Worldbuilding: Magical & Mundane

There comes a point in creating a magic system you have to decide: What is magical and what is mundane?

When I say magical there I mean the sort of magic that is hidden and reverent. The sort of magic that is spoken about in whispers and veneration. This is the magic kept secret and passed down and down and down until it is as much myth as magic. The magic that, despite being as real as anything else, has passed into legend.

Then there is the other sort of magic, the sort of magic imbued in everything a character does. It is in the sweep of a hand and a muttered word to light a fire. It is in the quick stitches to fix a pair of socks. It is in the glimmering songs sung to a child. The second nature magic. The everyday magic. This isn’t the magic beholden to a wizard in a secluded tower.

This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive– far from it. Instead, when creating a magic system for your world you need to find the line. Is your world the sort of place where you can hop down to the general store for a magically-imbued potion, or is it the sort of place where magicked healing is myth, a legend, something for your protagonist to search for?  Or can they go to the general store so some ailments, but others are far outside the reach of a local hedge witch’s power? It’s the middle ground– the magical mundane if you will.

My personal tastes run as magical as mundane. I love it when magic is within everyone’s grasp, not something confined to ivory towers, or blood, or some fated destiny. I’d much rather a story where magic runs through the world as immutable as life and death. Magic is not confined to that destined party of three who will save the world, it is with everyone, a force for all rather than a few. However, that’s just me.

To give yourself a grasp on where your line between the magical and the mundane is try a day long writing activity. Here is what you are going to do. For one day write down absolutely everything you do. Write down the minutia of your day. Seriously, if someone else was to read this account of your day, I would want them to think the phrase horrifying detail, then back away slowly.

At the end of your day, sit down with your list of activities and consider one of your WIP’s magic systems, then write down how a character would go about that in your world, what level of magic or mundane would they use for it.

For a quick example, let’s go with what is probably the first thing on people’s lists: waking up. My guess is you do this by an alarm clock or a phone or a combination of both. How do people in your work in progress wake up? Is it through mundane means, magical means, or magically mundane means?  I’ll use an example from one of my WIPs. Pulling from the victorian tradition of knocker-ups and combining it with some magic I’ve got some magically mundane ways of waking up. Rather than having people use sticks or batons to use slam onto doors to wake people up, used the fact that fire magic is prevalent in the area. The magicked up knocker-ups use itty bitty fireworks at windows to wake people up. Not the greatest job in the world, but not bad for a young mage in training.

You might be surprised at the solutions you come up with for everyday problems. How does your world deal with public transportation? Who makes bread? How is grain ground? What is your world’s sewage system? Is there a way to recycle? Where do clothes come from? Who mends them? Constantly ask yourself, could a character do this with magic? Then ask yourselves would a character do this with magic?  Are there systems in place for that? Is magic or mundane the answer?

I’m not saying that you need to include every single one of these in a story, unless you want to create a 10,000 page monstrosity of worldbuilding. However! Worldbuilding is in the details as much as it is in your hand drawn maps and your nation’s power structures. Worldbuilding is in the everyday. So if you want to show how magic permeates every aspect of life, than give us some examples. Show us the background of a rich, fully thought out world.

 

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Worldbuilding: Healthcare

If your character broke their leg how would they mend it? If they have a cough who would they see to heal it? If they had depression who could they talk to? Would they staunch their own wounds and hope for the best?

Healing can be confined to the few.

Healing can be given to all.

Your world, your rules.

Medicine can be easily accessible or it can be only for the the wealthy. There could be an underground for doctors and nurses. Healing could be taken from the people as a punishment. Medicine could keep people compliant– given out only as a reward. How does your government heal their people? Or does the government ignore the needs of its people?

Who has the power?

Sickness could shatter a person’s wealth as much as their health– keeping those without money from seeking out what they need. A cure could be too expensive for the common people. What do people sell to afford their life? What is the cost of just one band aid?

If you are writing a book with magic, is healing in the hands of magic-users or in the hands of scientists, or somewhere in between? Witches could brew up a potion to alleviate cramps. Wizards could charm a prosthetic to grow with a child. Mages could ward against malaria. Sorcerers could spell against seasonal affective disorder. Healers could treat gender dysphoria, sculpting bodies by magic.

