Worldbuilding 101: Magic and Technology (Part Two)

Welcome back! Sorry for leaving last week’s post incomplete, but it was getting too long.

Okay, I covered technology a lot in the last article, but there were some interesting points about magic I still wanted to talk about. How does magic work in your world?

There are a near endless array of ways magic could work, and maybe you are even creative enough to think of new ones. Let’s look at a few possibilities.

1. Words and phrases: By that, I mean just saying the words by themselves and accomplishing magic. No gestures, no rituals, just a couple syllables on the air. Not that you can’t combine it with either of them, in fact they usually are, but it is possible for them to be separate.

2. Gestures: Maybe a snap, or a point, or wave your hands in an impressive manner. Usually these involve the caster’s hands, but not always. In Bewitched, Samantha famously did magic by wiggling her nose. Maybe your character wiggles toes or ears. Maybe you could have a character cast magic by sticking out her tongue, or performing the funky chicken dance (If so, I’d like to read it.)

3. Using a Talisman: Be it a wand, a sword, a piece of Jewelry, or what have you, the caster works through a magic object of some kind. Those are standards and can be used, but you may want to try to come up with an original item of your own. Or at least, something that isn’t used as often. This can be related to having an object that is magical in and of itself. If I have a magic watch that stops time, unless it takes something (energy, blood, sweat, life force, etc.) from me to work, I am not doing magic through the watch, anymore than I am making electricity by typing on this computer.

4. Through a ritual: This ritual will probably involve the previous three and then some. Maybe, in order to light the holy fire to keep the demons away, the priests of the Sly Ferret god, must arrange the three holy rocks of heaven, chant the fifty names of earth, and sacrifice a small bird with the sacred knife. That’s words (chanting), possibly gestures (the rocks, maybe the sacrifice), and using a talisman (the knife).  We’ll get back to sacrifices later.

5. Wishing or Willing the magic to work: While this can seem like a cop-out, it’s actually fairly common in stories. In most forms of magic, this is part of the magic. This may or may not be related to Belief magic. In which case, if you don’t believe it, you can’t do it.  The problem with this, is that done wrong, it is a deus ex machina, done right, you have the Force, from Star Wars.

6. Using plants or animal products:  The difference between this and ritual, is that a ritual has many steps, where this can be as simple as chewing up leaves. Or it can be used as potions.

There are many other ways you can have magic work, but these are some of the easiest starting points. So, you established how your characters do magic. Wonderful. Now, how did they learn it? What are their limits? How common is magic in your setting? Is it accepted, or do magicians have to hide their abilities? Can they use their powers for great and powerful spells, or only little daily use spells? Can they do both? Is one more acceptable than the other?

What is the cost of magic? There absolutely, positively must be a cost. Otherwise, it is a cheep trick, and your readers are going to be frustrated. This cost may be subtle or obvious. Take the Harry Potter series. What is the cost? It doesn’t seem to have much. Most fans assume that at least some energy must be used, and you get tired if you try too many powerful spells in a short time. I don’t remember if that is ever mentioned in the main books or not. But even without it, there is a cost. The whole series is about the characters spending seven years in school, learning how to cast spells, make potions, etc. That is a cost of time. They make potions, that are made from various ingredients. They don’t come from nowhere. You have to purchase or gather the items involved. The characters use wands. These wands require part of a magical animal. A phoenix, a dragon, or a unicorn. Phoenixes are so rare that only one is seen in all seven books. Dragons are dangerous, and unicorns shy from people. That’s why those wands are so expensive.

Maybe the cost is more obvious. Maybe there must be a sacrifice, be it of a valued object, a plant, an animal, or even a person. One word of warning, if your good character practices a magical art that requires the sacrifice of a person, readers are not going to like your character very much. Even animal sacrifices can be harsh for many modern readers. Think about it carefully.

Does the magic work every time? Why or why not? If your character is just learning, that’s a good reason for magic to either not work, or to do something unexpected. Just be careful about making the magic too much of a game breaker. They shouldn’t be able to solve their problems too easily. Nor should it be the source of all their problems.

There are many other parts to inventing magic and technology, but my computer is acting up. Next week will not be Part Three, though if I come up with enough new information, there may be a part three eventually.

On a personal note, I will be out of state next week, and do not know if I will have internet access. If I do, I will make a post, if not, then, I guess it will be two weeks before my next post. Happy Easter, everyone.


Worldbuilding 101: Magic and Technology (Part One)

First of all, let me sincerely apologize for being late to post this week. Yesterday, between the hours of 8 A.M. and Midnight, I was home for maybe two hours. All the time I was out, my computer was home. So, I didn’t get my blog written. I have fewer excuses about being so late to post today. Sorry.

Secondly, last post turned out to be very popular. I’m glad. Hopefully this one won’t be a let-down.

