Category Archives: World Building

The Plausibility Problem

Is it Science Fiction or Fantasy? What’s the difference anyway?

In my time I’ve written a lot of fantasy and some science fiction. But over the past year I’ve really struggled trying to begin a new SF series—a space opera to be specific. I kept running into the dreaded problem of plausibility.

Basically, with fantasy I can just follow my inspiration. Any plot twist or background idea that appears can be explained (if I do it well) as “magic.” But ideas in science fiction have to conform to known science.

Or do they? Or to what extent do they? At what point does a story cross the line from science fiction into fantasy?

I call this the Plausibility Problem.

Clarke’s Laws

To analyze, I did some research, starting with Arthur C. Clarke’s famous “Three Laws of Science Fiction.” (1)

Arthur C. Clarke on one of the sets for 2001 A Space Odyssey. By ITU Pictures – https://www.flickr.com/photos/itupictures/16636142906, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64344486

The most often quoted is the Third Law, which you probably have heard and which is particularly relevant to my dilemma: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Makes a lot of sense, right?

So, based on the Third Law, a writer might justify using any “magical” idea in a science fiction story and claim the Clarke’s Third Law defense: “It’s really just science that we don’t understand yet.”

To analyze further (and maybe shore up my defense), I also looked at the Second Law, which states: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

Regarding the Second Law, the article linked to above says:

(Clarke) had written this in the context of a list of inventions and discoveries that he had classified as either expected (including automobiles, telephones, robots, “flying machines”) or unexpected (x-rays, nuclear energy, photography, quantum mechanics).

Expected vs. unexpected discoveries. I found this intriguing and relevant to my problem.

Barnes’ Math and Magic

Further research brought me to an essay titled “How to Build a Future” by SF author John Barnes. (2)  A book description on Amazon calls this “the definitive modern essay on the construction of science-fictional plausibility” (3) and boy, I can see why.

Barnes, who has worked in systems analysis and statistics (4) takes us step-by-step through a detailed example of projecting science, technology, and society into a fictional future. He does this using historical data on how these areas have evolved in the past, complete with math and charts.

Sample Chart from How to Build a Future. by John Barnes Copyright 1990 by Davis Publications, Inc.

What especially caught my eye is that he finds that these science and tech changes have occurred in “surges,” and that:

Each new surge is 90 percent what you might have expected from the last one, plus 10 percent magic (in its Clarke’s Law sense.) (5)

Taking this further, Barnes postulates a succession of surges over the next centuries, leading to his invented future. Doing the math—10 percent plus 10 percent and so on for each surge—this means that more and more of the science and tech in the not-so-distant future becomes “not comprehensible” to our current understanding.

In other words, magic!

What Do the People Say?

To extend my analysis, I did some market research. Which means I looked up discussions related to the issue on both Facebook and Reddit.

While I found lots and lots of opinions about what constitutes hard science fiction, soft science fiction, and fantasy, one consistent theme emerged. Most readers simply don’t worry about the Plausibility Problem as much as I did. They mainly just want a good story.

Some representative quotes:

There’s a lot of grey in-between. It’s subjective.

Base it on good science, not necessarily accurate science. What I mean is be consistent with the principles you use and have an explanation for how things work, even if that explanation is never given or used in the work.

IMO, explicit explanations are not required. And there is a very thin and murky line between science and magic, partly depending on your world view.

Problem Solved

All of this analysis made me feel much better about the Plausibility Problem.

Rather liberated, actually. I was able to start writing science fiction stories again without the internal critic stopping me in my tracks by picking every idea to pieces.

So, look out, space opera, I’m coming for you!

photography of hallway
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1 “Clarke’s Three Laws” NewScientist at https://www.newscientist.com/definition/clarkes-three-laws/
2 “How to Build a Future” by John Barnes. Originally published in Analog Science Fiction/Sciene Fact, March 1990. Reprinted in the Writer’s Chapbook Series by Pulphouse Publishing (1991) and in Barne’s 1999 Collection, Apostrophes & Apocalypses.

