Tag: fantasy writing

The Role of Magic in a Fantasy Novel

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Some form of magic features in every fantasy novel ever written.

It’s practically one of the requirements that are needed to turn your average story into a fantasy story. Sadly this is something many authors tend to mess up. Even fantasy stories that started out good go downhill due to bad magic management. You could say magic is as important as the world map of your story, especially where the plot is concerned.

Fantasy worlds are usually split into two categories according to the magic present in them. High magic and low magic.

High magic worlds have magic all over the place. Examples include the ‘Wheel of Time’ world created by Robert Jordan. Magic in a world like this is common and very visible. Whereas Low Magic worlds don’t have as much magic, it might even be only rumor and children’s stories, the truth known to and practiced only by a few individuals. The most famous example is the world of Westeros created by George R R Martin. This categorization should be considered when answering a very important question. How much magic should you include in your world?

You should also stick to the amount you decide.

When determining the Magic Level of your story. You should think about what the consequences will be down the line. A high magic world will use magic to solve most mundane problems. For example fighting, transport, communication and healing. While this might be extremely helpful in moving the plot right along and keeping the focus on the characters, it might just as easily be a choice you regret later on.

For example in a high magic world, the heroes don’t need to make a hair raising journey to warn the neighboring kingdom of the impending invasion, they can just communicate it telepathically. Your main character need not risk life and limb to make a thousand mile journey across the continent, they can just teleport. They don’t need to suffer crippling injuries, a wave of a wand and they are healed. You can see how it can be useful. But you also need to see that this kind of magic system can get out of hand very quickly. For one, you need to be fair in your magic use, it can’t be just the hero who can teleport all over the place, the villains must also have the same abilities, usually more. They don’t need to waste their armies pounding against the walls of a city, they can just teleport in and unleash magical destruction. The story, the entire plot, can change with heavy magic use among the characters.

The opposite of this is the low magic world, where magic is a rare commodity and definitely not everyday fare. It might be used for momentous events like the assassination of a king, but never in lieu of a mobile phone. Having a low magic world also opens up many more plotlines and character development. An injury might be crippling and how the character deals with it is going to be interesting to see. A journey might take a long time and introduce us to large parts of the world the story takes place in. You don’t have the option of taking the easy way out, but you have many more options of where to take your story.

The other thing authors tend to forget is that you need to stick to your magic level.

For an author, having magic in their story is like having a huge pile of chocolate in the fridge. You need to constantly resit temptation. You might be tempted to find a magical solution for every little problem your hero comes across, and this is well and good, but remember that this will end up making the hero dependent on magic to get the job done. The reader might as well get enamored with your magic system and ignore the hero entirely. It becomes worse if you have your characters conveniently discover new and heretofore undiscovered magic every time they encounter a seemingly impossible problem. Once or twice can be called a plot twist, but more than that it turns into ass-pull.

Authors like Christoper Paolini and Robert Jordan are especially guilty of this, by the end of their stories the magic system was mutated beyond all recognition and they were pulling magical solutions for every little problem their characters encountered.

Remember, keep your magic level constant, keep the ass-pulls at a minimum.

A character who uses their wits and guts to solve problems is actually much more attractive than a magic junkie. Remember Bilbo Baggins went toe to toe with a dragon in a riddle contest. In my opinion it was one of the best scenes of fantasy.

Magical training is another point authors love to cheat on. Especially when they start with a hero with a farm village background who can barely read. By the end of the story they are tossing magic around with the best of them. Even against characters who had studied magic for decades. Remember that Hogwarts needed seven years to turn Harry into a passable wizard. If magic takes decades to learn, then it should take decades to learn, one character alone shouldn’t get accelerated training.

Also please don’t suddenly turn your story into a high school drama by sending your character into a magic school halfway through a sweeping epic. This happens far too often in fantasy novels. School stories are fun, especially if you are learning magic, but you shouldn’t take time off from the main plot to write it.

