Tag: worldbuilding

The Role of Magic in a Fantasy Novel


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.


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 Importance of Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers

Being the avid reader of fantasy that I am, this is a topic that is dear to my heart. So…How important is worldbuilding to a fantasy world? I’d say it’s pretty much invaluable. In fact how good your story will turn out can be measured by how well your world is built.

The better your world is fleshed out, the more you know about it’s history, locations and inhabitants, the easier it would be to bring them all together in a story and have it all flow seamlessly. All the work you put into worldbuilding pays off later on. At the very least, it will stop you from getting stuck halfway through the story as you make up place names.

J R R Tolkien, who inspired most of modern fantasy, spent decades building his world. He wasn’t racing against a dead line, he wasn’t in a hurry to finish his novel. In fact his stories came about as a result of his worldbuilding, his world wasn’t born as a result of his stories. Not just him, most of the writers of our beloved fantasy series put a lot of effort into world building. George R R Martin who is so popular these days has built an incredible world that has so much detail. The sheer number of characters and locations he takes the reader through shows us just how well designed his world is. The short term history of his world and the personal histories of his characters are something he excels in. And he even manages to do it without encouraging his readers to try and pull their hair out as they attempt to keep track of them (Unlike the characters of Wheel of Time). Speaking of Wheel of Time, even Robert Jordan made an amazing world, the only thing he can be blamed for is introducing an army of minor characters who do nothing significant to the story and the kinds of names he gave them.

If you want an example as to how not to build a world, look no further than Terry Goodkind and his Sword of Truth series. That world is just barely fleshed out. It has a single map that gives a board overview of the world and mentions a few place names, but that is all. And worse, Goodkind likes to fill the huge blank spaces of his map with entire countries, tribes and peoples who just suddenly materialize, usually halfway through a book. Please don’t do this.

In board strokes, worldbuilding for fantasy novel purposes can be divided into four areas.

The geography, aka the map


This is one aspect of world-building everyone has got right. Almost every fantasy book as a map, and most of these maps are well detailed and well drawn (Except for Terry Goodkinds). Even the most terrible fantasy novel has a good map (Even the Four Lands of Shannara have a good map). Granted most fantasy worlds have the obligatory mountain range or desert cutting off the ‘known lands’ aka the amount of world the writer has built from the rest of the land. And most of them are surprisingly small, roughly the size of continental America. Also there are far too many one continent worlds. But hey, it’s your world, you build it how you want.

The point though, is that a well drawn map is essential for world-building.

The names, aka the language

This is the part of worldbuilding that most writers are really really bad at.

This is also the area Tolkien excelled at. In fact Tolkien started out by building the languages for his world. Once he had them he made the races to speak them. Then came the places for them to live. This kind of world-building is bottom up and hard to do. One other world where this was done is the world of Tékumel built by M. A. R. Barker. It doesn’t have the accompanying books but it is a fantastically built world that has entire constructed languages. Once you have a constructed language (yes, thats the name) place names and character names are much easier.

Granted most writers of fantasy are not linguists. Nor do they want to go into this level of detail. But while they might not want to spend time making up an entire language, they can at least refrain from making their place and character names utterly ridiculous. Stopping the abuse of the poor apostrophe sign is a good start (Rand al’thor was ok, Tel’aran’rhiod and el’Nynaeve ti al’Meara Mandragoran was not). Also please stop naming places in your world “The forest of doom”, “The mountain of death” etc. While you might be able to pass them off as local place names or nick names (There is a Devils Rock in the real world) a major feature of the geography everyone knows and is a household name and is on official maps? Please no. Another thing to remember when naming things is to be consistent. If you are naming people and places in a single kingdom, make them sound consistent. Don’t just make up funny sounds and paste them on your map. You can always use a real world language as a guide line, or better yet, you can use an ancient language from the real world as a guideline.

It should also be noted that writers today have resources that Tolkien never had. Computer power and the vast resources of the Internet being the two most important. There is a whole host of articles, research and software about languages. Quite a few of them geared specifically towards building fantasy worlds. So you can make good use of them building your world.

The history, aka the background

This is an area writers do look at, but sadly it doesn’t get as much attention as the good old fantasy map. The histories of fantasy worlds seem to comprise entirely of great cataclysms that changed the shape of the world, dark lords who rose and were vanquished, great empires that ruled everything (and are remarkably similar to Ancient Rome) but are now a distant memory and not much else. This event usually marks the “End of an age” and everything beyond that point is conveniently lost. It seems to serve the same purpose as the “Impassable geographical feature” in the fantasy world map.