5 How to Build a Future, Pulphouse Writer’s Chapbook edition, page 14.

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This post is also available on my Substack, Speclectic, which is always free to read.
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The Fabled Land of Witches

Tournament of Witches, Book 3 of the Glimnodd Cycle, is finally available. (The paperback is on sale now , and  the ebook up for pre-order on Amazon , with publication set for July 15).

Tournament of Witches Cover

The writing of this novel took far longer than I like to think about. Suffice it to say that the original outline was developed sometime in the last century. So it is extremely gratifying to me for this mind-child to see the light of day at last.

This third volume of the saga sees Amlina the witch and her Iruk warriors sail to Larthang to return the Cloak of the Two Winds to its rightful owners, the witches of the House of the Deepmind. Epic fantasy often involves a journey, as well as a multi-layered plot rife with contending forces and intrigue. Tournament has all that aplenty.

The Golden Land

Larthang, Amlina’s homeland, is the westernmost of the Three Nations and has a long history of deep magic. But along with great witches, it is a land of warriors, sages, scholars, philosophers, and poets. Elements of the cultural background are drawn from ancient China, mixed with other historical sources, and transposed into the magical universe of Glimnodd.

Map of Larthang
Map of Larthang, (c) 2020 by Jack Massa. All rights reserved.

The Iruks, barbarians from the south polar region, are largely unfamiliar with Larthang and unsure what to expect. In this excerpt, as they near the coast, the scholar Kizier gives them an introduction to the history and politics …

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Their destination was Randoon of the Onyx Gates, one of three major ports on the Larthangan coast, each built at the mouth of a river. Kizier described the city one evening, as he and Eben sat in the stern beside the windbringers. It had become their custom to spend an hour or two there each day reviewing and practicing Eben’s language lessons.

In ancient times, the scholar said, the three rivers had flowed free and wild from their sources in the west and north. But during the first centuries of the current era, when the Dynasty of the Tuans was established and the great witches of Larthang practiced their arts, the rivers had been tamed. Now levees and dams controlled the floods and maintained irrigation of the farmlands. Inland, a grand canal linked the three rivers at Minhang, the Celestial Capital.

“But why is it called Randoon of the Onyx Gates?” Eben inquired.

“This you will see when we arrive,” Kizier answered. “On each side of the river stands a mighty tower fashioned of smooth, precious stone. These towers control a magical force that can be raised from the riverbed like gates of onyx to prevent ships from passing in or out of the channel. This witchery guards Larthang from invasion by sea.”

“So? Do the other ports also have such defenses?” Eben asked.

“Indeed,” Kizier said. “Hanjapore of the Jade Gates to the south, and Haji-Chan of the Moonstone Gates in the north.”

“The history is all very interesting,” Lonn grumbled, speaking Low-Tathian. Standing at the helm, he had listened to their talks in Larthangan for days now and was understanding much of what they said. “But I am more concerned with the greeting we’re likely to get when we land.”

“Yes, and with good reason.” Kizier shifted to Low-Tathian himself.

“This war faction that the drell described,” Eben said. “They tried to take the Cloak once. We haven’t spotted any naval vessels since Fleevanport, but once we near the coast of Larthang, what then? Will Amlina wield the Cloak against their ships again? If not, how will she keep them from taking it? But if she does, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be received as friends when we do reach Larthang.”

“All true,” Kizier allowed. “But there are other powers in Larthang.”

“You mean the witches at the House of the Deepmind,” Eben said. “They who sent the drell.”

“They, yes. And still others, I am sure. It’s many years since I studied in Larthang, and no doubt the political situation has evolved. But I can tell you this for certain: by tradition there are three powers in the Golden Land, known as the Three Pillars of the Throne. The Witches, who practice the arts of the Deepmind; Warriors, who practice the arts of war; and Magistrates, who administer the laws and maintain the civil government. Within these three orders, or estates, there are always factions and sub-factions, and constantly shifting alliances. Above all sits the hereditary ruler, the Tuan. In name, the Tuan is supreme, but in practice he or she must balance the contending forces of the three estates.”

“Are the witches always women?” Eben asked. “We know that elsewhere in the Three Nations, mages and sorcerers might be men as well. Is this not true in Larthang?”

