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 I’m pleased to introduce you to my great writing friends, and all time favorite people on writeblr! Quill is mostly a fantasy and sci-fi author, and shares excerpts from their WIPs in the universe of One Siren’s Soul – a fantastical adventure with pirates and sirens set in an alternate-universe, 1700s-era, Age of Sail Earth version of earth. It has a colorful cast of absolutely delightful characters, and one of the coolest magic systems I’ve ever seen, so I’m absolutely thrilled to share their work with you today!
Etta: Hello and welcome! First could you introduce yourself and talk a little about what you write?
Quill:Hello hello! It’s a lovely honour to be in this metaphorical interview room. You have wonderful virtual decor. I’ve had more than a few names, but you can call me Quill! Half of the time, I almost couldn’t tell you what I write–most of my notebooks are filled with bits and bobs from all sorts of genres, writing exercises and random dream journaling that make not a lick of sense (sometimes not even to me). But of what I let see the light of day, my writing usually focuses on the fantasy or sci-fi genres, with worldbuilding that often begins as something simple enough and then that side of the brain that makes everything difficult kicks in and decides it should be super deep and complex. I definitely love to dabble in all sorts of things, but I have to say, something about that “magic is science and science is magic” aspect just holds me enraptured
Etta: Thank you for agreeing to do this! ahh the “magic is science and science is magic” approach to worldbuilding is my favorite and I’m so excited to hear your answers. Let’s start at the beginning, When you start developing a magic system, what’s your starting point?
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 everyone! In June, I focused on the topic of tropes and adaptations, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview one of my writer friends about her area of expertise! I’ve been following Karkki’s The Shield-Maiden Saga and other WIPs over on tumblr for about two years. It’s always a blast to see the new updates and lore, so I was happy for the excuse to host a Q&A, and honored to share the results with you! Thank you Karkki for agreeing to do this! I’m super excited to share her 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, how long you’ve been writing, and what you write?
Thank you so much for inviting me to be interviewed! I’m Karkki, a Finnish architecture student in my mid-twenties. Other than writing I paint, sew, pet my cat and hike. I’ve been writing since I was around ten. At first it was just scenes of my OCs (I had a whole cinematic universe of them), but the first book form story I started to write, I did around 14, I think. Nowadays I write mostly adult dark fantasy, often smashed together with various different genres 😀
Question 2 – You write a lot of stories inspired by history and mythology; how did you first get into these topics?
I had a very strong Egyptian mythology phase when I was kid, like many others it seems. I was obsessed with it and I’ve always been fascinated by history. Later, in my teens I read an article about historical research on Vikings and it rekindled my interest in history and mythology. I got one of my earliest book ideas from that too, which after many twists and turns has become a historical fantasy WIP, The Shield-Maiden Saga. I gained interest in the more recent history after watching Pride and Prejudice (1995 of course) like many others.
Question 3 – How do you go about doing research?
I start with Wikipedia. It is a hole that sucks me in and won’t let me go. But even though it doesn’t contain the most in-depth and nuanced info, it’s a great way to learn of the things you want to learn about. After I’ve found interesting things I want to learn more about, I look for articles, books and videos. Depending on what I’m writing I pay attention to the credibility of the information. For historical fiction I look for multiple sources and make sure the text has proper sources. If I’m researching for fantasy, I only really focus on what is interesting and gives me inspiration.
Question 4 – How much of the research actually goes into the stories? Do you prefer to write AUs, strict historical fiction, or historically-inspired-fantasy?
All of them actually. Well, by AU I mostly mean our universe but with fantasy elements. My WIPs include historical fantasy set in Viking Age (which I mentioned) with some grounded history and a ton of fantasy elements, high fantasy inspired mostly from Regency period, Roman Empire and Finnish mythology, high fantasy inspired mostly by Victorian Era and Republic of Venice, and my newest WIP historical fiction set in Golden Age of Piracy with some magical realism. I’d say in the end a lot of the research never, at least directly ends up in the book. With historical fiction most of it is building the world and it’s in the background but might not be directly referred to. With high fantasy it’s even less as most of it is for inspiration and therefore not included as it is.
Question 5 – Do you get the idea for the story first, and then do research around the premise, or do you get story ideas from your research? Top down or bottom up?
My writing process is very messy 😀 I usually get a very broad idea I vibe with. Then I start researching it and get a lot more ideas and the story starts to shape up as I’m researching. I sometimes also read something not related to writing and inspiration hits. With high fantasy it’s usually more top down, I research something specific I need ideas.
Question 6 – What are your favorite historical periods and mythologies?
I have always a hard time picking my favorite anything so I’ll have to mention several. My favorite historical periods are the between World Wars period, Victorian Era, Golden Age of Piracy, Italian Renaissance, Late Medieval Period, Viking Age, Classical Rome, Ancient Egypt, Edo and Meiji periods in Japan and the Warring State Period in China. For mythologies: Finnish, Sámi, Egyptian, Celtic, Japanese, Slavic and Etruscan mythology. There’s a lot more historical periods and mythologies especially outside Europe I’m really interested in, but don’t know enough yet to say if they are my favorites or not. I am in the process of learning about the things I never learned in school.
Question 7 – What are some of your favorite tropes from mythology to use in your own writing?
