How to Build a Magical World

At Writers Digest, Steven Harper Piziks talks about how to write paranormal/fantasy novels. One big difference between fantasy and other kinds of fiction obviously boils down to the magical elements. Piziks says:

“The need to explain the magic [is] the biggest challenge, really. It’s so easy to use big expository lumps, but that bores the reader. “

I can definitely see this as one of the hardest parts of fantasy writing. You want to make sure your reader understands what makes this world/these characters magical, but you don’t want to bore them with an infodump. If your character is living in a magical world, wouldn’t he/she not really call attention to a lot of the magical elements? It would be like a character in a contemporary novel explaining in length what a television is or how a garage door opener works. (Although I bet Arthur Weasley would find that pretty fascinating.)

I think the introduction of these elements works best when they’re introduced gradually and naturally. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss doesn’t really talk about what led to the collapse of the US and the rise of Panem. She wouldn’t because she doesn’t need to think about it. But we find out what Panem is and how classes are structured because she has to worry about who’s in charge and where her family will get food. In The Golden Compass, we meet daemons long before we find out what exactly they are, and can slowly pick up on the subtle differences between the real Oxford and Lyra’s Oxford.

Being able to balance necessary information with compelling forward momentum is enormously difficult, and I salute any writer who can do that well. What are your suggestions for creating compelling magical worlds without all the exposition?

Which Tribute Are You?

My Hunger Games Tribute persona:

Name: Twill Goldenwood

Congratulations! You had the honor of being a District 12 tribute in the 69th Hunger Games!

You were killed by eating a poisoned apple.

Very Snow White! Get your Hunger Games name and history here.

Historical Revision

Gail Gauthier and Tanita Davis have fantastic posts about historical fiction and how it’s gotten a bad wrap in the last several years. In short, the label suggests a focus on “educational” aspects of reading, not the story. Gauthier tests this theory:

“So I decide I should take a look at a few middle grade historical novels. I tried maybe three before giving up. I couldn’t finish any of them. The historical fact aspects of the book were in my face and annoying. My professional reading from that period reinforced my impression–the most important factor in historical fiction for kids was historical accuracy.”

Problems like this can kill a story before a reader even gets invested. And it’s not necessarily that authors are sitting at their computers, writing with the idea that historical fiction must teach children all about history. It’s difficult to figure out what details to include to ground the characters in the appropriate setting but not overwhelm the reader with historical info. Davis says:

“As an author, I can say that one of the hardest things about writing historical fiction is the tightrope walk the author has to do — between historical accuracy and humanity. It’s important not to infodump dates and names, but it’s also crucial not to veer the characters – and the details of their daily lives – into obvious anachronisms by using more modern tools, language, and attitudes about social tolerance which make the historical accuracy a lie. “

Like Gauthier and Davis, I like historical fiction. Heck, I used to love the American Girl books, which probably veered more into infodump than not. But a story that’s set in another time period shouldn’t necessarily get shuffled off into the land of educational reading. Gauthier lists some good examples of novels set in the past but firmly grounded in story and character, including one of my favorites, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson. I’d also add Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. Did I learn historical facts from these books? Sure. But when I remember these books, I remember the stories, the characters, the excitement and drama–just like any other novel.

I hope historical fiction has a resurgence in one way or another. I think we’re probably missing out on some fantastic historical novels just because they’re considering unpopular.

Promises and Why We Needed Jack

Over at, Mary Kole has an excellent post about what a writer should promise in the beginning of a novel, and how he/she can deliver on that promise. So often writers start off with some background information and don’t get to the real story until several pages (or chapters) in. But the beginning should be just as much a part of the real story as the rest of the book, instead of just a dumping ground for information about a character’s “normal life.” Kole says:

“If you have to start in a normal setting, at least drop hints. If yours is a ghost story, make your character see eerie shadows that disappear when she looks them head-on. If there are going to be dragons, you better let us know that this is a world that has dragons in it (a news report about dragon shortages playing in the background would be a cliche, but I hope you understand what I mean). If your character will be going on a long journey, drop subtle hints and foreshadowing, like briefly describing walking shoes piled by the door. Whatever. Just think about your story — the core of it, the plot, the arc — and then make sure that the beginning either starts with it or strongly suggests it.”

A lot of times, I think this is a mistake we make in a first draft. You’re just getting to know the characters, so you want to ease into the major conflict. That’s fine, but you’ll need to go through major edits when you start revising. And if you include information early on, make sure they function as part of the larger story. It’s frustrating to spend fifty pages with your main character’s neighbor only to have him disappear and never return. Early on in a book (or movie or play), we want to latch onto characters or places. We need to be invested. If that character or place suddenly vanishes, it’s hard to trust the author.

My husband and I were talking about this the other day in relation to the TV show Lost. The first season in particular is excellent, but originally the writers had planned to introduce one of the main characters, only to kill him off at the end of that episode. It would have been a shock to the audience, but it might have also caused viewers to distrust the writers. At that point, I’m not sure I would have wanted to invest so much time and effort into characters we could lose so quickly. Obviously people died in Lost, but we had enough grounding to understand why those deaths mattered.

