The Traveller bites their lip and nods their appreciation. After a second’s hesitation, and without another word, they join the Keeper at the line and begin hanging the wash. Their fingers linger on the fabric, so soft and shimmering, woven from starlight and space dust. Her home traps so much light, so she spins it into threads. It’s satisfying for it to go to good use, and the robe looks lovely on the Traveller, their warm brown skin emerging from the amorphous golden-white wraps.
“Thank you,” the Keeper says. The last time anyone volunteered to help was eons ago. Two million, five hundred sixty-three thousand, four hundred and eighty-nine days ago, to be exact.
The Traveller nods again and drapes a sheet with deft, practiced movements. When they speak again, there is a wistful tone in their voice. “I used to help my mother with the laundry. We hung it outside in the summer, and by the fireplace in the winter. Fourteen sets of clothes, every week. I’m sure you can imagine how long it took to match the socks.”
“That’s the benefit of living alone in the bottom of a black hole. No one cares whether you match your socks.” The Keeper gives them with a conspiratorial wink, and hikes up the edge of her skirt just enough to show the different patterned footwear.
This scene is from Storge’s second draft, in chapter 9. The Laine family is hiding after Luca and Grace revealed their powers during The Arena Attack, which you can read here. 1100 words, no content warnings. I hope you enjoy this look into my magic system!
“Luca, what in all of Laoche’s Lands do you think you’re doing?” Grace asked, flinging open the door of the apartment. Luca jumped, dropping a metal knot with a clatter.
“Um.” He fumbled for the puzzle and tried to hide it behind his back, but she snatched the still-glowing object before he could pull it from her reach. It buzzed with the magic, warm to the touch, and she clamped her hands around it as if silencing a bell. The feeling transferred into her fingertips and arms, pins and needles that danced along her skin, a surge of life. Then it dissipated, and the metal cooled again.
“Enne noticed your practice,” she said, handing it back to him.
“Only Enne can hear the magic,” Luca protested.
“We don’t know that. Besides, Acheran feels magic with his wings. What’s stopping others from noticing too?”
Luca sighed. “There’s nothing else I can help with, and mom and dad won’t let me come find work with them. I’m bored out of my mind and I just thought…” He trailed off. He let his fingers idly dance over the puzzle’s edges, but didn’t release his power. “It was a stupid thought. I’m sorry. That could have put us in danger. I’ve worried Enne, haven’t I.”
“Annoyed, yes, worried, maybe. I don’t see any guards banging on the front door, do you?” Luca gave her a half-smile at that, and she sat cross-legged next to him. “What were you trying to do?”
Today’s post is an in-depth break down of how I worldbuild the magic systems in my fantasy stories. I talked a little about Laoche’s magic in an earlier post about my process in general, which you can read here. But at request from @abalonetea (a good friend of mine who’s been on this blog a few times before, once in an interview, and once requesting a Trope Talk), I wanted to do a breakdown on how I come up with the idea for a magic system, how I develop it from the first concept, and how I go about breaking all the rules. I’m not going to pretend my method is the best or most efficient way to create a magic system, since it’s taken me nearly six years to piece together, but for what it’s worth, I hope you find this breakdown useful and interesting!
I find it most easy to build out a magic system if you start from a really simple idea that you want to explore. I want to create the feeling that you could get lost in this world trying to discover all the different possibilities. For the sake of the story, I also think it’s best if the magic system supports the themes.
For Laoche, I wanted my characters to be learning about their world and uncovering new truths that shake up the status quo, and so I took an almost scientific approach to building the underlying mechanics. There’s so much about our own universe we cannot even imagine yet, and I want my readers to come away from my stories with a sense of curiosity, by following along with the characters as they chase answers. I needed to understand the physics of my fictional universe, so then I could decide how much of that would be hidden from the characters. There are hard and fast rules that dictate the way the world works, but the way individual characters apply their powers can lead to an infinite variety of effects.
