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World Building Elements in My Stories: Refuge

the-order-masterI’m going to do a series of three posts on the world building elements in my own fiction series: Refuge, A Tale of Two Worlds, and The Star Mages. I’m doing this mainly because I’ve never done it before, and it’s a useful exercise.

Two of these are contemporary fantasy, Refuge is also science fiction, and A Tale of Two Worlds is alternate-world fantasy of a fairly non-standard variety. I think they present fairly decent examples of atypical world-building, since none of them follows a usual script for fantasy or science fiction. I’ll post these in reverse chronological order by year of publication (Refuge is the most recent, while The Star Mages is the oldest).

Refuge is contemporary fantasy, and so it’s set in our own modern-day world. The events of the stories are hidden from the general populace, so the fantasy and science fiction elements don’t result in an altered reality, except for the main characters. Those elements appear in the stories but not in the news. All of these elements are “added” to the world we live in to produce a fantasy/SF story.


Magic is the only fantasy element (so far) in Refuge. There are no gods, devils, or superbeings, the only quasi-humans are aliens rather than fantasy creatures, there are no powerful talismans, and there are no other worlds involved unless you count the home worlds of the Droon and the Andol, which no longer exist.

The magic in Refuge is that of real-world occultism, somewhat amplified. Magic users can sense other people’s emotional states and influence those states by telepathy. They can obtain information through psychic vision about distant events and future events, always somewhat cryptic and unreliable. They can see auras, and both the Droon and the Andol have distinct auras that identify them as non-human. They can influence the flows and currents of fate and shape random events in the world. They can link effects like these to talismans which are created through ritual. They employ meditation, visualization, breath control, symbolic ritual, and sex to create magical links, enter useful states of consciousness, and gather magical power.

The Droon and the Andol don’t have magic that human beings don’t, and aren’t inherently more magical than humans who practice the art (though compared to average human beings they are), but they do have knowledge and refinements that humans haven’t achieved, and are advanced in magic just as they are in science and technology. This allows them, and humans trained by them, to perform magic that real-world occultists normally can’t, but for the most part it isn’t too far out there.

One advanced magical power the aliens use is time control. By focusing conscious attention on their own time stream, they can speed themselves up and slow everything else down. This can have some pretty dramatic effects and is useful in combat. Humans with magical talent are quite capable of learning time control, so again this isn’t an inherent advantage of the aliens, just the fruit of superior knowledge.

Another important bit of magic used by the aliens is the Refuge spell, which I’ll describe below.

Some human beings, in fact, have magic beyond what the aliens can do. Claire Chang, the main character of The Ingathering, is one such prodigy.


Non-human intelligence from other planets is of course a staple science fiction element, and it’s present in Refuge. In a twist, though, the Droon and the Andol are incarnate in human bodies, so for most intents and purposes they are human. No one knows where their home worlds were located. They may not even be in this universe. Both worlds were destroyed in an interstellar war between the two species, and some members of each race employed the Refuge spell to reincarnate as a different species — which turned out to be human.

Although the Droon and Andol are fully human in biology, they retain the memories of their first life as an avian Andol or insectoid Droon, and have some personality characteristics derived from those memories. They also have distinctly non-human auras, which they and human magic users can see.

The Droon and the Andol retain knowledge of advanced technology, too, although they didn’t bring any tools with them and must use human technology as a base, which means that only recently have they become able to build some of the more advanced devices from their former societies, especially in the way of computers. At all times, the aliens have been just a few steps ahead of human technology, in practical terms, although they know of much more.

The Refuge Spell

The Refuge spell was first developed by the Droon Hive Mother in the distant past. It allowed her to reincarnate upon death with all of her memories intact. She worked this magic long before the events that destroyed the Droon and Andol home worlds, so she’s by far the oldest living intelligence in the stories, being some five thousand years old.

When the aliens destroyed each other’s home world, the Hive Mother led the Droon in crafting the Refuge spell for about ten thousand of their most magical elite, using the deaths of the rest of the Droon as a source of magical power. This allowed the Droon to reincarnate on Earth as human beings, and they have been doing so ever since.

The Andol currently incarnate on Earth as Amanda Johnson initiated a similar project among her people, using the Hive Mother as a template. This project was an emergency measure, though, and so not nearly as many of the Andol could be saved; there are a total of 418 of the avian aliens on Earth.

The aliens arrived on Earth in the 14th century in Europe. Thus, all of them except for the Hive Mother herself are roughly 700 years old.

