Tag Archives: creating fantasy and sci fi worlds

Worldbuilding part 4: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic #amwriting

Personal power and how we confer it is the layer of worldbuilding where writers of science and writers of magic come together.

  • WritingCraftWorldbuildingScienceVSMagicMagic and the ability to wield it confers power. Magical creatures, elves, mythical races, mythological gods and demigods – these are some of the many natural and supernatural components of fantasy.
  • Science and superior technology also confer power. Science fiction embraces current physics and theoretically possible technology, taking them into the near or distant future.

Speculative fiction is comprised of two overarching genres: science fiction and fantasy. The choice to make the technology of science or the technology of magic the primary source of power in your story determines which side of the coin lands up. The way you choose to go determines the sub-genre.

A novel set firmly in the technology of the past with no magic is not mainstream sci-fi. If it falls in late Victorian or early Edwardian times and uses the technology available in that era in advanced ways, it could be a branch of sci-fi called Steampunk.

If it takes place in an earlier era and contains magic, magical creatures, or advanced technology, it is an Alternate World fantasy (magic) or sci-fi (tech). If it has no magic or advanced technology, it could be a different genre altogether: historical fiction.

Science fiction has strict parameters established by its readers. The wise author will pay attention to those limits if they want their work to resonate with that audience.

I have said this before, but I feel the need to repeat it. Science is not magic, and it should not feel to a reader as if it were. It is logical, rooted in the realm of both factual and theoretical physics.

David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_The_AlchemistAuthors of sci-fi must do the research and understand the scientific method. This path of testing and evaluation objectively explains nature and the world around us in a reproducible way. The physics of our current technology, everything from toasters and cellphones to microwave ovens and spaceships has been created using scientific discoveries by people who understand the scientific method.  

Skepticism and peer review are fundamental parts of the process.

An important thing for authors to understand is who their 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 same goes for those who read fantasy: they are often employed in fields that require critical thinking.

Often, readers of both genres are avid gamers. Gamers learn to develop skillsets within strict parameters to advance in the game. Thus, logic and limitations define how much enjoyment they get from a gaming or reading experience.

I read a great many books in all genres. If I have one complaint, it is that many authors indulge in mushy science or magic. They make it up as they go, which is what we all do, but they don’t bother to cover their tracks.

When they get to the editing stage, they don’t go back and look for the contradictions in their magic or science, the places where a reader can no longer suspend their disbelief.

Magic is also a science and should be held to the same standard as physics. Having magic conveys power in the same way that having superior technology does.

If magic is a tool that your characters rely on, it must be believable. I write fantasy, so the science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my worldbuilding process.

915px-An_alchemist_in_his_laboratory._Oil_painting_by_a_follower_o_Wellcome_V0017631The following is my list of places where the rules of believable magic and technology converge in genre fiction:

  1. The number of people who can use either magic or technology should be limited.
  2. The ways that characters can use magic or technology should be limited.
  3. Characters with those abilities or equipment should be limited to one or two kinds of magic/technology. Only specific mages/technicians can make use of all forms of magic/technology.
  4. There must be strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic/technology can do.
  5. The author must clearly define the conditions under which this magic/technology will work.
  6. There must be some conditions under which the magic/technology will not work.
  7. There must be limits to the damage magic/technology can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform.
  8. The wielder of this magic/technology might pay a physical/emotional price for using it.
  9. The wielder of this magic/technology should pay a physical/emotional price for abusing it.
  10. The learning curve for magic should be steep and sometimes lethal.

For the narrative to have a realistic conflict, the enemy must have access to equal or better science/magic.

Often in the case of magic, the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school.” When this is the case, the author has two systems and sets of rules to design for that story.

The same goes for technology. One group may have found a way to exploit physics that places the other group at a disadvantage. This disparity is where the tension comes into the story.

We authors must create the rules of magic or the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. We must do it in the first stages of the writing process. If you have been creating your stylesheet, take the time to include a page defining the laws of physics/magic that pertain to your universe.

It will only require fifteen minutes to half an hour to brainstorm and create a system that satisfies the above ten requirements. This way, you will be sure the logic of your magic/technology has no hidden flaws.

When you take the time to research science technologies or create magic systems, you create a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Limits force us to be creative, to find alternative ways to resolve problems.

There can be an occasional exception to a rule within either science or magic, but it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

There must be an obvious, rational explanation for that exception.

An_Alchemist_attributed_to_Joost_van_Atteveld_Centraal_Museum_20801Science or magic is only an underpinning of the plot. They are foundational components of the backstory. 

The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions. When Gandalf casts a spell, or Sulu fires his phaser, the reader knows the characters have these abilities/technologies.

