Tag Archives: magic

Changing the Elements: A New Approach to Old Stories


This weekend I visited Arundel Castle for the first time. I’m going to start with: it’s awesome. Norman keep at the centre, expanding out by periods until you get to the 16th century tilting yard and banqueting hall. You should totally go if you ever get the chance. But it was the grounds that made me stop and think. In one of the gardens I came across this fountain:

Cool physics aside, it made me think of the Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone. The symbol of kingship suspended in one of the basic elements until the true claimant takes it. Now, stone/earth suggests a strong, reliable king. Someone who could unite warring factions and reign in a steady, constant manner. This is basically what Arthur did. He set up a form of government, stopped the civil wars, pacified the country and established a system of law. He ruled for decades as a solid leader.

But what if you change the starting element? Does that change the symbolism enough to impact the story? It’s a fun idea to play with. What if the element were water? You’d get a mutable king, who changed course to negotiate difficulties rather than powering through them. Someone who erodes opposition, not crushes it. A politician, perhaps. Fire gives you a passionate, war-like king; air gives you someone subtle, nearly invisible but essential. Maybe a character like Vetinari from Pratchett’s Discworld books. If you change the nature of the man then the story has to change around him. Re-imagine the legends of Arthur as a fiery king – it makes quite a difference.

How much do we (sub)consciously use this kind of symbolism in our stories? People are very good at thinking in symbols and they are a handy way to convey a lot more information than just the surface words. I’ve talked about this before a bit, but with colour. Using widely recognised symbols as a theme or foundation is less risky because the collective understanding of what that symbol means is usually a lot more coherent. You can do a lot with symbols. If you deliberately subvert or change them – the earth king becoming the air king, as above – then you can do even more. There’s a Penguin Dictionary of Symbols which, as a source of inspiration, is pretty awesome in and of itself. When something becomes a symbol its origins are usually forgotten. Going back to them can reveal some nice little bits of history and tons of ideas.

Anyway, just some food for thought. 🙂

Man Was Not Meant To Know: Destruction & Unnatural Power


I came across this recently:

By all means watch the whole thing, but it’s the point that starts at 2:50 that really caught my attention. The part where he talks about how male characters may cause destruction, but female characters will cause destruction. The more common statement is that male characters fight or destroy and female characters create or nurture, so this made me wonder. The video suggests that he’s backing his claim up with two examples – Eve and Pandora. There are a number of others in Classical literature (Medea, Medusa, Salome, et al) and many in modern. But there are just as many who don’t comply with this so-called ‘inevitable destruction’ pattern.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting characteristic trait – the idea that unnatural power, or at least power which is gained or wielded unnaturally, will inevitably go wrong. We have it over and over in our stories, usually as a warning. Don’t do deals with the Devil, don’t mess about with gamma rays, don’t chant ‘Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagnand never succumb to the temptation to raise the dead. Frequently science (or magic – same difference) is the bad guy, which is odd when you think about our real-life trust in scientific progress. But even this is inconsistent, as Science Gone Wrong is where we get many of our superheroes from and there’s no end of good magical practitioners. So what’s really going on here?

1) Beware the Other

So many stories are driven by fear of the Other – the culture or race or individual who doesn’t fit into the ‘norm’ and is therefore vilified as dangerous. In a patriarchal society, women can be counted as other; in a human society, aliens definitely do. This is an oft-repeated lesson, designed to unite local societies so they work better together. A good (easy) way of delineating between normal and other is powers/technology. Anyone from normal society who utilises other powers could therefore be considered a traitor. Obviously it goes wrong.

2) Ignorance is bad, m’kay?

Know your limits, or at least something about what you’re getting into. This fits a bit better with the real-life pro-science stance. The bad guy is the one who doesn’t fully do his research before trying to manipulate ultimate cosmic power. These stories teach caution and thoroughness, both of which are good survival traits. At this point the power is not inherently destructive – the problem is in the ignorance of the wielder.

