World Building: Magic


Let’s talk about magic. While magic is probably of little concern to writers of contemporary fiction, science-fiction, techno-thrillers, and similar genres, when it comes to fantasy stories, few would argue that magic is one of the most important subjects. Poorly conceived, magic can ruin a story; well conceived, magic can add such depth to a character or setting that the reader simply cannot put the book down. But why is magic so integral to fantasy? Can we have fantasy without magic? What kinds of magic are found in fantasy? How much magic is too much magic? How little is too little? And what about the arguments from critics that magic is just a cop-out for patching plot holes and escaping impossible situations?

But before we begin, let’s define what we mean by “fantasy”, and the kinds of magic typically found in fantasy fiction…

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World Building Month – hello world

It seems a bunch of aspiring authors are now participating in World Building Month, conceived and coordinated by Eliza Wyatt. What a wonderful idea! Hopefully, I shall be able to contribute this month with essays on Building Magic Systems, as well as some background information on the World of Mythania.

Until then, you may be interested in a few of my resent articles, such as my article on Fantasy World Building (should be a good primer at least) and The Persistently Pernicious Paradox of Publishing.

Till next I post.

Fantasy World Building

One of the defining characteristics of the science fiction and fantasy stories is that they take place in a setting different from our everyday world (the “real world”). Even science fiction and fantasy that takes place on Earth must have some key differences that distinguish it from the real world, otherwise it would not be science fiction and fantasy, but would simply be contemporary or historical fiction. However, the fact that science fiction and fantasy stories are set in such an imaginary world requires one key concession from the reader or audience: suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is simply the willingness of an audience or reader to temporarily accept what is clearly untrue in reality for truth in a given fictional setting. For example, while dragons and other magical creatures do not exist in the real world, an audience or reader must “suspend their disbelief” and accept that dragons and magical creatures do exist in the context of a given fantasy setting. Even so, there are limits to how far an audience or reader will go in suspending their disbelief. While they may accept that dragons exist in a certain fantasy setting, they will not accept a dragon that in one scene is red and then in another scene is blue (unless it has been established that dragons can change color). In other words, suspension of disbelief cannot be used as a convenient “out” to cover-up plot holes, contradictions, logical fallacies, or shoddy historical research. In order to facilitate suspension of disbelief, the work must at least be internally consistent.

Without internal consistency, a work of science fiction or fantasy will quickly dissolve into absurdity and chaos. All writers strive to remain internally consistent within their own work–even parodies need to be consistent in their satirical mockery. But mistakes do happen, and when a reader stumbles upon such an error in consistency, they are rudely jarred from their suspended disbelief into the sudden realization that not only what they are reading is make-believe, but that the author is sloppy as well. There is simply no excuse for such embarrassing mistakes because they can be avoided easily enough if an author simply takes the time to build his or her world.

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Steampunk 101

Generally speaking, steampunk is a sub-genre of speculative fiction that is set in the Victorian period of the late 19th century or a “Victorian-like period” where steam power is the dominant driving force of the world (instead of gasoline or other 20th century developments). The civilization may even be highly advanced with spacecraft, ray-guns, and clockwork super-computers. The writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells serve as the primary source of inspiration for steampunk stories, but so do many Victorian-period inventors such as Charles Babbage and Nikola Tesla. Steampunk may also incorporate elements of fantasy as well, but it is predominately set in the Victorian-period of Earth with little if any magic or magical beings (although the stories may have fantastical “magic-like” steam-powered machines).

The “punk” in “steampunk” is derived from the name of its parent genre, cyberpunk. Why is cyberpunk the parent genre of steampunk? Primarily because many of the more famous “steampunk” authors were cyberpunk authors in the 80s and 90s (Gibson, Sterling, Neal Stephenson). Steampunk also incorporates many of the same themes, atmosphere, and attitudes about technology that cyberpunk does. True steam-“punk” is typified by a rebellious attitude, and is centered around misfits and anti-heroes. Basically, “steampunk” is a cyberpunk story that replaces computers and cybernetics with mechanical computers and steam-powered devices.

“Steam fantasy”, on the other hand, is a fantasy world with steam-age elements. “Steam fantasy” may not even be set on Earth at all, but rather in an entirely unique fantasy world, such as Mythania. In this setting, many of the traditional fantasy elements may exist, such as wizards, dragons, magical races, and so forth, with the additional introduction of firearms, steam engines, flying machines, and mechanized war machines. “Steam fantasy” may also blend magical enchantments with steam-powered devices, adding a whole new dimension to the development of technological wonders. “Steam fantasy” may not necessarily be “punkish”, and technology may either be shown to be a positive influence on society or the source of endless terror and conflict, or both.

For more on the subject of steampunk and the “steampunk sub-culture”, drop by Brass Goggles or the Aether Emporium. To entertain your imagination, visit my Mythania homepage and peruse a few short stories.