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!
Welcome to April’s Special Feature! Today I’m talking with one of my great writer friends about how they create epic immersive fantasy worlds! Siarven is an incredible author and illustrator, and I’ve recently had the absolute honor of beta-reading their WIP, Dreams Shadow, which features in this interview. I’m super excited to share their cleverness and creativity with you all today! For this interview, my parts and questions are in the headings, and their responses are everything written below.
Question 1: First can you tell me about yourself and what you write?
Hello 🙂 I’m Jana, I go by Siarven online 🙂 I’m 24 and currently study VFX with a focus on Concept Art. Storytelling has always been my first and most powerful passion, from telling stories out loud to myself (and my little brother) when I was small, to visual storytelling in various different forms, to loving film scores most of all because they tell a story with sound. Besides art and writing, I also play the flute & piccolo and love to sing because music has always been incredibly important to me. I adore the natural world (plants and animals and fungi and such) because it’s deeply fascinating to me and am very passionate about protecting it from destruction. Also just in general, I’m absolutely obsessed with how our world “works” from a cellular level upward, geography, biology, physics, how everything interlinks to make our world the way it is. Most of this stuff ends up in my wips in one form or another 😀 I also love hiking and going places by bike, and usually take my camera because nature photography is also my favourite ❤
I’m from Germany but prefer to write in English because I like my writing style a lot more and the German publishing industry kinda sucks but that’s a whole other can of worms… I mainly write hope-punk dark epic fantasy stories, but, to be fair, they’re usually a very wild mix of things that interest me, so you can find elements from all kinds of genres in there 🙂 The general important things are that it’s all rather hope punk, both protagonists and antagonists have rather grey morality levels, there’s a variety of cool creatures, powerful platonic relationships of various kinds abound, and there’s an often rather mean magic system. Basically all my characters are some shade of queer because that’s very important to me personally. It also almost always spirals out of control because I love complex, interwoven story lines the most, which is very unfortunate for me. XD
Question 2: When you start a WIP, what’s your starting point? Do you build worlds from the ground up, or does the story come first, and you paint in the world as a backdrop as needed, or something in the middle?
Interesting question! 😀 I’d say it varies, actually? My main WIP Dream’s Shadow grew out of an image of a young boy’s ghost standing behind his grieving mother at his hospital bed. Like Dragons of Old grew out of roughly 20 paper scraps where I’d scribbled small random ideas like character names, character relationships, a striking visual, things like that. My newest WIP seed (I haven’t started writing it but I could in theory start now if I wanted to) grew out of an art I started for a uni course and two picrew portraits. xD In general, I think I start with two or three characters and how they relate to one another and the world around them, and all of that kind of grows organically at the same time. I don’t excessively world build, character-build, or plot before I start writing. I have a beginning, an ending (where the characters start and where they end up), I have a rough idea of what their world might look like, and then all of those things grow and develop as I write. But, mind you, I’m not sure how all of this will develop in future WIPs 😀 I’m still quite far at the beginning of this entire journey, and I usually only plan ahead a bit and then see how stuff works out 🙂
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.
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!
Role in the Story: Antagonist and Tyrant, the self-appointed Atilan queen of Maaren.
At the start of the story, Lyss is a well-known Atilan woman who is married to one of the members of the Council. During an anarchist attack in the arena, the council is mostly killed, and in the moment of crisis, she seizes power and becomes the self-appointed queen and sole ruler of Maaren, disregarding the Trials and her council entierly.
She begins to answer the anarchist threat and search for the magical Debilan children who exposed their power trying to save people during the attack. The other Atilan either support, or are unwilling to cross her, and as she becomes more and more bold, it becomes clear the Anarchists aren’t backing down either. Because of her actions, soon the avians and the Laine family are pulled into a conflict they had wished to avoid. She’s a powerful magic user, compelling authority, clever manipulator, and a dead-serious threat to any who would stand in her way.
Author’s note: This bio has been rewritten to reflect changes made to her backstory during my edit of Storge. If you read the previous version, disregard that, because this is the most updated iteration of her character. This does not significantly affect the overall plot of the book, but it does make her story easier to tell and improves the worldbuilding and her intimidation as a villain and I wanted to reflect that here as well.
I’m sure you’ve noticed a change in art style between the previous character portraits I’ve shared and this one. That’s because the others were commissioned for me by my best friend! I plan to commission the artist again to complete portraits for my villains and side characters who we didn’t request the first time, so until I can do that, I’ll be drawing the character portraits as placeholders.
If you’re new to the site, then more character art can be found on my Gallery page, and the rest of the character portraits can be found under the Storge page. Next week, I’ll share Esil’s introduction, then I’ll have some side characters and worldbuilding lore to share with you, so stay tuned for that in the coming weeks. Thank you for reading!
Role in the Story: Observer, a scientist studying magic though his art of charm making.
Acheran is one of the pacifist Avians living in the cliff-city near Maaren. He is a charm maker – though he can’t perform spells, he’s excellent at sensing magic in his surroundings and channeling it into the materials he works with in order to create his art that functions as batteries for the Atilan to use in their work. He’s extremely curious about the natural world and practical applications of the magic he works with and loves solving problems. When he gets going on a project, he won’t rest until he’s figured it out or someone forcibly stops him and often forgets to eat and sleep as a result of this. Likewise, if something bores him, he’ll avoid it at all costs.
Upon a first meeting, Acheran may seem quiet, clumsy, and disorganized, preferring to avoid conflict and content to sit back and merely observe the world. But Acheran’s connection to his city runs deep through his sister Chara, and his friends in the Laine family, and he must do his best to navigate an increasingly volatile situation, wondering what’s the right thing to do, and if he has the will to commit to it.
This is the one of several character introductions for my current WIP, Storge, which is in its editing phase! If you want to see Acheran’s sister, Chara, make sure you check back next Friday! In the meantime, you can find the other character introductions linked to the Storge page of this blog, and more art on the Gallery page. Thanks for reading! 🙂
Role in the Story: The Fighter, a Debilan girl who kills magic and resists it all
Grace is a friendly and enthusiastic chatterbox who enjoys the small joys and fun side of life from the perspective of a child and mercilessly teasing her older siblings. Most would underestimate her as a “silly little girl” but she will not hesitate to throw herself into a fight to protect her family or defend their name. She’s stubborn, loud, honest, and unapologetic, even when going against foes seemingly much more powerful than her.
This is the third of several character introductions for my current WIP, Storge, which is in its editing phase. We’re going to take a break from these for just a moment, however, as next week is a very special post! Come back next Friday to read an interview with Max Gray about how he’s developed his author’s platform, and the character introductions will resume with Acheran on the 18th. Thanks for reading!