Magic Items Revisited (pt. 1)

I thought I’d expand on and spin off some earlier discussions of magical devices.  This turned into five sections that were all too short for individual posts, so here are the first three:

General

Magic items are a big topic in the fantasy and urban fantasy genres. As readers, we often want to see them appear in a story. As writers and worldbuilders, the urge to play with the Golden Fleece, Excalibur, the Philosopher’s Stone, flying broomsticks, magic staves, and cloaks and rings of invisibility can be difficult to ignore or resist.

But, magic items raise some important questions about the fictional world. Should such items exist? Can they exist, based on how the magic system works? How are they made? How strong should they be? How common are they? How long can they be used? Are they unique, mass produced, or a mix of both?

The answer to each question depends heavily on the intended use of the items, their effects on society, the feel of the setting, the feel of magic, and the world creator’s own sense of wonder. The last is, perhaps, the most subjective and variable. For instance, Tolkien’s magic items are rare and often powerful but they can evoke the same sense of wonder as Rowling’s magic items are everywhere world, just in different ways.

Assuming that magic items exist in the world, continue. If not, then the rest is irrelevant.

Strength

The power of magic items is of immense importance when we consider adding them to a setting. Generally speaking, the more powerful the magic items, the greater effect they can or will have on the world. They will probably also be less common or harder to make. Weaker items typically have less effect on the world, unless they are available and used in quantity. Careful thought into the strength of such objects is important, especially if anyone can acquire and activate them, as opposed to only being useful to a limited range of people (say, virgin Aztec males over the age of 40).

Sometimes the natural limits of magic restrict the strength of magic devices. Or the processes necessary to create magic items restrict their power level. In other cases, cultural laws can be used in-world to artificially limit the strength of magic items—ex. Steven Brust and Morganti weapons, J.K. Rowling and time turners.

A good example of varied strength comes from a comparison of Tolkien and Robert Asprin. Tolkien’s rings are world changing devices (literally), held by some of the most powerful beings in Middle-Earth (Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, the Ringwraiths, and Sauron). On the other end of the spectrum, Asprin’s d-hoppers are commonly available devices and a cornerstone of the multiversal economy.

Availability

Closely associated with the power level of magic devices is their availability. Are they rare and treasured (regardless of strength) or a dime a dozen? It is also entirely possible for a world to have both, some rare and powerful artifacts alongside hundreds of cheap and weak common items.

 Availability can influence and affect both how the items change or shape society and the wonder or utility of magic items in the setting. In Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar and Naomi Novik’s Polnya, items are rare and expensive, hoarded and doled out sparingly. In Rowling’s London, they’re household items. In Rick Riordan’s Camp Half-Blood, nearly everyone has at least one or two unique magic devices of at least moderate strength, whether this is Percy’s Riptide (sword-pen), Chiron’s concealing wheelchair, or Leo Valdez’s magic tool belt and Festus the Bronze Dragon.

If magic items are common, they can be used to create an entire economy in the world and affect daily life. These can include cleaning potions, magical light sources, and flying broomsticks. On the other end, if magic devices are rare, they become the stuff of legends and the goal of quests.

Phaser, Disruptor, Windmill: Technology in F/SF

The question of technology is a familiar one for the science fiction genre, but it is almost equally important in the fantasy and urban fantasy genres. In the last, the relationship between technology and magic, or technology and paranormals, is very important.

With that in mind, let’s break the issue down by genre:

Most fantasy worlds are stuck in a medieval to early modern level of technology with occasional forays into ancient and Victorian levels. In part, this trend is likely due to the tradition of medieval romances and legends that serve as the foundation of the modern genre. The medieval era also tends to be romanticized to some extent in Western society, functioning as a source of and setting for dreams and flights of fancy, the home of the proverbial knight in shining armor.

The tendency toward the medieval could also be tied to the same reasons that Renaissance faires and HMB are popular. Frankly, swords and armor are, in the popular imagination, cool. The era before gunpowder and WWI-type horrific warfare—mass destruction, mass chemical/biological weapons, nuclear devices, carpet bombing—and even the printing press is often seen as “simpler” somehow.

That said, there is no real reason that fantasy has to be stuck in the medieval or Renaissance technology level. It could easily be set in a secondary world with modern technology (Max Gladstone gets close to this), or Victorian, or steam (China Mieville), or others.

