked by someone, or are just blind to the perceptions of others.  Neither are humans.  Self-image is also a form of narrative, whether it’s someone’s actual opinion of themselves, or the “reality” they try to project into the minds of others.  Any non-zero number of humans engages in spin at one time or another.

The next time you’re working on a story, whether it involves a single character in the moment, or the history of an entire nation, consider: How would this person or group spin themselves to outsiders?  To insiders?  To themselves?  How do they want to feel about themselves, how do they want others to feel about them, and what do they gain from the various possible interpretations of the facts?

Finally, ask yourself, what are the burdens of maintaining these narratives?  How do they affect your characters’ or society’s relationships with others?  Where do the various narratives your characters or societies feel the need to assume conflict?  How do they balance those conflicts, if they can?  How do the imbalances force their hand?  And how does self-image conflict with self?  Is it better to assimilate to the useful image?  Is it worth the pain and stress not to?  Why these self-images?  Guilt? Ambition? Or desire?

Look forward to next week for some specific analysis of the effects of narrative on history as regards the Japanese in World War II.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2015 in worldbuilding

 

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Monthly World-building Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Occupation

Welcome back to Atsiko’s Monthly World-building Seminar!  Today, we’re going to be talking again about technology and its influence on society.  In fantasy literature.

In the spirit of my official seminar schedule, I wanted to talk about how the ideas in the previous post can be applied to the real world.

According to the MIT Technology Review and the National Bureau for Economic Research, income and wealth inequality are directly related to the way in which an increasingly technological culture advantages the technologically literate over any other group.  Which only makes sense.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that those most likely to be technologically literate are people who are already advantaged in a given economy/society.  And when new technology comes around, they are also the most likely to have the time and resources available to capitalize on the possibilities of that new technology.  And this has been true throughout history.  When a group of people has a smaller share of inherited wealth, and a technology comes along that eliminates or changes their field of employment drastically, they have less chance of being able to recover and find a place in the new incarnation of society.

The roots of this problem all go back to the concept of specialization of labor: As a society grows larger and more organized, individuals in the society begin to switch from being jacks of all trades to being the master of one.  With the advent of agriculture, the job of producing food could be handled by a smaller percentage of the population, leaving the rest of the society free to pursue other trades.  This leads to the development of trades, where the master passes on their skills and knowledge to the apprentice, and these traditions result in an increasing level of quality in those areas.  As trades become more specialized, it becomes increasingly harder for an individual to learn a new trade, whether by themselves or from a teacher.  Finally, trades become specialized enough, and important enough to the economy that they begin to gain prestige, the supply of those skilled in the trade is exceeded by the demand for their services, and they become economically more stable and lucrative.

 

And some day, a new technology is invented which makes some trade obsolete.  Or perhaps a step in the production of a good that was once important and labor-demanding becomes simpler and easier, eliminating the need for the people who specialized in that step begins to dry up.  Now they must either invest in learning a new skill or be relegated to the pool of laborers suited for only easy tasks which are little trouble to learn.  The suppl of workers is closer to or even exceeds the demand, and the individual faces a decrease in the standard of living.

Not every technology has this effect, but the more innovative and powerful the technology, the more likely it is.  And while new technologies make create new jobs and trades, they tend to be more specialized, and create fewer jobs than a job-killing technology may destroy.

 

The next step of the association between technology and inequality involves the way in which technology breeds complexity in a society.  As more technologies arise, and the limited population divides further between career paths, it becomes necessary to have more effective organization.  Now jobs in organization begin to diversify and increase in complexity.  Because some human beings are better at certain tasks than others, and because there are a limited number of slots in most fields, especially as increasing levels of technology make tasks in those fields more efficient, the ease of switching between careers decreases.  And even the mid-level careers go through this, such that high-level and mid-level careers both drop to low-level when their relevance is eliminated by technology.

