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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » world building rules

   
Author Topic: world building rules
babooher
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Does anyone have a good system for keeping track of how magic works in a world? I'm trying to figure out how to manage a world where the rules are changing. I've got an idea where this will be a main plot line as well as a key point in the setting, and I'm trying to figure out how to keep track of it all. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
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MartinV
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Perhaps you can pretend magic is a version of software. It's modular that way and easy to handle. You can have these versions written before you start writing and implement them as you go. Or you wait until your plot actually needs a change and decide on the spot what that change is.

The way you write your system down is trivial. It's important that you know what you want.

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Jess
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanderson%27s_First_Law

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanderson%27s_Second_Law

Hope these help.

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extrinsic
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Worldbuilding to me is setting development or milieu in Orson Scott Card's MICE vernacular. Setting for me is one of the six essentials of SPICED narrative theory.

Setting like characters and ideas and events and discourses should synergize with plot. Setting like milieu is time, place, and situation. A magic milieu is a setting situation. Magic and such drive a sense of awe and wonder, which are one of several emotional clusters essential to fantastic fiction which engages readers' empathy and curiosity, which drives tension, which drives plot.

In simple terms, worldbuilding should coordinate with plot. The core principle of plot is a main dramatic complication. What does the central character most want? What forces impede the character's achieving that want? How is the setting a force that furthers and impedes that want? What is the intended final outcome of that dramatic complication?

From posing and answering those questions as the drama unfolds, either planned to the nth degree or written inutitively and regardless of method revised according to a similar plan afterwards, outline sketching the settings' situations' influences on plot, characters, events, ideas, and discourses in longhand, typewritten, and through mental composition is one effective method for worldbuilding. A core question being how setting situations influence SPICED features, notably, the central character's discoveries and reversals while addressing the main dramatic complication.

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Merlion-Emrys
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Kinda hard to say without any information. How does it work now? How is it changing? What's causing the change?

For me the magic often comes first and defines everything else. I don't really see there being a system that'd work for all worlds or all stories. I'd personally need to know some specifics to offer anything helpful.

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MattLeo
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Personally I think the impulse to "keep track of it all" is counter-productive, although it can be hard to resist, especially for people coming from a tabletop gaming background.

This is may well be a case of "whatever floats your boat". It's quite evident reading some manuscripts that for their author the story emerges from the rules. He can't even start until he's dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's in the rulebook. Where this is evident, the MS tends to be slow, information packed, and in a word, "tedious"; but if you can force your way through it there's often a satisfying story in there.

On the other hand, you've got people who can't abide all that architectural groundwork, they just sit down and bang out a story. Reading a MS like that is like gulping down a tutti-frutti wine cooler. It may go down easy, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

The problem is that creating and critiquing are two different mental faculties. Trying to do them at the same time is rather like taking the Stroop Test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroop_test).

The solution to that problem is revision. Revision is where the world-builder strains out the indigestible lumps of information, and the bang-it-outer hunts down not just things that are illogical, but even things that aren't *justified*. Revision is your safety net. Remembering it's there means you can be a little more daring.

So the answer to your question depends on why you are asking it. If it's because you're concerned about making some mistakes, the answer is: worry about mistakes later. If it's because you won't know what to write about until the rulebook is done, I suppose writing some vignettes to test the rules might help. I sometimes do that to test ideas for character personalities.

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s_merrell
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One thing to consider is that if you're having difficulty keeping track of it all, you might want to simplify it a bit. After all, a magic system that is so extensive that it requires large graphs and tables to keep track of risks two things:

1) becoming too prevalent in the story--taking over plot elements where character, circumstance, ingenuity, and believability should take precedence; essentially, it's good to use magic where necessary, but remember that magic systems cannot replace true story telling, unless your story is actually a technical D&D-jargon romp.

2) becoming diluted and weaker than it could be--the more elements of magic you have in a single novel or work, the less "fantastic" each element will become--and the less pleasant it will be for your reader to figure out how all of the different elements fit together.

Now, some writers can pull off complex magical systems--but they still manage to integrate their magic into a compelling, believable world that is compelling and believable for more than just its magic system. Think Brandon Sanderson--he works with intensely-layered systems of magic, but his books aren't saturated with them to the point where there's no actual story telling. Instead, they're just another element of his story.

I have a friend who's trying to put together a world. His world is incredibly complex. His magic system is so extensive that he's divided it into seven or so schools of magic that each have multiple degrees of complexity. He's essentially designed it so that he can do just about anything he wants with it.

The problem with that that is that he can do just about anything he wants with it. This robs magic of its believability and its power for the reader.

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Merlion-Emrys
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All right, magic is a special point of interest for me and magic systems are, I think, one of my literary strong suites and also an area of great importance to me as a reader. So I feel the urge to throw in another perspective here.