Urban fantasy, in the majority of cases, is based in modern technology, which brings in other issues and potential tweaks to the subject.

The interaction between magic and technology is, perhaps, the most important issue. Some hold that magic and modern technology are incompatible and affect each other negatively. They decide that magic and tech contradict each other and cancel each other out. Others argue that there is no reason the two should be inimical, but rather that they can work well together. And, of course, there are those who fall somewhere in between. Jim Butcher and Ilona Andrews provide good examples here, with technology and magic continually vying with each other.

Even if magic and technology can be co-mingled, that does not necessarily speak to every species. Sometimes, to play with ideas, authors limit technology problems to certain species. For instance, the classic fae and iron issue, which causes trouble for fae trying to travel in the modern world, in cars made of steel.

The question does provide fertile ground for unusual effect, though. For instance, high concentrations of magic may affect electronics (Rowling). Cell phone signals may interact with certain paranormal lineages to attract monsters (Riordan, Percy Jackson). Magic may only disrupt technology if it is directly applied to the piece of technology (Riordan, Kane Chronicles).

Technological development is an issue of obvious importance to the science fiction genre, from cyberpunk’s chrome to space opera’s blasters to the entire genre’s starships. Whether the technology involves travel ,communications, medicine, protection, combat, lifespans, cloning, genetic engineering, robotics, or AI, it can all profoundly affect the cultures and societies of the world. The choice of technology can also affect what stories can be told in the setting—if interstellar travel or communications are difficult or slow, then the setting is unlikely to have a galaxy spanning civil war with epic space battles.

Choosing the level of technology, or levels if each area is considered independently, should be done carefully so the technology doesn’t bury the story or other world elements. With that in mind, the technology will both define societies and be defined by them. Take, as an example, smartphone technology. The introduction of relatively cheap, and thus widespread, smartphone usage has brought about significant changes in all of Earth’s societies in terms of communication, connectivity to others, cross-cultural dissemination, information gathering, traffic safety, and a host of other areas. On the other hand, society has defined the smartphone in terms of usage as well. The evolution of the smartphone has been guided just as much, if not moreso, by average users and their desires as it has been by programmers and engineers. Regardless, technology will always affect the social growth and evolution of societies, whether that tech be cloning, cybernetics, regular space travel, or cold fusion.

Additionally, technology can be widely different based on species or nation, and not just in level of development. Example 1: Star Trek’s Romulans have cloaking technology that other species lack, Klingons use disrupters while the Federation uses phasers. Example 2: Babylon 5’s humans use rotational methods for artificial gravity, Vorlons have living bio-tech ships, Shadows have cloaking tech.

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Re-History: Revisiting History in Worldbuilding

History is an important element of every worldbuild, regardless of genre. In Clancy-style thrillers, the history of nations and the history of organizations are important. David Morrell built entire action thrillers out of small pieces of history, and built secret organizations and societies with their own histories. On a larger scale, Tolkien and George Martin constructed huge continental or global histories going back several millennia.

Facing this daunting task, one thing writers and worldbuilders find themselves facing the question of what to include. Limiting history to rulers, battles, and wars gets boring and dull fast. Histories can include foundations of nations, cities, other sites, and organizations; reigns of rulers and dynasties; conflicts between nations, leaders, religions, and groups; treaties, good & bad times (ex. the Great Depression); inventions of note; first contacts between civilizations and species; the rise and fall of nations, families, and organizations.

In fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi, history forms the foundation of current events and national or species relations. It affects current organizational relations as well, ex. the mages and clergy are at odds because the priests tried to purge magic from the country 100 years ago.

The depth and detail of histories varies widely, for a host of reasons. We know that Tolkien’s history is very complex and detailed thanks to the Silmarillion and Lost Tales. Frank Herbert’s was probably equally detailed, based on what Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert have been able to reconstruct from his notes. Rowling and George Lucas’s histories seem to have started rather sketchy and been filled in when needed. Michael Moorcock seems to be somewhere in between. The depth of detail also depends on the length of the piece. Neil Gaiman didn’t need to be excessively detailed in putting together a history for Neverwhere, a relatively short standalone novel. Herbert needed a detailed history for his extended epic. The role of history in the piece can also determine detail. For Neverwhere, detail and depth were not particularly necessary, just a general knowledge of London history and the Atlantis legend even though that history forms the plot. On the other hand, the history of Middle-Earth drove the plot of a wide ranging epic.