One of the best magical training scenes I’ve read is done by Ursula K Le Guin in ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’. The main character spent years learning magic, by the time he went to the school he had already learned from two teachers. Training took time, it was the main focus of the character, it wasn’t a side quest. Patrick Rothfuss does another great example in ‘The Name of the Wind’. The main character was trained in magic for years. He is portrayed as extremely intelligent and even then has to work hard to master magic at a university.

I believe that most authors end up with these kinds of stories because of lack of planning. They create a magic rich world and throw a farm boy hero against it. Eventually they write themselves into a corner and find that said farm boy really needs a power up to keep up with the rest of the magic user characters and confront the villain. So they start to apply quick fixes to the plot. The second book of the Inheritance Cycle had a very long training montage, and a literal level up. All so the main character could keep up with the newly revealed villains (and their magic). The Wheel of Time series also has examples for all of the above. The hero gets ancestral memories telling him how to use magic all of a sudden. The obligatory school montage turns village girls into capable magic users in a very short time. And the entire magic system is turned on it’s head halfway through the series. You can barely recognize the series at the end.

Most of these can be avoided by careful plot planning and detailed worldbuilding. It might even result in a better story.

It isn’t easy to write magic into a fantasy story. But as it’s what puts the fantasy in the fantasy novel, it should be something an author thinks carefully about.

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Worldbuilding: Mythology, Beliefs and Religion in a Fantasy World

This is a part of worldbuilding that is glossed over by a lot of fantasy writers.

I think that this is as important as the history and languages of your world. Overlooking this takes away from the realism of your world. It makes your characters one sided. I’m not saying that you need to obsess over religion for your fantasy world, but you do need to give it it’s due.

Why do I say this?

First of all, most fantasy worlds are set in a medieval period. The society is primitive. People in such societies are superstitious. Things like religion and gods loom large in their lives. The authors of most fantasy books however are all born in the 20th century. Their readers are also born in the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus the readers world view is modern. Naturally they identify more easier with people who they have things in common with. Thus authors both voluntarily and involuntarily make their worlds and characters confirm to the modern world view. It’s incongruous to see a character from a small farming village looking at the wider world and judging it with a 21st century world view. Even more so when the author validates them.

Even the world we in today, in 2016, there are people who believe in and shape their lives by superstitious belief and archaic tradition. Arranged marriages are common even today in some countries. And most of them consider horoscopes, caste, ethnic and religious factors. Caste and class systems are still practiced in some places. This was even more prominent in ancient times. Religion dominated peoples lives. Tradition bound them. And they didn’t really have an issue with it. It was the life they knew. Some fantasy authors might say that their world was home to an ancient advanced civilization that introduced modern views into their world and they were handed down and remained even after the fall of the ancient civilization, but they underestimate how quickly people can forget and move on. The philosophy of a thousand year old empire would not survive in a feudal world. Ancient Greek teachings were well and truly lost till the renaissance, and even then they only found purchase among a small group of people. And remember that they faced opposition and accusation from society for their views. Galileo Galilee was almost set on fire for saying that the world was round. This is the kind of reception the hero can expect when they question the traditions and gods of a fantasy people.

What would the beliefs of a fantasy world inhabitant be?

The Afterlife: Every people in our world has a story of what happens after they die. This is a very important question and occupied a huge chunk of a persons world view (This hasn’t changed). Unless your fantasy world is populated by immortals or the afterlife is easily accessible, this is a question you should answer for your world.

The Religion and it’s prominence: I’ve said it earlier, religion loomed large in the minds of ancient peoples. People went on crusades for religion. People made life changing decisions on the advice of a priest. And by life changing I mean farmers married off their children and kings withdrew from battle on the word of a priest. Any fantasy world with a religion in it would have at least some of this. Remember, for the reader the religion of the fantasy world is fiction, but for the characters it’s very real.