Finally, as technology and organization increase in complexity and investment of time and knowledge, there is a class of job that only a tiny number of people are suited for, but for which workers are in high demand.  You can never eliminate all the low-level jobs.; human society will always have the equivalent of today’s “minimum wage” job, at least as far as fantasy is concerned, no matter what the level of technology or magic involved.  Supply and demand will always hold, and so as a result, the greater the level of technology, the wider the income gap is going to be, no matter how much that same technology may raise the floor.  And as this rise in demand for certain skills convinces more people to aim for those career tracks, the people in the middle shift more towards the top, and the economy sees more profit in those areas, increasing demand and also increasing inequality.  Those who would previously have been in the mid-level fields are now instead either hitting the tail-end of the upper-level, or failing out and losing their investment, dropping into the low-level fields.  You can read a bit more about the ideas of capital bias and skill bias here.

 

The easiest example of this today is Silicon Valley.  As noted in the MITTR article, Silicon Valley is one of the areas of the highest economic inequality in this US, being one of the centers of technological innovation and change.  But basically any American corporation can model these concepts.  Certain high demand fields, such as CEO or other management jobs are paid not according to merit, but rather based on competition between companies for an under-available commodity.

 

So technology leads both to a massive increase in the overall productivity of the society, but also to larger and larger amounts of inequality.  This is something that’s important to keep in mind when building your own fictional society, and it can lend a lot of verisimilitude to your world-building. And in our third and final post for this introductory mini-seminar, I’ll go into more detail about both realistic and reasonable applications of these concepts to fictional world.

 

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Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Inequality

World-building is essentially creating the setting for your story.  What many people don’t think about consciously is that the setting has possibly one of the strongest effects on a well-told story, even compared to the plot and the characters.  What is a plot-hole except a failure to match the plot properly to the full range of possibilities inherent in the setting.  What is bad characterization except a failure to have your characters react properly to the setting?  The interaction of the characters with the setting is what creates the plot on a basic level.  You can’t have a restoration of the rightful monarch(read: farmboy hero) without having a monarchy, a false ruler, a rightful ruler, and someone who wants to change the status quo.  Those are all elements of the setting, and when you start the machine of the setting ticking, it inevitably creates the conflict that drives the plot.  You can start planning story with any of the three elements or a combination thereof, but essentially you are using abductive reasoning to tie all the elements together.

Now that we have that premise out of the way, the actual issue I want to talk about here is what technology is and what effect it has on a society.  In particular, how does technology affect the gap between the rich and the poor.  In order to explain these effects, I’ve found that the metaphor of a lever works particularly well.  Both literally and figuratively.  Technology is the lever and individual human ability is the force that’s being applied.  Now, a lot of people like to say that technology raises the standard of living in the sense that the rising tide lifts all boats.  Which is true to an extent.  Anyone with a lever can do more than someone without.  But, because the most privileged are starting ahead in terms of the force they can input into the system, their output is always going to be greater.  Assuming two people of equal skill and ability, the poor man can never catch up to the rich man.  If both men have access to the piece of technology, they both advance, but the rich man advances farther.

Here’s a simple mathematical example:

One man has 100 acres.  Another man has 900 acres.  They can both produce 10 bushels of wheat per acre, which totals to 10,000 bushels.  The gap is thus 8,000 bushels between the rich man and the poor man.  Now say we introduce a machine that increases productivity per acre by 50%.  The first man can now produce 1,500 bushels of wheat.  The second man can now produce 13,500 bushels of wheat for a total of 15000 bushels. The gap is now 12,000 bushels.  Technology has brought up both men’s productivity, but it has also widened the gap between them.

The rich man can now afford to sell his products more cheaply, because he’s moving a higher volume, so customers buy his wheat and the poor man loses out.

Further, greater technology allows a leader to actively organize a larger power base, whether that involves an army, a workforce, a company, or resources. The greater the level of tech, the wider the reach of a given company.  National chain businesses, for example, flourish better in a high tech world, while individual small businesses tend to fair better in a low-tech world because competition is less and it’s harder to synchronize business and products and suppliers.

Other factors excluded, a world with higher technology is likely to include wider inequality, even if the lowest level may have a higher standard of living on average than in a world with less technology.