The Conflict

The Droon and Andol represent two different paths of social evolution for an advanced species. The Andol are egalitarian. Their government was democratic, their economy a form of decentralized socialism, and genetic engineering allowed all Andol to be highly intelligent, well-adjusted, non-violent contributors to society. The Droon formed a fierce oligarchy in which a master caste held absolute power over the lower ranks. Although wealth was distributed quite broadly among the Droon compared to what obtains in modern human societies, power was not. The Droon master caste could command obedience from ordinary Droon even to the point of confining them in horror chambers and torturing them merely to exert their dominance and superiority. This was a popular form of entertainment among the insectoid Droon and remains popular among them in human form.

Both these paths were adopted by the aliens in order to survive the crisis that currently faces humanity: to end war and achieve a sustainable relationship with nature. The Andol did it collectively through advanced global enlightenment, while the Droon achieved success by imposing harsh, draconic control. Both methods were successful, both societies non-warlike and green, but otherwise the difference between them was stark.

Today, the aliens seek to transform the Earth into an advanced society similar to what they had on the home world. Both intend to use genetic engineering to modify the human genome, but currently lack the necessary genetic knowledge (techniques that worked on the Droon or Andol aren’t suitable for use on the radically different human genome).

The Human Response

True human beings are caught in the middle between the two alien species. Humans may choose to side with one or the other species, or they may oppose both and seek a destiny that is right for us, recognizing that the Earth is our planet — not that of an alien species, whether benign or malevolent.

While some human beings take this human-first attitude, there are others who side with the Andol for idealistic reasons or with the Droon for selfish ones.

Next week: world-building elements in A Tale of Two Worlds.

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World Building: Politics and Economics

10440602_sThere’s a particular literary sin — or it’s a sin to my own nitpicking mind — that bothers me in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I’m referring to presenting a political or economic reality that, given the technology in common use, cannot possibly exist. This is the reason I can’t watch the TV show “Firefly,” which presented a world culturally and politically and economically indistinguishable from ours in space with technology that would insist on something new. It’s a flaw in Asimov’s Foundation series: the very existence of a monarchical Galactic Empire is absurd. It’s what made me grit my teeth in frustration on reading the Wild Card shared world series, which depicted a high-tech feudal monarchy and a high-tech robber-baron capitalist society, neither of which can exist.

To make the world you’re building or reading real, it’s important to take the prevailing technology (and also the prevailing magic) into consideration when determining the culture’s politics and economics. You can’t slap an ideal democracy onto your Bronze-Age empire just because you like it better than a monarch and his satraps. The latter can actually govern a Bronze Age empire, while the former cannot (unless of course you have some magic that replaces the technological underpinnings necessary for widespread democracy).

Government is the making and implementing of collective decisions and the resolving of disputes in a community. How that is done — how it can be done — and what disputes can arise are functions of material circumstances, and more than anything else, material circumstances are functions of technology. Of all areas of technology, the most important for purposes of governance are those related to communication.

Collective decisions are made by (at least tacit) agreement. It requires communication. As long as people are in the same place, communication travels at the speed of sound — they stand or sit there and talk to each other. Get past the range of talking and listening, and communication happens as fast as a message can travel, and as well as it can be repeated and understood. This limits the ability of people to participate in the making of collective decisions when they are distant from the conversation.

Democracy is very old in origin. It’s the most natural form of government, but in a low-tech society it only works in a small community, where people can gather in the same place, hash things out, and vote. Athens had a democracy. Alexander’s empire, though steeped in Athenian values and culture, did not. Why not? Aside from Alexander’s ego, it would have been impossible for all of the residents of the eastern Mediterranean region from Persia to Egypt to Macedonia to get together in a town meeting, hash things out, and vote.

For this reason, although there were a few exceptions such as the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, the prevailing government form throughout the ancient world was monarchy: a strong head of a privileged class that made collective decisions for everyone, that most people went along with because they weren’t asked for all that much, they got protection from bandits and neighboring enemy kingdoms, and they didn’t want to get their heads cut off by the king’s men.

Today, it’s quite different. Today, the prevailing government form is representative democracy. Why? Because of the advance of technology, with the most important inventions being the printing press and representation itself. The printing press led to widespread literacy, which made people less inclined to go along with collective decisions in which they weren’t allowed to participate. Representation allowed people to participate in a democratic government by proxy, when they were still unable to do so directly.

We have new communication technology now that is once again changing the nature of governance: the internet, which permits instantaneous, widespread participation in the global debate. Because of this development, governance in a hundred years (assuming civilization survives) will have a lot more direct and participatory democracy elements cutting through and dominating the remaining representative mechanisms. We will see economic changes, too, deriving from advances in computers and robotics that make it possible to produce wealth without human labor.