Is the child mortality rate high? Is a pregnancy ripe with fear for the mother and the child? Is birth control accessible to all who need it? Is it available to people who are biologically female or male?  Hidden in back alleys, mages script a morning after spell because it’s disallowed by the crown. Witches create coven of midwives. Wizards draw protective runes across bellies.

Is mental health seen as a stigma? Do empaths work as counselors guiding their patients? Or are people left to suffer in silence, their minds betraying them, while pretending nothing is wrong?

Consider what sort of world you want to build.

What sort of world do you want your story to unfold in?

 

Worldbuilding: Birth, Death, and Cake

Imagine the scene: You, face alight with a fiery glow. Light flickers across your face, eyes closed in concentration as you focus your will. Onlookers chant in cadence. A rhythmic beat of friends and family surrounds you. Sibilant syllables flow around you hissing out your name. You take in a breath– a single breath. The chant grows. You release your will and your breath together. Smoke curls up in soft coils in front of you. Finally, finally the chant fades away. Taken up into the void by swirling smoke. You dive forward, glistening knife held in your hand, to begin the yearly sacrifice. You devour what is before you. Your year begins anew.

Or, you know, a traditional American birthday.

Cheers.

Unless you are a celestial being spawned from of primordial ooze, you have a birthday. I suppose even if you are a celestial being spawned from primordial ooze, you have a spawned from ooze day. You have a reason to celebrate coming into this world.

I recently read Krystina Castella’s A World of Cake: 150 Recipes for Sweet Traditions From Cultures Near and Far. In addition to some delightful recipes, the book is peppered with anecdotes of cake and culture across the globe. It seems inevitable, almost, to devote some time to the inexorable link between cake and birthdays, birthdays and cake. I will just say: CAKE. Personally, I almost always have a chocolate cherry cake for my birthday. Although this year, I might shake it up a bit because this book is wonderful and try something new.  (Update: I made tiramisu.) There are all sort of connections between food and life– food as a wellspring of life crops up in the inevitable traditions linking food and celebrations together. Bounty. Harvest. Plenty. Life. All these words, ideas, reasons to celebrate, fold together into life events. The tradition of marking a birthday crosses borders across the world.

The bookend to life, I suppose then, would be death. Food continues into death as well. Let us return to cake. When all else fails, always return to cake. We have celebrations with birthday cakes, name day cakes, quinceanera cakes, but cakes and food are not contained only to birth and life, but to death as well. A Thai tradition is to create a cookbook to share the deceased favorite meals and recipes with family and loved ones after their passing. We cannot forget the pan de muerto, sweet anise and orange flavored breads, made in the time leading up to Dia de los Muertos. The bread of the dead is eaten by loved ones and shared with the dead.

There are few things we can say cross all borders.  Food is one of those few things that connect us all. There is a unity to the people standing around a cake waiting for someone to make that first slice. There is a unity in handing out a piece of a whole to everyone in a family, to everyone in a community. There is a unity in food.

Let’s Talk Names

Imagine, if you will, a person. This person has hope and dreams. This person has a past and a future. This person has a style and a voice. This person is one in several billion.

This person is… a person.

This person is your character and they need a name.

Imagine, if you will, a person. This person has hope and dreams. This person has a past and a future. This person has a style and a voice. This person is one in several billion.

This person is… a person.

This person is your character and they need a name.

If you could listen in on my writing process you would know that some video game boss music is playing right now and it is apt. Nothing puts me in more of an exhausted haze then trying to name the characters I will spend years with. This post may have something to do with a character’s fourth name change in five years. Nothing sounds right! I gave naming power over to one of my sisters and just told her to pick something because I’ve hated every version of her name.  She’s pleased she named a queen. I’m pleased I don’t have to think about it any more. It’s a win-win.

However, we can’t always outsource our naming responsibilities.

Let’s talk about reality for a moment. We don’t choose our name. At least not in the beginning. You get a little older and you can do whatever you want, but there at the beginning the naming falls into your caregiver’s hands. For something that is so pivotal in our lives, it isn’t our choice, not really.