One of my favorites, that I can’t stop using, is the concept of spirit and or magic residing in blood. I’ve come across it or something similar at least in Norse, Finnish and Sámi mythology. In Norse myths there’s stories of drinking the blood of an animal and gaining some of their abilities. In Finnish mythology though, the magic is described to be specifically inside bones, where the blood gets created. Another related trope I enjoy a lot is magic and spirit being one and the same. In Finnish mythology humans have three souls, one of them is an elf, also known as luonto (nature) or väki. Väki means both folk and power. The elves are often referred to as “väki”, but so is magic. It’s where humans gain their magical abilities.
One last trope I’ll mention is the very common trope of natural spirits. There’s the Finnish elves and Greek nymphs and many many others. I just really love anthropomorphic nature.
Question 8 – Do you subvert any of the classic tropes that you adapt?
One thing I like to do is include evil spirits and reveal they are not that evil actually and include good spirits and show them to be more questionable. Nature can see evil sometimes in it’s hostility, but it never really is. It’s always neutral. A specific instance of a subverted trope I’ve done is how I included Tyrfing, a cursed sword from Völsung Saga into The Shield-Maiden Saga. The sword is not actually cursed, rather it has an imprisoned elf inside, who just happens to be very bloodthirsty and sadistic.
Question 9 – How do you fit magic systems into your historical elements?
I often base my magic systems at least partly on mythology. I always make sure though that the magic system never works exactly like in mythology (or the internal mythology of the world). Mythology is born to explain the world people don’t understand so it would lose a lot of cultural context, if it was an accurate description of the world. When I create my own world, I often start with a magic system and then think about what kind of mythologies different cultures would build around it and other natural phenomena. When I use real world, I start with the existing mythologies and think how the magic would really work. I often combine different mythologies and add my own spins, as I don’t want to give the impression that any one culture got it right. I also often use a softer magic system. I feel like it better conveys the feeling of how science and magic worked back then. People didn’t know how they worked, but by trial and error they found some things that worked often, but not always.
Question 10 – Do you have any advice for other writers looking to build a historical-fantasy-scifi story?
First of all, if you take inspiration from the history of a culture you are not part of, do your research extra well. And if you’re writing historical fiction, double that. Use sources by the culture, since you’ll easily get a very biased view from the sources written by outsiders. If you are planning a world of your own, I’d suggest taking a broad look at a lot of different cultures and eras even if you know what period you’ll take inspiration from. It’ll give you a feel on the ways societies and cultures shape and what things are not universal.
But the main point is to have fun with it. If you don’t like researching, no worries, there’s no rule that says your fiction has to be historically accurate. Though if you don’t already know the culture intimately this approach might not work well. At the end of the day though, there’s no rules in writing at all. Read about the things that interest you and emphasize them in your writing. It shows positively when you lean into your passions.
11 – Where can we find you and your work?
I tell about my writing progress and WIPs more or less regularly on my Tumblr blog @kittensartwriting! I’m always happy to find more like-minded writing buddies!
Thank you so much to Karkki for agreeing to be a guest on today’s post! I enjoy picking my friends’ brains with overly specific questions about certain things, so it was fascinating for me to read through all the detailed thoughtful answers with SO MANY brilliant ideas behind them. I’m thrilled to be able to share it with my readers too. If you liked reading about her process, I highly recommend checking out the rest of Karkki’s work and supporting her WIPs! You absolutely won’t regret it. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next week! 🙂
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.
When I first started writing this post, I thought it was going to be an easy one to write. When I first started worldbuilding the world of Laoche, I found a bunch of question lists I liked online, and put them together into my own questionnaire that I thought encompassed everything you could possibly need to worldbuild. I’d just copy/paste that list of from my “blanks” document, mess with some formatting to make the enigmatic WordPress happy, and be on with my day. That’s when I stumbled across this website, a comprehensive worldbuilding checklist that includes more details than I could ever hope to come up with. It’s a great resource, and I’ve bookmarked it for future reference, but now I realized that I could just share this instead, and be out of a blog post. Instead, I’ve decided to explain how I decide where to start worldbuilding.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the world past the point where it’s relevant to the story. Big lists of things to consider don’t help with this either, because it’s easy to feel pressured to answer all the questions up front and build yourself a cage made of potential contradictions, or so overwhelmed that you consider switching to contemporary Earth. It’s also very easy to focus on your plot and characters so much you forget to put infrastructure into the background of the world, then struggle to fit in unique settings around the existing story that fit the themes.
I think it’s the most useful to start by asking cause and effect questions like, “What about the world influences the way my characters think?” and “What do I absolutely need to know to inform the plot?” These lists are supposed to be a guide where you can pick and choose what you want to work on, and what works for the story, then ignore the rest to figure out later, so your outline-stage worldbuilding can be as detailed or vague as you need it to be. If you find you need a certain gesture or fashion description as you write, then you can just come up with it on the spot, choosing what makes sense in that moment. Then add a comment or highlight to that section so you don’t forget what you came up with later. Your editing self will thank you for it. That all being said, I want to share my process on how to approach what aspects of worldbuilding in what steps so that I don’t get so overwhelmed and work on the most important things first.
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!