3) Ignorance is… good?plant6s

There are things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Forbidden knowledge is very common: the apple tree in Eden, the maenad celebrations of the Bacchanalia, the traits of the Dark Side. Interestingly, sometimes this suggests that there’s power that women are supposed to wield (which goes against the whole ‘women with power are unnatural’ thing in the video above) and it only becomes dangerous if men surrender their ignorance. I’m reaching for the lesson in this one, but the best I can come up with is ‘mind your own business and stay out of other people’s space’.

Now, the raptor has made the point that ‘the golden period of science as a force for relentless good probably peaked in the 60’s. It has been reversed since then. Think public responses to nuclear power, GM crops and vaccinations – there isn’t the same blanket support there once was.’ Progress for the sake of progress is certainly no longer okay, and has led to stories like I, Robot and the Resident Evil franchise. We have become more wary as a society, both of destruction and its potential causes. Possibly because our way of life is more dependent on easily disrupted technology and we’re therefore more fearful of having to manage without? Just speculating here. But it does make me wonder whether our confidence in society’s robustness directly impacts our attitude to power.

That was all slightly rambly, due to me working out most of my opinions on the page as I wrote them. What do you guys think about all this?

Times Are Tidy – The Modern Role of Fantasy


Passe Fantasy

At the World Fantasy Convention last October there was a panel discussion on whether there were any new ideas still coming out of genre writing. I didn’t even go to that session – the idea that writers are all out of ideas was actually offensive to me. Even if Mark Twain is right and there are no completely new ideas, the skill of the writer is to present old ones in fresh clothes in such a way that the audience is still entranced.

But genres – and readers – evolve. The ground-breaking stuff of original fantasy is now, by its very nature, clichéd. Goblin raiders and elven archers became the norm. Quests to find/destroy the holy or magical artefact became so common they might as well have written a Tourist Guide to Questing – in fact, Dianna Wynne Jones pretty much did. Readers were entirely on board with the idea of good vs evil, and wanted more social commentary. And this, I think, is the key to the evolution of fantasy.

Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.   ~ G.K. Chesterton

People will always need escapism, and fantasy/sci-fi is a pretty exemplary form of it. But running away doesn’t solve your problems. If your escapism lets you come back with answers, it instantly becomes more valuable. Fantasy is an excellent way to explore social issues in a safe environment that is sufficiently abstracted from reality that you can do so without upsetting people or (hopefully) letting them be blinded by their prejudices. This isn’t a new idea but it’s an important one. I actually think it’s a major factor behind the rise in urban fantasy over the last couple of years – things like Mortal Instruments, the Dresden Files, the Matthew Swift series, Rivers of London, etc. They all bring the world of fantasy to meet our world, and explore problems in a safe but more relatable environment.

There’s nothing wrong with goblin barbarians and elven archers. They were the tools of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. But they need to change as the reader has changed, and reflect what the audience needs. An elven archer suffering from RSI and is living on benefits; a goblin barbarian who has to deal with racism. Extreme examples, maybe, but you get the gist. The timeless stories are timeless because of the people, and the issues those people are facing. Not because of dragons.

I want to end with the poem that largely inspired this post. We live in an age where there are no dragons or magic rings. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need heroes – we have our own problems, and they are many. Genre literature is an excellent way of remembering, and providing the tools to deal with, that.


The Times Are Tidy – Sylvia Plath

Unlucky the hero born
In this province of the stuck record
Where the most watchful cooks go jobless
And the mayor’s rôtisserie turns
Round of its own accord.

There’s no career in the venture
Of riding against the lizard,
Himself withered these latter-days
To leaf-size from lack of action:
History’s beaten the hazard.

The last crone got burnt up
More than eight decades back
With the love-hot herb, the talking cat,
But the children are better for it,
The cow milks cream an inch thick.