With naming comes histories, expectations, and futures all rolled into one.  It’s a lot packed into just a few syllables. Consider your name. What does it say about you? Perhaps even more interestingly, what doesn’t it say about you?

I’m going to take a moment to deconstruct the name I’m most familiar with– mine. You’ll see most of it up in the website bar. Here it is in all it’s glory: Nicole Faith Getson.

I’ll start with the last name. Getson. There aren’t that many of us around. The story is that Goetz needed to be softened. Changed. Melted into the melting pot. The family adopted a different, Americanized version of the name. Goetz turned into Getson.

On to the middle name. When the first act of your life is almost dying, you end up with the name Faith. There are a whole category of these sorts of names. Names that mean things: Faith, Chastity, Honor, Charity, Grace, Hope, Justice, Patience, etc.. Virtue names echoing a puritan past. These names are a far cry from some names used in the past. If we were actually were Puritans in 1600s my name would have ended up being Safe-On-HighHere is another fun fact about my family: we aren’t particularly religious. When people hear my middle name, I get strange looks. Yes, indeed, I’m a walking misnomer! (Hi Mom! *waves* I can already feel your phone call. Talk to you soon. While I’m in the parentheses here, I’ll go ahead and paraphrase this phone call from my mother for you: “You can have faith in many things other than a higher power, including yourself.” Thanks Mom!)

Let’s move on to the first name– Nicole– the name most people everyday know me by. The name that is shouted to get my attention. Something I’ve learned over the years is that people assume my nickname is Nikki. It’s not. It’s Cole. If you need my name to be shortened, please refer to me as the combustible rock, thanks. Yes, yes, I know that is spelled coal.

I have the added bonus of a masculine nickname as a woman. My name takes people aback. I hear refrains of: “Are you sure it’s not Nikki?” The many years living my life assures me that no, that is not what my name is. I’ve also been told on multiple occasions that I am not a Nicole.  Every once in awhile a person will then rattle off a list of names that seem more like me. Emily usually ranks high on these lists and I am not sure why.

Please do not do this to people.

I REPEAT: DO NOT DO THIS TO PEOPLE.

A baby naming book is within arm’s reach of my desk. It hangs out on a side table beside my desk. It’s always there, hovering just out of my sight line, lurking, waiting for the next character for me to name. Waiting for me. Staring at me. Coming for me. This is why sometimes instead of trying to come up with names I send an email out to my Naming of Random Things Think Tank (PATENT PENDING) and they get to come up with a side character’s name, because I just cannot.

*boss music crescendos*

Names are a touchstone to a character. It’s often one of the first things we think of when considering a character it helps encompass all that makes them… them.

A character of mine changes his name half a dozen time over the course of one of my books. Being a poster child for identity crises, he uses these names to reinvent himself over and over and over. Each name settles him into a different culture and life. He switches his family name from first to last and back again. He changes how the vowels are pronounced. He changes where the emphasis is, all as he figures out who he is and where he fits into the world.

There is also a lot to unpack in a name. People don’t appear one day at the beginning of their most interesting plot points. They were born and given a name, maybe they changed their name, maybe they have a nickname, maybe they gave up their family name, maybe and maybe and maybe… there are so many options here that give a glimpse into both a character’s backstory and the world.

Myth & Language

If you are writing a brand new fantasy world, should you ever use the world herculean?

Should you use the word chronology?

How about chaos?

To reference this very blog, what about fury?

Oh, or nemesis?

Is anyone an adonis?

Should voices echo without the tale of Echo and Narcissus?

Can a siren wail a warning, if a siren has never lured someone into the sea?

A bard can’t have a muse in a world without the muses.

My world doesn’t have the god of war.  However, certainly some things could be described as martial.

A trip can’t be an odyssey if Odysseus has never traveled the long, long way.

Could something be an ambrosia, if the gods never ate it?

Can someone truly harp on a subject, if harpies never screeched?

I am not sure someone can have a mentor if Telemachus never needed a teacher.

Should anyone get lost in a labyrinth, if there is no Minotaur?

Can you point out someone’s Achilles’ heel if he was never held in the river?

Let’s just mention asking what someone’s fate is here for a moment.

Language is a tricky thing. Where do you draw the line between fully using the language, but also realizing that some words don’t make any sense in the world you’ve created?