Now, there are more kinds of inequality than economic inequality.  A common topic in military discussion, whether fiction or otherwise, is how the disparity in technology might affect tactics, and even lock a given force into certain tactics even though they may not be effective in the situation.  It also affects composition of forces.

For example, while better technology may mean an average soldier for one group is worth some multiple of soldiers in another group, the extra expense means that of two groups of relatively equal resources, the group with the better military tech will often maintain fewer soldiers to make up for the expense.  The hope is that the better efficiency will make up for that, but it does leave holes open for the less advanced group to attack from another angle.  You can hope to split the opponent up, ambush them, make use of terrain or inherent flaws.  And the opponent may prefer tactics that leave them open to strategies they don’t have experience with because the technology is considered “inferior”.

This also applies to population.  For most of the periods involved in fantasy, higher technology leads to greater population density.  (Eventually you hit a peak, where the bottom of the standard of living is pushed so high that birth rates drop; this can be tied both to gender equality and technological advancement.)  So a country with higher tech levels has more people, giving them an extra economic and military advantage.  Magic may follow the same pattern depending on the style of magic in the world.

More population means you can occupy more territory, raise more food at the increased level, have more minds working on further advancement, etc.

Finally, we have the difficulty of living outside the system but near the same standard of living and level of technology.  The greater the technology, the more integrated it is into the society, the more you need specialization of labor to keep things going.  So an individual or small group can’t maintain self-sufficiency equal to someone in the web of society as easily.

The simplest example of the influence technology can have on the setting and thus on the plot and characters is steampunk.  Theoretically an entire sub-genre based on the technological level of its setting,

Look forward to further entries in the Technology in Fantasy Seminar this month.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Fantasy, World-building, Writing

 

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Societal Expectations and Real World Cultural Baggage in Speculative Fiction

A few days ago, I posted a quote that expressed a rather negative view of our current system of education  (in American and around the world).  First, I’d suggest you watch the anime mentioned in the title of the work from which the quote is excerpted: “Kare Kano”.  This show was also known as Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo in Japanese, and “His and Her Circumstances” in English.  It really gives you an understanding of where the quote is coming from.  Of course, it’s 26 episodes or about 12 hours long.  So, I also hope to elaborate on that in this post and the ones that follow.  You won’t be required to watch the anime to understand the post.  That would be ridiculous.  But I still think it would help.

Now, you might wonder what this has to do with writing science fiction and fantasy–or anything else, for that matter.  The answer is “nothing”.  And “everything”.  It also might have something to do with fact that I’m researching for a near-future SF story dealing with education and society.  Bear with me.

Every society has two important things that make it what it is: expectations and acceptations.  Expectations are pretty obvious, the things one is expected to do to make it in society.  In the modern world, these often include education, occupation, and reproduction.   Acceptations are a little more complicated.  They are culturally wide-spread opinions on what are “acceptable” deviations from the norm.  Being a child film star instead of going to normal school is an acceptation of modern American(US) society.  Becoming a drug dealer is not.

It doesn’t really matter in practical terms what an individual believes, because social pressures are usually strong enough to override individual opinions..  But it most certainly matters in personal terms.  Being forced to conform to a blanket set of expectations can be very damaging to a person.  For instance, in modern America, there is still a great deal of prejudice towards homosexual orientations.  Society expects that a man will pair up with a woman and have children.  When individuals deviate from these expectations, there are consequences, generally negative, in response to those unaccepted actions.

But think about this, there are also ways to positively violate societal expectations.  If someone drops out of college to join a rock band, there would normally be negative reactions, but if they become wealthy or famous or both, suddenly everyone is praising them.  Sort of the old “I’ll show them!” ideal.  But even with numerous examples of this, the negative perception of such behavior still exists, because “normal” people cannot do these things.  You might call these exceptions.  If one drops out of school and becomes a wealthy prostitute or pimp, even that “success” does not justify their deviation.

That’s how it works in the real world.  And on the surface, that’s how it works in fiction.  Especially mainstream, earth-based fiction.  But what about speculative fiction?  All too often, we drag our baggage along with is into stories ostensibly set in other worlds, dimensions, countries, even if the natural expectations and acceptations would normally be different in those settings. 