Alternatively, Runaways takes place in our world, and the characters explore the hidden supernatural world. Much of the fantastical worldbuilding comes from folktales, mythology, and other stories that have inspired me over the years, and so I wanted a soft magic system that could account for so many different (possibly contradictory) tropes. I needed a system flexible enough to will all of these things into existence, something based on the pure stubborn belief that the impossible can happen. This is a world where stories have power, faith affects the fabric of reality, the placebo effect works, and heartfelt human tenacity saves the day.
The Building Blocks
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on Laoche for this example. The first step once I came up with my premise was to answer the question of “Well, how does this work?” At this point in the process, I’d already started drafting Storge, and so I knew I needed my magic system to work with the story I’d constructed, without introducing any plot holes or breaking internal consistency. I already had four types of magic in the ways Luca can store the energy, Enne can amplify it, Grace can silence it, and most Atilan could convert it into different spells. (or 5, if you count generation as it’s own category). I also knew that in the Laoche Chronicles, there are instances of all the different types of magic existing in superposition, so I needed to understand what made that state possible.
Since I already knew what I wanted these types to do when used by a human, my next step was to define what these four types of magic are on the most basic physical levels, how they can switch, and how the lines between them can be broken. Then I needed to figure out how that power interacts with the natural world: can other species do magic besides humans? What about plants? What effects do the different types have on gravity, and time? I started exploring how people learn magic, what if feels like to use it, how different people end up with different types of magic.
I was surprised as I put everything together just how many potential plot holes I was able to stitch together! This is also the point where I took my brain dump documents and started to fit in all of my whacky ideas that go, “OH WOULDN’T IT BE COOL IF…” Once I had a framework to build around, I could connect all the dots and come up with explanations that made sense. Thinking about the implications also led me to a bunch of neat “what ifs?” that have been filed away for future reference – little tidbits of canon that may or may not ever make it into the story, but serve to make the world feel more real.
To keep myself from getting carried away or introducing more holes, I also wanted to define exactly what nonnegotiable rules exist: what’s the most overpowered magic could theoretically be, what are the limitations, and consequences? For the sake of storytelling, I wanted death and time travel to be an absolute no. You can heal mortal wounds, or slow and speed up time slightly, but there’s no chance of resurrecting someone who’s already gone, communing with the dead, or actually stopping/traveling through time. This eliminates a significant chunk of possible plot-holes, and gives clear stakes for my characters to face.
Besides those few limitations, most of the restrictions come from the consequences of trying to do magic. Since magic is treated like a natural part of the world, I’ve also established that it’s an amoral insentient thing to be treated carefully. Like fire or radiation or water, it can be extremely powerful, either beneficially or harmfully if you don’t know what you’re doing with it. Character’s abilities are restricted by how much they’ve practiced and studied, if magic is available for them to use, and if they have the energy and ability to cast properly. There are also societal restrictions, such as the Atilan/Debilan divide in Maaren, where one could do magic, but it comes with political, religious, or inter-personal ramifications.
The combination of possibilities and restrictions gives me a LOT of room to play with, and as long as no one character has inconsistent powers, most of my system should work without loopholes! I have both the flexibility and the framework to add new details as needed, and an internal logic that both my characters and readers can follow.
That was a fairly high overview of the process so If you’d like more information on how I learned this, you can check out my resource rec post (specifically Hello Future Me’s book “On Writing and Worldbuilding” and Brandon Sanderson’s writing lectures!). Happy writing!
This month brings you a scene from the second draft of Storge, specifically the inciting incident in chapter 2. It is a fight scene, so content warnings for blood and two “on screen” minor character deaths. It’s 1470 words, so nothing tooo long. I’m super excited to share this with you since it’s one of my favorites and I’ve only ever shared isolated lines before, so please let me know what you think!