We, for the most part, write our books in our first or a familiar language. For me that is English– a language influenced by languages and cultures across the globe. We borrow from the French and the Greek, from the Spanish and the Indian, from the Arabic and the German. English is a ravenous language, hungering for more words to throw down its gullet. Although we might now want to stop and research the etymology of every word we place on the page (we would write our books even slower), we should be aware of where words come from.

Language has history.

Language builds worlds.

There isn’t a simple answer to word usage in novels. However, it’s something to be aware of when you are writing fantasy.

What do you do when you are writing a world in which Hercules never performed his labors, the god of time was never spoken of, or the tales of the Furies never passed from generation to generation?

Language affects myth.

Myth affects language.

I avoid using words and phrases where the legend is still present. I know that sounds a bit wacky- let the legend speak to you.  Is it present?  However, what I mean by that is that words like herculean and muses and Achilles’ heel all are still based in the listener and user’s knowledge of the myth and metaphor. Words like echo or chaos or fury, while still mythological in etymology, are not linked to the knowledge of the myth as others. I know that is shades of meaning, and layers of understanding, and some people might heartily disagree with me.

Another way I could say this is: I will use words where the definition has surpassed the myth, rather than the myth surpassing the definition.

Language choices really can put a writer between a rock and a hard place. Or wait, is that between the devil and the deep blue sea. Or is that a Scylla and Charybdis?

Those are just some musings for the day.

 

Worldbuilding: Discordanant Elements

Let’s talk about moogles. Kupo.

Let’s talk about moogles. Kupo.

… Spoiler Alert: Final Fantasy.

I recently finished Final Fantasy XV, instead of raging about my myriad of problems, concerns, general angst, and annoyed love with it I’m going to talk about moogles. No, I have to say something about XV. I’ll inevitably have a cat named Prompto. What a dork. I promise this has something to do with worldbuilding. I’ll get there.

On that note, back to moogles. I’m not going to give you the full History of the Moogle. If I ever went back to school that is the name of my dissertation. The History of the Moogle: Foundations of Fluffiness and Folklore. An entire chapter would be dedicated to the “-mog-” naming system. Note: Worldbuilding discussion about names… coming to a computer screen near you soon(ish). Instead, here are some brief highlights from the games:

First playable character: Final Fantasy VI. This cast is huge and includes a Yeti. It would make sense this is when we first get to play a moogle ourselves. There is an entire moogle army/invasion section.

Final Fantasy VII: Cait Sith. Ummm… Cait Sith. I don’t know what to add. Who is looking forward to that in the remake. Raise your hands! Most importantly, there are no living moogles here!

They are practically nonexistent in Final Fantasy VIII, only appearing as a pseudo Guardian Force available through the Pocket Station and a few dialogue mentions across the game.

Mog as a summon in Final Fantasy IX. Eiko’s little buddy turns out is not so little and is a Eidolon disguised as an orange pom pomed moogle named Mog. Additionally, moogles function as your save point and you in turn run their mail around for them. I love you so much, IX.

In Final Fantasy X we see them pass into legend again. Rather than a living being, they are an equippable doll for Lulu to use as a casting weapon. They reappear in X-2 as Yuna’s mascot dress sphere.

XII brings us full circle to see them once again as a race incorporated into the world, not as a legendary creature.

They return to creatures of legend in XIII. An exception might be made for XIII-2’s moogle who is also a weapon and can speak. Much like the rest of XIII-2, that was unclear and a little bizarro.

That was not as brief as I planned.

In the list of things Final Fantasy fans expect in their games, moogles rate up there along with chocobos, summoning, and crystals. Chocobos are an easy thing to incorporate, they often operate as the Final Fantasy equivalent of a horse. Side note: In XV there is a line of background dialogue of “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Are there horses in this world? I don’t think we ever see horses. Have horses fallen into legend as chocobos took over their role? Is this a hint that the world is much larger than we see, are there horses on the other side of it? Or, would it simply be more appropriate to say “I’m so hungry I could eat a chocobo.”  It is a translation/idiom error? Why does this line exist?