On the one hand, it could be argued that the whole point of fiction is to explore our own issues.  But I would counter that that doesn’t require us to transport all of our 21st century Earth attitudes into past or future worlds.  You can still address contemporary issues in fictional settings.  All it takes is a little imagination.  And I know the spec fic community—and the writing community in general—has that.

It’s actually a very common discussion topic on web-based spec fic communities whether or not that ham-fisted projection is acceptable in good fiction.  If we look at contemporary foreign literature (and this applies not matter what is “foreign” to you), we can see that these authors can write a story in which we sympathize with character issues that don’t derive exclusively from our own culture.  Look at how popular Japanese cultural exports are in America.  An enormous number of manga, anime, and light novels are translated both officially and unofficially into American English.  Is Japan a radically different culture?  Not in the modern world.  But they do have a different set of cultural expectations, acceptations, and exceptions.

When writing a story, it’s very important to consider what is “normal” within that setting, and what is exceptional or discouraged.  It used to be that people from the lower classes were discouraged from pursuing higher education—or any education at all.  It used to be in our culture that music was a special activity, for a small number of people, and now it’s a part of most curriculums.  And before that, it was a community activity.

These sorts of societal pressure have an enormous impact on us as people, and the same should be true for characters in your story.  Examining and exploring these issues before you begin to write can cut down a great deal on the clichés common to many spec fic stories, such as the plucky princess, the genius peasant,  the scholarly whipping boy, the child seer/mage, and the feisty girl thief.  Assuming they don’t fit in the context of the story, of course.

And, of course, for those characters that do fall outside of the mold, it can create a more deep and realistic sense of tension between them and society.  And it can open up a wide array of themes for the story to explore: gender, age, race, class, etc.

 

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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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World-building—And Why It Matters

One of the first things you’ll hear on going to a writing forum dealing with the genres of Speculative Fiction is that “characters and stories are more important than world-building.” Which, on the surface, is absolutely correct. You could create a fictional world twenty-thousand times as deep and fascinating as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and if you didn’t have a story with characters that took place in it, you’re not going to sell a book. At least, not a commercial fiction book.

But think about this, you could come up with the most fast-paced, suspenseful story ever written, and if the characters are cardboard, you won’t sell it. The same goes for having the most fascinating and intricate characters in the history of story-telling. If you don’t have a story, something for those characters to do, you won’t convince anyone to pay you for writing about them. So, we’ve concluded that no one aspect of a story make up for a lack in the other two.

But wait, didn’t I just quote Generic SFF Writing Forum Member as saying that both character and story are more important than world-building? Well, yes, I did. You can’t sell a story without a story, and it isn’t a good story without good characters. But the question is, how do you create a good story? With good characters? I would like anyone who would buy a story that was exactly the Borne Identity set in 435 BC Japan to raise their hand.

Now, for those of you who didn’t raise your hands, why not? (The rest of you can GTFO.) One reason might be that it makes absolutely no sense. You can’t set a story that’s identical to the Borne Identity in 435 BC Japan, because the story is set in Zurich, relies on the real-world geography of Zurich, and includes a great deal of not only Swiss, but also 20th century culture, that just didn’t exist in Japan (and still doesn’t, and never will) in the 5th Century BC. That makes sense, right?

Now, you could set a similar story to the Borne Identity in 5th century BC Japan. Perhaps an ambitious warlord or clan leader is using deadly proto-ninjas to assassinate his adversaries. (Yeah, it’s cliché, and historically inaccurate, but that’s not the issue. Well… okay, it’s exactly the issue.) But a similar story is still not the same story, right? There are going to be differences, most of them enormous, at least as far as the details go.

You might still be able to throw in some amnesia, and espionage, and a romantic subplot, but there won’t be any car chases, or guns, or long-range communications technology (e.g., cell phones). The characters and the setting, and probably many themes, will be informed by an entirely culture and perspective. And readers will expect the writer to be accurate in those things.

How does a writer do that? They research. A lot. Even the most seat-of-the-pants writer will be constantly checking their ideas against reality. They may decide to ignore it in very important areas, but they will know they are doing so.