The best background information comes out only when that knowledge affects the story. It emerges naturally in actions, conversations, or as visual components of the setting.

By not baldly dropping the history or science/magic on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

Worldbuilding Part 2: Maps, Place-names, and Consistency

Worldbuilding Part 3: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 4: Creating the Visual World


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:David Teniers the Younger – The Alchemist.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_The_Alchemist.jpg&oldid=528972179 (accessed July 18, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An Alchemist attributed to Joost van Atteveld Centraal Museum 20801.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_Alchemist_attributed_to_Joost_van_Atteveld_Centraal_Museum_20801.jpg&oldid=531124885 (accessed July 18, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower o Wellcome V0017631.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_alchemist_in_his_laboratory._Oil_painting_by_a_follower_o_Wellcome_V0017631.jpg&oldid=303482875 (accessed July 18, 2021).

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Plot, Politics, Religion, and the Science of Magic #worldbuilding #amwriting

It takes me about four years to take a novel from concept to completion, which is why I always have several works in progress at varying stages of development.

Much of that time is devoted to world-building, although for the first few drafts of writing, I don’t realize that is what I am doing.

The layers of plot, politics, religion, and magic/science must be interwoven with bits of history, and the images and odors of the physical environment. Together, these layers help create the setting of any world.

I began one of my current projects with an idea for a character. I knew what the ultimate end of this story is because it is a prequel and is already canon in the Tower of Bones series.

This is the plot, the core conflict: Politics and religion shape three cultures. Two of the societies are strong enough to absorb the third, and one of them will do just that.

In that regard, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist is on the high ground morally—both consider it their right to impose their rule on the weaker society.

The first hurdle arose in the area of world-building. Because it is the origin story, I had to devise a post-apocalyptic culture. Religion was the first layer I worked on.

In the time of the Tower of Bones series, the Temple of Aeos is a finely-tuned machine that serves to distribute food and medical care to the poor, provides education to everyone, provides military protection when needed, and maintains the roads that connect the communities.

The Temple’s primary function is to find mage-gifted children before their untrained gift wreaks havoc in their communities. Untrained mages have a high chance of becoming the tool of the Bull God, Tauron.

This is bad because Tauron is the Mad God, the one who demands excessive sacrifices, often human. The word sacrifice means to surrender something of value, and the Mad God’s reign over his people is twisted. His religion is a reflection of his madness.

Thus, the Goddess Aeos’s mages are sworn to serve and protect the people of Neveyah from the depredations of Tauron, no matter the personal cost.

In the current work-in-progress, the Temple, as an institution, doesn’t exist. It is born out of the struggle between the two larger-than-life characters and the events of this book.

Both characters believe their deity has the right to rule Neveyah, and both know the Barbarian Tribes are the key to winning. At times, the line between what is moral and immoral is blurred.

Just as in real life, both men and the societies they lead are fundamentally flawed.

Both the antagonist and protagonist in this novel will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. However, of the two, only my protagonist is burdened with regrets for the choices he makes.

Every society, fantasy, sci-fi, or real-world, must have an overarching political structure—a government of some sort. Humans are tribal. We are comfortable when we have a hierarchy of decision-makers to guide the tribe.

The politics of any society are an invisible aspect of world-building that affects the story, even when not directly addressed. This is because our characters have a place within that structure.

When you know what that place is, you write their story accordingly. In writing fiction, if you know your characters’ social caste, you know if they are rich or poor, hungry or well-fed. This will shape them throughout the story.

We know that hunger drives conflict in our modern world, so a segment of society that lives on the edge of starvation will be swayed to the side of whoever offers food first. This is a key part of the plot for my work-in-progress.

Another aspect of world-building that was crucial at the start of this series was the choice to use magic rather than science as the primary technology.

First of all, let me get this out there: Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writers of true science fiction know the difference between reality and fantasy.

However, magic should be believable. The science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my world-building process. In my stories, magic is only possible if certain conditions have been met:

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every type of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

This layer of world-building is where writers of science and writers of magic come together.

  • Magic and the ability to wield it confers power.
  • Superior technology does the same.

This means the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic. So, if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school,” you now have two systems to design for that story.

Authors must create the rules of magic or 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 science or magic, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it. It must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

Having said all that, the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions.

The best background information comes out naturally in conversations or in other subtle ways. By not baldly dropping it on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.

Limitations are the key to a good character arc. Roadblocks to success force ordinary people to become more than they believe they are.

That is when an ordinary person becomes a hero.

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Depth – creating reality #amwriting

We have been talking about ways to create depth in our writing for the last month, and we still have areas of the Word-Pond we call Story to explore.  One aspect of depth that we can’t skimp on is setting.

