Guest Post: On Magical Worldbuilding by Peter Orullian

OrullianP-AuthorPicWorldbuilding is a big topic. Especially for epic fantasy. Or it can be, anyways. Writers and novels differ on approach, of course. With my series, The Vault of Heaven, I did spend time thinking through some things before I got deep into the writing. Glad I did.

Before I dive in, though, I should say that I also left lots of room for spontaneous creation. I don’t map my books out in infinite detail. I likes me some surprises along the way.

When it came to the worldbuilding, however, there were a few bits I locked in from the get go. And because worldbuilding is a ginormous topic, I want to focus on magic this time around.

I sat on a panel recently where the topic was basically: heavily rule-based magic vs. the more open approach. The examples thrown out by my co-panelists went something like: Brandon Sanderson on one end and Terry Brooks on the other, maybe Tolkien. You’ve likely heard this before. One side of the continuum has very precise rules for how the magic works — it reminds me, in fact, of Magic: The Gathering. Then, on the other side of that same continuum, you have magic that just works, and may even seems inexhaustible — with nearly no consequence for the wielder.

First off, for me, that last bit is a cardinal sin. If a character can wield something as super-awesome and powerful as magic and do so infinitely, he or she is pretty much a god. And gods don’t tend to lose many battles. To balance that out, the writer would need to give that super-awesome and powerful magic to both sides of the conflict. The escalation is endless. And silly. It might make for fun reading for a while. You know. Lots of cool visuals. Battles of epic proportions. Gods throwing mountains. The sky filled with lightning scorching entire countries. Time reversing itself. Suns exploding. And on. And on.

OrullianP-VoH1-UnrememberedUSPBGrows boring eventually.

It’s like listening to your music dialled up to eleven. All day long. The only way volume at eleven is, well, eleven, is if you also sometimes listen to your music at three or four. (Apologies if the Spinal Tap reference escaped anyone. I can’t help myself.) You need dynamics in order for loud to be loud and soft to be soft.

So, the use of magic, I feel, needs to have some limitations. Those limitations can come by way of cost or consequence to the wielder. I tend to favor this approach, as it makes your character consider how and when to use that power. And in the aftermath, the character may be vulnerable in some way. This feels like good balance to me.

Alternately, the limitation could be some kind of rule or set of rules that govern the magic’s use. Like a cost or consequence, this keeps the magic from becoming a crutch for the character or your story.

The other approach, though, is often done extremely well. I know writers whose magic systems don’t appear to have any cost/consequence or rules to speak of, and yet they don’t allow their characters to go around exploding suns and reversing time. They show an even hand with it. The focus is on the character and the story, which is where it ought to be regardless of your use of magic.

All of which is to say, there’s not a “right” approach. Reader preference, sure. Some want incredibly detailed magic systems. Some don’t care. It’s analogous to hard science fiction vs. soft science fiction. I have friends who want the writer to have spelled out how the tech works, to try and make it as plausible as possible. I have other friends who’ll stipulate to the tech working, and just want to get on with the story. No right answer. Just different kinds of books. I’ve read both done well.

Now, with all that as preamble, I did put quite a bit of thought into my magic system. Those who’ve read some of the stories set in the universe of The Vault of Heaven know I have a music magic system. I’m a musician, so not a lot of guesswork there. But what might be less obvious is that the music magic is governed by the same set of principles as other uses of magic in my world.

What I did was establish something I call “governing dynamics.” There’s a principle in my fantasy world known as Resonance. It underlies several magic systems my readers have and will encounter throughout the series.

It kind of made sense to me that magic would have something akin to universal or mechanical laws for an entire world. And that in different parts of that world, different cultures or disciplines would evolve varying ways to tap into those laws and make use of them.

Orullian-2-TrialOfIntentionsIn any event, off the top of my head I can count five different magic systems in The Vault of Heaven that all ladder-up to the same set of principles that have to do with Resonance. The various practitioners of these magics don’t always know or acknowledge Resonance. But readers encountering these uses of magic tend to recognize that these characters from different places and walks-of-life are accessing the same principles to do their cool stuff.

I kind of dig how it all jives together and makes sense on a macro level, while the characters go about the business of their own problems, employing their magic and suffering the costs.

With my music magic system, in particular, Resonance has an obvious, immediate meaning, since resonance is part of acoustics and physics. Straight forward enough. But I took it further by going beyond the resonance sound can cause in a thing, and drawing on other resonances that can be stirred between the musician (which I call Leiholan) and other people or things. I don’t want to give anything away here — because I hate spoilers — but suffice it to say that as a Leiholan grows in ability, his or her use of resonance evolves beyond simple sound.

In fact, to take it further, I developed the notion of what I call “Absolute Sound.” It’s an advanced use of this music magic where the object of the song needn’t even be within earshot of the song to be “touched” by the magic. In some regards it’s like non-local quantum entanglement. But you don’t need to know about that or understand it to “get” the magic or how it works. I just found fun mental models in the real world that helped me think about how to evolve my governing dynamics in ways I thought were cool.

I’m not suggesting that a world with different magic systems must have unifying, underlying principles that rationalize the various uses of a world’s source of power. Not at all. But for me — for this series, anyway — it’s something I did as part of my worldbuilding because I wanted all the magic systems to have some cohesion. That said, I do have readers who’ve told me how much they like the different magic systems in the series and yet haven’t noticed the common underpinnings. I think it’s because I don’t hit readers over the head with these governing dynamics. Some of my readers take note of them. Some don’t. And while a few of the systems of magic make them more evident, you’ll never see a character saying, “And as you know, Resonance also . . . “

I will say, though, that some of the best conversations I’ve had with my readers have come when they realize the subtle governing dynamics that underlie all the magic systems in The Vault of Heaven. For those who dig this kind of thing, we always have lots to talk about.

And so to close out, I’ll share that with the Author’s Edition of The Unremembered, I had the chance to weave in a bit more this idea of Resonance. And then in book two, Trial of Intentions, I turn it up. A lot.

Thanks, Stefan, for the chance to share some thoughts on worldbuilding — magic, in particular. Was fun.


Peter Orullian‘s The Unremembered is out now, Trial of Intentions follows in May 2015. For more on his novels and work, be sure to check out his website and follow him on Twitter.


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