3 Tips for Magic Systems & World Building: What I Learned at Capclave pt1

One Capclave 2011 event that hit me where I live was the Magical Worlds panel moderated by Stuarte Jaffe and featuring Jean Marie Ward and Danny Birt. A main focus of the panel was discussing establishing clarity and consistency in the worlds we build as writers so the reader can be oriented and follow the story.

This is especially a problem in the first novel I’m producing, The Horde. My main narrator is only marginally reliable. My book features a number of magic/science fiction elements most of which are only poorly understood by the protagonists. However as the author I do have a clear idea in each chapter what is happening and why.

The problem I feel I run into is making sure the reader is able to learn these rules or, at least, that the reader is able to feel comfortable that there are rules to learn. Despite my delusional characters, the world is not random or nonsensical, it just seems that way to my narrator.

I suspect I am not the first writer to have difficulty with this given the fact that the panel focused almost exclusively on this issue. So many writers find it effective to have an all-knowing character or a third person narrator explain the magic and how it has shaped the world. Other writers simply never explain.

Robert Jordan repeatedly stops to make it clear why different things make sense in the cosmology of his universe, either as a writer or through various characters.

J.R.R. Tolkein’s Silmarillion serves in many ways to show the his work behind the scenes of Lord of the Rings, explaining much of how the world came to be.

Philip K. Dick gives you just enough explanation to let you feel comfortable then he explodes your brain.

Frank Herbert’s Dune and Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle give us endless appendices of information to peruse at our leisure.

None of these is wrong or right necessarily but it is clear that how much and when are key questions when conveying the world you have built to reader. It is also clear that there is a need to do so, to prevent the world from seeming made up on the fly with little forethought the way certain TV shows which shall remain nameless seem to be (or admit to being according to their commentaries).

My book has rules that are clear and consistent in my head as I’m writing. Here are some tips I picked up from the panel that may be useful:

1. Use the cover. Cover art often can help ground and orient the reader in the world through the use of symbols, familiar iconography, costumes, and props. The cover can tell us how the magic/science fiction has changed the world from our own and what to expect the characters to know.

Look at the cover of Harry Potter: we know we need wands and books and artifacts.

Look at the cover of Dune: we know things are huge in scope and individual people are tiny. In some versions we also know these big worm things are important.

Look at the cover of Fred Saberhagen’s books about swords- there is no doubt that the swords are incredibly important and the dominant basis and reason for the magic.

My cover I feel somewhat does this- it shows the danger, ominous threat, androgyny, and world-blurring that comes with my story but doesn’t convey that there are concrete reasons.

2. Try to allude to the magic in everything. Make it so the magic is referenced, so that it has impacts that feel real. Our political system in America has references not only in the houses of government, but on the newspaper, in the voting booth, on television, on our street signs, and in how people complain about politicians.

This is really hard. My allusions to the magic are at times things the characters don’t notice and perhaps seem random, especially since a number of different “mystical” events are going on at once. I’ll untangle these eventually as the characters do, but for now the biggest challenging is giving it a feeling of consistency and realism despite the complexity.

So far I’ve had the magic impact the weather, the motivations of the main characters, the socio-political development on my magical otherworld, certain aspects of my narrator’s life on Earth, and the architecture in one character’s home. I don’t feel this is enough.

3. Mix explaining of magic with alluding to magic. Sometimes the magic just needs an explanation. I like to couch this in a scene- with one character with an agenda giving a questionable explanation to another character with an agenda. The inf0-dump has a long and maligned history but sometimes is necessary to help the story move along.

I’ve attempted to dole this out in small lumps- a small info-dump here from one character to another to avoid being inconvenienced, another later on to manipulate the hero into doing something stupid.

As much as I love the entire series of Lost, I do feel that it played too secretive with one specific aspect of the Lost mythos and had to rush to make up for this in a single episode during the final season. The episode is titled “Across the Sea” and discusses the origin and purpose of the “smoke monster.”

This one episode was forced to deviate from the very effective flashback tied with main story format that was so powerful so often, instead giving us an episode long flashback explaining the “why” of two major characters. What was arguably a very interesting and creative back story ended up being portrayed in a rather boring “tell not show” way. This is the only episode of the show that I dislike.

I recognize the need for the info-dump to prepare us for the ending and the writers faced a challenge I also face- having so much back story that explaining it is time consuming and alluding to it doesn’t always achieve the needed function.

I point out Lost for the very reason that, apart from this one episode, I feel the show did an excellent job of giving tiny telling moments that shock the viewer mixed with vague demonstrations of the nature of magic that let the viewer draw their own conclusions. I posit that the show is a model for avoiding the dreaded info-dump.

For those of you who skipped to the end for the quick summary of things I learned that might help with the “orienting the reader in the magical world” issue, here’s the brief list:

1. Use the cover to introduce what’s unique about the magic of the world.

2. Allude to the magic that built the world as much as possible.

3. Mix in brief explanations throughout the piece instead of giving one large info-dump.

What else do you find helpful, as a reader or as a writer, in orienting you and helping you understand a magical otherworld?

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