The Best Of All Possible Worlds


So you’ve come up with a cool plot, you’ve created some characters that readers will really empathise with, and now you’re ready to put it all together in a location of your imagination. Edgar Rice Burroughs had his Barsoom, J.R.R. Tolkien had his Middle-Earth, H.P. Lovecraft had his Innsmouth and J.K. Rowling had her Hogwarts. So just how do you go about creating a believable milieu with its own history, culture and politics? A panel of world-builders will tell you how it’s done…
PANELLISTS: Hal Duncan, Robin Hobb, Ellen Kushner, Patrick Rothfuss, Adrian TchaikovskyWorld Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013

This was probably my favourite panel, partly because it’s one of my favourite elements of writing. But world-building covers a huge number of aspects, including geography, politics, magic, religion, cultures, economy, history, myth, music, architecture, biology, etc etc etc. So where do you start?

Well, Tolkien started with language because he was an enthusiastic linguist. As the panel said, adding languages without some working knowledge of the mechanics of linguistics can be very risky. In fact, getting deep into specifics of any aspect of world-building can be risky as somewhere amongst your reader base there’s probably an expert who can be relied upon to write to you explaining how you got it wrong. There isn’t time to learn enough about everything to do it perfectly so the advice is to focus on what you are a geek about yourself. Patrick Rothfuss starts with coinage, for example, and Robin Hobb starts with biology. A lot of that initial background work never makes it into the book but that’s fine – it’s about getting the setting right and then letting the story unfold. The old old story of Resist the Urge to Explain. The final word on this, though, was not to get too hung up on accuracy – the important thing is that it’s interesting.

There was a debate about starting with setting vs starting with characters. The first approach is to build the world and let the plot and characters evolve organically from the structures and restrictions that present themselves. The second is to start with the characters, which determines things such as family unit, status and class system, trade (which leads into economy), faith and religion, and so on. The world forms around the character, rather than the character being produced by the world. The panel didn’t go into the question of how the two approaches differ in their end result, which I think is quite an interesting one and might come back to on my own account later.

Rothfuss was careful to stress that most world-building the readers see is an illusion. There tends to be a spectrum of world builder types, from set designers (the world looks solid where you can see it but there’s no depth) to model train set builders (rabbit-hole levels of detail). Writers can create an impression of a full and detailed world without actually knowing that much. World building is a partnership. The writer provides an example of living in the place via their characters, and the reader supplies the depth for themselves. It’s the magic of storytelling, using hints and the occasional detail to trigger the reader’s building of whole cloth.

Providing details must be done with an eye to the plot, however. They are generally viewed as signposts directing the reader’s attention to what’s important. Don’t raise red herring expectations – the usual Chekhov’s Gun principle. Also, be careful not to over-explain what the narrator character would find ordinary – the character would only notice something that they consider to be unusual, and that acceptance/notice balance tells the reader a huge amount about both the character and the culture without the writer having to go into tedious explanations. This is called perceptual sculpting, and getting it wrong creates huge cognitive dissonance for readers.

Creating fantasy cultures is more complex than geography, because the writer brings their own innate assumptions with them and some of those are pretty awful. The examples given were sexism, ownership of land, jingoism, sexual taboo, curse words (which often demonstrate sexism and sexual taboo), and racism/religious superiority. Fantasy cultures tell you a lot about the culture of the writer, usually without meaning to, and it takes a lot of introspection to get away from that. The writer must take their own world-view apart and examine it carefully. They also have to do the same with history – fantasy cultures are not bound by historical accuracy, or what the writer thinks is historical accuracy. What trips you up in world-building is not what you don’t know, but what you don’t know you don’t know. I’ve touched on this before but it’s a pervasive problem.

Magic systems are of course a major part of world-building in the fantasy genre. The panel divided magic systems into two kinds – ‘scientific’ and ‘poetic’. Any sufficiently reliable magic is technology, or science. If you want magic to remain magical, it’s either a rare talent, requires great skill or isn’t reliable. The two approaches will give completely different feels to both the world and the reader’s perception of it. Compare Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Apt magic (something everyone possess when they come of age, which differs only by race) to Robin Hobb’s Skill (rare and requires lots of training). Hobb also said that there should be something in every chapter which reminds the reader this is a fantasy, not our world. Keep immersing them deeper and deeper.

