Magical Mondays: Concrete Magical Worldbuilding vs. Nebulous Magical Worldbuilding

xmen90sRecently, a friend and I were talking about writing a story together, and since we’re both very into fantasy, we decided to write something with magical characters. However, we quickly ran into a problem: there are… way too many stories with magical elements out there. (As you might know from this column.) So what was the best way to build a world that had magic, but wasn’t cliché or boring? And if you’re building a magical system from scratch, what was the best way to set limits for your magical characters? I looked at some of my own favorite genre stories to get an idea of what I was getting into. Some appeared to have pretty concrete magical worldbuilding, and some appeared to have more nebulous worldbuilding. Both worked, but which was better?

A lot of stories have people who have magic. Many of these characters come with limitations built into their species—werewolves can be hurt by silver, vampires fear garlic and stakes, fairies can be killed with cold iron depending on the mythology, and so on and so forth. However, in other stories, it’s harder to give humans with magic the same sorts of limitations. In Harry Potter, for instance, wizards and witches will be at a disadvantage if they lose their wands, but with their wands, they can do practically anything. In the X-Men universe, though it’s not “magic” per se, each mutant manifests their own particular ability. I’ve only seen the movies, and there, at least, it seems like the mutants’ abilities basically turn into deus ex machinae whenever the writers need a bigger baddie and a stronger protagonist. In X-Men: The Last Stand, there’s a cure for mutants made from a mutant who can suppress others’ abilities, and Jean Grey can suddenly resurrect herself and disintegrate people through the handy powers of the Phoenix. It’s a free space for the writers to do whatever they want, without actually needing to put any limits on the power of creation.

white cat holly blackLooking further at stuff I’d read in the past, I found that I much preferred humans whose powers were necessarily limited by the narrative. Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy is my favorite example in this category. In these books, there are people called curse workers—people with the ability to work, or manipulate, some part of the human condition. There are luck, memory, emotion, physical, dream, death, and transformation workers, and each of them can only affect the one thing they’re capable of working. For example, a luck worker can only affect someone’s luck, and a dream worker can only affect someone’s dreams. What they do also affects themselves—luck workers who give other people good luck get good luck themselves, death workers who kill someone suffer the death of one of their own body parts, and so on and so forth. We know exactly how the world and its limits work, and the writer is free to create a story within those confines. A character can only have a certain sort of power, and that power can only do certain things. Despite the Curse Workers not being able to make up stronger and stronger antagonists, it’s still very suspenseful and very fun to read. The fact that its world makes logical sense doesn’t take away from the story at all.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is another one of these stories. I’m sure everyone knows this one already, but in the first series, there are four types of benders: fire, air, water, and earth. Each bender can only learn his or her own element, unless you’re the Avatar, who can master all four. It even makes sense that the Avatar is the only one who can learn all four, because the Avatar is the person charged with keeping the peace of the world and making sure that each separate nation will get along with the others. Avatar doesn’t step out of its magical boundaries—no one can suddenly do what the Avatar can do—so instead of building outwards with its mythology, it builds inwards. Throughout the series and its follow-up, The Legend of Korra, people start coming up with and learning more specific types of bending. Waterbenders learn bloodbending, earthbenders learn to become metalbenders, and firebenders eventually learn Uncle Iroh’s trick of redirecting electricity. The series still gives us creative rearrangements of its magic without messing up its own rules.

Through meditation, Aang can connect with his past lives. For Korra, the connection is severed. Good worldbuilding for stories with magic requires strict rules and limitations for how magic works, who has the ability for said magic, and how much the magic can plausibly do. Without these limits, the characters can become more and more absurdly powerful, and the world gets more confusing along with them. Furthermore, having a very concrete magical system makes the world more memorable, as well. For things like the X-Men, which started as a comic series, it might have been easier to keep the definition of magic as something nebulous, so each successive writer could come along and create their own mutants and mutant powers. For other franchises, though, keeping a defined magical system helps shape both the writers’ and artists’ creative vision. Well, I know which one I prefer, but what do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Concrete Magical Worldbuilding vs. Nebulous Magical Worldbuilding

  1. I recently attended a convention panel about starship design based on our current scientific understanding. (Current theoretical physics concerning interstellar travel, time travel, the ideal shapes and required compartments in ships, potential materials to be used in defense/offense, etc.)

