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On writing fantasy magical systems

On writing fantasy magical systems published on No Comments on On writing fantasy magical systems

In response to a Tumblr ask, some thoughts on webcomic magic.

(1) Don’t feel the need to start from scratch, or get overly stressed about coming up with things that Nobody Else Has Done Before. Everything has been done before. Frozen wasn’t a hit because “powers controlled based on your emotions” or “ice magic” were new ideas, it was a hit because the characters were lovable and the songs were catchy.

BICP combines shapeshifter battles, monsters bonded to human Masters, cool power sigils, a special magic language, and animating sculptures by engraving them with the right words. Every one of those is a cliche in some way; every one has a TVTropes page. If they seem fresh, it’s because they’re being handled in new ways, or put together in new configurations.

(2) Be inspired by real-world things. That’ll help with the consistency. And the familiarity gives your readers a point of reference, which is useful. Galavant gives the characters magical communication crystals – an old, old trope – but then has them glitch like a smartphone on a Skype call. It’s hilarious and engaging because the viewer knows exactly how they’re feeling.

The magitech communications in Leif & Thorn work like IRL digital communications. Different underlying process, but since human psychology is still the same, you get the same dynamics as our world has with cellphones, texting, social media.

And readers can accept it without needing a detailed list of Rules Of Smartcrystal Spell Encoding. Same way I accept that my smartphone works (or freezes, as the case may be) without knowing all the fine points of the Java or C++ that explain why.

(3) It’s okay to be guided by what works for the story. The “battles take place in a separate realm” trope is a blatant author convenience – it saves you from dealing with the ramifications of real-world destruction, and it’s an easy excuse for why the muggles don’t get involved.

X had just-like-the-real-world-but-with-no-civilians battle realms. Puella Magi Madoka Magica goes to the other extreme, having the characters fight in symbolism-laden psychedelic acid trips. BICP goes with “pretty nature scenes” – in part because it’s easy to find references for a wide variety of them.

(4) Think, in detail, about the implications of your magical mechanics. This is something you get a lot in deconstructions or parodies, oddly enough. (”Why don’t we just attack while she’s transforming?”) When that kind of stuff doesn’t get followed up in-series, fans will often step in and reverse-engineer a rationale. (”The transformations must take place in a flash in realtime – the extended flashy sequence is just a device to show it off to the audience.”)

BICP battles take place in a flash in realtime, but for the participants it’s like an extended detour into another dimension. Why just use that for magical battles? Why not use it to have secure, absolutely-not-bugged conversations – or just to hang out and relax, knowing it can’t possibly make you late for your next appointment?

So that’s exactly what some of the characters do.

I think this is the biggest one, honestly. Unless you’re playing to a very young or very broad and non-geeky audience, your readers will already have put some thought into magical tropes and how they could work. If you anticipate them having a question like “Why doesn’t–?” “But shouldn’t it–?” “Why would they–?” – and then answer it – that’s all kinds of fulfilling.

(Caveat: know which things don’t need more explanation. The Force worked just fine as a spiritual thing; viewers didn’t need or want a pseudoscience biological mechanism involved.)

(5) Think about the historical implications, too. That’ll help make things feel serious. Steven Universe is really thoughtful about working the presence of Gems on Earth into the fabric of human history and mythology. You see Gem-inspired bits of culture everywhere, from totem poles to how-our-town-was-founded legends to trashy romance novels.

BICP also has thousands of years’ worth of history involving strangely-powered immortal nonhumans. Some of the restrictions on Beings’ powers were conceived of largely to keep them from becoming overwhelming historical game-changers. What we do see is Being-based mythology, and…well, technically also Being-based mythology.

(6) You can work things out as you go. It’s not like you have to spell out everything for your audience right away. And if you commit yourself to an idea behind-the-scenes, and then the story develops in a way that makes the idea awkward or unsatisfying or inconsistent, it’s going to suck if you refuse to adapt. (See: How I Met Your Mother.)

Figure out enough of the basics to get started, then fill in the details as you write. I’ve only specified a few of the magical domains in Leif & Thorn. Partly because there are some whose existence I don’t want to spoil…but partly because I want the freedom to make up new ones on-the-spot if necessary.

(7) It’s okay to relax and just go with Rule of Cool. I put magic sigils in BICP because I loved them in Hellsing. There’s no intrinsic meaning to the lines and shapes in the Beings’ sigils – they just look neat.

(The humans-casting-spells sigils, meanwhile, are from real-world hermetics.)