Once the history is outlined or fleshed out, how does it get incorporated?

The methods are almost as varied as the elements of history itself, sometimes they aren’t even necessary.

History can be introduced through the laws and cultural traditions of the setting. J.K. Rowling’s wand usage laws derive from the wizarding world’s history with non-human species. Frank Herbert’s imperial edicts against artificial intelligence have their roots in the Butlerian Jihad, 10,000 years before the events of Dune.

Tolkien utilizes the songs and stories of the elves, dwarves, hobbits, and Rangers to convey elements of Middle-Earth’s history.

In certain settings and types of stories, courses and books can relate parts of history. A good example of Rowling’s use of the school setting to convey her fictional history.

The very landscape can be tapped to tell the reader about the world’s history. For example, Tolkien’s use of the Argonath, the Barrows, and Weathertop or George Lucas’s shots of the temple of Yavin IV.

Family and national relations are another good way to bring in the world’s history. George R.R. Martin does this well, if in a somewhat heavy handed way, with the Starks (former Kings of the North) and the relationship between Dorn and King’s Landing.

Species relationships build out of the family and national ones. Rowling’s discussion of the various Goblin Rebellions and the plots present in many vampire-werewolf movies—in which ancient relationships lead to species conflict—are good examples.

The appearance of organizations or groups can be used as a moment to narrate or describe some history. For example, Martin’s use of the return of the Faith Militant under Cersei Lannister-Baratheon.

Other times, the entire plot of the story can reveal world history or the real world antecedents of the fictional world. The entire plot of A Song of Ice and Fire (Martin) is based on the English War of the Roses. Harry Turtledove builds most of his secondary worlds out of history, including Videssos and the setting of the Fox novels which are treated almost like alternate histories.

Turning to real world history is often an excellent option for finding inspiration for fictitious histories. There are many interesting elements, moments, and odd things in our own history that spawn plots, cultures, or even entire worlds. For instance, the appearance of the Plague in Europe, which yielded significant socio-economic and religious change. Or the sumptuary laws that were instituted throughout most of Europe to differentiate the impoverished noble class from the wealthy mercantile classes. Perhaps even the family relations of the European heads of state leading up to and throughout WWI (almost all of whom were cousins).

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Myths & Legends in Worldbuilding

Genre fiction, particularly the fantastic and speculative genres, is a fertile ground for myths and legends. In fact, the genres seem to be intrinsically tied to myth and legend. Tolkien, for one, built his primary work of fiction around the myths and legends of the Valar, once he developed the languages. So, what should we consider with these topics?

There is a huge variety of myths and legends out there, but first it may prove helpful to define the two terms:

Mythology—Fictitious tales that explain something (an event, phenomenon, cultural practice), involve divine agency, and are part of religious belief. Ex. Ovid’s tale of Lycaon explains why human sacrifice is not practiced (it angers the gods).

Legend—Fictitious tales that explain cultural practices, cultural history, or origins but are apart from religious beliefs and practices. Ex. the Arthurian legends explain a cultural Golden Age but are not religious in nature.

Myths tend to cover creation of the world, explanations of natural phenomena, cultural traditions, and origins of natural elements or places. Ovid’s Metamorphoses covers a wide range of origin stories and cultural traditions including the origin of the seasons (Persephone) and hospitality traditions (Baucis and Philemon).

Legends tend to focus more on culture heroes, a previous Golden Age, family history, and cultural foundations. The Arthurian legends are a good example of culture heroes. Shakespeare’s Richard III can, arguably, be seen as a legend about the founding of the Tudor dynasty (family history). The Brut Manuscript presents a foundation story of England that connects it to Troy via a manufactured Trojan named Brutus.

Inclusion of myth and legend in secondary worlds can add a layer of reality to a fantasy setting. However, they often seem to be limited in their usage. We commonly see creation myths, whether Tolkien’s Valar or Martin’s legends of Bran the Builder, but other types of myth seem to be less commonly included. Legends about places crop up regularly as do some regarding culture heroes. Only rarely does the tradition of phenomena myths—source of lightning, cause of earthquakes—seem to appear.