“No and yes.” Kizier seemed to relish conveying the complexity of these matters. “The House of the Deepmind, known as Ting Ta Roo, is the supreme magical power and home to the Five Revered Arts. It trains only women and only they may properly be called ‘Witches of Larthang.’ But there are other, lesser traditions of deepshaping and deepseeing that teach both males and females. These schools train prognosticators, alchemists, and conjurers, as well as scholars and sages who may include mysticism as part of their studies. Any of these practitioners might be called mages, but never Witches of Larthang.”

“Sounds very complicated,” Lonn grumbled. “So, assuming we manage to land, Amlina will need to seek out her fellow witches, since she plans to surrender the Cloak to the House of the Deepmind.”

“Yes, but perhaps not just any witches,” Kizier said. “Some witches are allied to the so-called Iron Bloc. This we have seen already. No doubt there are other factions in the three estates who would love to possess the Cloak and the power it brings. Amlina has chosen to surrender the Cloak to the Archimage in Minhang—but how we will get there is an open question. Indeed, what will happen when we land in Randoon? That I cannot even guess.”

— from Tournament of Witches, Chapter Ten.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Jack Massa. All Rights Reserved,

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You can:

Purchase Tournament of Witches here.

Or check out the other volumes of the Glimnodd Cycle,

Read more about the magical world of Glimnodd,

Or sign up here for our mailing list and get a free prequel short story to the Cycle, “Street Sorceress”

Castle Image

 

Interview with Author JC Kang

This month we are pleased to present an interview with John (JC) Kang, author of The Legends of Tivara, a multi-volume epic fantasy “series of series” that includes, among others, The Dragon Songs Saga and Scions of the Black Lotus.

The Dragon Songs Saga Boxset

Welcome JC. Please tell us a little about yourself and your writing.

Thanks for having me!  I’m an acupuncturist by trade, a Wing Chun Kung Fu instructor for fun, and I do a little writing, as well.  I generally write epic fantasy with a mix of cultures drawing from Earth’s history.

When did you first decide to be a writer? What first drew you to writing fantasy?

I grew up both GMing (Game-Mastering) and playing D&D, and as a teen, I’d stood in line waiting for Dragonlance books to come out.  As something of a misfit, I tried to write a story set in my game world then. It was a total mess. Twenty years later, I came across my worldbuilding materials while cleaning out my room in my childhood home. Of course, as an adult, I had a better understanding of matters like economies and gravity, so I decided to recreate the planet that I’d envisioned as a teenager.

On the seventh day, I rested. It was then that I realized I would probably never play D&D again; and since as a DM, my players always frustrated me with their free will, I decided I would write.

Are there particular books, movies, or games that were a major influence on your work?

Besides Dungeons & Dragons, Civilization was a huge influence in terms of giving me the idea of a second world with Earth Cultures.  Of course, Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia were huge literary and media influencers when I was growing up.

Do all of your stories take place in the same fictional universe? How do you approach setting and world building?

So far, yes!  The primary characters of one series might make a cameo in another, and there is one character who appears in all of them.

For world building, one of the most important things to me is continuity and interconnectivity.  For example, I created a low-orbit moon which is tidally locked and always in the same place in the sky. I started to think, how would that moon influence the people viewing it from below? What cultural practices would that lead to?

Yes, I remember thinking what a cool idea that moon was. It gave a science fiction touch to the fantasy world. 

I am always interested in the magical aspect of fantasy. What inspires the magic or supernatural elements of your stories?

I give each ethnic group their own form of magic, but it is all based on borrowing wave energy from an abundant mineral on the planet. Each culture describe the manipulation of frequency, wavelength, and amplitude to alter reality it in different terminology:  For example, the “Roman” Diviners hear the Gods’ Whispers to Divine; whereas the “West African” Mystics sense the Resonance for sorcery; South Asians channel Vibrations into fighting prowess, etc.

I think a big challenge of fantasy is creating magic that is plausible and understandable to the reader. Do you construct rules-based magical systems or approach it in some other way?

