#NaNoPrep: Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

Many authors will begin writing novels on November 1st.  Some will be genre fiction–fantasy, romance, sci-fi, etc.. I read sci-fi and seek out fantasy but I’m also a born skeptic. Logic is an area many first-time authors ignore, because some wonderful trick has captured their imagination. It may be a good idea but they didn’t think it through very well, so it doesn’t work.

Science, the paranormal, and magic must be written in such a way that we can easily and wholeheartedly suspend our disbelief.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_101Open your storyboard and create a new page. You are going to create the limits of science, magic, or the paranormal. By creating limitations, you create opportunities for conflict.

  • Hint: make a “glossary,” a list of the proper spellings for all words that relate to or are special to the science or magic in your story. This will save your sanity later on.

In designing a story where superpowers, super weapons, or magic are key elements, we have to keep two important ideas in mind:

Science is not magic. The writer of true science fiction must know the difference, especially when creating possible weapons. Superweapons and superpowers are science based. Think Stan Lee’s Spider-Man. The theory behind superweapons and /or superpowers might be improbable, but it’s logical and rooted in the realm of theoretical physics.

scienceAuthors of sci-fi must research and understand the scientific method. This path of testing and evaluation objectively explains nature and the world around us in a reproducible way. Sci-fi authors must look things up, read scientific papers, and ask questions.

An important thing for authors to understand is who their intended readers are. Those who read and write hard science fiction are often employed in various fields of science, technology, or education in some capacity. They know the difference between physics and fantasy.

The paranormal is not science or magic. It works best when the opening pages establish that the paranormal exists as a part of that world but has limitations. The paranormal should follow a logic of some sort. Start with a premise: Ghosts, or vampires, or shapeshifters, or werewolves, or any kind of paranormal entity exist.

  1. What are the conditions under which they cannot exist?
  2. If ghosts, can they interact with the physical world? Why or why not?
  3. What powers do the paranormal characters have?
  4. Under what conditions do their powers not work?
  5. What harms them? (Sunlight? A silver bullet? Something must be their kryptonite or there is no story.)

Magic is not science, but it should be. Magic also works best when the population accepts that it exists and has limitations. When you think about it, magic should only be possible if certain conditions have been met. It should be logical and follow a set of rules.

For me, magic as an element of a fantasy novel works under the following conditions:

  1. if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  2. if the ways in which it can be used are limited.
  3. if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every kind of magic.
  4. if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  5. if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  6. if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  7. if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  8. if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  9. if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.
  10. Is your magic spell-based rather than biological/empathic?
  11. If magic is spell-based, can any reasonably intelligent person learn it if they find a teacher or are accepted into a school?

magicSatisfying these conditions sets the stage for you to create the Science of Magic. This is an underlying, invisible layer of the world. By creating and following the arbitrary rules of this “science,” your story won’t contradict itself.

What challenges do your characters have to overcome when learning to wield their magic/superpower or super weapon?

Is the character born with the ability to use the superpower or magic? Or was it learned or conferred?

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • If not, why?
  • How does their inability affect their companions?
  • How is their self-confidence affected by this inability?
  • Do the companions face learning curves too?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?

Personal Power and the desire for dominance is where the concepts of science, magic, and the paranormal converge.

In all my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, the enemy has access to equal or better science/magic/superpower. How the protagonists overcome their limitations is the story.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingConflict forces the characters out of their comfortable environment. The roadblocks you put up force the protagonist to be creative. Through that creativity, your characters become stronger than they believe they are.

Take the time to create the rules and write a document for yourself that clearly defines what limits characters face when using their magic.

  • If the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same school of magic or science, you should take the time to write out what makes them different and why they don’t converge.
  • You must also clearly state the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

An important thing to consider whether using magic or technology: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when it affects the characters and their actions. Write it as a natural part of the environment rather than discussing it in an info dump.

Science and magic are two sides of the personal-power coin.

2020_nano_Project_coverIf you design this now, on November 1st, you will have the framework to showcase your characters ambitions, the drive to acquire more personal power, and the lengths characters will go to in their efforts to gain an edge over their opponents. Everything will be in place for a free-wheeling dive deep into the consequences of your protagonist’s struggle.

The fundamental tropes of science, magic, or superpowers offer your characters opportunities for success. But to be believable, those opportunities must not be free and unlimited.

Magic, science, and superpowers share common ground in one area—they offer characters an edge in whatever struggle they face.

However, neither science nor magic can support a poorly conceived novel. Both science and magic are just tools. Strong, charismatic characters, powerful struggles, and serious consequences for failure make a brilliant novel.

Do a little planning now so that when you begin writing on November 1st, you see your characters clearly and know what they are capable of and what they can’t do. Those limitations will offer you many opportunities for mayhem.

#NaNoPrep series to date:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies


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15 responses to “#NaNoPrep: Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

  1. I like to pants it but you are right: even in fantasy you need rules. Conflict comes from the breaking of some rules but there needs to be limits or just one antagonist could destroy the world. Most books contain hope for changes that the protagonist can use to survive, and overcome no matter how close the conflict brings them to destruction. People like order returning out of chaos by the end of the book.

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