First, a couple of notes about my perspective.
I do indeed come from a tabletop gaming background. I wrote spells and classes for 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons for some time before I started writing fiction. Now, I realize that a goodly number of folks consider...or seem to consider, based on things I've seen said...RPGS to be some sort of "lowest form" of fantasy, but it's been my experience that my gaming background is generally quite helpful to me, as both are forms of storytelling. It's especially useful in learning how to evaluate how various magical effects and abilities in the hands of your characters are likely to influence how they deal with things and what is or isn't an obstacle...particularly things like flight, invisibility, teleportation and most forms of divination.
I'd also add that I come from a background of reading fantasy classics since I was a kid...and most fantasy roleplaying games are based quite extensively on the likes of Tolkien and other early-generation fantasy writers.

Also, I am an intensely spiritual (or as I really tend to think of it, "magical") person. I believe in the supernatural, spiritual and magical as actual things. It's my belief that the physical arises from the spiritual...or alternatively that physical and supernatural are so closely tied, so much aspects of the same thing, that attempts to differentiate them are largely pointless. Therefore for me the magic in a story is very important, and I tend to prefer stories where magic is a pervasive, important and significant part of the world and how it works rather than merely window dressing or plot devices.
I don't understand why magic systems and true story telling would ever be separate concepts in a story that features magic.

While I enjoyed "The Name of the Wind," and found the magic interesting in many ways, I also found it insufficiently integrated into the world itself, lacking in meaning and context, and insufficiently significant in the nature of things (though I have a feeling it becomes more so in later books.)

I have the same issue with the Harry Potter stories. There is a LOT of magic flying around, but very little information about how it works, why it works, where it comes from, why the supposedly most powerful spells are so easy to learn and cast etc etc.

I don't have any problem with more "low-magic" stories where each magical thing is unusual and surprising...however, I also like stories where magic is in everything and not rare, lost, forgotten or largely unknown. A perfect example is LeGuin's world of Earthsea. The magic is an extension of the same forces and methods used to create the world; true wizards are hardly a dime a dozen, but every village has its witch and everyone knows that even "mundane" things have magic in them.


In my own Universe of the Nine Roads setting I have spent a great deal of time figuring out how the magic works...but the thing is, for me and in that world especially, that isn't a separate thing from the characters or the plot or any of the rest of it...the Nine Roads are a primary aspect of the world and part of everything in it, so it was indeed necessary to understand them and their magic to write the stories.

So I understand the desire to "figure it all out," but I still can't be much direct help without knowing anything specific about the story, world or magic in question.

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babooher
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First off, it isn't that I can't start without out all the charts and diagrams and blueprints and computer models and...whatever. I just feel the need to puff out my chest and say this writer waits for no one and no thing.

Having gotten that out of the way and quaffed my appletini, let me explain that I recognize what I think is going to be complex and so I wondered if anyone had a good system. I simply wondered if there was a good tool. If there isn't, I can press on with heroic strides.

My world is going to be steampunk based (although not alternate history). One of my characters accidentally "broke" reality/physics but managed to kind of patch it back up with only a few differences (mainly some mutations and a few of the laws of physics being relaxed enough to conform with the fantastic element of steampunk and this shall be the new "science" of thaumaturgy). However, the reality patch is growing thinner and physics is getting weaker. So, the "rules" are changing as part of the conflict and setting.

You all have helped a bunch already. I appreciate it. Thank you.

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Merlion-Emrys
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Sounds very China Mieville-esque, which I say as a good thing.

To me, it sounds like you have the idea plenty well enough in hand that the story itself will quite possibly reveal what's needed as things proceed.

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babooher
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Yeah, he's smarter than me and loves "puissance," but I get where you could say that, ME.

I think the mood and tone would be significantly different, but thanks for the compliment.

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micmcd
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One of the most important tricks for me has always been to keep a list of "things I claim magic can do," and never forget the contents of that list. When I'm just doing side worldbuilding (wondering what else happens when the camera isn't on my MC), I always make sure to ask, "What would a horrible person do with this?" and make sure that either happens or is sufficiently guarded against.

The Harry Potter novels notoriously failed at this. Polyjuice potion was used every other chapter-the protagonists actually use it for identity theft-and we rarely see evidence of a world where people don't trust the identity of everyone they're talking to. In the "magical wonders" shop, the girls ooh and ahh over love potions that actually work. I mean, how could anyone possibly misuse a potion that makes you fall madly in love with whomever your poisoner chooses for a short time? We should sell that to kids; surely they'd only get up to wacky hijinks and not sexual assault. Teenagers don't think of that stuff anyway.

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Robert Nowall
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It's said that if you could actually get a love potion, there would be a big market for love potion antidotes...

One of the many things I screwed up in my last attempt at a novel was giving my main character too many superpowers---"nanotech" superpowers--- one after the other, whenever something was needed to move the plot along. I wrote off the top of my head, and soon lost all track of what my character could, or, more important, couldn't, do.

If I ever go back to it---you never know---I'll remember to make a list as I go. And cut back on some of 'em.

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