Every butcher, baker, farmer, tailor, merchant, laborer and beggar packed themselves into the cramped arena stands to experience the spectacle. Seldom did they see bloodshed beside their own, and they would not waste the opportunity for entertainment. Stuck as they were, Grace strained to see over the crowd. They held their breath against the stench of body odor and fish that baked into the air under the hot evening sun. Luca fought the urge to take off his long-sleeved shirt to cool off, but the sight of the Atilan viewing boxes made him think twice. He tugged the edges down over his wrists instead.
Venders hawked their wares to the crowd, hoping to make some extra money off the event by selling the oily, salty snacks of dried meat. The advertising cries drowned when the crowd rose in a sea of shouting as guards dragged the rebel Master onto the sand. He didn’t take arrest easily. Blood and sweat shone on his bald head and dripped down his bare, lash-scarred back. They chained his hands behind his back, but it didn’t stop him from straining against his bonds. It took three soldiers to force him to move. Jeers sounded as the people of the city unleashed their pent-up frustrations and anger.
The High Atil strode onto the raised dais that stood in the exact center of the arena and raised his hands for silence. Gradually, the crowd hushed and anticipation replaced the fervor. He sneered at the rebel leader and slowly stretched out his arm, pointing his index finger towards the ground.
Welcome to the world of Laoche! This is the home of all the stories in the (appropriately named) Laoche Chronicles, including a main trilogy (that has yet to be named) and the prequel, Storge. I first came up with the story in middle school, and as I learned more about the writing process, realized that I would need to write the prequel first to set everything up for the series. Now, I’m returning to my original concept, and revising it, which includes some updated worldbuilding and a new approach to my process.
All of this would be explained in-story as well as the reader follows along with the main characters going about their lives and navigating the conflict, so this isn’t strictly necessary to know before getting into the story. However, I’ve found that explaining it in an informational way like this helps people understand what on earth I’m talking about online, so I wanted to share. I also hope that a case-study like this will help be an example of what works (and what doesn’t) when you’re making a high/epic fantasy. 🙂
To start I’m going to share a map, so that all of these locations actually make sense.
When I first revisited this story, I realized that A) I’d lost most of my notes when that thumb-drive got stolen in 10th grade, and B) Most of it was pretty cliche, since I was 14 when I came up with it. So I pitched everything but the premise and my three favorite characters to start over from scratch:
The Premise: Madelyn (a mage with malfunctioning magic) and Seth (ex-prince of Arga) discover a magical artifact that changes how they view magic, and shifts the balance of power in the world, then have to deal with the ensuing fallout.
It was far too lovely a day for a riot, but not even the cool breeze flapping the fabric of the trader’s multicolored tents could prevent Luca from taking advantage the fact that there was, in fact, a riot. No one was quite sure who noticed the Atilan erasing and inscribing the new tax decree onto the massive slab of sandstone that served as the city’s news board. No one was really sure who started shouting obscenities first. No one was entirely sure when the Atilan threw magic into the gathering crowd. No one was completely sure how many Debilan they had injured.
It mattered little now. The body of the Atilan messenger lay motionless in the street.
Luca ducked and dodged through the throng. Red-faced shop keeps chanted curses against their rulers for this new grievance. He fixed his eyes on the ground, searching for valuables dropped in the scuffle. A dull gleam of polished stone caught his eye. He snatched the prize and stuffed it into his satchel without stopping to check what he had found.
As the Atilan guards flocked to the scene, Luca glanced up at the brief distraction, and so did the wealthy-looking merchant standing to his side. The shouts rose to a roar as workers charged onto the platform. The smells of blood, sweat, and anger hung in the air as the bodies pressed together. Someone stumbled into the merchant. Coins tumbled from the purse that sat in his open hand. Luca stooped to pick them up before the man could stop him and mumbled an apology. Shoving the newfound loot into his knapsack, he flipped the cover shut, escaped the crowd, and hurried along a twisting side road. Luca ducked under the outside staircase of an old tenement building, searching for any onlookers. Satisfied that everyone else was off protesting, he sprinted up the stairs and onto the flat roof.
