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Story Worlds

Blog Chain Question: How do you as an author choose or create your story-world and give that setting authenticity?

Honestly, I took one look at this and thought Uh-OhKate Karyus Quinn, who is the blogger before me, had the same reaction I did, but that's okay, because some questions are going to be harder for some people.  And we can learn things from that, too.

Fortunately for my dilemma, since I'm up now, HL Dyer, who started this chain, and Michelle McLean, who followed her, had really interesting answers that got the little cogs in my brain moving.  I'm looking forward to Sandra's answer (she's the blogger after me this time), and all the posts of all my other blog chain buddies (see list to your left)!  Definitely be sure not to miss Mary Lindsey's -- she talks about the importance of authenticity with examples that will make your mouth drop open!

What makes my answer different from everyone's so far is that I write science fiction and fantasy. So rather than examining the past for factual details, I have to make up alternate worlds. And the most important thing I do when I build a world for my stories is figure out the "rules," or perhaps more accurately, the laws.

By laws, I mean the factual kind that recur in nature. You can jump upwards as many times as you want to, but as long as you’re dealing with a g of gravity, you will always come back down. You can do your darndest to stop the ocean tides, but as long as the earth keeps spinning and the moon keeps pulling, there will be tides.

The same thing has to happen with magic. There must be laws to any magical universe, and to create them, a writer must ask herself things like
  • Who can use magic and who can’t? Only people who are trained? Only people who have certain genes? Only people of a certain gender or race or culture? Why only those people? Must the power be awakened, or is it there from birth?
  • What is magic? Where does it come from? Is it a force of nature, neither good nor evil, or is it a spiritual or eschatological kind of power only angels or demons can grant?
  • How is magic used? Must the user cast spells, or is magic more of a generalized energy? Must he rely on herbs, or blood, or eye of newt, or are spell components obsolete in your world? Are sigils, runes, or incantations used?
  • What price must be paid? If you fight gravity by jumping, eventually you’re going to wear yourself out. That’s the price. So what happens when one uses magic? And are the consequences the same for any kind of magic, or do they vary with the kind of spell?
  • What are the limits on magic? If your character can do anything and everything, there’s no tension in the story, so what can’t she do with magic?
  • Are there different types of magicians with specialized powers -- like necromancers and alchemists and prophets -- or are they all the same?
The answers can’t be random, either. They have to make sense, just like the laws of our universe do. And you can’t be whimsically changing them because your character suddenly needs to be able to do this or that kind of magic.

I do the same kind of thing with science fiction. There have to be set laws and limits on what technology can do. Technology has bugs, and it always fails you at the worst possible time.

I have done a lot of research on different kinds of technology over the years. I understand a variety of different theories on wormholes, time travel, and multiverses. I’ve researched EMPs (electromagnetic pulses), Coriolis forces, and how rail guns and particle beam cannons might function. I have files on my computer explaining the difference between fission and fusion bombs, the radius of damage done by different kiloton blasts, and the effects of fallout. (And of course these types of things tend to pop out of my mouth from time to time, causing people to look strangely at me.)

One of the hardest things for me is not using the same rules in every magical universe or scifi universe. When you have a logical, well-defined set of rules that you abide by carefully, it can be hard to think beyond them for another story. I think this is part of the reason some authors set different stories in the same universe. It’s easier to work with rules you’ve already established than start over from scratch.

Readers! I’m interested in your thoughts on story-world building. Don’t forget to post your own comment before you go!


  1. Michelle McLean said...
    Oooo, excellent post! And let me just say how impressed I am that you managed to post this while dealing with power issues from Ike. Now that is dedication! ;-)

    I had an idea for a sci fi book the other night, so your post was very interesting to me. I have never dealt with a world other than the one we live it (although my books are set in the past) and I had always kind of assumed that fantasy and sci fi would be easier, because you could make up whatever kind of world you wanted. But you are very right, there has to be rules and laws - and as they are created for each world you are writing about, it could probably get confusing at times :)

    Very interesting, loved it!! :)
    Kate Karyus Quinn said...
    This post was not an "uh-oh" at all - it was brilliant!

    I am amazed by your knowledge of things that I have not even heard of: "Coriolis forces, and how rail guns and particle beam cannons might function" - to name a few.
    H. L. Dyer said...
    I have no idea why you said "Uh oh". This was an awesome post!

    Just the sort of insight I was hoping to see from our Spec Fiction crew!
    TerriRainer said...
    I bet you could tell me which Star Trek series was your favorite too!

    I must add that I am also very impressed with your technical knowledge. I bet you did get a few funny looks from time to time if that is spouting from your mouth.

    Reminds me of a sci-fi con I was at this summer, and a man raised his hand to ask the speaker, a sci-fi writer, a question. He asked about whether she thought time displacement was possible.

    The answer was a non-commital one, something about writing a paper on the theory for German magazine, and he flipped!

    "Time displacement has been proven!" he practically yelled back at this woman, and then went into a five minute lecture about the "experiment".

    I bet you could chime in on THAT subject too!

    Good post!
    :) Terri
    Abi said...
    But I'm not a terrorist, really! I'm a science fiction writer!!!

    Great post Archy. Interesting, informative, awesome and amazing.

    Great job

    Anonymous said...
    Yay! Great post Archetype. I'm so glad you came before me in this whole chain. I knew you'd have something awesome to say that would get me to realize that yes, I do create a world in which my story takes place. I love the questions you have about magic. Every one of them needs to be answered in order to create a believable world. Awesome job!

    PS. Hope your power is back on soon! :)
    Anonymous said...
    Could you be more on top of things? I think not.

    What a fabulous post. "Uh oh," my eye! Rules of magic, sheesh!

    Show off! *wink*
    Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...
    Rules are important for helping readers understand the world. Thanks for reminding us of this!
    Anonymous said...
    It's been fascinating to read everyone's different takes on this subject with all of the different genres! I loved your rules on magic and how they relate to world building.
    Anonymous said...
    I'm right there with you on the world creation thing. I write sci-fi and fantasy too, and I have to establish the rules. In my current WIP, I was able to cheat some because it's an urban fantasy - I had the general setting, but I had to figure out how my paranorms interacted with today's world. It was tough at times, because a rule that worked in one scene didn't necessarily work the way I thought it would in another, so I had to make sure I was consistent throughout.

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