Anyway, chocobos are not a problem to work into a game of varying levels of technology and magic. Moogles, however, have a particular aesthetic. How do you work in a fluffy white creature with a pom pom delicately attached to their head and sharp bat wings protruding from their back into a game like XV?

Moogles are painted in two different ways: real and legendary. Looking across the games, those with the most advanced tech and greatest focus on humans have passed their moogles on into legend. Mainly: VII, VIII, XIII, and XV. I cannot imagine what hyperrealistic moogles would have looked like in XV. Perhaps they could have gone with the demon route and made them into enemies that only came out at night? That could have been frightening.

In games that include moogles as living beings such as IX, there is less of a focus on humans as the dominate race and realism. In XII, where technology is often seen in browns and bronzes and given a more naturalistic look, moogles are real. While humans seem to be the majority, the world also is home to viera, bangaa, seeq, and others.  Keeping moogles as living creatures with their own culture makes sense here, in worlds where magic and technology operate together.

The game that plays with this divide is IV. While IV has an almost steampunk aesthetic, the technology is in general not comparable to what you see in VII, VIII, XIII, or XV.  However, technology plays a major role in the game, and humans are dominate. This is a case where magic is a legend, while moogles are not.

How do you make your worlds make sense?  How do all of your little bits and pieces come together to make something that makes sense as a whole? When we are working on our own stories, we usually don’t have 30 years worth of narrative history and expectations to work with.  However, we can learn from the multiplicity of ways similar elements are morphed and altered to create a world.

Ask yourself: Would a moogle from IX, book in hand muttering about kupo nuts, traipsing through the background of a gritty, electric Midgar break a bit of carefully built world?

Worldbuilding: Festivals, Holidays, and More

As we go into October, America begins to shift. Halloween decorations pop up here and there. Scarecrows and witches appear in equal measures. Turkeys fat, round, and made of crepe paper rule over their dominion of seasoned breadcrumbs at grocery stores. In a sudden shift, almost overnight, after the blackest of Fridays, Christmas trees sprout from unwitting places weighed down with sparkling ornaments. Santas, their beards white and curled laugh merrily at passersby, ringing bells. If you look very closely sometimes you can see blue and silver– a menorah half-hidden behind a display of red and green stockings.

I find holidays fascinating. For a little while every year I step away from myself, deeply entrenched in Midwestern Americana, to look at it all as an impassive observer. To see that butter turkey with eyes that have never seen one before. To see that tree dragged in from the cold and shaken of any wayward needles only to be dressed in finery. To see the skeleton who sits in a rocking chair beside me, a pointed hat sitting atop her head at a jaunty angle. It’s odd. It really is.

Our years are punctuated with celebrations. Holidays. Memorials. Anniversaries. Some looking to the future. Some looking to the past. Some in celebration. Some in solace. It’s a global phenomenon.

People celebrate. We mark time in some way. Sometimes it’s by disemboweling a squash and carving wicked faces into its flesh. Sometimes it’s by chanting in verse around a flaming cake. Sometimes it’s imbibing in a potion of spices and coffee and capitalism. #PSL

A bit ago I went to The Feast of the Hunter’s Moon at Fort Ouiatenon. It’s an annual recreation of a gathering of the French and Indigenous Americans during the mid 1700s. While there, as per usual, I did a lot of thinking about how this will inevitably find its way into a story somewhere: the smell of gunpowder, the multitude of uniforms, the intricacies of lace making. (In related news, I learned that my aptitude for guessing military uniforms is mostly based on Age of Empires and Assassin’s Creed.) All that, though, is what they were performing. What about the performance itself? This year marked the 49th anniversary of this event. It’s gone on for years. People getting together and marking time with this celebration.

It feels like sometimes fantasy novels are stagnant in a bizarre lack of history. Nothing has changed and nothing will, until maybe our chosen protagonists have something to say about it.  If there are monarchies, then the same families have been in control since the very dawn of the kingdom. If there is a monotheistic religion, then that singular deity has never been worshiped in any other way. Perhaps there was once a great upheaval, but the ripples of it have long been forgotten. There is a lot forgotten in fantasy.

History and holidays are linked. It’s memory. A cultural memory of how celebrations occur and why they do. There are ceremonies for birth and death. Holidays for abundance and good will. For the turning of seasons. The cyclical cycle of the planet that no one can ignore really.