The end result of all this is that it’s anachronistic to have in a story a modern representative democracy governing a low-tech, illiterate society, or a feudal monarchy governing a high-tech industrialized one, or anything fully recognizable from any era in history governing a future society with more advanced technology still. It’s lazy, thoughtless world-building and should provoke snorts of disbelief and head-shaking.

There are constraints on world building that come from the prevailing technology and magic. Magic can change the basic picture derived from technology, but it should always be possible to see how it does so. Anything doesn’t go. It can (and should) be imaginative, but it all has to make sense.

Image credit: berkut2011 / 123RF Stock Photo

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More Thoughts on Contemporary Fantasy

musingsContemporary fantasy is fantasy set in our own world — or at least, it starts in our world, the world of the current year or something close to it, with history that is the same as our own history. Barack Obama is President of the United States, Apple is trying to suppress Android phones through the patent process, unrest is happening in various parts of the Middle East, the Republicans in Congress shut down the government and ended up having to cave, and so on. Characters speak in current vernacular and wear today’s clothes. They drive cars, and they have computers, tablets, smart phones; they hold jobs in retail, sales, game design, accounting; they are soldiers, police, firefighters; they are, in short, modern people.

Contemporary fantasy starts with our own world and then adds fantasy elements: gods, devils, and superbeings; magic; quasi-humans; marvelous things. How much and what kind of these fantasy elements varies from story to story, but there’s another way to look at the variations in contemporary fantasy based on just how much disruption the fantasy elements cause in the world where we live, and whether it remains recognizable as the same world, or is changed in some way.

I tend to dislike going too far into subgenres for fantasy, and the more so into sub-sub-genres. Contemporary fantasy is itself a subgenre, and I think it works, but I find myself digging in my heels and resisting categorizing it into “urban fantasy,”  “paranormal romance,” and the like, which ends up being overly formulaic and the literary equivalent of painting by numbers.

So I’m a little reluctant to start parsing and subdividing the general category of contemporary fantasy, and yet it does seem to me that there is enough variation in the potential (and actual) stories to be told in our own world with fantasy elements added, that dealing with some of this variation is called for. So: please take the remainder of this post under advisement as broad-brush suggestions, but don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed either as a reader or as a writer. The interaction of fantasy elements with our own world can be thought of in terms of a spectrum from least to greatest visible impact. What I describe below are two endpoints and a midpoint of this spectrum.

The fantasy elements are hidden from the public, and/or most people are in denial about them.

Fantasy elements, or at least the more extravagant ones, aren’t part of our collective view of reality. You won’t find werewolves, vampires, real live Norse gods, or sorcerers appearing in the evening news. You don’t walk down a city street at night fearing that you may be lured into an alley and drained of life essence by a succubus, or attend an antique auction hoping to find a dusty jar containing a genie who will grant three wishes. If this sort of thing happens in our world, it goes under the radar for most people. Only a few — including the protagonists of the story, obviously — are aware of the strange and wonderful and frightening things that happen in the shadows where most folks fear to gaze.

In this thrust or version of contemporary fantasy, the world as we know it goes on with nothing changed as far as the majority of people are concerned. The characters of the story encounter (or do) incredible things, but none of it gets reported in the evening news, and the fantasy elements aren’t part of normal waking consciousness for anyone but a select few. They happen underground, between the cracks, in the shadows, out of sight and out of mind.

A lot of vampire stories are like this. So are stories about secret orders of magicians, mysterious kingdoms under the sea or in hidden mountain valleys, and intrusions into our world from the Land of Faerie (or equivalent) that are known only to the initiates.

Creating a fantasy story this way has advantages and also some obvious limits. Advantages come in the form of verisimilitude, the ability to concentrate on the story itself without having to take time familiarizing the reader with the world and society in which it takes place, and the potential to tap into our own highly complex, fast-paced, and fascinating society for non-fantasy elements to incorporate into the story. The limits are that none of the fantasy elements can be visible enough to compel public acknowledgement by scientists, journalists, politicians, and the like. One technique that’s commonly employed is to have the fantasy elements or their wielders be highly motivated to keep their existence a secret from the world. Their powers and abilities themselves become employed to preserve the secrecy in that case.

My own Star Mages trilogy represents something of an extreme example of this type of contemporary fantasy, in its first two volumes anyway. The mages of the Star and Crystal wielded extraordinary powers, but the empowering talismans themselves did not permit the powers to operate while anyone outside the orders was watching.