    One thing the panellists recommended is that in Science Fiction, you should only get one extraordinary “gimme,” and everything else should follow the rules of our current scientific understanding of the universe.
    For example, the Mass Effect universe has the single “gimme” of eezo. However, there are so many applications and technology that can be based off of what eezo can do, that it transforms the ME setting into full science fiction.

    Ghost in the Shell has the “gimme” that we are able to truly “upload” ourselves into synthetic brains without any “data loss,” and even then, a key theme is about exploring whether or not we have lost our souls in the process.

    And then, of course, there is the inverse of Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science.

  2. Have you heard of Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic? It’s basically what you’re talking about – how to build a limited magic system and work within it. He has essays on each one, but here’s the basics:

    First Law: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”

    Second Law: “Limitations > Powers”

    Third Law: ” Expand what you already have before you add something new.”

    I tend to agree with this. You’ve got to control you’re magic somehow or else the protagonist will just magic themselves out of every situation. Even if they’ve got the traditional spell hurling sort of magic, you’ve got to limit it’s involvement in the book. See Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where the wizards and witches know that not using magic is what’s most important (too much magic results in the demons from the dungeon dimension gaining access to the world). While Discworld doesn’t have a defined magic system, it has very limited usages of magic and magic is usually not central to the plot.

    Some magic systems:
    Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series – people burn (use) certain metals to fuel mental or physical abilities. Most people cannot burn any metals, and those who can mostly are only able to burn one. Those who can use all the metals are called Mistborns, and they are very rare. Examples of abilities are that tin enhances your senses, steel lets you push on nearby metals (like Magneto), zinc lets you inflame people’s emotions, ect.

    Jonathan’s Stroud’s Bartimeaus trilogy – humans have no magical powers themselves, but magicians can summon and control demons. There are various orders of demons, which have various levels of power. Lower powered demons are easier to summon, and higher powered demons harder. If you take on more than you can handle, you’re probably die.

    • I actually have not heard of this — I’ve heard of Sanderson’s Mistborn books, but I didn’t know he’d written essays on worldbuilding! Thanks for these, I’m definitely going to check them out. They look like they’ll be really helpful! (I have read the Bartimaeus Trilogy — great example of magical limits!)

  3. I do think that some of this is more restricted to textual forms of narrative. When the visual dimension comes into play, sometimes the pure emotions involved in watching a protagonist break all of the rules in their moment of catharsis is more viscerally satisfying.
    Insofar that textual world-building is, by definition, description-based, your brain is being directed to pay attention to the details. With imagery, where a picture is a thousand words and can pass through straight into the subconscious, visual style is its own form of substance, in a way textual description may not be. It’s much easier to analyze dynamic shot composition than to draw analogous conclusions from syntax/diction, for example.

    See also this. A lot of anime’s bread and butter comes from nebulous magic/powers allowing for battles to parallel the emotional arcs instead of plot/character bowing to the system’s limitations. (Whether or not they always succeed is another matter. Some have called the Type Moon tendency for Nasu to world-build for the sake of his pet characters proving their badassery by breaking said world-built rules as a reason why it’s all a bit trite.)
    And as the various ways to write fight scenes shows, even text can describe their most epic battles in only sweeping emotional terms, without any blow-by-blow commentary.

    Systematic world-building only matters when the narrative/reader cares about it. For example, the consistency of the magic systems and supernatural creature rules in the Buffyverse varies from episode to episode. But each individual episode uses its chosen concept in ways to reinforce the theme-of-the-week in a way that furthers the characters, so it doesn’t really matter that Spike and Angel seem to be operating off of completely different definitions of soul, and how having/not having one influences vampires.

    • This difference between visual and textual narrative is a really good point, thanks for bringing it up! I do agree that there is a significantly visceral feeling to seeing someone like Aang or Korra break rules than there would be to reading about someone like Cassel breaking rules, but I think there’s a place for systematic worldbuilding in both kinds of narratives. Unfortunately I haven’t seen Buffy (I know, it’s on my list), but what you’re talking about with Spike and Angel is probably something I’d love analyzing, haha. I feel like when worldbuilding fails, the narrative always loses something in the process, whether or not it’s something the reader cares about. Sometimes going for the visual emotions make it fail more — for example, Voldemort scattered into a million pieces in the Harry Potter movies, but in the books his dead body fell to the ground, because he was just a man in the end. Maybe the former looked cooler on the screen, but it lost the meaning of the story.

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