Okay, if you’re a fan of speculative fiction (and if you aren’t, then why are you here?), then you know that one of the most intriguing parts of the genres involved is the way that things are possible in the stories that aren’t in real life. All the more so when you are creating a fictional world. That doesn’t actually mean anything is possible though. In fact you have to be very careful about making your magic or technology seem plausible even if everyone knows it isn’t possible.

Disclaimer, if you are writing hard science fiction involving technologies that we either have, or are on the verge of, this isn’t the article for you. You will want to be as accurate as possible and know all you can find out about those particular technologies. No, this is an article about magic and technology that is made up.

Why am I mixing the two together, after all, aren’t the opposites? Magic and science are mutually exclusive, allowing belief in one or the other, right? Well, maybe. On the other hand, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Or, my favorite, this one. (To those who are unfamiliar with the strip, I recommend Freefall as an entertaining and informative Science Fiction webcomic.)  But the point remains, what is the difference between a magic box that keeps thing cool and a refrigerator? Can you truly explain to me how electricity works, or do you function, like I do, with ‘Push this button, lights come on’.  Most of us spend large portions of our lives taking it for granted something will work without truly understanding how it works. Do you know how your car works? How about your computer? Your plumbing? Your eyes? Even if you can understand and explain how one of those works, you probably can’t do the same for all.

So, to an extent, magic and technology are the same. Do this, get that. How? Don’t know, and as long as it works, I don’t care. Some people will care, in your stories and your readers. Which is why you can’t just snap your fingers and make everything work.

Let’s start with technology. In your story, you need a certain level of technology that we don’t have, and probably won’t have in the next five or ten years. Maybe it’s something that will likely never happen, like faster than light travel. Okay, fine. If you are using something that’s been done before, then your readers will probably give you a lot of leeway, especially if you handle it well. Assuming you don’t want to write a technical manual of how such a thing is ‘possible’, then just tell your readers that it’s real in your story, through the story and not as an aside to the audience, and most will probably not even blink. As long as you are consistent with it. If your ship, the Sly Ferret, can get from Mars to Alpha Centauri five in two days in chapter one, then there had better be a very good reason why it doesn’t take them two days to make the same trip in chapter thirty. No, the plot says so, is not a good reason. A better engine making them quicker is a good excuse. The presence or lack of some obstacle works. The ship is in bad shape and can’t risk going that fast is another.

Also, if the Sly Ferret can travel beyond the speed of light, then other ships should be able to travel that fast also. Maybe not all of them, and maybe some are faster or slower, but unless the Sly Ferret is the first ship actually capable of faster than light travel, then there is always the likelihood that an enemy or rival can be as fast as they are or not faster.

In case you haven’t noticed, consistency is key when coming up with new magic or technologies.  But part of consistency is that if person or group A has a particular magic or technology, then why doesn’t person or group B have it too? There may be an excellent reason. That may be part of the story. It may be that magic or technology is very rare or cutting edge. It may be that B is trying to get the magic or technology.  Or maybe B is on the low-end of the magic or technology spectrum. Perhaps B believes that magic or technology is wrong, bad, or otherwise undesirable. This could be anything from the conflict of the story, to a subplot, to a minor detail. But you should know.

The magic or technology that exists in your story is going to affect the way your story works. If faster than light travel is real and common, what does that do for the tourism industry? Or mining? Aeronautics? Do parents frequently send their kids to a boarding school on Mars? Or perhaps schools arrange field trips to nearby planets? How about criminals and law enforcement? Is it easier or harder to get away and hide when you are wanted? Some of that will depend on how long this has existed and how easy and safe it is. Also remember the law of unintended consequences. When the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, I doubt they considered the day would come when millions of people flew every day. They certainly couldn’t have anticipated air shows, parashooting, or 9/11. Lasers, when they were first invented, were useless. Now they are used every day, in printers, to read CDs and DVDs, and more.

Now, magic. The problem with magic, is that unlike science, one presumes that what’s possible at any one point in time is more or less the same as what’s possible in the past and the future. We generally don’t think of magic ‘improving’. So,  if a certain spell is possible, unless you have a reason for it, your readers will assume it was always possible. How would that spell always being possible shape the world? If it is easy to get a magic box that makes things cold, and always has been, how would that affect things? Personally, I think the population of the world would be larger, with food preservation being available at a much earlier time. It would cut down on the amount of hunger, malnutrition, and disease. But what else would happen? Would cold meals be a sign of luxury? Would ice cream become a larger part of one’s diet?

This article is getting longer than I anticipated, so this is Part One. Part Two next week on how to come up with original forms of magic and technology (mostly magic.) See you next week.