Other examples of this kind of contemporary fantasy can be found in many published books, movies, and TV shows. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series featured powerful wizards whose existence wasn’t recognized by the public, an order of vampires that controlled virtually the entire Third World without official notice, and on-the-fringes operation by other types of vampires, werewolves, faeries, and other fantasy elements. Anne Rice’s vampire books flowed in the same vein, with the vampires known to one another and to secret societies such as the Talamasca, but hidden from public awareness. Fantasy TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, The Secret Circle, and many others operate in the same vein, with the main characters knowing about and having contact with elements of reality that are hidden from most people.

The world knows about the fantasy elements, and it will never be the same.

A storyteller can depart from the strictly-our-world motif in contemporary fantasy if the fantasy elements become known or have a visible impact on society. This type of fantasy is set in a world that used to be identical to our own, but the revelation of fantasy elements has changed it in some way. A good example of this is perhaps Kim Harrison’s Inderland books, where much of the human race has been killed off by a runaway virus, and in the aftermath witches, demons, werewolves, vampires, etc. have come out in the open. This is still contemporary fantasy in that it includes and incorporates elements of our own modern world (technology, politics, social institutions, and so on), but it is set in a changed world rather than our own world.

This is in some respects an easier sort of tale to tell than one in which strict secrecy is preserved, but in other ways somewhat harder. It’s easier because no artificial restraints have to be imposed on the fantasy elements to prevent people from learning of their existence. It’s harder because of the greater difficulty in making the story believable, and because there’s more world-building necessary in order to accommodate the changes to society from finding out that real sorcerers, vampires, gods, demons, or faeries exist.

One story that, so far, has seldom been told, or at least not in any recent variations, is the story of the revelation itself. Suppose that the Aztec god Tlaloc were to make an appearance in Mexico City and impose a drought, demanding human sacrifices before he would allow the rain to fall. The protagonists would undertake a quest to find some power capable of opposing Tlaloc’s blood-lust, while descendants of the original Aztec priesthood emerge from the shadows and form a new cult, seeking sacrificial victims and planning to rip their hearts out on a holy day coming in a few months’ time. Meanwhile, what happens in the wider world? Panic? Do police attempt to arrest the rain god? Do Mexican politicians campaign against him? Do priests attempt to exorcise him? What occurs as a result of these things?

A lot of good stories could be found around this idea.

The world has been changed beyond all recognition by the fantasy elements.

The other extreme comes when the fantasy elements have such an overwhelming impact that the entire character of our world is changed forever. In effect, this kind of story ceases to be contemporary fantasy and becomes an other-world fantasy that is set in what used to be our world, which departs from the norm of other-world fantasy only in that elements of our world may be recovered either as working artifacts or as history that impacts current culture.

A good example of this type of fantasy is S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire series. In this series, for reasons that are ultimately revealed as fantasy-element-related, all advanced technology ceases to function, most of mankind starves to death, and the bulk of the story concerns the survivors in their new, low-tech societies. Fantasy elements emerge almost from the beginning in the increased magical power available to the Wiccan characters and others, and become more pronounced as the series continues. The world of the story is very far from our own world, but many of the characters (all of them in the beginning) were born and raised in contemporary society and have memories, attitudes, and knowledge appropriate to that upbringing.

Post-apocalyptic fiction of any kind where fantasy elements predominate is this kind of quasi-contemporary fantasy. Any story in which the slate is wiped clean, and the world transformed by fantasy elements so much that it becomes an other-world fantasy that happens here, falls into this extreme end of the spectrum.

In general

Contemporary fantasy is about what happens when fantasy elements impact the world we live in. How much impact the fantasy elements have, from minimal and invisible at one extreme to world-transforming or world-demolishing at the other, shapes the background to the story. Anywhere along the spectrum can provide the setting for a good story.

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World-Building: Some Extreme Possibilities

Fantasy Art by George Grie

Fantasy Art by George Grie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The art of fantasy storytelling is in its main points just the art of storytelling, where characterization and plot and style are the elements of a good tale. But what makes fantasy fantasy instead of some other sort of storytelling is the fantastic elements, and in the art of world-building one can (but need not, necessarily) go hog-wild.

Normally, one doesn’t. Most fantasy worlds start with some historical world as a canvas (or the present-day world) and add some fantasy elements in a controlled, moderate way to differentiate it from the historical reality. One can easily recognize the template of Medieval Europe in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, for example, even though Europe in the Middle Ages didn’t have dragons, icy Others, or weirdly elongated seasons.

In some, maybe most, fantasy world-building, this is the format: the strange and fantastic is subtle. But here are some examples of possible fantasy worlds where the imagination can run amok. These are extreme sorts of fantasy worlds, and telling a good story in the context of them would be a real challenge for the writer.

