Savvy Saturday – Magical World Building, Part 2

How do you make a world that will leave an impact on your readers? Make it believable.

Last week, I posted about how to start writing a believable magical world by categorizing what magic can and can’t do in the world you’re creating. As a recap, if magic can do too much, then your characters will either find it too easy to solve their problems (if they can use magic), will wind up dead too quickly (if their enemies can use magic and they can’t), or, if everyone can use magic to do anything, the world you’ve worked so hard to build will end up destroyed in just a few pages. And we don’t want that.

But why would the world end up destroyed, you ask? Why can’t you just write it so that the characters do what you want them to do with the magic, and nothing else? That question brings us to the point of today’s post: To make a believable magical world, you have to 1) think through what real-life people would do if they had magic in this context, and based off of this, 2) how magic would realistically affect a society.

 To illustrate these, let’s go back to our music-as-magic example society that was proposed last week. What would happen if music was magical – that different instruments, including the human voice, could influence nature and other people?

To make this distinction, you first have to think through how basic human nature (which remains true to life in every well-written society) will come through in your setting, and contrast this with the societal and temporal differences that make your world unique.

On an individual level, if you lived in a music-is-magic world, you’d want to know as much as you could about music, the different kinds of music that exist, and what to look for in a “good” and “bad” musician. Based on this knowledge, you’d likely be wary of people who carried around a “dangerous” instrument, but would welcome visitors who played healing instruments or other time-honored beneficial instruments.

(This distinction would speak to a basic human nature of fleeing danger, seeking gain, and pursuing necessary knowledge to tell one from the other.)

You’d also probably want to get as much training in music as you could, in as many different instruments as you could master. You’d certainly want your children to be musicians if they had any talent at all, and you’d likely pay a fair amount of money to give them that training. If you were strategic, you’d also want to have multiple children who could play different instruments so that your household could take advantage of different types of magic. On this note (so to speak), most people would likely choose easy-to-play, beneficial types of music if they’re not especially gifted. However, if they’re extremely gifted, they might want to choose a more difficult instrument that would gain them more fame and power.

(This is similar to our world’s system of education: only those who are extremely gifted and dedicated choose to put in the work to become doctors, for instance, but most people know basic first aid.)

People who are extremely gifted at music would likely become “stars” as they do in our world, only more so. They would likely become political and military figures – advisers to the leaders if not the leaders themselves – as well as simply musical celebrities, since they would have significant power to accomplish things for their respective kingdoms.

This could make things interesting from a governmental perspective (and this takes us nicely to talking about societal level effects). If the type of people who are phenomenal musicians – stereotypically emotional, high-strung artistic types – also are the ones who can make things explode, strike fear into the hearts of their listeners, or bring a drought down on the land, how much do you want to put them in charge of? But how can you afford to not give them what they want, if they have this power?

One way is to raise talented musicians to believe that they owe their service to the government, and to be so grateful for the training and gifts that they have, that they won’t want to use their gifts against those in power who aren’t musicians. This would lead to the establishment of governmental conservatories and mandatory attendance for everyone identified as gifted.

Additionally, a government might want to regulate the creation of musical instruments, make it illegal for certain types of music or instruments to be played (at least without a license), come up with a musical code of conduct, and enforce it with deadly strictness. If the government didn’t do so, you could very well end up with weather wars as different musicians attempted to call up contradictory weather patterns for different individuals in a localized neighborhood, with a Pied Piper raising up an army of entranced followers to rebel against the king, or more generally, emotional and material chaos as musicians did whatever they felt like. (However, taking a stance like this would also probably lead to underground musical training – a black market/mafia – for those people who didn’t like the government’s harsh control of all music and musicians.)

As a side note, this is a force of human nature that should always be taken into account. “Power corrupts,” as the saying goes, and even otherwise good people have the tendency to use “special” powers or abilities for their own advantage. Without a regulatory system in place, music will be the downfall of your government quicker than you can sing “London Bridge is Falling Down.” With too powerful a regulatory system in place, however, musicians will eventually rebel against the government. Then see above.

Since great music typically requires learning from a great musician, you’d also likely have different schools of music forming around different great players. Most likely, since geniuses tend to have their own artistic style, these players would also likely specialize in different types of magic. Just as an individual in this world might become a jazz pianist or a classical pianist, or a drummer in a band as opposed to a timpani player in an orchestra, individuals in a magical world would likely have to choose to specialize in a specific stream of musical magic. Within these streams, different theories of how music and magic should be used would likely develop, leading to rifts and misunderstandings as musicians approach their craft from different assumptions.

For instance, one could imagine a martial school of music (a la the Army Band) that would focus on how best to use music to immobilize and weaken one set of individuals (the enemy) while empowering and strengthening another at the same time (your forces). A healing school of music (a la Chinese traditional music) might believe that music should only be used for peace and harmony, that it should be gentle, and that winning a war by means of musical magic is not honorable.

These are just ideas, and a hundred different cultures could be created from the idea of music-as-magic. But the believable ones will share one thing in common: they’ll hang together as a realistic picture of a society. They’ll feel “right” as you build them.

This doesn’t mean your society has to be monolithic. There can be built-in inefficiencies, conflict points, and downright contradictions in a society you make. But there has to be a reason that it still works – beyond the reason that the author wanted the society to work that way. It has to make sense internally.

Unfortunately, creating a believable world takes work to do well. Fortunately, once you’ve created a world, your characters will be able to have better adventures, their world will be more alive and exciting, and your readers will find themselves transported to a new reality that feels as real as the one they live in.

And it’s then that your writing has impact.

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