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Explaining World-building: Magic Systems, Monsters and Technology

Over in another corner of the blogosphere, I’ve been enjoying Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks’ interesting discussion on magic systems in epic fantasy. While they agree that one must balance world-building with the audience’s sense of wonder/fear, their discussion leaves an important question unanswered: how should creators strike that balance?

Any fantastic media – be it a fantasy novel, a horror movie, a comic book, etc. – contains by definition something fantastic. It might be magic. It might be a monster. It might be new whizz-bang technology centuries beyond our current means. When we create a fictional world, we take some pains to ensure that it is a believable world, that functions within the parameters we set for it. Even if we are writing (like John C. Wright in his Golden Age Trilogy) about humanity after the singularity, we need to put limits on our heroes. A system of magic (or a technology) that had no limits would render its practitioner omnipotent, thus negating any conflict. But as Brent and Brandon both point out (when talking about epic fantasy), if you dissect the magic too much you risk it dying on the table.

All good creators (including Brent and Brandon) would probably agree with that. But spotting the risk is only the first step to addressing the problem. So how to identify the stopping point? When is enough explanation, in fact, enough? Brent does it, Brandon does it, the vast majority of other awesome creators do it. So how? I think there’s a very specific answer: it depends on the character(s) your story is about.

Consider three very different novels:


by Brandon Sanderson


by Bram Stoker

Sun of Suns

by Karl Schroeder

  • Epic Fantasy
  • Main protagonist is Vin, a thief who must learn to use her tremendous magical powers.
  • Contemporary, published in 2006.

  • Horror
  • The monster is Dracula, a vampire.
  • A classic, first published in 1897.

  • Science fiction
  • The action takes place in a fullerene sphere which contains multiple artificial suns.
  • Contemporary, published in 2006.

On the face of it, each of these three books has a completely different type of “magic”. Mistborn has an epic fantasy system of magic built around a small group of people (the “Mistborn”) who are able to ingest and utilize the powers inherent in eight different kinds of metal. Dracula is a horror story (arguably, one of the most classic horror stories) where the “magic” is limited to the monster: Dracula himself. Sun of Suns deals with a far-distant future and is set in an artificially-constructed world (a fullerene sphere) with rules of physics that are particular to that setting. No commonality, right?

What’s shared between these books – and what I believe is shared across all good fantastic literature – is the method by which the authors introduce their magic or science. The paragraph above provides a pretty clinical explanation of the “magic” in each of those books. Somehow I doubt it will earn me any Nobel prizes. If Sanderson, Stoker, or Schroder (I must be on an S-kick today) just provided an info-dump and clinically explained how their worlds work, readers would yawn and move onto the next book. Instead, all three authors provide a drip-feed of information – both explicitly and implicitly – that draws the reader into their world. By the time a reader is through the first fifth of any of these books, they either buy into the magic or they never will. The rate of this drip-feed is controlled by the perception of the viewpoint characters.

In Mistborn, Sanderson introduces us right away to our heroine. A plucky young thief named Vin, she inhabits a world where magic is commonplace. She does not – on the face of it – goggle at the practice of magic, because she expects it. When the book opens, she is entirely untrained but has talents of her own and she (and we the readers) are aware of it. Everything Sanderson shows us of his world is shown through her eyes. Her credulity, her acceptance of this system of magic gets absorbed by us when we read. Her knowledge (and ignorance) of the rules of magic that govern her world is shared with us through:

  • her perception of the world and other characters,
  • her perception of the consequences when she bends or breaks the (known or unknown) rules of magic,
  • the reactions of other characters when she bends or breaks the (known or unknown) rules of magic.

Because she as a character is vivid and engaging, we are willing to believe her initial perceptions and buy into the world that Sanderson creates. As she learns about magic, we learn with her. This accelerates when she gains a teacher. This teacher or school of magic (who in some books may be benevolent, in others evil, in yet others a little of both) is an often-used device in epic fantasy that gives the author the ability to provide the protagonist (and the reader) with a crash course in magic. Yet throughout the book, Vin is subject to the rules (limits) of Sanderson’s system of magic: even when she and the reader are ignorant of those rules.

In Dracula, Stoker does something very similar to entirely different effect. Dracula himself is not a system of magic. He is a monster, whose existence and functioning are constrained by the rules that Stoker applied for the vampire. Dracula is somewhat more complicated than Mistborn due to the epistemological nature of much of the book and the multiple protagonists who it follows, but fundamentally our understanding of Dracula, his genesis, his powers, etc. is developed through the understanding of the protagonists. The sense of dislocation, fear and wonder of Stoker’s contemporary reader (who wouldn’t know what Dracula is by the title alone) would have developed in parallel to that of Jonathan Harker. We learn (through Harker) that Dracula is a monster, and the nature of his monstrosity. As the book progresses, we meet further characters (Van Helsing, Renfield) who provide more elucidation on the rules of his existence. Van Helsing especially plays the role of the teacher, explaining the “system of magic” to the other characters (and so to the reader).