A girl waited for him in the shade of a makeshift canopy, focused on the brouhaha below them. She was young, with ruddy brown and freckled skin and curly dark brown hair in a braid that reached her waist. Her simple dress had long lost its creamy white color, and it was torn from an old fight. When she heard Luca mount the stairs, she tore her attention from the seething crowd to look up at her brother.
“They attacked the Atilan!” she hissed. “Did you see that!?”
“Kills the mood, huh?” Luca beckoned his sister towards him, away from the edge of the roof. “I thought I told you to stay out of sight.”
“If riots are distracting enough that you’re safe to go stealing, then I’m sure I’m safe aaalllll the way up here, watching your back.” She glanced down at the street before moving closer to him. “Find anything good?”
Luca nodded and flopped down next to her as he dumped out the bag, pushing back his hair as it fell into his face. They pocketed the coins first, before sorting through the rest of the oddities. Grace occasionally looked to the street. With mages conjuring a wall of magic, the guards pushed the rioters out of the plaza. A couple lingered to watch them collect the messenger who stumbled to his feet, disoriented but not wounded. The watchers scattered when the largest of the three guards pulled his seax knife from its sheath.
Grace frowned and turned her attention back to their work. “Most of this stuff is junk. Enne would probably like this button. Pretty pattern, and you can feel the texture. Does it match the ones on the frock she’s making?” She held the button up to the early morning light, and the shiny metal glinted in the sun.
Luca shrugged in reply before handing her the stone he had picked up, eyes gleaming with hope. “What about this?”
As Grace took the pebble, her eyes widened in surprise. Her fingers shocked with magic, and she dropped the thing back into Luca’s hands like a hot coal. “A charm! Not a powerful one, so don’t let me have it. Where did you find that?!”
“A few paces from the shops. My guess is that one of the Atilan dropped it in the scuffle.”
“Do you think they’ll come looking for it? If we’re caught-“
“No. Look, it’s so small. They won’t miss it.”
Grace nodded in agreement, when a sudden loud voice interrupted from behind them. “I don’t suppose you were planning to return that?”
The two kids jumped, spinning around to face the newcomer. Perched on the edge of the roof was an Avian. They were bird-like people who lived in the canyon cliffs along the river, and this one was taller than most, standing at seven feet tall. Four huge wings folded behind his torso – two at the shoulders and two at the waist. The reddish-brown plumage that covered nearly his entire body, save the palms of his hands and face, mirrored the color of the clay dirt of the desert. He wore a vest and loose breeches with several pockets that seemed stuffed with all sorts of strange things. Belted around his waist hung a stained artisan’s frock. Another harness strung over his shoulder, between his wings, and around his hip so that it could hold a large assortment of chisels, hammers, and knives. He wore no shoes; his taloned feet curled over the ledge of the roof to keep him balanced as he hunched over the two kids with his hand extended for the charm. Solid bronze eyes with sharp black pupils set deep in a human-like face, squinted in anger. The feather tufts at his ears pressed back against his head.
Luca clasped the charm to his chest as dread and panic mounted. He shifted his weight onto his feet and braced himself against the stairs, ready to run. He pulled Grace to his side, not for her own protection, but for restraint. She snapped into a fighting stance, and had her hands balled into fists, though they stayed by her sides. Neither answered the question.
The avian seemed to notice their discomfort. He forced a smile and lowered his wings, as if trying to appear nonthreatening. Luca, still threatened, forced himself to smile back. The avian repeated his question. “Are you going to return that?”