In urban fantasy, the use of real myths and legends has been used to connect the paranormal to the real or to inspire the paranormal elements of the world. This takes some research and a significant amount of reading and familiarity, but there are a lot of resources available out there. Including real myths and legends can spawn plots, places, objects, species, and even inspire entire paranormal societies (ex. Rick Riordan). Rowling’s use of Nicholas Flamel, Merlin, and Archimedes as wizards (Chocolate Frog Cards) is a play on this idea. Jaye Wells builds her entire paranormal society around tales of Cain and Lilith. Ilona Andrews mines Mesopotamian lore and Eastern European legends and folk tales on a regular basis.

Even in science fiction’s innumerable sub-genres, the use of myth and legend has its place. Often, they are employed in the same way as the fantasy genre does, for non-Earth based sci-fi or as urban fantasy does, for Earth-based. Legends often come into play in the form of the legendary inventors of technology or products or stories like rumors of rogue AIs on the net. The 2004 Battlestar Galactica (BSG) reboot constructed its entire plot arc on mythology, for example. The Jedi of Star Wars were surrounded by legends, living (Yoda) and otherwise, and myth. Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda often mentioned legends of Tarn Vedra and its disappearance, evoking Atlantis in some ways. Firefly includes many references to “Earth That Was” in almost reverential tones. R.A. Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice is built around Christian mythology. Mike Resnick’s Santiago makes exceptional use of legend as well.

In short, myth and legend are very useful for all sorts of genre fiction as inspiration or flavor for the setting.


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My Brother’s Friend’s Sister’s College Roommate: Family & Genealogy in Worldbuilding

Family and family lineage are a relatively common feature in fantasy and, to a somewhat lesser extent, urban fantasy. They also play some role in science fiction. Some of the major examples include George R.R. Martin, Tolkien, Rowling, George Lucas, and Frank Herbert. Why are these elements widespread? What purpose do they serve? And how do they fulfill their purposes?

In the fantasy tradition, the use of family lines seems to originate in legend, medieval romances, and myths. The tropes of the hidden prince and divine lineage of heroes are easily recognizable throughout the genre. Thus, family line can provide a link to royalty, governance, and status for a character. Following that path, it provides a link to both potential plotlines and resources through family allies and family enemies. Family lines can also yield abilities, talents, and other inheritances. These inheritance can include the ability to use magic, or to use certain kinds of magic. For example, Garth Nix’s Sabriel can use positive necromancy due to her father’s line and the royal line of the country has its own magic. Likewise, Michael Moorcock’s Elric has a special connection to myriad elementals and the quasi-divine Lords of Chaos through contracts made with his ancestors.

Urban fantasy, arguably, continues this tradition. The prevalence of mixed species characters could be seen as an extension of the ancient Greek demigods and the divine kings of Mesopotamia. As with the fantasy genre, family lineage can provide access to powers (Riordan’s demigods and Egyptian mages; Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels). The family genetic inheritance can also be linked to the ability to use magic (Rowling’s wizards and Riordan’s magicians). These associations can also connect a character to politics (Jaye Wells’s Sabina Kane, granddaughter of the leader of Earth’s vampires). Mythological elements can be harnessed by the story and characters through lineage (Riordan’s demigods), as can legends and magic items (Rowling’s invisibility cloak handed down to Harry from his father).

Science fiction often maintains the tradition in space opera or science fantasy, but also has its own unique uses. Family lines are important to sci-fi politics, alliances, and the history of nations. The hidden prince and Chosen One archetype continue in segments of the sci-fi genre, looking at the Jedi (whether Anakin’s “virgin birth” or Luke’s family line, depending on which one sees as the Chosen One) or Dune with its warring houses and genetic mingling. But, sci-fi adds other uses such as family or generation ships for both trade and colonization. C.J. Cherryh presents a perfect example of the family ship with the traders in much of her Earth-based space opera, particularly Merchanter’s Luck.

How can family lines and genealogy be applied in worldbuilding and narrative? There are a variety of methods, some more subtle than others. Harry Potter and the Skywalkers have their family lines incorporated with references to their respective parents throughout, though not appearing too strongly—aside from continued references to Harry’s eyes. George Martin tells his readers the complete lineages and blood relations between all of his characters, their houses, their sub-houses, and the castles they hold. Tolkien does something similar in the Silmarillion and the hobbits’ interest in genealogy and is more subtle in Lord of the Rings. There, he uses genealogy to connect Aragorn to the Ring, Elrond to Aragorn via Arwen and their half-elven bloodline, and Gimli and Frodo serve as family links between The Hobbit and LotR via Gloin and Bilbo. Frank Herbert is more subtle than Martin, but shows an equally complex and important relation of noble houses and family alliances. Herbert adds, though, the importance of family lines in the Bene Gesserit’s manipulation of bloodlines to produce the Kwisatz Haderach and generally guide human evolution.