I would neither call the magic system hard or soft—it’s firm. There are definite rules, but I don’t keep track of mana points or anything like that. The key to me is consistency: if there is magic, how will that affect the development of a culture, and the cultures around it?

Complete Tales of the Floating World Boxset

Of all the characters you’ve created, who are your favorites and why?

My favorites have changed over the years, but now, I would say it is my half Asian/half-elf ninja. Originally, she was just a minor character meant to show the world was a mix of Eastern and Western fantasies; but my first critique partners loved her so much, she got an important back story. She’s fun to write because the snark in her viewpoint.

How would you describe your writing style?

Technical?  Not technical writing—I actually worked in that field at one time—but rather, the idea of structuring variety in sentence structures and patterns. Beyond that, I can’t say I’m a brilliant wordsmith who knows the perfect word to evoke the perfect image.

Your biography includes professional experience as a Chinese Medicine Doctor and a martial arts instructor. How have these experiences added to your fiction?

Martial arts has helped me choreograph fights. Chinese Medicine has helped come up with some cool sayings.

Art of the Floating World cover

What are your current projects? When will we see your next book?

I’m currently working on the sequel to Masters of Deception, which chronologically takes place between Crown of the Sundered Empire and Orchestra of Treacheries (though the sequel to Crown, and possibly a serial) will squeeze in between those last two.

I’m also working on a cyberpunk-Progression Fantasy mashup.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read a lot. Critique, because if you’re like me, in reading unpolished works, you will see what doesn’t work, and you’ll realize you probably make the same mistakes.

In closing, is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?

I’m deeply humbled by those who’ve spent time reading my stories. Thank you!

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You can find JC Kang’s books on his Amazon page.List of JC Kang Books

To learn more about JC Kang visit http://jckang.dragonstonepress.us/

 

Magic Systems and the World of Glimnodd

To start off this post with a picture, here is the new cover for Cloak of the Two Winds, Book 1 of the Glimnodd Cycle.

Cloak of the Two Winds New Cover

I’m excited to announce I will be re-releasing this series over the next couple of months AND publishing Book 3, Tournament of Witches.

To mark the occasion, let’s talk about magic systems in fantasy and in the Glimnodd books in particular.

I think a lot about magic in fiction (and also in real life for that matter). For fantasy, I find constructing magic systems to be one of the most interesting points of world-building.

But how do you build a fictional magic system that readers will understand and love?

Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic

For many, a cogent answer to this question begins with author Brandon Sanderson’s famous Three Laws of Magic. As presented by the author in a series of blog posts beginning here, these laws are:

  1. First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
  2. Second Law : Limitations > Power (For story purposes, limitations on the magic are more important than the magic powers.)
  3. Third Law: Expand what you already have before you add something new.

Now, as author Max Florschutz points out in a blog post here , these laws are not so much about creating magic systems as rules for how best to use magic in a story.

Nevertheless, when you invent a magic system as an author, you need to be aware of the First Law in particular. In other words, you have to figure out how to make the magic comprehensible to the reader.

Hard, Soft, and In Between

In his essay on the first law, Sanderson elucidates with examples of different magic systems on a continuum from “soft” to “hard”:

On one side of the continuum, we have books where the magic is included in order to establish a sense of wonder and give the setting a fantastical feel. Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t. … I call this a “Soft Magic” system…

Sanderson cites Tolkien as a prime example. In The Lord of the Rings, the rules of the magic are never much explained. By the same token, while magic creates the dangerous situation (the Lord of Mordor and his rings), magic is seldom if ever used to solve the characters’ problems. Frodo and Sam don’t magically teleport to Mordor to drop off the One Ring.

Illustration from Lord of the Rings
Illustration from The Fellowship of the Ring. Source: https://www.theonering.net/torwp/2019/02/13/105874-free-lord-of-the-rings-art-show-in-san-jose-ca/

On the other end of the continuum is “hard magic,” where the working rules are explicitly explained:

The magic itself is a character, and by showing off its laws and rules, the author is able to provide twists, worldbuilding, and characterization.