Hundreds of years ago, the avians used to be a nomadic group, but the cliffs of Maaren’s canyon provided the perfect place to build more permanent structures for weathering storms and resting en route. At the time, the land was controlled by the Atilan, and though they didn’t posses the technology at the time to retrieve the precious metals and magical elements from the cliffs, they didn’t want to give it up either. For a time it looked like the clash would turn violent, but the humans, knowing they could be devastated by attacks from the sky, and the avians, not wanting to resort to that violence, came to a different agreement…
Welcome to the world of Laoche! This is the home of all the stories in the (appropriately named) Laoche Chronicles, including a main trilogy (that has yet to be named) and the prequel, Storge. While all of these stories take place in the same world, Storge focuses on a conflict in one specific reason – a powerful city-state called Maaren. Because this is a sociopolitical conflict, I mainly focused on worldbuilding the class system, government, and religions of the city, and that’s what I’d like to discuss in more depth today! In the future, I’ll elaborate some more on the lore, magic system, and flora and fauna of the world in the future, but for now this will focus on the main topics that are relevant to the understanding of the story.
All of this would be explained in-story as well as the reader follows along with the main characters going about their lives and navigating the conflict, so this isn’t strictly necessary to know before getting into the story. However, I’ve found that explaining it in an informational way like this helps people understand what on earth I’m talking about online, so I hope this can also be useful as a reference guide of sorts!
The scariest part of the season was the exams. The library sat like an empty tomb, devoid of any life as the campus citizens escaped to revelries and momentarily forgot their impending day of reckoning. She set up in the window seat, spreading papers around her as the chai at her elbow growing colder by the minute from the draft. As the leaves turned to wreaths of gold and garnet, she found her mind drifting to more magical times and her fingers straying to the battered storybook at her side. Studies forgotten, she lost herself in the imagery and ink.
He haunted the forest. Every year, without fail, tourists disappeared with the cold weather and seasonal stories of spooks. Children would double and triple dare each other to brave its borders. He watched them scatter with amusement as he hiked through his home. He scavenged the dead branches for firewood, picked the last of the allspice berries for the life that they carried, and build small altars to the Creator as he passed to win its protection for him and his sister. Superstition. Spirits. Maybe this year would be the one he met the ghosts that supposedly protected this wood.
He studied in the graveyard, for both reminder and motivation. Exhaustion dulled the sharpness of his wit and the peace of the place pulled him towards slumber. He didn’t wear a coat against the cold. Too close to failure, so close to success, the stakes driven into his heart – keeping his family fed, and safe, and warm was all that mattered. There was never enough time. He wondered how the names around him used their time. What would he be doing if he weren’t here? His page stretched empty before him. Why did he always have more questions than answers?
He didn’t need a mask or a costume. The stranger slipped among the crowd of the pub to the small stage and set his fiddle case on the ground. Fingers danced over the strings and the popular tune floated over the chatter. The bow flashed. For a moment he forgot his curse. The melody tumbled over itself and rushed to a crescendo. They wouldn’t remember him tomorrow. By the end of the performance, brown replaced the red and new scars dotted his face but he didn’t feel them. A walking ghost. They would remember the music, but never his face.
He spends the afternoon building – the house he inherited made the better for those that would visit. Lights to lead the way, mulled cider to warm and welcome, and treats for any who asked. The winter would be hard but he would make sure his people would have a reason for hope, for fun, and for community, before retreating to their dens. Soon, ghosts, monsters, and characters of all sorts would come by his door, his sword would be ready at his side. And when the young heroes and princesses arrived, he would bow to those greater than he.
I’m excited to be able to introduce some of the main cast of The Laoche Chronicles! I put up polls on my tumblr and IG earlier this week, and you all chose “modern drabbles” for the Halloween Special post, so I hope you enjoyed these! I wanted each of them to be exactly 100 words and a story-accurate snapshot into these character’s personalities while sticking to the spooky theme, which was a really fun challenge since I’m not very used to writing short fiction. What do you think? Which character’s piece was your favorite, and which do you want to learn more about? Let me know in the comments, and have a very Happy Halloween! 🙂