Humanity is enslaved/domesticated/ruled by something non-human. Gods walk the Earth and rule everything and human beings are their slavish creations. The world is controlled overtly by demons who enslave all of humanity, choose victims for torture and other nasty fun, and cook and eat human beings from time to time (preferably boiling them alive or, even better, roasting them slowly alive on a spit). A race of quasi-humans, superior to humanity in culture, intelligence, and magic, longer-lived, etc. rules and humanity endures in its shadow; the quasi-humans may be benign or malevolent or something in between. Super-beings have arisen (perhaps powerful sorcerers who have made themselves immortal) and live among humans demanding service, dominating them completely.

Stories that can arise from a framework like this include struggles by human resistance against the non-human domination, conflict between factions of the non-humans that sweep humans up in them on one side or another, or small-scale personal dramas that occur with the state of humanity as a backdrop. A twist would be to portray the non-human dominators as the good, sympathetic side, and human rebels as opportunistic, selfish thugs or misguided idealists.

The world is one of many worlds, accessible by magic and interacting routinely. Connected worlds are a staple of fantasy, but usually such worlds interact only rarely and with difficulty. What if the connection among multiple worlds was routine and people and other beings passed between them all the time? This would result in a wildly different society than any that has historically existed.

For example, what if our own world was linked by magical doorways that could open randomly almost anywhere — in a physical doorway, or the entrance to a cave, or on a bridge — leading to worlds inhabited by quasi-humans, or with primitive technology but advanced and powerful magic, or with advanced technology compared to ours, or with advanced technology AND magic, and there was no way to control these doorways but people were constantly moving from one world to another? Or worse still, what if the same thing was happening but with an unlimited variety of worlds, randomly selected? Maintaining any kind of stability or centralized government would be very difficult, and human adaptation to that insecurity — the possibility of being instantly transported elsewhere or of something materializing into one’s life from another place beyond comprehension.

If this began happening suddenly the result would likely be apocalyptic and humanity would be dealing with the breakdown of civilization, mass starvation, chaos. It would certainly create a lot of possibilities for plot lines, but one would have to be careful to keep the story comprehensible.

There is no physical world as such; everything is the creation of the will, with powerful god-like wills creating islands of reality and lesser wills modifying it locally. I actually began writing a story along these lines once, in which powerful beings — local gods — created enclaves of territory where they set the rules of physics as well as those of society, and each of these enclaves were surrounded by a fog of indeterminacy. A person could escape from an enclave into the fog and try to creates his or her own domain, but this was seldom successful as few had the requisite strength of will.

This is a kind of anything-goes fantasy world that could be host to story lines involving rebellion against an enclave-maker, attempts at fog-settling, or maybe the emergence of a person whose strength of will was so strong that he will bring stability to the world after all — in one direction or another — perhaps even two such persons with conflicting visions.

The world is an illusion created by people or creatures who have imprisoned us within it and are using us in some way. Perhaps they feed off human emotion, or are conducting a great experiment. Nothing is what it seems, and behind the illusion is a reality that can be penetrated only with difficulty. Stories in such a milieu could involve escape from the illusion, rebellion against its creators and masters, or characters who rise to join them and find out that a greater conflict in reality renders all the turmoil within the illusion irrelevant and insignificant.

There is a reason why one seldom sees fantasy worlds that are quite this bizarre. It’s hard to write a story in such a setting that will be believable and that readers can relate to. The first one is actually not as difficult as the others and something along those lines has been done before, but most fantasy makes more modest amendments to the reality we all experience.

Still, it would be interesting to see fiction that goes all-out in this way done successfully. I may give it a try one of these days.


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World-Building: Religion

In the process of building a fantasy world, a lot of things need to be considered and made appropriate for the world as a whole. Religion is certainly one of these. It’s best to begin with a real world, past or present, or something resembling it in many ways, and then add in fantasy elements and their logical consequences. That’s true of politics, commerce, international relations and war, class relations, and everything else about society.

Specifically in regard to religion, here are some ideas.

Religion, I believe, comes from three interacting sources. The first source is spiritual experience and the attempt to express its meaning, both to encourage people to seek and find spiritual experiences of their own and to translate the insights gained from spiritual experience into a form that can help both individuals and society. The second source consists of the customs, moral values, and social rules that govern a people on a level more basic than written law. Religion codifies these and infuses them with sacred authority by means of myth.