They would have more than one religion: The amount of fantasy worlds that are divided into one race – one religion blocks are far too numerous. This happening is highly unlikely. Just look at the religious demographic of any one nation in our world. Look at the amount of religions in our world that have fallen out of practice. No one worships the Roman Gods anymore. The religious landscape of the world is as complex as the political landscape. Much like nations, religions rise, religions fall, religions conquer and religions are divided.

A world would have more than a single set of beliefs: In a low tech world, traveling from one place to another was a daunting prospect. Geography divided people a lot more than they do today. And with division came their own unique identity and beliefs. There are numerous creation myths and afterlife theories around in Europe alone. This is another thing fantasy worlds are terrible at. A world where every single nation and people believe in the same prophecy cycle and every single myth and legend converges around the same prophesied champion is very hard to swallow. A fantasy world with a long history would have a more detailed system of beliefs. And they might come up in the story. For example as the hero and co. go on their inevitable journey, they might be exposed to numerous beliefs in the towns and villages they pass through. Or they might have to work around local superstition as they work with a new acquaintance.

The gods might be real: This being the fantasy world. The gods (and other supernaturals) might just be very real and active in your world. Someone might have actually sent a message back from the afterlife and given their living relatives a preview. In that case you need to work that into your world carefully. Does everyone believe in the afterlife? Have disgruntled people invented fake gods to worship because they have lost faith with the real ones?

This is not a comprehensive list. But these are things I feel authors should pay attention to in order to write better, more realistic fantasy.

The Fantasy Novel Writing Formula

People love fantasy fiction. So naturally fantasy writers have risen to the challenge and have started to crank out fantasy fiction by the cartload. They also seem to be using tried and true elements that have been shown to be popular in past books, this would both guarantee a sell and cut down on writing time. It has gotten to the point that we are (half) jokingly talking about a formula for fantasy novels. All a writer has to do is follow said formula and bam! , fantasy book.

This is my attempt at unlocking this mysterious fantasy novel writing formula.

formula

  • H – The hero.
  • V – The villain (preferably an immortal/invincible monstrosity)
  • m – The minions (You don’t expect the villain to actually fight do you? No, you have to keep the suspense and only show glimpses of the villain till the last moment)
  • W – Wizard (Exists to give history lessons and coax the hero out of his village)
  • Li – Love interest (Preferably elven or royal)
  • C – Companions (Always choose more than one)
  • A – Artifact (How else is a farm boy going to defeat a thousand year old immortal/ invincible villain?)
  • B – Battle (You need one of these. Use medieval style armies so you only have to write about two battle lines charging at each other and fighting until one routs)
  • Q – Quest (Otherwise known as the plot)

How did this come about?

First off you have the hero fighting the villain.

H – V

But since this villain is an immortal/invincible monstrosity, the hero will inevitability loose. So lets even the odds with the artifact.

HA – V

Better, but the villain still has a card to play. The minions. And there are a lot of them.

HA – (V + m*10^26)

Now the hero is well and truly outnumbered. Lets balance his side of the equation with some companions.

(HA + 4C) – (V + m*10^26)

But the hero is also handicapped by the love interest. Yup, he takes time out from saving the world for relationship drama.

(HA/Li + 4C) – (V + m*10^26)

Of course the hero and co. have to be motivated/coaxed to fight the villain by the wizard.

W(HA/Li + 4C) – (V + m*10^26)

And fantasy novels should always end with a battle. This serves the dual purpose of making the story epic and cutting down the number of characters you have to show in the epilogue. (As you can see below, the survivors numbers depend entirely on the size of the battle, so make it EPIC)

[W(HA/Li + 4C) – (V + m*10^26)]^1/b

And of course you need to divide this into three parts and make it a trilogy.

{[W(HA/Li + 4C) – (V + m*10^26)]^1/b}/3

When you put everything together you get this,

formula

There you have it. You too can write an epic fantasy by following this simple formula.