This is not the way to go. While breaking the history of the world into manageable chunks is a good thing, that world changing event should not be the sole thing in your time line. The second world war was terrifying, but the world moved on after it was over, and it really didn’t take much time for us to start new wars in Korea and Vietnam. Humans have a remarkable ability to recover from disasters, and forget about their lessons immediately afterwards. When the wise old wizard gives his history lesson to the hero he should at least mention the bare basics of the history since the “Great world changing event”. And for the love of fudge, make a calender.

George R R Martin did a great job with his time-line. He didn’t go for a two thousand year history, he just focused on the last three hundred years and went into detail with that. The other eight thousand years are mentioned in much boarder detail. Tolkien did the history of his world in excruciating detail. He built the calenders, he wrote the creation myth, he detailed the mythological age and he made a very detailed time-line for the second and third ages. And by detailed he named every king of Numenor, Gondor and Rohan, he gave dates for every major battle and invasion, he carefully built up the history of every nation. That is a lot of work. You have to admire this kind of dedication.

And again the more detailed and fleshed out your history is, the easier your story writing will be. For example, King Bob of the Hamburger Empire invades the French Fry kingdom? Why does he do this? Perhaps he has a claim to the throne because his grandfathers sister married into the royal family of French Fry kingdom a hundred years war style. This gives king bob a valid motive. A detailed history helps give your characters and kingdoms motivation and background. It also helps show how nations formed and how different peoples ended up living where they do. All of this makes your story flow seamlessly.

The religion and mythology

Religion is an area that most writers neglect woefully.

The majority of fantasy worlds have a single mythology that everyone accepts. The majority of fantasy world has a handful of gods that everyone worships. Or each race has a single god they worship.

Most every people and nations in our world has it’s separate mythology and creation myth. In the same way there has been numerous religions throughout our history. Some lost and all but forgotten, and some still followed. A fantasy world that shares many features with our world would be the same. Even in a world where the gods are real and give tangible signs of their existence there would be dissidents and alternate philosophies. People unhappy with the gods might make up an imaginary non-existent god to worship. The idea that a single mythology and pantheon dominates the world is hard to swallow.

Also remember that religion is a topic very dear to peoples hearts. People are still murdering each other over differences in religion. In the past religion has inspired crusades, jihads, conquistadors galore. For a lot of people it is the focal point of their lives. It was only in the recent 20th and 21st centuries that people have changed. Before that the need to avoid hell, demons and evil spirits shaped a large part of a persons life decisions. Kings would go to war or withdraw from battle on the words of a soothsayer. A man would decide the marriage of his children or inheritance on the word of a priest. And lets not forget, people were set on fire on the word of a priest. The life of many an ancient human was entirely dominated by religion.

If you are building a medieval or ancient fantasy world, please don’t have your characters take a modern view of religion. They should take demonic possession and rumors of witchcraft seriously instead of giving a 21st century reaction.

Religion is important, it’s what a character believes. It defines how he will react under most circumstances.

Many writers flat out ignore religion or gloss over it. This is hard to belive. Are people not the least curious? The basis of religion involves a belief in what would happen after death, life after death. Even people dwelling in a fantasy world should have considered this and built up a system of beliefs around it.

Tolkien once again doesn’t do things by half measure. His mythology is very very detailed and each race has it’s afterlife mapped out. He has the religion and belief of different people planned (The Harad worshiped Sauron as a god, the Gondor believe in the valar though they might not actually worship them). Even though he doesn’t come right out and say it, they are a part of his world. George R R Martin is another writer who did a great job with religion in his world. Priests and peoples religious belief plays a huge part in deciding the characters actions. Also the belief systems of his world are diverse and detailed, with a whole bevy of real and non-existent gods. The Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin is another series that portrayed superstitions and beliefs of a primitive society perfectly.

Then we have Robert Jordan and his Wheel of time series. Where an entire world that is stuck in a medieval society that has it’s belief system defined by a single prophecy and world changing cataclysm and which hasn’t changed at all in three thousand years. Robert, you put far too much faith in humanity. But that is better than the Four lands of Shannara, that has no mention of any belief system what so ever.

The end point of this is that religion is important, especially if you are making a low tech world. Don’t ignore it when you are writing.

There are many more parts to world-building, but there is no step by step method to build a world. Following the above points will keep you from building a terrible world. I keep harping about this topic because worldbuilding is important. I believe it is one of the three most important steps in writing fantasy, right alongside the characters and plot.