Note that these two sources of religion are sometimes in conflict. Spiritual experience calls for things to change, while custom and tradition call for continuity. A prophet always challenges orthodoxy, either rejecting the prior religious teaching altogether (as in the case of Muhammad in his interaction with Arabic polytheism or the Buddha with Vedic proto-Hinduism), or calling for such overwhelming reinterpretations that the result is effectively the same (as in the case of Jesus’ approach to the Judaism of his time, or Baha’u’llah’s overhaul of Islam). However, it’s also true that what was once radical and new eventually becomes a tradition, an orthodoxy of its own.

The third source of religious ideas and doctrines is political and self-serving: the desire of the religion as an organization, or of those people who hold power in it, to advance its influence and control, to gain more followers, to prevent apostasy, to compete successfully with other religions.

These same three sources will be there with fantasy religions, too, but there may also be fantasy factors to consider — although there may not, too. It depends on what the fantasy elements are in your world and where they manifest.

Let’s begin with the mundane (non-fantastic) considerations regarding the place of any given religion in the world.

Almost all historical societies have or had an established religion as part of, or integrated with, the government. Some modern societies, such as the United States, do not. The established religion of a society has certain privileges with respect to other, competing religions, at minimum official verbal endorsement by the state, and sometimes a spectrum of material advantages running from tax breaks, to direct financial subsidy, to requirements that citizens or residents participate in public rituals to some degree, to actual outlawing of other faiths.

Societies without an established religion generally have a relatively high level of religious conflict within their borders. For example, the English colonies in America saw a lot of conflict among competing versions of Christianity, especially in New England, which was founded as a number of religious experiments by fiercely-independent and often fanatical Puritans. This led to insistence on religious liberty and separation between church and state in the founding of the United States. However, lack of an established faith isn’t an automatic result of such conflict. It’s at least as likely that the end result can be an established faith either with rights of competing religions carefully guaranteed (as in modern England), or with a militant and intolerant approach where the established religion and the state together attempt to eradicate all competition (as in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella). Unlike republican government, lack of established religion doesn’t seem to be an inevitable consequence of modernity, so having a modern, high-technology society with an established religion can work. Nor is it theoretically impossible to have a lower-technology society without an established religion and yet, since all such societies in real history are modern, a secular state in a low-technology environment requires justification to make it feel true.

If your society does have an established religion, it may be important to determine what form the “establishment” takes — depending on how much impact the established religion, or the state itself, has on your characters and your story. You should always have some idea of the answer to this question even if it doesn’t directly come into the story. One important question is the status of other religions. Is the society of your story more like the Roman Republic, which had an established religion but also allowed religious liberty, or is it more like modern Iran, where religions competing with the official faith operate under severe restrictions?

(Writers of fantasy should study history. They should also study science. In fact, they should study everything.)

In addition to these ordinary considerations, in creating a fantasy world you need to consider the fantasy elements, too, and these are likely — but not required — to have a big impact on its religious life.

Are there real, tangible gods? If there are, does the official faith (or a competing faith) worship them? If so, do the priests or religious teachers have the first idea what the gods are really like and what they really want and expect from their worshipers?

Do the gods care? Is the society a literal theocracy — meaning, not one run by a religion, but one run by an actual god? Are the gods somewhat aloof, with people trying their best to draw divine favor but having no real idea how to go about it? Do the gods expect and demand worship or merely tolerate it? If they don’t expect worship, what do they expect from men and women?

What about magic? Are priests also magicians? If they are, how do they use their powers to further the interests of the faith, and what conflicts occur among them as they seek power or the furtherance of their own beliefs within the religion’s framework? If they aren’t, is there another religion whose priests are? Is this religion new, or has it been around a while? If it’s new, what changes is it bringing? If it’s not new, what secrets, mysteries, and knowledge does it guard, and where is this going to take the new society in the future, as those secrets and mysteries develop.

All of these and other considerations, such as the effect of quasi-humans on the religious life of the community, should be taken into  thought as you build your world.

Image credit: slanas / 123RF Stock Photo

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World Building: Revolution!

Napoleon Crossing the Alps


In my current work in progress, I’ve got a revolution going on in a fantasy setting, and this brings up the whole topic of world building, which has been much on my mind lately.


World building is an essential part of creating a fantasy story (or a science fiction story or a historical story or an alternate history or any other type of story where the world inhabited by the characters is in any way different from our own). (It’s even part of storytelling when the world doesn’t differ from our own, since the world from the characters’ perspective will still be different in some ways from that of the author.) To some degree, world building happens organically, as do many other parts of storytelling. You have maybe a character or two and a plot element or two and you write some scenes displaying the characters and advancing the plot lines, and you realize that this means your lovable thief comes into contact with a priest of the god Nunk-Noo, and so you have to consider the status of the priesthood, the doctrines of Nunk-Noo’s worship, whether the priests have magical powers and if so what they are, whether the god himself ever puts in an appearance, whether there are competing religions, whether this one is an officially-sanctioned cult, and so on.