Worldbuilding 101: Mythology and Religions

I was going to separate this into two posts (mostly so that I didn’t have to strain on more ideas), but they are related. Both are about what people believe. Even if you aren’t making up a whole new world, you may well wish to develop mythology and/or religions for your characters.

Perhaps, like me, you are hesitant about making up religions for your characters. Nothing wrong with that, but it is a good way to make your character a separate person, rather than an extension of yourself. That’s always something to be wished.

So, what’s the difference between religion and mythology? Well, people believe religions, but know myths are false. Or do they? I’m sure everyone’s heard of urban legends, also sometimes known as urban myths. While some are obviously false, I’m pretty sure everyone has  fallen for at least one at some point or other. Besides, the myths we read today, Greek, Norse, Egyptian, all come from their religions at the time. Maybe they knew some of them were stories, but they worshiped those deities. Okay, myths are stories to explain things, like creation stories. Except that there are many educated religious people who believe in one of those ‘creation myths’. I know I don’t like hearing stories I believe being referred to as myths, and I doubt you do either. It appears to me that the difference between myth and religion is where you stand. My belief is the truth, yours is religious, and his is myth. Just like, I’m unique, you’re eccentric, he is crazy.

Anyway, I’m not here to get in a huge debate about religion. You have your beliefs, I have mine, and reading mine won’t change yours or vice versa. There are four basic divisions in religious belief. Polytheism is the belief in many gods. Henotheism is the belief of one main god over many little, less powerful gods. Monotheism is the belief in one God (almost always capitalized).  And Atheism is the belief that there is no god, yes, that is religious because it’s something that must be taken by faith. Anthropologists who have studied this much more than I have; claim that early civilizations almost always start out with Polytheism, with Henotheism or Monotheism coming  later. They won’t always change, there are civilizations and religions today that are still Polytheistic. But it means if you are writing a sword and sorcery fantasy, or some kind of primitive society, you may wish to go with the belief of many gods.

This can add many layers to your story, even if you don’t go too in-depth. For one, your characters may be concerned with appeasing or angering one or more deity. You need your character to do X when Y seems more logical? Maybe Y is against that characters religion, or they have taken a vow to the gods to do X. Religious misunderstandings and conflicts are problems in real life, why shouldn’t they be an issue in your story? There are layers of language, both to bless or curse.

Now, the pitfalls. If you are making up a religion or a mythology, you likely don’t believe exactly what your character believes. Okay fine, but are you making your character seem like an idiot for believing this? Your readers will know you made up the belief system, unless you are using a real world religion or mythology as a close basis (not recommended in most cases), so we know you aren’t trying to get us to believe this, but you can, and probably should treat it respectfully. Unless part of the point is your character is an idiot, supposed to change beliefs, or this is a satire of a known belief system, why not treat this as if it is a reasonable belief for the people of that time and place?

Secondly, research is very much your friend. Research as many different cultures myths and religions as possible. If you only know one, than that one is going to affect what you create. If you only know the Greek myths, you’ll likely create something similar, or try doing the opposite to be ‘different’. Why? Because it’s hard to think in other directions. Your head deity will probably be a male sky god, unless you try subverting one or each attribute, like making it a female earth deity. If you’ve read several, then your mind think on different tangents.

Geography plays a role in beliefs. Every religion and mythology (minus atheism) has a story of creation, of how people came about, and what the afterlife is like. I exclude atheism, because they believe death is the end. There is usually a belief that there is one after life destination for those who were good in life, and a different one for those who were bad or evil. Cultures in the tropics believe that the afterlife for the evil is burning hot, while cultures in colder areas usually believe that the afterlife for the evil is freezing cold. Missionaries to the Norse learned quickly to describe Hell as a very cold place. In fact, the name ‘Hell’ comes from the Norse goddess of the Underworld, Hel, who reigned over a frozen realm. (There’s your trivia fact of the day.) People groups that are near each other will have some similarities in belief. The Spartans had the same deities as the Athenians but they were slightly different. Even the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, had a warlike aspect. Ares was considered of only medium importance and respectability by the Athenians, but the Spartans valued him enough to perform human sacrifices to him. No, I didn’t know that either. If your people group live next to the ocean, then whatever deity controls the seas will be a dominant part of their life. If they live in the mountains, they’ll probably more more interested in the forest or mountain deities.

Another thing to consider is, in your world, are the gods you made up real and how active are they in the lives of mortals? Are they interested in striking down those who insult them? Do they answer prayers? Do they care at all? Do they watch mortals like some people watch reality TV? Yes, you don’t want to have the gods intervene and save the day when you’ve entangled the character beyond their ability to fix things. That’s called a deus ex machina. Literally, god out of a machine. Also known as really bad storytelling and ways to anger all your readers. But if your character prays for something and gets it, is it the gods, or a coincidence. Or perhaps you don’t want to make that clear. That’s fine too. Or maybe the gods are willing to grant your characters request, in exchange for…  Or maybe one god does grant the request, which causes problems with another deity. Those are questions only you can answer. It may not even be something the reader knows. But you should.