If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems. In this case, it’s not the magic mystically making everything better. Instead, it’s the characters’ wit and experience that solves the problems. Magic becomes another tool—and, like any other tool, its careful application can enhance the character and the plot.

Taken to its extreme, hard magic systems can be like table-top gaming, where specific powers are based on point-systems. Many readers want this kind of hard-and-fast rules-based world, but I personally find hard systems less than appealing. If everything is known, where is the sense of wonder?

Fortunately, as Sanderson points out, most writers choose a middle ground between the hard and soft extremes. He cites the Harry Potter novels as a prime example.

Each of these books outlines various rules, laws, and ideas for the magic of the world. And, in that given book, those laws are rarely violated, and often they are important to the workings of the book’s climax. However, if you look at the setting as a whole, you don’t really ever understand the capabilities of magic.

This strategy allows characters to solve problems with magic while avoiding the trap of the magic becoming a predictable, rote system and thereby losing all the mystery and wonder.

Harry Potter artwork
Artwork for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix DVD, source: https://goldendiscs.ie/products/harry-potter-and-the-order-of-the-phoenix-david-yates-1
Magic in the World of Glimnodd

I am big on mystery and the mystical sense of wonder. Nevertheless, magic is integral to the plot of my fantasy stories. Which means my characters often solve problems with magic. Which means the reader has to have a sense of the limits and the rules. So my stories fall somewhere in the middle of the hard-soft spectrum.

In the Glimnodd Cycle, magic is definitely and consistently a deep aspect of the story lines. On Glimnodd, magic has been around for a long, long time. So much so, that the unrestrained use of magic caused the fabric of reality to fray and the world to change. This brought about a time known as The Age of the World’s Madness, where chaos reigned, new sentient species arose, and one of the three moons flew off into space.

Later, balance was restored. To preserve the balance and vent off excess magical energies, great spells were woven. One causes the seas of Glimnodd to shine with a perpetual light. The second causes magic winds to blow which change the seas to ice or the ice back to soft water.

Icy seas on Glimnodd

There are multiple magical systems mentioned in the stories. In terms of magic used to solve plot problems, there are touches of shamanic magic, alchemy, and ancient evil sorcery (with clearly defined rules in A Mirror Against All Mishap).

But the most detailed magical system is that codified and used by the Witches of Larthang. This is based on five arts.

The Five Revered Arts

The Five Revered Arts of Larthangan Witchery are:

  1. Deep Seeing (wei shen) – The art of perceiving thoughts, images, and events through no physical sense but through the mind alone.
  2. Formulation (jai-dah or “weaving”). The creation of mental constructs that are stored and then released at a chosen moment, through incantation and mental casting.
  3. Trinketing (barang-xing). The fabrication of magical objects. In this art, the witch generates a magical design and binds it to a material object, allowing the power to be unleashed at a later time by herself or another person.
  4. Magical combat (weng lei). In this art, a witch trains with dagger, sword, ritual stances, and fighting techniques. With the force of her mind she can send blades through the air or cast weakness into an opponent’s body.
  5. Pure-shaping (quon-xing). The spontaneous use of mental power to create effects in the world.

In terms of their limitations, all five arts depend on the practiced skill and mental strength of the practitioner (the witch or ‘deepshaper’). In scenes where magic is used to solve problems, there is always a sense of struggle, tension, and doubt.

For further reading …

To learn more about Brandon Sanderson’s work, check out brandonsanderson.com.

You can read his posts on the Three Laws of Magic here:

  1. First Law
  2. Second Law
  3. Third Law

To learn more about the magic of Glimnodd, check out these pages:

Or you can pick up Book 1, Cloak of the Two Winds on Amazon.

Or… Sign up here for our Triskelist Newsletter and receive “Street Sorceress,” a short story that takes place prior to the events of Cloak.

Street Sorceress Cover

Use this link to get the free story.

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A Cast of Characters

Right now, I am more than delighted because I am finally nearing completion of Tournament of Witches, the third and final book of The Glimnodd Cycle .

Cloak of the Two Winds Cover image

The latest novel truly fits the mold of “epic” fantasy, weighing in at a healthy 95,000 words and featuring a multitude of characters and lots of background (aka world building).