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A Multitude of Multiverses

History is full of theological ancestry for the multiverse trope in fantasy and science fiction. As we look around the world’s mythologies and legends, we find innumerable examples. Some of the most well-known include:

 Buddhism—The tradition of the Dhatus realms introduces multiple worlds.

European, General—The Celtic Tir na Nog; Arthurian Avalon; Faerie.

Greek/Roman—The mix of Asphodel, Elysium Erebus, Hades, Olympus, Tartarus, and Earth.

Hinduism—The Puranic literature includes potentially innumerable universes.

Mesopotamian—The mix of Abyss, Godhome, Irkalla, and Earth.

Norse—The nine worlds cosmology, perhaps one of the most direct and developed examples.

Why should a writer or worldbuild consider the multiverse concept?

There are a variety of reasons. As noted, it is an elements of various theologies, mythologies, and cosmologies in our own history and can add depth to a fictional belief system. Multiverses also open up access to myriad settings, for example Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series, and Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase (using Norse cosmology). The concept can also create possibilities for species origins, especially for non-humans on Earth. It can also be used to explain the plethora of tales about lost lands, such as Atlantis and Shangri-la; perhaps they exist but do so on other planes of existence rather than on Earth.

How do we use the multiverse?

The whys of using a multiverse really determine the hows. If the multiverse exists as Earth and a variety of afterlives, then it becomes a theological concept. As theology, the multiverse should appear in religious texts, myths, and related stories. Perhaps it could be the source of good and evil entities in the core world as well or the location of a quest to return a deceased spirit or acquire information.

The ease and methods of travel between the multiversal worlds is also important in terms of how we use the multiverse. Rick Riordan makes travel between the worlds relatively easy for supernatural beings, which allows him to include quests that span multiple worlds and cultures. In most of Neil Gaiman’s work, crossing the boundaries between Earth and other lands is as easy as crossing a low stone wall (Stardust) or falling through the cracks (Neverwhere). Jaye Wells (Sabina Kane) makes travel between the worlds—Earth, Liminal, and Irkalla—rare and difficult, unless the individual is a demon, is dead, or is a Chthonic mage.

 In every case, the multiverse is employed to add depth and variety to the world in question.


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Who Wants to Live Forever?: Lifespans & Immortality (F & SF)

The idea of extending the average human lifespan is a common feature of science fiction as well as fantasy and urban fantasy. The introduction of non-humans with very long lifespans, or even true immortality, is also common. For example, R.A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves (immortal) and dwarves (long lived), or any urban fantasy writer’s vampires.

 Because of its prevalence, there are a wide variety of options that can be played with as part of the concept.

 Extended Life versus Immortality

There is a difference between an extended lifespan and immortality. Someone whose lifespan has been extended will eventually die of natural causes, because they continue aging and the body will eventually break down. On the other hand, an immortal individual will never die of old age. Either version may or may not include immunity to disease, immortality usually does.

 There are also three major varieties of life extension and immortality that can come into play:

Extended Life—The individual ages and gets progressively older, but lives longer.

Slowed Aging—The individual ages, but at a significantly slower rate than other people; ex. the individual ages one year for every five that pass.

Unaging—The individual never ages beyond a certain point, usually achieving adulthood or being turned into an immortal.

 

Once the decision between extended life and immortality is made, there are other questions. The most important is how does the life get extended or why is the character/species immortal. Literature and movies give us thousands of possibilities for achieving an extended life, from medicine to alchemy, natural genetics to magic items.

There are also several different kinds of immortality:

Alchemical Immortality—A common element of Western and Asian, particularly Taoist, legend is the elixir of life, an alchemically brewed drink that prevents death so long as the individual drinks it on a regular basis. Ex. Nicholas Flamel (Rowling & Scott), the Taoist Immortals.

Ascension—Some sources discuss the option of ascending to a higher, usually non-corporeal, plane of existence and state of being, often through enlightenment, to achieve immortality. Ex. Bodhisattvas, The Ancients (Stargate).