In fantasy, or at least, secondary world fantasy, the writer does not have that enormous pool of reality to compare the story to. Instead of research, they do world-building. Everything that your normal, non SFF writer can look up on Wikipedia? You have to make that stuff up.
Of course, you do get the advantage of flexibility. Whereas an author writing in a well-known period of earth will have to fudge things—even when they know some readers will bite their head off for it—an SFF author has a lot more freedom to make shit up.

But, lest the reader still find plot holes you could drive the Deathstar through, you must be internally consistent. And that’s where all that effort you spent world-building comes in. Now, you can borrow a lot from real life: gravity, thermodynamics, human beings—but for most of the history and culture and geography, you can only get inspiration. Same for characters. You have to sew it together yourself from whole cloth. All of it…

Er, well–as much as you need for the story anyway. How much that is will depend on the scope of the story, but considering that most SFF written today has relatively large scope, you’ve still got a lot of work to do.

“But wait! It’s hard enough to come up with a plot and characters. Why must I create an entire world, as well?”

What? You thought SFF was easy? Reality check!

Making shit up is hard, but you have to know all of this stuff because your story and characters have to fit in the world in which they live. Remember our talk about setting the Borne Identity in 5th Century BC Japan? Setting matters—a lot. Now, there are many approaches, many methods, many ways to do this creation.

Some authors spend a few months working this stuff out at the beginning. Some people mix it together with the story and characters as they go along. Some people go back and revise once they have the basic draft of their story on paper. But you’ve got to do this work sometime. We can discuss the advantages of the different methods later. For now, you just need to understand why this stuff matters. In the next post, we’ll discuss how to decide which aspect to cut when they conflict.

 

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Oh, My God, it’s a Flying Carpet! Or: Believable Relationships with Magic.

In the last post I talked about the relative frame of reference in regards to magic. Quick refresher: A relative frame of reference is the knowledge and experience of a single character. In this case, their knowledge of—and experience with—magic in the world of the story. Each character has a different one. And the reader has an absolute frame of reference (in most cases). And that’s where we run into trouble with character reactions.

A lot of you may be familiar with a joke whose punch-line goes: “Oh my god, a talking sausage!” The humor comes from the fact that this line is itself in fact uttered by a linguistically capable sausage.

A lot of readers and writers have this idea in their heads that characters in high magic worlds cannot be surprised or awed by magic. After all, it’s everywhere, even if they can’t use it themselves. Flying broomsticks, and fireballs, and talking flamingos… whatever. But just like our friend the talking sausage these characters are perfectly capable of being surprised by such things. In the real world, many people are still in awe of perfectly normal things: A quadruple axle in ice-skating, a launching rocket, stage magic, a particularly impressive floor routine at the Olympics, anyone who can play La Campanella. It’s not just about whether we are familiar with something. There’s also whether we are capable of it ourselves, and also the remove at which we experience it. We’ve all seen moon landings on television, but to be face-to-face with a person who has walked on the lunar surface is still somehow incredible.

Maybe the King does sponsor 13 mages of the “Adept” level, but so what? If all a little street rat has seen are hedge witches treating headaches, one of those adepts calling a thunderstorm to kill an orc raiding party is still going to be quite impressive. I can get quite a few bulls-eyes on the YMCA archery range, sure, but I certainly don’t have as many fan-girls as Legolas, an entirely fictional character. The point I’m trying to make here is be very careful how you judge a characters reaction to the fantastic. Just because you’ve seen 37 dragon-slaying elf-lords, that doesn’t mean our humble heroine has the same experience. Now, if she were married to a dragon-slaying elf-lord, that’s a different story.

Just because we’re reading about a high magic world doesn’t mean everyone has exactly the same exposure. We had silks for hundreds of years before your average housewife could afford to buy one at all, much less without bankrupting herself. Even in a world with magic refrigerators, the fantastic can still amaze.

All right, enough of my ranting and raving. How can we create believable relationships with magic for our characters?

Step 1:  Know what your character has seen or experienced.