I would promise that I don’t watch so much TV, but I really do.

Beginnings require a lot of precision. You need to build a whole world and cast of characters, while still providing a reason for your readers to continue while not bogging them down with information. Again, I think a lot of this can get cleared up in revisions, if you’re willing to make major cuts.

What do you focus on when you start a new story? (image: Lostpedia)

Religion in Wrinkles

Austin Allen looks at how Madeleine L’Engle combines fantasy and religion in her potentially most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time:

“I think she’s being careful, ducking accusations of parochialism, and leaving everything up to the reader’s interpretation. But I also think the variety of her idols suggests a restless imagination, one that was more confined than inspired by doctrinaire Christianity. Her impulse toward sermonizing wrestles with her impulse toward a vision that is—like her extraterrestrials and shimmering presences—unclassifiable.”

This is one reason that I like L’Engle’s work in general. She acknowledges a greater purpose in the general and, even as she tends toward the Christian, suggests that whatever the universe is, it’s beyond our current power of comprehension. But that doesn’t mean we should strive to reach out toward it.

The Need to Read

Reading isn’t just a fun pastime or a way for high school teachers to torture their students. According to one study, t’s a neurologically transformative experience:

They found that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative”. The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a new mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways.

When you read, your brain is creating the world and people about which you’re reading. You develop new ways of thinking about the real world. With that, we can be more empathetic and creative people. Gail Rebuck sees this as a very necessary part of our past and future as humans:

If reading were to decline significantly, it would change the very nature of our species. If we, in the future, are no longer wired for solitary reflection and creative thought, we will be diminished. But as a reader and a publisher, I am optimistic. Technology throws up as many solutions as it does challenges: for every door it closes, another opens. So the ability, offered by devices like e-readers, smartphones and tablets, to carry an entire library in your hand is an amazing opportunity.”

This is another reason I think the e-reader isn’t the destruction of books. It gives people the opportunity to have more books more readily accessible. But a paperback or library copy will expand your brain just as well, too. All you have to do is pick up a novel or autobiography or travel book and get your brain working. It’s all part of our evolution.

Speaking of Monsters

Here’s a cool essay by Paul. A Trout about why humans create monsters. One reason is a cultural warning for people to stay away from real creatures (lions, tigers, bears, oh my) that thought people might be a tasty snack:

[T]he basic function of the monster was to give fear a face, to graphically capture the dread that is bred into us by millions of years as a prey species that was stalked and sometimes eaten by huge and terrifying carnivores.

So dragons aren’t just cool in stories; they could have served an evolutionary purpose. Another reason is that people may have seen fossils of ancient creatures and developed stories of monsters based on those giant bones. I saw the Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Museum of Science a few years ago, which featured this idea.

Anyone who has had a nightmare also knows that monsters could come from dreams, where the familiar is mashed together to create something terrifying:

Among the salient experiences our ancient ancestors remembered and stored in their unconscious must have been life-threatening encounters with predators. Which means that during altered states, images of predators would have undergone further shaping, twisting, recombination, or hybridization. The upshot is that proto-humans were able to conjure up hybrid images of animals well before cognitive fluidity and mythmaking emerged during the Middle Paleolithic.”

Wherever the idea of monsters came from, I think it’s awesome that almost all cultures and social groups have some kind of scary creature in their stories. And it’s fun for writers now to be able to play with these cultural touchstones and myths. (Even if it does mean a restless night’s sleep.)

Check out Trout’s book for more on the history and creation of monsters.

Making the Magic Happen

We probably all wish that we could cast spells and charms, but let’s face it: magic is hard. Even for writers. Although magical elements are really fun in novels, they can present an author a whole new set of rules. Over at Literary Rambles, Laura Lascarso talks about making magic real in writing. She uses Ella Enchanted, a personal favorite, to explore the development of a magical world. A couple of her suggestions:

Introduce magic early on. In the first chapter, there should be a hint of the supernatural. It’s not cool to get halfway through a book and discover that your main character is really a mummy without several big hints along the way. It works against a reader’s suspended disbelief. In EE, Ella is cursed by a fairy as an infant and it’s introduced in the very first paragraph. Straight away, the reader knows what kind of story this is going to be and can adjust their expectations accordingly.”

I think readers are a lot more willing to accept magical elements if they’re introduced early on. Otherwise, a reader might feel like the author has been disingenuous about the characters and their world. Plus, it’s more fun to see magical elements up front. Why hide them?

Lay out the rules for magic and then stick to them. In EE, Ella is cursed with obedience. The rule is, she has to follow a direct order. The book maintains that rule throughout the book—every time Ella is given a direct order, no matter how ridiculous or dangerous, she must follow it. If the rule were to change halfway through the story (without explanation), the reader would balk. Like in playing a game, you can’t change the rules in the middle.”

Wildly important. No matter what kind of world you create, your world needs rules–even magical ones. Trying to change these rules in the middle of your book will just confuse your reader and, again, make them distrust you. A reader can accept even the wildest concept as long as it’s cohesive.

Make sure to check out the full list. How do you keep your magical worlds in order?