There's a trick to worldbuilding in magical fiction, writes Raphaelle Race.
The use of magic as a plot point in stories works to the author’s greatest advantage when it is based on an already established religious or superstitious belief system.
Fantasy is a very interesting genre in that a realistic story based in the world we know will carry with it its own sense of conviction, but a story with fantastical elements has to work a lot harder for the reader to go along with the plot. A fantasy has to work twice as hard to achieve the same effect as a 'realistic' story. Readers and writers of realism could stand to check their privilege.
This idea of conviction means that when a story is set in Melbourne’s western suburbs in the late 90s, for instance, many of us have a good idea of what that setting entails: families of European immigrants, working class neighbourhoods, even getting as specific as gender roles, political values, teenage slang, and types of food. Thus simply starting a sentence with ‘It is 1995 in Melbourne’s western suburbs’ can evoke an entire world of context for the reader to feel comfortably located within as the story starts. While this idea of reality is still, essentially, an illusion – it is an illusion that people are used to.
When you create a new world, be it fantasy or science fiction or even a historical period that people are unfamiliar with, you have the difficult task of constructing something the evokes that comforting realness. To create a world that has little-to-no resemblance to our reality is a very hard task, because if your world doesn't hold together within an easily understood system, your reader will be at a loss, unable to grasp enough of the background to focus on the story itself.
Take Mary Wollstonecraft's Frankenstein, the classic cautionary tale of scientific hubris, in which a man creates a creature from discarded cadavars, and gives it life. It is read as fantastical now, but it was based on ideas proposed by the 16th century occult philosopher Cornelious Agrippa – Wollstonecraft based her fictional mad scientist's research on the mysterious rantings of Agrippa.
Agrippa’s work and other occultist writings were often premised on the idea that there is a link between science and magic, that through mathematical and chemical knowledge any work is entirely possible – even something thought of as belonging solely to God’s domain. This theory enjoyed great popularity in Wollstonecraft’s day (and still does – these theories form the basis of new age spiritualism; astrology, numerology, palm reading etc.).
Wollstonecraft’s use of this idea as the basis for Frankenstein’s creature, set within an otherwise unremarkable eighteenth century Europe, created a context that her readers were already familiar with – indeed which many already believed could actually be possible.
For a more fantastical story, we can look at Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, which began with the critically acclaimed novel Wizard of Earthsea. This book was set in an entirely new world: an archipelago, a series of islands in a vast ocean. As her protagonist, Ged, grows into his understanding of the world, he begins to understand its magical systems.
Le Guin based her magical system on the very common idea that the use of someone’s real name can be used for powerful magic. This superstition has roots in many cultures. I bet you know people that believe simply saying something may make it happen, or that talking about someone could make them appear nearby. By using this prevalent symbolic system, Le Guin enables the reader to focus on the alien landscape and the more abstract philosophies that underpin the story.
In a similar way, Patrick Rothfuss’s series that began with The Name of the Wind, the main character Kvothe uses ‘sympathy magic’. This magic is characterised by the idea that a piece of a thing can represent the whole of the thing. For example, a part of a human, like a tooth or hair, can be used to hurt the person it came from. The closer the symbolic bond between the two things, the stronger the spell will be. This superstition is most commonly known in the use of voodoo dolls, where an image of a person is combined with an item of their clothing or a part of their body in order to control or hurt them. Rothfuss’s series is a highly complex set of stories, and the use of an intuitively understood magical system helps him to prepare the reader for the more complex elements of the story.
Thus lots of people who are generally uninterested in fantasy will read Twilight or The Southern Vampire Mysteries (which spawned the popular True Blood HBO series), because they are already very familiar with the vampire myth – it seems to be only an extension of the realist illusion for them. This allows us to extract our own symbolisms from the story – we enjoy an episode of True Blood as an allegory for racism or gay rights, instead of just a freaky-deaky shape-shifter orgy.
Of course you don’t have to use any of these symbolic systems to make a good story, there are still a lot of popular fantasy books where magic is a result of something a lot more nebulous. In Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, fairy magic is an unquantifiable power that humans can barely comprehend. And in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, enchantments are made possible via the use of a magical wand. But in these stories, unlike recognisable symbolic systems such as those previously mentioned, a lot more work has to go into developing the idea of how the characters interact with magic – and especially why it doesn’t solve all their problems instantly.
Don’t overlook these established magical superstitions, symbols and religious dogmas – of which there is an absolute abundance in human history – they can carry the conviction needed to immerse your readers in the story while allowing them to focus on other elements of the tale.
Raphaelle Race is a professional writer and editor based in Melbourne. Her fun writing can be seen in Overland, Junkee, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings, Phantasmagoria and Feminartsy, among others. Like many others, she is writing a book.