In Sun of Suns, we are placed squarely in the world of Virga, where the rules of physics that we are familiar with apply…differently. We meet the primary character (Hayden Griffin) and he is so entrenched in his world, such a product of the culture and setting that created him, that at no point (as far as I can remember) are we told that Virga is a fullerene sphere. For Griffin, artificial suns and orbiting asteroids are the world. He does not perceive them or the odd physics they produce as strange. How could his world be any different? Griffin’s acceptance of the setting and the slightly-shifted physics of Schroeder’s world help to draw us into that setting and to accept it.

The above three books are just three simple examples. I can come up with many more. Pick any zombie movie (of any particular kind) that has been made in the last 50 years. If it is a decent zombie movie (or even if it is a B-zombie movie), we believe in the zombies based on what the heroes learn about them. Sometimes, as in 28 Days Later we are shown the genesis of the epidemic even if our heroes don’t know it. This type of prologue divorced from our heroes is a different form, but it is simply a means to provide backstory. It rarely provides essential insight into the system of magic or the constraints under which the monsters or the world behave. Instead, it serves to foreshadow and set up the dominoes for whatever follows in the story. Then, once we meet our protagonists we learn about the monsters (specifically, how to kill them and how they can kill us).

So it seems given the above, that if you’re wondering how to explain your system of magic to your audience, I would simply say don’t. You (the author) don’t want to explain anything. Instead, let your characters show your reader how your world works:

Guideline Suggestion
1 Your character is the lens through which your reader sees your world. Unless your story is written in distant omniscient third person (and that seems to be an increasingly tough sell these days) or your narrative frame demands it, your narrator should not break the fourth wall to explain how your world works. That’s really what “show, don’t tell” means.
2 Whatever your character accepts as commonplace will also be accepted as commonplace by your reader. Let’s say you were on a bus with a friend. Would you point out to your friend that everyone else on the bus has two eyes and two ears? Of course not. Then why would your character remark on the commonplace? She might make factual observations but I doubt she would explain them (The sun glinted on his pendant… rather than He wore a magical pendant that would …).
3 How your characters respond to the magic of your world informs your readers on your system of magic. If using her magical abilities tires out your heroine, the reader will figure it out based on her perceptions. A follows B follows C: our brains are literally wired to make these connections without being explicitly told that they exist.
4 When your character learns about your world, your reader is learning alongside them. Many, many, many books either have the trope of a benevolent teacher (fantasy) or helpful scientist (science fiction) who is there to teach the hero something they need to know. This can be done well, but it can also be a crutch. Make sure that the lessons move the plot forward and are interesting for the reader.
5 Don’t underestimate your reader’s ability to infer meaning. If your hero observes the villain drawing a pentagram on the ground and a demon exiting it, we can probably make the connection without being told that the pentagram opened a doorway for the demon.

The above guidelines rely on reader inference. Some might say they assume reader familiarity with the devices and tropes used in fantastic art. I disagree. I think even an inexperienced audience will be able to connect the dots. It’s how our brains work. As creators, we just need to make sure the dots are there to be connected. Otherwise, we’re left with deus ex machina, which if used injudiciously can punch the reader out of your story. And we don’t want that.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Informative and helpful information for writers to remember. Thanks for the post.

    However, with some magical entities, such as Dracula, prior knowledge from urban legends, folk tales, and other stories, color a reader’s perception of the “magic” of the story.

    Sometimes a hero or heroine is hard sell if an author twists the culture’s established magical thinking on a topic. Just look at some of the backlash Twilight’s gotten. “Vampires don’t sparkle!” 🙂

    Overall, I do think less is more and that suspension of disbelief has to be in place for a reader to fully invest in a fantasy or science fiction read. It’s a tough sell to get a linear thinking mystery reader to believe in the powers of fairies and witches.

    September 29, 2010
    • Great point! I definitely agree that “less is more” and your point about the reader’s cultural baggage is very well taken.

      I think that cultural history actually makes for rich soil for creators to play in, provided that they play well. 😉 If the characters are riveting, if the prose is fluid, and the imagery apt, then systems of magic that diverge from the norm can produce some very rewarding results:

      In a comedic vein, you’ve got Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series or Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. These books rely on the reader’s familiarity with the tropes that they are subverting, and do so to wonderful effect. Someone unfamiliar with the tropes will still enjoy the superficial tale being told, but someone who understands the cultural history can have a different (and I suspect richer) experience.

      In a more serious vein, you’ve got books like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend or Stan Nicholls’ Orcs. Both take tropes (vampires and orcs, respectively) and pursue a different take on them. In the case of I Am Legend, Matheson’s spin on the vampire mythos became highly influential in creating a new class of monster: the zombie.

      In each case, the authors could get away with subverting tropes and putting their own unique spin on them because the rest of their writing was good enough to support it. It was the strength of their characters and prose that brought the reader “over the hump” so to speak.

      I’d bet that books that get panned for subverting tropes often fall flat due to more significant problems than their system of magic: “Mary Sue” characters, internally (within the world created by the author) implausible conceits, etc. If one doesn’t avoid those pitfalls, then readers are going to find it very difficult to “buy into” the magic, regardless of what is done with it.

      September 29, 2010

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