Savvy Saturday – Magical World Building, Part 1

Question: How do you write a believable magical world?

As the author of a published fantasy novel, I get asked fairly frequently how I write stories about a world so different from my own. The answer to this is actually fairly simple: writing that takes place in a magical world is no different than writing that takes place in any other kind of culture about which the author is initially unfamiliar. You have to know the rules, and a bit of sociology, and after that, just think things through and do what makes sense.

A story about a tribe in historic ancient Africa, for instance, will only be believable if the culture makes sense to the reader – if the reader can say, “Yes, I understand why that happened,” or “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought of that, but it makes sense.” A story that has elements that don’t make sense, either in terms of the culture itself or in the way that characters act, will leave readers dissatisfied. (And the last thing you want as an author is a dissatisfied reader.)

For instance, if our characters in a tribe in Africa are portrayed as being hunter-gatherers who use wooden spears and bows, they shouldn’t be traveling by bicycle. Similarly, if a tribe lives near where a rare and valued herb grows that they can use for trading, they would likely try to find ways to either plant more of it (and thus to increase their revenue stream) or to guard it and keep it secret, to keep other people from gaining access to their source of income. What they wouldn’t do, however, is 1) destroy the plant, 2) broadcast the plant’s location to everyone, or 3) move away without taking the plant with them. (At least not without a very good reason.) Or, if the same tribe is struggling to survive a drought throughout the story, it wouldn’t make sense for their shaman to suddenly send a rainstorm to flood and drown their enemies. (If he could make it rain, then why didn’t he just fix the drought earlier?)

Though these issues seem obvious when put in the context of our world, authors often have a difficult time thinking them through in a fantasy setting. Too often, magic is layered on top of an already-existing historical setting (generally Medieval Europe) without considering what the existence of magic would actually do to that setting and the people in it. Alternatively, magic is used as a deus-ex-machina: if you get into trouble in your plot, well, just have magic fix it! Readers, however, are smart and will ask, “If magic could solve a problem now, why couldn’t it solve a similar problem before or after?”

To write a believable magical world, then, you have to start by asking what magic can do and what it cannot do. You have to ask how this existence of magic would affect the society in which it’s found. You have to ask what would make sense for people to do in a context where they had magic, or where other people had magic. No matter how cool an idea is, if it doesn’t make sense in context, don’t do it. (Or, if it’s REALLY cool, then tweak the way the culture works to make it make sense somehow.)

For the next couple of posts, then, I’ll present a case study in world-building to make these ideas more concrete. This post will focus on the first part of world-building: asking what magic can and can’t do.

Let’s say that we love music, and we want to write a world where music is the conduit of magic. (That’s a world where I’d love to live!) The first thing we have to do is figure out what it would make sense for music-magic to be able to do and not do. There are a thousand ways that you could choose to have this happen in your world; here are ten possible ideas.

  • Idea 1: magic only affects whatever is in hearing range of the music, so softer instruments have a smaller range than louder instruments.
  • Idea 2: magic can be split up into two kinds: instrumental and vocal, each with its own powers. Combining the two creates incredibly powerful, and likely dangerous, magic.
  • Idea 2a: instrumental music can be used for “nature” based magic – enhancing the potential of what already happens in nature, or making natural things happen. This would include weather magic, control over the earth and crops, and inducing emotions.
  • Idea 2b: vocal music can be used for more purposeful magic – making things happen that wouldn’t happen in nature. (Words, logic, and thought are required.)
  • Idea 3: music must be played with both feeling and high technique to have maximal magical impact. A technically accurate musician who doesn’t play with heart will be able to perform mid-level magic, but it will be weak. A musician who really lives the music as he or she plays it, but who can’t play complex pieces accurately, will perform low-level magic extremely well, but won’t be able to perform mid-level magic.
  • Idea 4: different types of instruments are more suited to working different types of magic
  •     Idea 4a: wind instruments are best for influencing the weather and emotions
  •         Idea 4a1: bagpipes strike fear into the hearts of all who hear them
  •         Idea 4a2: horns can inspire courage and energy
  •     Idea 4b: string instruments are best for influencing physical health, sickness, and subtle workings of the mind
  •         Idea 4b1: harps can make a person more willing to agree with the musician (subtle mind-control) and can make an enemy weak
  • Idea 5: master vocalists, when they accompany themselves skillfully with a stringed instrument, can cure disease, cause disease, or manipulate people’s minds to their cause; they can also build, cook, clean, or do a variety of other tasks if they compose appropriate lyrics. However, it is a rare musician who is both adequately skilled at vocal and at instrumental music to perform high-level magic.
  • Idea 6: for vocal magic to work, a song must be written that has words and meter that flow well with the purpose of the magic. Thus, a better-written song will be more powerful than doggerel, and it takes time and effort to compose a piece that will do a new type of magic
  • Idea 7: magic CANNOT be used to bring back the dead, time-travel, give immortality, or create true love
  • Idea 8: the more contrary to nature a magic work is, the more skill and the greater the length of a piece that is required. For instance, it would take far more skill and energy to make oneself fly than to give oneself a boost of energy, and it would take far more skill and energy to make a snowstorm in the summer than in the winter.
  • Idea 9: if a mage takes a life with magic, his attempts to perform high-level light magic are forever soured. They may work more or less, but they’ll always come with side effects
  • Idea 10: the more skilled a mage is, the longer he or she can play/sing during a single day, but even the most skilled mage won’t be able to perform magic for more than a two or three hour stretch, and then he or she will have to rest for several hours.

These ideas are just examples, but you’ll notice that if I were to present characters with a problem of a villain and his army who are invading the kingdom, you’ll note that they now have some options that make sense, and some that don’t. They could try simply killing the villain and his army with magic, but that would cause severe consequences for the musician who was responsible. They could employ a bagpipe brigade to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies, but they’d want to make sure that their own troops were far enough away not to be affected. They could attempt to stir up a storm to slow down invaders, but if it isn’t the season for storms, this would be very difficult and tiring, and perhaps not a good use of the musicians’ strength.

In the next post, I’ll continue with this case study and look at the culturally unique factors that would likely arise in a society where magic like this occurred, and how people’s mindsets might be impacted by the presence of music as magic. Until then, enjoy your own reading, writing, and world-building! If this post applies to your world, or if you have examples books that you read that either did or didn’t make sense in their world building, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you.

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