Presenting this amount of information in a story is one of the great challenges of epic fantasy. Of course, the best way to present all of this backstory is to chop it up into little chunks and weave it into the narrative. In a past series of posts beginning here, I described Five Techniques for presenting backstory in this way.

Still, no matter how skillfully the author weaves in character descriptions and background details, readers will sometimes get lost. This is particularly true for readers who might start by reading one of the later books in a series.

To solve this dilemma, an author might provide additional tools that the confused reader can flip to to remind or re-orient themselves. One such tool is a Glossary, which can include definitions of things, places, and concepts that only exist in the fantasy world. Another such tool is a list of characters.

In Tournament of Witches I am including both of these, a Glossary in the back of the book and a character list in the front.

Ad for Book 2: the witch Amlina confronts a dragon spirit.

We’ll leave discussion of the Glossary for a future post. But here, in draft form, is the character listing. Since this is placed at the start of the novel, one thing I’ve tried to do is not only identify the characters, but give a little (hopefully intriguing) information about who they are and what their situation is at the start of the story. Because there are so many, I’ve also used the information designer’s technique of grouping them under subheadings.

Cast of Characters

Amlina – Wandering witch from Larthang, a nation of great witches. Victorious in acquiring the Cloak of the Two Winds, she now seeks to recover from what it cost her.

Eben – Warrior of the barbarian Iruk people. Inclined to poetry; squandering his loot on a life of ease; enjoying it less than he expected.

Eben’s mates, members of his klarn:

Glyssa (f), brave and loving. Trained by Amlina in the magical arts.

Lonn (m), the klarn leader, strong, passionate, stoical. In love with Glyssa.

Draven (m), Lonn’s cousin, brave and optimistic. In love with Amlina.

Karrol (f), brawny, decisive, outspoken. No longer sure where she belongs.

Brinda (f), Karrol’s sister, quiet and reserved. Loyal above all to Karrol.

Others related to Amlina or the Iruks

Kizier – Scholar and friend to Amlina. Ruminating over his past life as a sentient sea-fern.

Buroof – A talking book, once a human. Three thousand years old and full of knowledge.

Beryl Quan de Lang – Amlina’s great enemy. Now a ghost that haunts her.

Bellach – Iruk shaman and sometime mentor to Glyssa in visions.

Witches of Larthang

Drusdegarde – Archimage of the West. Supreme witch of the Land.

Trippany – Bee-winged lady of the drell people. Envoy from the Archimage.

Clorodice, Keeper of the Keys – Powerful and strict. Adherent of the austere Thread of Virtue faction.

Arkasha – Clorodice’s subaltern and member of her circle.

Elani Vo T’ang – Clorodice’s favored apprentice.

Melevarry, Mage of Randoon -Chief witch of that port city. Loyal to the Archimage.

Larthangan Military and Court

Duke Trem-Dou Pheng – Supreme Commander of the Larthangan Forces and leader of the militarist faction, the Iron Bloc.

Shay-Ni Pheng – Admiral of the Larthangan Navy and the Duke’s nephew. Unhappy with his current assignment.

The Tuan (Me Lo Lee) – Supreme Ruler of Larthang. A nine-year-old boy with access to the memories and knowledge of his 154 dynastic predecessors.

Prince Spegis – drell ambassador to the Court. Cousin to Trippany.

Ting Fo -gentleman tutor and interpreter for the Iruks at the Court.

Ancient Chinese Rulers
Ancient Chinese Rulers: Inspiration for the Larthangan court. source: http://earlyworldhistory.blogspot.com/2012/01/yao-shun-and-yu.html

 

You can find more background on the magical world of Glimnodd here .

Or check out the series on Amazon.

World-Building for Fantasy – Three Tips

Creating worlds for fantasy and science fiction is a topic beloved by many. And, of course, there is plenty of excellent advice available online. Two of my favorites are Brandon Sanderson’s “Rules for Magic”  and this series by the excellent Brenda Clough.   There are even dedicated tools you can use, such as the highly-regarded World Anvil.

