Magic Items Revisited, Part 2

Durability

A related topic to availability is how long the magic in magic items persists. Generally speaking, the less an item can be used, the easier it is to create tends to make sense. If Great Weapons or Rings were common, everyone would have one and Dragaera and Middle-Earth would be very different places. On the other hand, easy availability of limited use Skele-Gro isn’t so bad. On the whole, there are three broad categories of magic item durability:

One-Shot

These are single use items, such as potions, that expend all their magic in one use. Often such items are consumed when used, or disposed of in some other way (ex. the single use Portkeys used for the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Cheap, single use, disposable items makes for a strong market for creators and sellers, if they are common. If usage is widespread, then people will be looking for replacements frequently.

Limited Use

These items retain their magic for months or years but eventually the magic wears off. This is the magical equivalent of the home appliance or car and shares a similar place in a magical economy. They are items that might be moderately expensive initially, but can be used for a significant amount of time. Most of the items in Rowling’s world and Pratchett’s Discworld fall into this category.

Permanent

These devices never lose their magic regardless of how old they are or how often they are used. Obviously, this would not be a good level to build an economy around, as they’d be bad for business. Once they’re sold, there’s no more income to be made off them. But, this level is excellent for rare and exceptionally powerful items such as Excalibur, Glamdring, Spellbreaker, and the One Ring.

In short, how long magic items will continue to work has a profound effect on society and its relation to such devices both economically and socially.

Production

How magical devices are made, and how quickly they can be produced, also has a notable effect on the world. Unique items that take considerable time to make won’t be widespread. Mass produced items can be produced quickly and will be found everywhere, usually.

Examples:

Rick Riordan’s Camp Half-Blood is home to many, mostly unique, items created by the Hephaestus kids or the gods (and their cyclops minions).

J.K. Rowling’s Magical England has items that are presumably both easy to make and mass produced (those sold in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes) alongside handcrafted, labor intensive items (wands & brooms) and unique, powerful object (horcruxes & the Potter family invisibility cloak).

Pratchett’s Discworld also includes both mass produced objects (iconographs, disorganizers) and unique items of great power (Hex).

Unique items that are slow to make become the goals of quests and carry great value. This is true even if their powers are weak—ex. the Staff of Magius in Dragonlance’s Krynn is a rather weak item, but its history and reputation make it desirable. On the other end, mass produced items become common household items that everyone in the setting is likely to have access to—ex. Floo Powder in Rowling.

There is a lot of room in between the ends of the spectrum. If the creator desires a world with widespread items and an item making industry, then mass produced and fast are effectively necessities. A full scale industry cannot be built and produce widespread devices if it takes a month to create one saleable item—they can create a specialty industry catering to select clients, though.

The choice really depends on the desired level of magic use in the setting. The above categories can be used as a way to limit the effects of magic on societies—either the magic system is limited in, or unable to, creation of items or national laws restrict creation (ex. mages need licensing to make items and/or must only do so in certain places to avoid blowing up the neighbors).

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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 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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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)

Magic Series—Tools of the Trade, or Not

Look around at “how to write fantasy” blogs, sites, books, and articles and you’ll likely find a lot of people who say that magic requires limits. I suspect this is true, to a great extent, in most writers’ hands. Occasionally a great writer comes along who can portray unlimited, anything goes magic without sacrificing plot—all too often such magic becomes a deus ex machina to get the writer out of the proverbial corner (s)he’s painted into. Some have argued that Tolkien, for instance, had no limits on magic—a claim I will definitely contest for a variety of reasons—but virtually every fantasy world has some restriction on magic.

 One of the easiest and more common limitations is to require the use of props or tools.

 This is also a common historical approach to magic, as noted by Richard Kieckhefer and, to a lesser though more systematic extent, Isaac Bonewits.

 What do we mean by props and tools?

 For my purposes, I think not only in terms of material tools, but also actions and practices. Common props in both fictional and historical conceptions of magic include (obviously not a complete list):

 Animals—common historically among the Romans and Celts as sacrifices for divination

Cauldron (or laboratory)—for alchemy and other elixir/potion making, or scrying

Chants—use of magic words, whether chanted or spoken, to produce spells

Circle—the classic magic circle to contain summoned beings or magic

Crystals—both New Agey and historical for channeling magic energy

Dancing—common historically for magic and religious channeling, ex. Sufis

Dolls—old historical focus for magic, ex. Voodoo and kachina dolls

Drums (or other musical instruments)—music has always been potent in magic for focus or emotion control

Familiars—common in historical views of witchcraft, also present in Steven Brust’s Dragaera for witches

Herbs—historically part of both alchemy and traditional medicine and protective magics

Holy Symbols—obviously part of Christian exorcism, integral component of D&D/Pathfinder

Incense—historically part of several magic traditions, either to sharpen focus or produce a mood

Knife (or Athame for the Wiccans)—symbolic severing or use in sacrifices, special materials used for other purposes

Martial Arts—important in some Eastern magics, like Taoist, for focus and control of body and mind before magic; in fiction, see wuxia stories

Meditation—common historical means of achieving focus necessary for some magic traditions

Purification—historically part of both exorcisms and religious magical traditions, ex. Shinto

Relics—throughout history religious relics have been said to possess magical powers

Rituals—whether hand/wand waving gestures (Harry Potter) or full on 20+ minute rites

Seal of Solomon—said to be able to contain and command djinn, demons, and other spirits

Staff (or wand)—often a focus device historically or in fiction, sometimes channels or contains magical energy for the spellcaster

Star Charts—obvious usage in astrology and some of the more hermetic/Kabbalistic magics

Talisman—usually a focus device, possibly a protective device in some cases whether an amulet, ring or other item