The mages in Leif & Thorn (of all ages and genders) have magical-girl transformations, the kind I first saw in Sailor Moon and in plenty of other mahou shoujo series since. Necessary? Nope. Pretty? Oh yes.

And, listen, some people love coming up with intricate systems of fictional rules, with tons of detail for readers to analyze. If that’s you, embrace it! Worked out great for Tolkien. But if not, don’t feel bound to it just on principle.

If something feels exciting and inspiring to you, that’s going to energize your writing, and it’ll show through to your readers. It’s hard to fake that. Don’t worry and second-guess so much that you cheat yourself out of it.

That awkward moment when you’re working on a map of your fantasy world…

That awkward moment when you’re working on a map of your fantasy world… published on 9 Comments on That awkward moment when you’re working on a map of your fantasy world…

…and you go looking for information on whether some detail is geologically plausible, and all of a sudden it’s ten hours later and you’ve thrown out half the map and are trying to give yourself a crash course in the development of planetwide ocean currents.

A simple map of Ceannis has been around for months — you can see a section of it in this strip. Since that’s the country where all the action so far takes place, it’s the only one where I’ve needed a handle on the geography. So far, so good.

(Shoutout to Amit Patel’s Polygon Map Generator, for providing the visuals I could hack together.)

Problem is, the map has what I’m going to call European Fantasy Writer Syndrome: there’s a land mass on one side that extends off the edge of the map, facing a mysterious and little-known ocean that extends off the opposite edge of the map, and that’s it. (See: Middle-earth shows us the western coast of a continent; Narnia mixes it up a little and puts the ocean on the east.) What does the rest of the continent look like? Is there a facing coast, if you hike across Asia the land long enough? What if you go as far north or south as possible? Who knows!

At least I knew a few of those details for Ceannis. If you go north, you get: Sønheim! If you go to the northernmost part of Sønheim…

…and, whoops, stuck again.

Did Sønheim have a glacial coast bordering a polar ocean? Did it extend up and over the pole? Did it go far enough to have another temperate coastal country bordering it on the other side? Was that even possible, or is there a good reason none of Earth’s major land masses are over the poles?

After some googling — and filtering out these really earnest websites that want you to understand the scientific reasons why the Earth is totally hollow — I got to Worldbuilding Stack Exchange. Which not only has this kind of information, but is writing it for a target audience of laypeople trying to build imaginary planets.

Assorted fun facts of the day:

  • Nothing wrong with polar land masses. If you flooded Mars, for instance, you would see high ground concentrated around the poles, and an ocean ringing the equator.
  • Although this means you won’t get major north-to-south ocean currents, and those are a huge influence in tempering a planet’s climate.
  • Currents aside, the water itself absorbs solar heat slowly during the day and releases it slowly at night, which is a big deal too. Make a big-enough continent with no inland seas, and you’ll get deserts that can skyrocket to 100 °F at midday, then drop below freezing at night.
  • If you have so little surface water that it’s relegated to non-connected seas, you’ll get individual microclimates operating independently.
  • (You can balance this out by storing extra water in plant life, or in really big underground aquifers.)
  • Also possible if you get a sea surrounded by mountains! If clouds can’t move into or out of the area without going through a rain shadow stage, you’ll get two independent water cycles.
  • And if you take away enough land interruptions to make a giant continuous ocean, the storms coming in off the sea will be awe-inspiring. (Pangaea had ridiculous monsoons.)
  • Our sun affects the tides a lot more than I had realized.
  • Plate tectonics, which push land masses upward, are the only reason our land hasn’t all eroded into the oceans.
  • Also, they’re the reason we have functional mining. Sure, you can dig deep mines to get at underground ore, but only if you have the tools for it…so you need some metal deposits shoved close to the surface to build the tools.
  • Desalinating our oceans would be a great way to destroy all life on Earth. Even the current real-world melting of our freshwater icecaps isn’t looking good on this count.

As the research went on, I really did throw out half the map…and then rebuilt it. Faster, stronger, more powerful. Ceannis and Sønheim have a whole continent now!

Plus some auxiliary land masses, an equator, a full set of ocean currents, lots of exciting new biomes, and a grab bag of cultural and historical implications. Magic means the population isn’t as completely at the mercy of the elements as they might have been — especially at their current level of spelltech — but there’s still plenty to work with.

I, uh, may have had to split the data up into two files, because it got to be so much that Paint Shop Pro couldn’t save without crashing.

Not gonna release the whole hemisphere right away. There’s a lot left to do, and parts that might change even more, depending on factors like “if I find some other cool geology thing and decide to work it in.”

For now, here’s the Leif & Thorn small map, now that I know what happens off the edges.

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