But in at least the broad strokes, it’s probably best to have your world pre-planned. The details can be added later, as you write, and the only hard and fast rule is that you have to be consistent, and you can’t go back and change anything you’ve already published.


One way to do world-building is to start with either present-day reality or something historical as a template, and then change things and add things and figure out what would happen as a result. In doing this, it helps to have some understanding of both politics and economics, as well as science and the impact of technological change on society. (This can even help with the impact of magical change, although of course the magic itself you can make up.)


Which brings me to my work in progress, Goddess-Born, a companion volume to The Green Stone Tower.


Goddess-Born is set in the Kingdom of Grandlock, which I had already described in the first section of The Green Stone Tower. It’s a society that:


  • Has an early-modern level of technology: smoothbore, single-shot firearms, sailing ships and navigation, gas lamps, some steam-engine applications, horses as the main transportation vehicle, printing, no electricity.
  • Has a constitutional monarchy for a government, but with no democratic representation; the King and the Noble Council rule the country; nonetheless there are provisions in law protecting rights and a growing democracy movement.
  • Has very little in the way of magic. There are some magic users but they operate secretly and, although this changed at the end of Tower, magic was prohibited by law and a capital offense. However, the Green Stone Tower itself is a reminder of magic and a link to an alternate world where the magic users were banished ages ago, becoming the faerie — many of whom have since returned.
  • Has an established religion, the monotheistic worship of the Good God who gave people the secrets of farming.
  • Historically was part of the High Vance Empire, but broke away from it and established an independent kingdom; for this reason there is tension and frequent war between the two countries.


That’s more or less the way things stood at the end of the first book. But in Goddess-Born, two major changes are happening. One arises naturally from the level of technology enjoyed by the people of Grandlock: this is incompatible with the governing structure of the country. It’s not an accident that in the history of our own world, the development of printing and the early stages of the industrial revolution coincided with a wave of democratic reform and revolution that swept Europe and European colonies (such as America). Grandlock faces the same. The nobility have used the new technologies to force farmers off their land, creating a pool of unemployed people and forcing wages down; the people are suffering economically and, with printing, ideas about self-government and equality are rapidly distributed among them. Revolution looms.


For the Grandlock Revolution I used the French Revolution as a template just because it makes for good drama, so I put in a nice storming of the palace, the troops turning on their masters, and the rise of a provisional government that initiates a bloodbath, hanging noblemen and anyone they perceive to be a threat to their power. I’ve also got a brilliant general in the wings who, after winning some victories, will be poised to take over the government as Napoleon Bonaparte did in France.


The other major change began at the end of The Green Stone Tower, and that’s the return of the Old Gods and the repeal of the witchcraft laws, with a consequent surge of magical activity. Most of my main characters, although not all, are sorcerers, and the gods themselves play a subtle role in the unfolding drama. There is for example a nasty priestess come from the other world, a devotee of Malatant, God of Shadow, and her machinations are behind much of the ugliness that occurs. The head of the provisional government is one of her pupils and a sorcerer in his own right. The two most important characters are children of the Old Gods fostered with a noble family and a merchant family in Grandlock — hence the title of the book; these two are called “goddess-born” because each had a goddess mother — and their opposition to the priestess is perhaps the most important defining plot line. A noblewoman who, for personal reasons, is a part of the democracy movement receives a gift from the God of Art and becomes an eloquent writer of political tracts, and receives guidance from the Goddess of Wisdom about her role in crafting the new government.


As always, the main story is personal, but the background and backdrop are important, and the world in which the personal stories occur impacts the stories themselves. It should all fit together and move logically from one place to another as the story unfolds.



Beginning with your template, as you add each element, fantasy elements included, ask yourself:

  1. How will people react to this?
  2. What will the people involved with it do in the world?
  3. What will their interaction be with the holders of political and economic power, or with ordinary people?

Any changes in material circumstances will always have potential political, economic, and social consequences, and understanding those consequences (whether or not they are an immediate part of the story) is a lot of the art of world-building.


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Fantasy and Politics

It’s election time here in the United States, a presidential election year, too, and even non-political blogsters are succumbing to the temptation to say something about the ritualized and mostly non-lethal civil war that possesses the nation every four years. Can I be the only one to resist? (No — my friend Christi Killien at Farmlet remains above the fray so far, so I wouldn’t be the only one. Apparently she will be.)