Setting is a surface element but it also has a subliminal role in creating depth.

The problem is, many people believe that world-building requires a massive amount of effort.

It does take some work up front, but  once begun, worlds grow as we write them.

Perhaps you have an idea for your story and characters who have great chemistry. However, while you might know how the plot will go, you feel like you can’t quite get a grip on the story. This is because the world is still mostly unformed.

At this early point in the process you don’t yet know their world. So, the setting is the literary equivalent of an empty apartment with a chair and a table but nothing else. You have an idea of what you want it to be when it is fully furnished, but aren’t sure how to make that vision real.

I have a method of building worlds that works for me, and I will share it with you, but you must keep it an absolute secret. This is just between you and me and the internet at large.

I move in and live there, mentally.

I picture the opening scene, and in a separate document labeled something like (story title)_worldbuilding.docx, I begin writing, answering questions about this world as I think of them.

What is the name of the place the story opens?

Does it take place on earth in a real place? On earth in an alternate time/place? Or is it set on some other world entirely?

Where is my protagonist? Does the environment work against him/her?

Looking through their eyes, are they indoors or outdoors?

What does s/he see at that opening moment?

How does the air feel and what scents and odors are common to that place?

How is the lighting both indoors and out? If they are out of doors, what is the weather like?

On this world-building document, write every single detail, from the largest down to the insects. Keep adding to it whenever you think of something new as you are writing the first draft. The act of designing this scenery builds the world in your mind. I go with the world that is familiar to me, with some unfamiliar creatures thrown in for fun.

The Tower of Bones series began life as the story line for an anime-based RPG that never went into production. The world of Neveyah is an alien environment, yet it’s familiar to me because it’s based on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and the way they fit into the geography are directly pulled from the forested hills of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.

I created the maps, so I knew the topography. I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game because the dangerous environment and elemental creatures are a core plot point in the story, a threat with which the protagonist must learn to coexist. So, when I began writing the book, all the hard work was done. Ten years of writing work set in Neveyah is why the world seems so solid from the opening paragraphs.

You say you can’t picture a place you haven’t been. But what does that really mean? Open your eyes and look around. At this moment, inside your room and outside your door, you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world. These elements could exist before your eyes, or they exist in your memory. I say, use what you know, reshape it, reuse it and make it yours.

Everyone has a place they want to be more than anywhere else. For me, one place on earth represents my serenity, my creative happy place, and it exists in the real world but is a four-hour drive from my home. Yet, when I need to, I can pull that place up in my mind. By visualizing it, I recharge my serenity-batteries.

Think about a place you love but are parted from. What is the strongest memory about that place, the one that calls to you, lingers in your heart and makes you happy?

If you can describe that feeling, that memory, you can create a world.

The fact is, unless we are there physically, other places don’t really exist for us. We see them on the news, or read about them, but until we visit them, they are distant, merely rumors.

Our consciousness is contained in the packet of water and flesh we call our bodies. For this reason, the only world that really exists in this incarnation is the space we physically occupy as individuals. The only true reality is the space we can see, hear, smell, and touch.

Everywhere else is only a daydream or a memory. When you aren’t there, it doesn’t exist.

However, you can go there in your mind if you picture it strongly enough. We build worlds every day just by planning our next move. We do it by thinking about where we are going next, and where we have just come from. If you can visualize stopping at the mini-mart on your way home after work, you can visualize the convenience store on a space station.

It does take time, but not a lot. Consider spending an evening building the framework of the world for your novel. Use your best, most colorful words to show that place in a word-picture that is just for you.

Get fluffy in your writing—it’s only a practice piece, and no one will see it but you. The smells, the sounds, the way certain doors creak are all good things to know. Draw maps and floor plans. List the furniture the characters interact with and know where it’s placed.

Use all the descriptive words you can think of to build that world in your mind–this research document is where adverbs and adjectives should be used.

Once the world in which the story opens is solid in your mind, rewrite that opening scene again. Allow the world to unfold through the characters’ experiences and interactions. Show us the world your characters inhabit in that scene.

The following passage is from the opening page of my forthcoming novel, Julian Lackland, the third and final installment in the Billy’s Revenge Series. In the opening scene, this is how I show the world my protagonist inhabits.

All the world-building was done ten years ago. Building an RPG world taught me to visualize and describe heavily in my background notes. I used the same method when plotting Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers as I did for Tower of Bones.

Now, ten years on, I’m a leaner writer, so those images are condensed into a only few words, a picture to show where he is on day one of our story. As the novel progresses, his environments change, but it’s my task to keep the word-pictures concise and yet as visual as possible.


Credits and Attributions:

All photography in this post is from Connie J. Jasperson’s portfolio

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