This is getting long, so I’ll cut it off here. Maybe at some point I can talk more about this.

Worldbuilding 101: Geography, Flora, and Fauna

Okay, if you are anything like me, at least part of the reason you love speculative fiction so much, is that it gives you mental access to a new world. This can be to read about, or write about. I know I was trying to make up worlds and the things that inhabit said worlds since I was very young.

Maybe your story is close to modern day, in a recognized city, with no made up creatures. It is possible to write speculative fiction that way. It’s even possible to write good speculative fiction that way. Maybe you have no desire whatsoever to write imaginary lands filled with mythical creatures and plants. In which case, you may find this post boring. Sorry. But hey, you’re here, might as well read it anyway, right? Maybe for a different story, you will want to use this.

If you aren’t setting your story in a recognized area then you have some leeway into the geography you are using. And sometimes even if you are, you still have some room. I have two books set on a fictional island in a real lake outside a real town. That I’ve never been to, which is a bit of a problem, and on my list. At some point. If your story is supposed to be set in New York City, you have a little less wiggle room, but even then, most people take a few liberties with geography.

Now the main problem is that most people don’t care to learn much about the rules of geography. That can lead to stupid mistakes like putting a forest next to a desert with no transition zone. TV Tropes has a trope called Patchwork Map, of people doing things like that. It’s an amateur mistake, that makes the writer look foolish, unless there’s a good excuse for it. I’m sure you aren’t here for a geography lesson, and I’m no expert either. But try to keep in mind a few things.

One, when moving from one type of land to another, there should be a transition or a buffer zone. Trees in a forest start out sparser and further apart, before becoming denser. Deserts become more sand and rock, and less plants. It’s a slow process. Also, unless there is a really good explanation, even a buffer zone isn’t going to explain how a rain forest is next to a desert.

Two, natural boundaries, like rivers, oceans, and mountains, do not form in nice, straight lines. Coasts are crooked, rivers meander, and mountains curve. Why? Because nature very rarely forms in straight lines.

Three, natural boundaries are good ways to move from one type of land to another. Particularly mountain chains. Climate on one side of a mountain chain can be radically different from the other side. I’m told it has to do with rain getting stuck on one side of the mountain.

Okay, that’s geography. Now comes the fun part. Plants and animals to inhabit your world. The first thing you need to ask yourself is what purpose does that plant or animal serve, and why does it manage to thrive in your world. If you believe in evolution, what caused your plant or animal to evolve here, and what niche does it fill. If you believe God, or some other deity, was involved in creation, then for what purpose was this created, and how is it made for its purpose.

What preys on this plant or animal, and what does it prey on? The answer to one of those questions may be nothing. A non carnivorous plant really can’t be said to prey on anything. An apex predator, an animal at the top of the food chain, may not have any other predators. Both answers can’t be nothing, and it is perfectly possible and even likely for your creation to be in the middle of the food chain.

Plants are easy to make up, and unless you go too far out of the normal realm of plant life, most people aren’t even going to blink. You do not need to tell us the plant growth cycle, show us how it photosynthesizes or anything like that. You tell me it’s a shrub with blue-green leaves, and the bark can be boiled to make a healing tea for fevers, fine. As long as you are consistent, I don’t care. You tell me that plant gets up and walks, we may have an issue. I want to know how.

Animals are a little more complicated and for one major reason. The big, dangerous predators are the most fun to make, and the most interesting to throw at your characters. So why is that a problem? Okay, you have the big, awesome Razortooth, that’s a combination of a wolf, a bear, and a lion, how can you go wrong? It’s faster than a horse, and they travel in packs! They climb trees and swim! They are aggressive and have poisonous spikes! Great conflict for your characters.

Well, if it’s fast than a horse, can climb trees and swim, how are your characters supposed to deal when they do run into one? Or more. Can they fight them? Chase them off? What do they eat? A robin eats one or two times it’s body weight each day. Sure, birds eat a lot, but the fact remains that most animals eat a lot. The bigger the animal, the more it will have to eat. Unless you have a lot of smaller prey animals, your Razortooth is going to be in very small numbers. Why does it have poisonous spikes? Those are a defensive tool, an apex predator wouldn’t need them.

Research is your friend here. For one of my stories, I decided to forgo the usual horses as pack animals and transport, and go with what I called Pack Lizards instead. I basically looked up as much as I could about lizards and took the interesting parts. They are about ten feet long, can change colors, can climb cliff faces, give birth to live young, and are capable of giving birth asexually in rare instances. The only thing I made up was the length. Have fun, dream big, but make sure there’s a foundation for your plans.