Food-Based Immortality—Many mythologies around the world refer to specific foods that give the eater immortality. Ex. the Norse gods and Idun’s apples, the Chinese Peaches of Immortality.

Item-Based Immortality—Occasionally we come across stories in which a magical item confers immortality upon the owner, usually this is seen as a curse and the item cannot be removed or discarded.

Location-Based Immortality—Sometimes, an individual attains immortality, but only while (s)he remains in a given place; if the individual leaves that place, then they age at an accelerated rate until reaching their true age. Ex. the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones.

“True” Immortality—Nothing is required for this immortality to come into effect, usually this means the immortality is genetic in nature. Ex. Tolkien’s elves.

Undeath—An arguable immortality occurs when the individual achieves a state between life and death. Ex. ghosts, liches, the Norse draugr.

Vampiric Immortality—Individuals attain and maintain immortality by feeding on others, whether feeding on blood, emotions, or other life forces.

 In all cases, there are some biological and psychological effects to extended lifespans and immortality that should be considered.

 Maturation is perhaps the first biological effect that comes into play. With some sources of immortality or extended life, this is not an issue. When, for instance, an individual achieves immortality through alchemy, a magic item, or a location, then maturation is not an issue. For those who achieve immortality or long life naturally, some age normally until adulthood, then stop or slow down. Others have slowed aging from the start, ex. D&D non-humans.

 Psychologically, there is the question of how the mind contains and processes the memories and information acquired over centuries or millennia. For non-humans, the simple answer is that their minds naturally evolved to adapt to their extended lives. For humans, whether they reach immortality through alchemy or becoming a vampire or other means, most writers and worldbuilders come to the conclusion that eventually the weight of processing centuries of memories and information would become too much. This could lead to mental breakdowns or other issues. Some handle this potential problem by using torpor. If applied, this means the immortal occasionally enters a semi-hibernation state, whether willing or otherwise, during which they rest apart from society. This has the effect of preserving the mind and avoiding ennui on the part of the individual. It also serves to allow the society to evolve and others to shape or lead society.

 Alongside the personal effects, immortality and extended life, particularly on a widespread scale, are bound to have social effects.

Governance—The governance of society is an important issue, particularly if there is widespread immortality. Is there static, staid leadership that causes society to stagnate or are there artificial mechanisms in place to ensure change? For example, among Tolkien’s elves, both Elrond and Galadriel ruled their respective peoples for millennia in lands that effectively never changed, which was one reason they had to leave Middle-Earth.

Inheritance—If a significant number of people in society never die (of old age) or take centuries before succumbing to age, do their descendants ever inherit their worldly possessions? When? How?

Reproduction—If an immortal species can reproduce rapidly, they are very likely to overrun the world in a short time. This is one reason that many worlds with vampires include societal laws regarding who can create new vampires and when. On the other extreme, even an immortal species that reproduces too slowly will eventually die out. Balance between the two extremes seems to be key.

Social Climbing—Without natural death, or centuries between natural deaths, is it possible for individuals to climb in society? Usually, in mortal societies, openings in the social status structure are created through death or retirement. If we remove one or both of those, then society is heavily affected. Some artificial measures can evolve in society to solve the problem, including challenges and assassination, of opening up positions at the top of the social heap.

Social Influence—The longer a person lives, particularly in high end social positions, the most they influence and direct society. This can cause the same effects as governance. For example, Yoda spent 800 years on the Jedi Council and training Jedi, which means he exerted a massive influence on the Jedi Order’s philosophy, training methods, and membership as well as exerting influence on the direction of the Republic.

Who is This About?: How Many Protagonists?

I thought I’d start off the return to worldbuilding posts with something about character first.  Specifically, how many main characters.  As usual, my examples will be limited to fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi sources.

One is the Loneliest Number

Using a lone protagonist is favored by some authors because it helps narrow the reader’s focus.  Both reader and author get to know the character better and in more depth, with less confusion and surface reads than a large cast.  On one level, this is easier because only one protagonist background, appearance, and personality needs to be created and developed.  On another hand, it is very focused and limits the potential number of plotlines and timing of actions/plot to some degree.  But, a lone protagonist allows for more introspection, while also limiting the number of lenses through which the readers see the world.  Good examples include: Michael Moorcock (Elric), Jim Butcher (Dresden), Harry Harrison (Stainless Steel Rat), and Kat Richardson (Greywalker).