Are they a total noob? Have they never even seen a sympathy lamp1, much less someone calling the wind? Even the tamest fire-calling will probably shock them. But perhaps they’ve talked with snakes and found themselves on roof-tops unknowing of how they arrived there. They might not be entirely shocked when an invitation to England’s magical boarding school arrives in the mail. Are they the arch-mage of Glockenspiel? Perhaps even a divine visitation is nothing more than another damn form to fill out and alphabetize.

There will be characters in your fantasy running from one end of this spectrum to the other, and you have to somehow make them all work. There’s a lot of guess and check here, no simple rules or formulas. A particularly imaginative child may not be at all shocked to find a faun and light-post in the back of the wardrobe, while her older siblings might be rather dismissive of the girl’s claims.

Step 2:  Decide what your character knows.

Even if your character can’t use magic themselves, they may be familiar with a great many of its principles. Lore-masters, priests, and worldly mercenaries all have the opportunity of falling into this category. If they do use magic, they could be at any step on the ladder of mastery: a lazy apprentice barely able to levitate an apple2, a jaded playboy known throughout his people as a flamboyant master3, or even a maxed-out journeyman resentful of his small ability. Wherever he is, how much he knows will inform his responses. He may be contemptuous of a clumsy apprentice’s first fireball, and wildly jealous of a child-prodigy’s Greater Demon Summoning. He may be surly and capricious towards others, or earnest and benevolent in pursuit of his lowly duties. Every character is different, but it’s important to consider how their personality affects relationships with other magic-users (or non-users) and with magic itself. Knowledge is one type of pecking order, and strength another, and you should know where the character stands in both.

Step 3: Know what your character feels.

Does your character see all healers as saints, or all mages as sinners? Do they have religious objections? Emotional ones? Did a mage murder their father? Are those who need magical assistance pathetic? Have they succeeded without magic in a field where mages pre-dominate? Have they ever felt in debt to a mage? Begged for help? Been spurned? These questions and many more affect how they relate to magic and those who use it. Attitude is a very important factor in how a character feels. Those who look on magic with contempt will not be impressed by displays of skill. Those who have been harmed with not admire it. Those who have been spurned or let down may hate it with all their soul. And those whose lives it has saved may view all mages (deservedly or not) as angels, saints, or heroes. But you’ll never know how your character feels or responds if you don’t know explore those feelings.

Step 4: Know how your character views magic.

This is the final and most complicated question to answer. Does your character see magic as a means to power? Does anything go? Do they have ethics or morals? Perhaps magic is the tool of demons… or a gift of the gods. Maybe there are no built-in penalties for “misusing” it. Or maybe the slightest deviation from protocol will bring divine retribution. What are the rights and wrongs of magic as far as your characters are concerned. Would they support bring back the dead? Stealing souls? Healing the sick? Fighting wars? All of these questions can help predict what sorts of conflicts will arise among your characters. (Emotion will, too, of course.)

Truthfully these steps can be done in any order, but I’ve lined them up in the way that seems most sensible to me. You can’t know what they know unless you know what they’ve experienced, and same goes for ethics and emotion (which I’ve put after knowledge/ability since that is often a major part of attitude.

So, those are the main four things that will determine how a character responds to magic. Whether creating your own character or reacting to another’s, it’s important to keep these things in mind. One’s own prejudices and experiences are irrelevant to whether a character has responded believably or not. All that matters is the character.

Since I spent half this post ranting about high-magic worlds, I suppose I’ll have to explain that term, and it’s opposite, “low-magic” worlds, next post. To avoid a dry and boring series of definitions, we’ll take a look at how to decide which is best for your story, and I’ll support the discussion with examples from various fantasy books I’ve read.

1 A reference to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, regarding the two forms of “magic”, one of which is common and well-known, and the other which is rare and mysterious to non-Arcanists.

2 Darian, from Lackey’s Owl trilogy is a village boy who begins with very weak magic. Levitating fruit is one of the exercises set him by his master.

3 Firesong from Lackey’s Mage Winds and Mage Storms series is a powerful and learned mage of the Tayledras, with a reputation for romantic flings and a childish attitude.

 
 

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