My other instrument is a broadsword

My other instrument is a broadsword

Finally, the panel looked at words. As Hal Duncan said, words can destroy the dream – ‘Mozart the Barbarian’ tends to break the suspension of disbelief. Idioms, proverbs and expletives have to be specific to and reflect the values of your world. Words and phrases that have their basis in modern culture, sports or religion must be cleared out. You can use some words to invoke an idea from our world that adds depth to the fantasy culture (in my case, I use ‘citizen’ to invoke the feel of Revolutionary French culture and politics) but you can’t do it in a way that bursts the bubble of world creation.

The one point that the panel didn’t mention which I have found to be hugely helpful in world building is to get people to play in it. Roleplay is a fantastic tool and other people’s brains are great resources for generating history, myth and a myriad of details. Better yet, because they’re coming from multiple brains, they will naturally have a much more diverse feel than if the writer is the only one thinking stuff up. The religion for my last set of books was almost entirely generated by a group of friends roleplaying with my initial setting and coming up with an incredible story of church schisms and martyrdom. At a guess, Scott Lynch has done something similar – the glimpses of history in his Gentlemen Bastards series have echoes of old roleplay campaigns providing world-building details. As Rothfuss said, world-building is a partnership, and there’s a lot to be said for starting that dialogue before you even put pen to paper.

I saved the best for last – that’s my final write-up from the Brighton World Fantasy Convention. I hope the posts captured at least some of the interest I had in listening to the originals. If you want to read more, there’s videos of some of them at the bottom of this post  by Lynda E. Rucker, as well as links to still more write-ups. For those who are States-based (or crazy-keen), the 2014 World Fantasy Convention has been announced for November 6-9 in Washington D.C. If, whilst you’re there, you could put a good word in with the organisers to bring it back to Blighty some time soon, that’d be greatly appreciated.

PS: Geek points to the first person who can name the author of the title quote, and provide the full quote.

Humans Aren’t Beige


 I came across this on tumblr the other day, and it got me thinking. In genre writing, humans so often draw the very short straw. It’s inevitable really – familiarity is boring so the exotic races get all the fun stuff. We all know what humans can do and none of it seems like a superpower. This is also a serious challenge in most RPGs, where humans frequently get marginally better stats across the board rather than a specialisation, in a weak attempt to create racially balanced packages.

But it’s really just a question of perspective, as that tumblr post shows. Our bodies are incredible things, as are our minds. Fragile elves must see humans as incredibly durable and strong; dumb orcs must consider them geniuses (I’m generalising massively here, as I’ve already covered racial stereotypes earlier). The trick is to look at it through a different set of eyes.

Ever since the raptor and I went on the London walk about madness, I’ve been playing idly with this idea. What if you tell the story from the other side’s perspective? There are these incredibly violent creatures that can punch through the veil, bringing with them science and technology which simple magic can’t possibly understand. You can take it either way, really – either the Conquistadors bringing disease and death to South America, or something a bit more upbeat where there’s wonder and education and help offered from both sides for dealing with whatever the plot problems are. Either way, you get to look at humans as something special, and fairies/demons/whatever as the boring norm.

There’s a challenge associated, of course. You need to explain the alien stuff to your unfamiliar audience without losing its sense of ordinariness. That’s a bit of a challenge, particularly if you have slightly complex world-building/magic to cover, but I think in the end it really comes down to the light in which the information is presented. If your narrator is dismissive of – or at least utterly comfortable with – magic, but fascinated by the (possibly exaggerated?) details of humanity, that ought to get the point across. I don’t really know yet because I haven’t played with it properly, but I do feel that we humans deserve a chance to be amazing.

Is there anyone who has already done this? Any recommendations for authors or books?