Two Can be as Bad as One

Adding a second protagonist allows the writer to show more character development through their  relationship—whether they are mentor-student, partners, lovers, siblings, or whatever.  However, this also means that twice as many characters need to be developed and the character relationship needs to be thought out and developed, potentially over many years of shared personal history.  The big upside, for some writers, to a pair of protagonists is that it allows a greater frequency of dialogue versus introspection and presents a wider range of data sources.  Good examples include Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser, friends and partners), Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels and Curran Lenart, adversaries turned engaged to be married), Rick Riordan (Carter and Sadie Kane, siblings), and Steven Brust (Vlad Taltos and Loiosh, witch and familiar).

Three is a Magic Number

The triple protagonist is a favorite of young adult and paranormal romance writers, mostly because it provides inherent conflict and drama within the character relationships.  The triangle lets the character relationships slide between preferences for everyone involved.  Most appearances, at least in YA and paranormal romance, seem to be male-male-female.  Some benefits to the trio are that it allows for immediate relationship building, or establishment, and presents various sources of information.  Unfortunately, it has become a bit cliché, though there are some who play with the conventions.  Good examples include: J.K. Rowling (Harry, Hermione, and Ron, school friends at first), Cassandra Claire & Holly Black (Callum, Tamara, and Aaron, school friends), and Jaye Wells (Adam, Sabina, and Gighul, friends, lovers—Adam & Sabina; not a lovers’ triangle, though, partially due to Gighul being a demon).

Two Twos

A number of writers, particularly for TV, consider four to be the ideal protagonist number.  One of the biggest advantages is that four is a pair of twos.  The core four person team can be featured, but can also split off into two pairs.  This maintains the interaction while pursuing two concurrent plotlines or sequences with no single character having to act alone or be left out.  The quartet also allows a wide range of skill sets and backgrounds without getting out of hand.  Good examples include: Stargate SG-1 (Jack, Sam, T’ealc, Daniel), Stargate Atlantis (Sheppard, McKay, Teyla, and Ronon), and classic tabletop FRPGs (the fighter, rogue, cleric, mage adventuring party).

Everyone Gets a Part!

The ensemble cast of protagonists works best for epics and long term stories—ex. the five year mission or year long quest.  It provides a lot of different perspectives, but can also cause reader confusion and characters can be drowned out by other characters.  It also keeps the writer from having to produce 300,000+ words all from one character’s point of view.  The ensemble can also add complexity, show complexity, and allow for several concurrent plotlines and action sequences.  Good examples include: J.R.R. Tolkien (The Fellowship), George R.R. Martin (every single person living in Westeros and half the residents of the Free Cities), Battlestar Galactica (the Galactica’s crew), Star Trek (the crew of the Enterprises, DS9, and Voyager), and Babylon 5 (the station command staff plus key alien ambassadors & their staff).

Point of View

Even with two, four, twenty protagonists, it is entirely possible to retain a single point of view.  In fact, this is common in order to preserve both reader and writer sanity.  Sometimes it can be interesting to switch things up, though.  For example, Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles switches point of view every chapter—Carter gets the odd chapters, Sadie gets the even numbered ones, or vice versa; Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus has an ensemble of protagonists, each of whom narrates a chapter, before cycling back through (or he decides which character’s voice would be best for narrating a given chapter).


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Of Blogs and Books

I had a thought last night and started some preliminary exploration this morning.

I’ve found that over the last four years of maintaining this blog, I have written over 24,300 words about world building and the F/UF/SF genres.  Combined with the roughly 20 posts I broadly conceived of in the last week or two . . . I’m seriously considering revising the 43 relevant posts and the upcoming 20-ish into something resembling a book.

I’m also considering setting up a Patreon account, to fund more writing time (that isn’t one of my 2.5 jobs – tutoring, resume writing, and freelance editing).

Planning Ahead

After the little question a short while back, I’ve been thinking.  So, to keep myself on track, and get some outlining, here are some of the “Genre Thoughts” I’ve thought up to work on in the coming year:

1) Protagonists (Number of)

2) Magic Items (probably 4 post series)

3) Lifespans (non-human and extending)

4) Fantasy/UF Species Revisited (detailed; probably 10 post series covering “classic” and less common species)

5) Myths & Legends (F, UF, SF)