But imagining an entire world is no easy task. For all the great resources available, writers often struggle. In this post, drawing on examples from expert authors, I’ll provide three tips for setting up a fantasy world that is both imaginative and unique.

1. Story Before World

World-building can be great fun. It can also be a rabbit hole. Many people spend endless hours defining every nook and nuance of their world—history, climate, geography, sentient races, religions, magic, technology.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if you want to write fantasy stories, you need to put the story first. Put your focus on the primary elements of story.   Who are your characters? What are their goals? What are the obstacles to those goals? How will they seek to overcome those obstacles? Let all your world building efforts be driven by those questions.

Take for example The Queen’s Poisoner by popular author Jeff Wheeler. The story takes place in a pretty standard medieval-style world (with a few unique and intriguing elements). But the focus is first and foremost on the characters—as we follow our young hero Owen through the tribulations of being held hostage in the castle of a tyrant king. The history, politics, and other background information are revealed gradually and always in terms of how they relate to the dramatic story.

Or consider the massive and massively popular The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss constructs a complex and richly-detailed fantasy world. But again, the setting is only gradually revealed in the midst of dramatic action. In this case, we are presented with multiple narratives—the first, a framing device that introduces the hero, then multiple sequential stories as the protagonist relates his history to the “Chronicler.” This is also a truly epic example of story construction.

2. Make It Distinct

For all the efforts spend on world-building, many writers fall into the trap of imitation. All too often readers find themselves in worlds that seem like copies of Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons: orcs, witches, werewolves, elves, dragons, shapeshifters, vampires…

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But the best fantasy worlds have something that makes them unique and special.

In The Name of the Wind, we find (among other things) a complex set of “arcanist arts” (including Sympathy, Sygaldry, Alchemy, and Naming) which function according to precise scientific laws.

Or take NK Jemison’s award-winning The Broken Earth Trilogy. In Book 1, The Fifth Season, we meet the orogenes, a unique kind of humans with the power to sense and tap the tectonic forces of the Earth. These books might best be called science-fantasy, since the orogenes’ powers are linked to a biological explanation. But the author’s depictions of how these powers feel and are experienced are nonetheless fantastic.

In world-building for my own novel, Cloak of the Two Winds, I tried to imagine one thing to make the setting unique. The world, Glimnodd, is a place where arcane arts have been practiced for ages. Part of the legacy of all this witchery is that magic winds blow over the seas, changing water to ice or ice to water. Yes, I came up with that on my own!

3. Make it Relevant

Fantasy is escapist literature, and I’m all for it. But unless a story is relevant to readers, they won’t care about it. And for a fantasy story to be relevant, the experience of the world and the characters must be relatable.

In other words: What about the current state of our world does this fantasy world portray?

I learned this lesson when a friend read an early draft of Cloak of the Two Winds. The freezewind and meltwind in the story were created in ancient times as a kind of pressure-release. So much magic and sorcery were practiced that their cumulative effects had plunged the world into chaos. To keep the world in balance, the two winds now bleed off excess magic energy.

In the story, the Cloak of the title can control these magic winds. But it has been stolen and is being misused by a mad sorcerer intent on bringing the world back to chaos.

What about all that is relatable to our world? I didn’t realize it myself until a friend referred to the story as involving a “climate emergency.” In our world, overpopulation and technology are threatening us with chaos. Perhaps technology, wisely applied, will help us restore the balance.

As another example, consider Jemison’s The Fifth Season. The treatment of the orogenes by the dominant humans is relentlessly horrible—and depicts how oppressed people are and have been treated throughout history. The depiction is powerful and brutal. Jemison herself discusses this in a thread on her Twitter feed.

Best of All Possible Worlds

So, if fantasy writing is your thing, consider these three tips to make your world-building and your story as great as they can be.

  1. Put the Story before the World
  2. Make the World Distinct
  3. Make the World Relevant

Let me know what you think.

Books mentioned in this post:

The Queen’s Poisoner by Jeff Wheeler

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Fifth Season by NK Jemison

The Cloak of the Two Winds by Jack Massa