One of my books starts with a festival. I did this for two reasons. Reason number one: to enact that old fantasy novel standby of beginning at a fair, or a harvest festival, or a autumnal thing that is never really said what it is for but there are squashes and merriment. Reason number two: to see the same event celebrated two ways. To see the celebration of those who won a battle and the memorial of those who lost. Not heroes or villains. Just opposing forces. The same event was the catalyst for both holidays, but the way both nations celebrate it draws a decisive line between them, for good or ill.

When we build our new worlds, when we write them into existence, we aren’t beginning at year one. We don’t, for the most part, begin with the big bang. We are stepping into the middle of something. Something that comes with its traditions and holidays and history all linked together in a messy, tangled web. They celebrate their gods and goddesses. They mark death and life. They know what their traditions are, even if we don’t yet. It might not be the first anniversary of something, but the 12th or 87th or 119th.

There is a richness to holidays and the everyday intersection they have with life. As you build your world, consider what they would think is worth remembering. What swirls around them, vivid and full of life and memory? A world doesn’t happen in a void.

Worldbuilding: Maps and InDesign

A not so snazzy title there, but to the point.  Ok.  So, I should really start this by saying I am an analog sort of person.  If I can do it with paper, pen, and no tech… that’s usually my inclination. To date I still don’t have a Twitter, I think I Facebook about at the same rate as blue moons, and what even is an Instagram?  I’m a terrible millennial. However, recently InDesign has completely won me over in keeping my maps up to date. As has Scrivener, but that is inevitably another post.

My initial maps are basically wobbly penciled in shapes I threw on a piece of paper to get me started.  If I am feeling really fancy, I might throw in a river and mountain range early on.  But I tend to fill in as I write the story, rather than coming up with a mostly realized geography right off the bat.  Which means I have about a billion various versions floating around my desk in a sort of miasma of geographical thought. It’s a bit uncontrollable.

Once I really get into a story I break out the post-it notes. Which means my now giant piece of paper is covered in tiny cramped notes about terrain, history, and plot.  This also means everything about my world is literally one wayward breeze from falling off. Not even taking the cats that I live with who see sketched on paper as luxurious beds into account, this is a terrible plan.

Enter my savior: InDesign.

Since I don’t think words will be enough here, let’s make a map together!

First step: Continents, or islands, or whatever land mass you are using!  Personally, I love being able to draw them on a touchscreen, but mouse or trackpad work just as well.  Draw as many amorphous blobs as you like.

Map- Step 1

MAKE A NEW LAYER.  Lock your continents so you’re not moving your blobs around.  Now, I like to give myself some defining features.  Feel free to use whatever iconography you like for these.   Where would rivers be?  What sort of mountain ranges are there?  Any major lakes?  Deserts?  These questions help define where cities and towns would appear.  A port city at the mouth of a river will help with trade.  Mountains might define country borders.  Culture is affected by geography.  Once you have an acceptable layer of geography, lock that layer.  You can always come back to add a swamp, cave system, volcano, etc.

MAKE A NEW LAYER.  I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. Being able to move towns around while not accidentally moving an entire mountain range is basically priceless. Next, I like to sketch in any cities or boundary lines I have in mind already.

Map- Step 2-3

GUESS WHAT? NEW LAYER. I like to have a plot point layer, which I can turn off and on. This layer lets me know where the cannibal dragons live, or the selkie pirates have crashed, or where the swamp of doom is.  (For the love of your narrative, if you have anything named “of doom” reevaluate that. Or don’t. You do you.)

Map- Step 4

MAKE AS MANY LAYERS AS YOU WANT.  I like to add one that is devoted to the traveling paths of my character groups.  Or one that is just political boundaries.  Or another that is just for more notes. Since you can toggle layers off and on, your map can be as cluttered or as pristine as you like it at any given moment.  It gets to the point where my layers menu looks something like this:

prtsc

There we are.  Although it’s not pretty and far from perfect, have a slightly more functional map system for some of your writerly needs.  Side note: My cats disapprove of the lack of paper now strewn across my desk. Anger your cats at you own peril. I’m not responsible for that.