A few weeks ago, I listened to an episode of The Thinking Atheist podcast hosted by Seth Andrews with Dr. Chrissy Stroop called “I Left Because…” It was a call-in show where people shared their stories about why and how they left organized religion to become atheists. Some were dramatic, but the majority were comprised of gradually drifting away as they learned more about about the religion itself and the world around them. My own deconversion was likewise a gradual process as I realized how little sense religious doctrine made. I went from being Christian (specifically Lutheran Protestant) to Deism (the clockmaker god), flirted briefly with Wicca and paganism, stayed agnostic for a while, and finally embraced the label of atheist and humanist (in part to help destigmatize the word “atheist” and to help show that you can be “good without god.”)
However, when I was telling this to a friend, I told them that I stopped being Wiccan because it was so anti-climactic compared to the fantasy novels I was used to reading. My friend expressed surprise that fantasy actually helped me leave religion rather than encouraging me to stay, since magical thinking is required to accept a lot of religious tenants. I hadn’t actually thought about this and decided to examine this idea further.
Greetings to everyone from the end of National Novel Writing Month! Wow, it’s really hard to believe that a month has gone by and, for once, I actually have an almost complete rough draft of a novel. It still needs work and some scenes, but I think I’ll be able to progress to the editing stage this December and January. And I’m actually looking forward to it! My creativity has come back, I’m eager to work, and I’ve been writing over 2,000 words a day more often than not. Which, like, never happens. So, I’m really pleased with my progress and hope to have a finished product to show for my effort sooner rather than later. (Then I’ll go back to Ravens and Roses, I promise.)
Now, on to a topic that has been percolating in the back of my mind for some time: false dichotomies.
Warfare and fantasy go hand in hand. There is something visceral and exhilarating about medieval-style combat…although I personally would never want to be in one. It may be cool to watch elves, orcs, and horsemen fight each other, but in reality, it was brutal, bloody, and no fun at all. Still, that doesn’t stop writers, including myself, from crafting massive campaigns and emotionally charged duels. What can I say? Humans love to fight.
Now, please understand that I am not a soldier. Everything I know about war I have picked up from reading, watching movies, listening to my dad lecture on history, and plain common sense. If you want to learn what should and should not be done in war, I recommend reading a lot of history books. Human history is littered with good and bad generals, close calls, narrow escapes, massacres, ambushes, traps, intrigues, bad weather, advantageous terrain, underdogs, overlords, battles that went the way they were supposed to and many that did not. History is the best teacher. I also highly recommend keeping a copy of Brassey’s Encyclopedia of Land Forces and Warfare beside your desk. Its focus is on modern armies, but much of the tactics, concern with morale, supplies, terrain, weather, etc. can be applied to old-style armies. And I’m sure there are plenty of other books at the library covering most efficient ways of killing people.
Adding magic and fantasy creatures into the mix can be a little tricky because, obviously, such things aren’t a factor on Earth, so there isn’t an easy answer about how wizards or giants can affect the course of a battle. That’s where your own creativity and judgment come in.
This being the third part of a discussion on the creation of magical systems in fantasy.
Here is the last question I usually ask when creating a magical system. (I couldn’t think of any more that didn’t involve interlinking the previous questions or involving aspects of the others.) Please note that you are not limited to the questions listed here. You are welcome and highly encouraged to come up with more questions to answer, to continue to expand the scope of your inquiries. The more questions to ask and subsequently answer, the more complete and well-knit your world will be.
WHAT IS THE PRICE OF MAGIC?
This is perhaps the most interesting part of the magical equation, and the one that can make it the most unique. A lot of people have a very dim view of what magic is, assuming that it’s a dues ex machine that just sweeps in and makes all the boo-boos better. If it’s a poorly written fantasy, then they’d be right. But we don’t want to write bad fantasy, do we? So, you need to put some thought into what the price of magic is.
This being the second part of a discussion on the creation of magical systems in fantasy.
Here are the next three questions that I usually ask when creating a magical system. Please note that you are not limited to the questions listed here. You are welcome and highly encouraged to come up with more questions to answer, to continue to expand the scope of your inquiries. The more questions to ask and subsequently answer, the more complete and well-knit your world will be.
WHAT KIND OF MAGIC IS IT?
There are numerous kinds and forms of magic and more are made every day. These are a few of the most common, and they can be melded in various interesting ways:
This being the first part of a discussion on the creation of magical systems in fantasy.
I usually answer these first three questions when I start creating a magic system: who can use magic, where the magic comes from, and the world’s views on magic. These can help define your setting and at least some of the major conflicts your characters may encounter. Please note that you are not limited to the questions listed here. You are welcome and highly encouraged to come up with more questions to answer, to continue to expand the scope of your inquiries. The more questions to ask and subsequently answer, the more complete and well-knit your world will be.
WHO CAN USE MAGIC?
Is magic something that can be learned through study, like music or mathematics?
Magic is the guiding principle upon which fantasy is based. It is the defining literary facet that differentiates fantasy from other genres. Now, I’m sure there are several of you who will come up with examples of books that are labeled fantasy, but have little or no magic (such as Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels. Rest in peace, Ms. McCaffrey. You will be sorely missed.) I acknowledge that there are exceptions to every rule. However, when most people think of fantasy, they are picturing wizards, elves, dragons, and, most importantly, magic.
Names have power. This is something that seems to have diminished in importance in our modern world, fading from our consciousness. And yet, names still hold some of their ancient power. Parents spend months choosing “the perfect name” for their new baby, we observe pets for certain idiosyncratic behaviors that will tell us the best name for them (or they exhibit traits associated with the name we choose), and teens agonize over the screen name that will best reflect their “true self.”
In ancient times, names held the power to control. To know the innermost, “true” name of a thing was to have ultimate power over that thing. Wizards were keepers of names and the more true names they knew, the more powerful they were. Giving someone your true name was the ultimate sign of trust, giving that person power over you…if they so chose. While we do not attach the same beliefs or significance to names anymore, there is still something mystical about choosing a name.
With such care given to choosing names for pets, children, and online personas, it stands to reason that the same care should be given when choosing names for one’s characters. After all, are they not the children of our minds, our hidden desires and idealized personas given flesh? Many authors have said that their characters do not feel real or alive until they have been given the perfect name.
A thought struck me as I was rereading passages from some of my older, unfinished works: “Wow. I’ve certainly changed in the last decade.”
Rereading old works can be both cringe-worthy and heart-warming. Cringe-worthy because, hopefully, if you’ve been working to improve yourself, you’ll be thinking, “Good grief, I had NO grasp of pacing,” or “My magic system in this story made NO logical sense,” or “AHHH! SO MUCH FORCED CHARACTER DESCRIPTION!” (I’ve always been über-descriptive in my writing, so that’s always been a problem of mine.) But the cringing will hopefully be followed by the realization that, “Hey, I’ve come a long way since then. All those problems seem so obvious to me now and I know how to avoid them.”
I don’t know about you, but I also always get a warm, slightly nostalgic feeling when I reread my old stories. I’m like a parent amused and indulgent with her children’s finger painting and story-telling antics. They might not make sense in the adult world I now inhabit, but there’s a great deal of old-fashioned charm in the nonsensical-ness. Horses used doors and buckets, magic was thrown in willy-nilly to make up for a lack of opposable thumbs and tornadoes were a perfectly acceptable method of transportation.