I shall dive in, but in a disciplined way, and remain focused as best as possible on the twin themes of fantasy storytelling and spirituality that define this blog. No mention of current political contests even if Mr. Romney’s campaign does seem to be composing a fantasy.


What is politics? And how does it relate to fantasy or to spirituality? Let’s deal with politics and fantasy in this post. I’ll have another post later to cover spirituality and politics.

Politics is the making and implementing of collective decisions and the resolution of conflicts within a society by means short of the shedding of blood. Every society has politics even when it doesn’t have formal government. Politics is: All these people are living together in one place and interacting. There are things they have to do collectively all together and somehow they have to come to a decision about what things to do and how to organize it. Also, they don’t always get along, and somehow we have to resolve any conflicts that arise before they beat each other up or worse. The only human (or quasi-human) beings that don’t need politics are those that either live all alone as hermits or have a perfect telepathic interaction so that they form a single mind.

Fantasy writing must ask many questions of politics, although not as much as science fiction, for which the central theme is almost always political. The central theme of fantasy is almost always religious or spiritual, but politics remains an important part of world-building just the same. The politics of a fantasy world should work well with the circumstances of life for the characters who live in it. Circumstances relevant to determining the type of politics present in a world include:

  1. Civilized or not? That is, do the people of your world live in cities and practice agriculture or are they primitive hunter-gatherers? In the latter case, no formal government will exist, but there will still be politics practiced informally.
  2. How widespread is literacy? This depends in turn on whether the world has developed printing. A world without printing is unlikely to have widespread literacy unless it has some workable substitute. (The Roman Republic, for instance, had armies of slaves to copy books out. One could also posit a magical substitute for printing in a fantasy world.) A world in which most people are illiterate is also a world in which the participants in political decisions constitute a literate elite; such a world is incompatible with democracy and demands some type of oligarchy, monarchy, or dictatorship. Widespread literacy makes for widespread desire to participate in political decisions.
  3. How fast do people move? Also: How fast does information travel? If the highest speed for both personal travel and messages is that of a horse or a sailing ship, you will necessarily have a looser-knit, less centralized politics than if movement is comparable to a modern society or faster. If magical communication is possible at great speed, is this a privilege of a sorcerous elite, or is it widely available to most people? If it’s an elite privilege, who controls the elite? No one (the elite is autonomous)? The king or formal government? The Dark Lord? The Gods? An ancient prophecy that dictates all magic use?

That last brings up a fairly important point. In a fantasy world, the elites and commons may not be the same as in our own reality, just as they have varied over time in our own history. Today, we are ruled largely by a commercial elite defined by business or financial success and wealth. In the pre-industrial past, the elite consisted mostly of great warriors and war leaders or their descendants. In both eras, an educated elite of professionals coexisted with the main one: priests and religious leaders, government bureaucrats, scholars and philosophers. In some societies, e.g. Medieval Europe and ancient India, the professional class (clergy, Brahmins) were ostensibly of higher status than the military elite (nobles, Kshatrya), but then we must remember that they were the ones writing all this and may have credited themselves with more influence than they really possessed.

Politics in a fantasy world must of course take into account the fantasy elements as well as the mundane ones. If magic is strong and openly practiced, an elite of magicians may completely eclipse the warriors or exist alongside it, or may openly or secretly change the course of events in a modern, high-tech society as well. The existence in the world of gods, devils, and super-beings or of quasi-human races will also have political implications. The rule of thumb in all cases is that the political system in any world — including a fantasy world — must flow naturally from the circumstances in which the people find themselves. Otherwise you end up with anachronism. You can’t have an absolute monarchy in a modern, high-tech world, for example, because literacy and access to information are too widely spread for that and people won’t tolerate it. You might have a world in which the ultimate ruler is a god — but even then, it would not be identical to the absolute monarchies of our history.

Politics arises in my work in progress, Goddess-Born, in the form of a revolution. Part of this flows from mundane reality. The Kingdom of Grandlock has progressed in technology to the point where its monarchy and hereditary aristocracy have become unsustainable anachronisms. Noble privilege is driving farmers off their land, putting people out of work, and creating widespread hardship. The country is ripe for an overthrow of the government and in the normal course of things would struggle its way towards a democratic republic of some sort — but the emerging power of the magicians and the machinations of the Old Gods are both in play, and will inevitably divert that normal course of events.

In all cases, the politics of a society should flow logically from its material, magical, and other circumstances. It should seem natural and proper for the society. That’s part of the art of world building.

Image credit: alexmit / 123RF Stock Photo


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