World Crafting: The Big Question

Greetings everyone.  I’m thrilled to share a contribution from a guest writer today, Andrew Lias.  He has been a good friend for many years now, and shares the passion for world crafting.  He graciously offered to write the article this week, and I’m excited to share it here.  Without further ado…
~Kyle

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The Big Question
Or Everyone Wants to Rune the World

–Andrew Lias

Of Mages and Men

It is said that if you are writing a thriller, you must first start by asking and answering a single question: why don’t they just go to the police? It’s an important question not only because the failure to answer it will leave a hole in your plot, but because the answer you come up with will shape the rest of the novel. A story where the protagonist can’t go to the police because they are riddled with corruption is a different story from one where the protagonist can’t go to the police because she’s been framed for a murder.

I think that there’s a similar question that applies to fantasy stories. Why don’t mages rule the world? After all, magic has a lot of potential to be socially disruptive, and the people who control the powers of magic could use that power to oppress the muggles around them. Indeed, given human nature and our tendency to subjugate those who are different from us, we should expect to see those conflicts in a world where magic exists, unless there is something that mitigates the ability for mages to seize control of the world.

I should note that you don’t need to answer the question with exposition. It would actually be a bit clumsy to have characters standing around saying things like, “Well, it’s a good thing that mages don’t rule the world thanks to the power of the anti-magic artifact!”

A better way to answer the question is to make the answer implicit in the setting. You should always try to let your setting speak for itself. Properly done, the readers won’t even realize that you had addressed the problem because we won’t notice that there was a problem to address in the first place.

There is no single answer, nor is there any sort of fixed list. It’s one of those problems that cry out for creative solutions. So, in that spirit, here’s some of the ways that you might solve the problem, but this should not be read as some kind of exhaustive list.

Mages do rule the world

“Fetch me my slippers, muggle dog!”

All hail the magocracy! Those stupid muggles never had a chance! In this version of the solution, the obvious answer is that nothing is preventing mages from taking over, and nothing does. In a story set in this kind of universe, muggles don’t really have any authority in and off themselves, unless they’ve been granted some by the benevolence of their wizardly overlords.

Surprisingly, it’s actually difficult to find examples of a pure magocracy in the fantasy genre. You do find the occasional world where mages are ubiquitous and, therefore, rule by default (i.e., Xanth), but I can’t think of many examples where mages rule by fiat over a non-magical population.

Perhaps its because such worlds would tend to lend themselves to dystopias and fantasy works tend to shy away from that kind of Orwellian theme.  However, it does suggest that there’s some room for budding authors to explore those ideas in a fantasy setting.

Magic is Rare

“Sure, I’ve got the power of a whole battalion at my fingertips, but there’s only so much of me to go around.”

Magic exists, but the talent for it is extremely uncommon. Maybe a thousand wizards could, in principle, take over the world, but, if there’s only a few dozen of them in the world, there just aren’t enough of them to get the job done.

In such a setting, an individual wizard could be extremely powerful, and they may well have absolute control over a limited territory, but the vast majority of people will never encounter one.

This is somewhat reminiscent of how magic was presented in the Conan saga. Every wizard that he encountered was a credible threat, but the world, as a whole, didn’t really care much about them because they were so very isolated that you practically had to be a crazy adventurer to have any hope of encountering true magic.

Magic is Expensive

“If I were a rich mage…”

Powdered unicorn horn and 50 carat diamonds aren’t exactly stocked at Ye Olde Wizzarde Shoppe. More importantly, the expense would reflect a scarcity of materials. Even if you were being bankrolled by an empire’s treasury, there are still only so many necessary reagents (or what have you) to be found.

This is something of a tricky balance, however. The existence of nuclear weapons in our own universe proves that even a rare thing (in this case, fissionable matter) can be stockpiled if the benefits of having it are sufficient.

But, at the same time, it might be fun to run with that idea. Set a story where fifty unicorn horns could make a mega-bomb and have an arms race to accumulate and weaponize them.

Magic if Untamable

“I cast your bones into the very pits of hell! Oh crap I didn’t mean to turn my toes into candy. Let me try that again.”

Just because you have magic doesn’t mean that you have to have mastery. Maybe magic is a wild thing that only manifests when it wants to. Or maybe the outcome of spells are so unpredictable that trying to use magic to take power would be like trying to rob someone with a random outcome generator.

This solution works especially well in worlds where magic is presented as something eldritch and mysterious. It runs counter to the modern tendency of fantasy works to treat magic as technology by another name.

Magic is Hard

“Okay, so in order to cast fireball,  I just need to solve this multi-dimensional non-linear equation, on the fly without using a slide-rule. Easy, peasy!”

If casting a spell is like juggling fifteen knives while simultaneously doing double-book accounting, it’ll be tricky to do anything genuinely useful with it, much less take over the world. Or, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, “by the time a wizard has mastered the ability to summon a nubile, young lady to his room, he’s too old to know what to do with her.”

One way to approach this is to make magic something like advanced mathematics with only the absolute top tier of mages having any useful magic, and only after decades of study. It can also be that, while the principles of magic are widely known, the skill the put those principles into practice are uncommon and require genius.

Magic is Dangerous and/or Harmful

“All shall love me and despair! Oh crap, my skin just sloughed off.”

Okay, you can cast a mass-hypnosis spell to bend the entire world to your will, but what good does it do you if casting the spell wrecks your lungs and takes 60 years off of your lifespan… assuming that your head isn’t spontaneously teleported fifteen miles away from your torso.

The trick to this solution is that the risk of using magic has to be high enough that the reward is no longer worth it. If the reward is control over the world, the risk must be fairly high. One way to do this is to make it so that the cost is always higher than the benefit.

Stories where magic is corruptive partake of this solution. Black magic in the Dresden universe, for instance, is inherently dangerous to the psyche. Black magicians can grow powerful, but the power that they wield distorts them.

 It is Forbidden!

“I got a five year suspended sentence for casting cantrips without a permit.”

Sure, you can try to hold the world under Bigby’s Oppressive Thumb, but it’s only a matter of time because the Magic Police come and cart you away for violating the Laws of Magic.

In order for this solution to work, there needs to be some agency which regulates magic and prevents its from getting out of hand. In such stories, the plot is often driven by how effective the regulation is with major plot points often driven by people who are trying to assume power in spite of the authorities that would stop them from doing so.

Such stories fall along a scale from weak enforcement to strong enforcement. On the strong side of the scale, the Gods Themselves (or other Cosmic Powers) do so decree.  In such a setting, it might actually be the protagonists who are attempting to overthrow the gods in order to bring the benefits of magic to humanity. On the weak side of the scale, magic is only regulated by social taboos. Perhaps magic is viewed as being like pedophillia or beastiality and no one would ever want to admit to using magic or being found out, which tends to put a crimp in world-conquering.

Magic is Weak

“Take that! And that! And another five hundred of that!”

Okay, maybe magic is common and easy to use, but its also perfectly useless. Maybe it’s only good for simple illusions and lock picking, which may well be handy skills, but it’s not going to earn you an empire, even if you get all the mages in the world on your side.

Magic sometimes takes this form in fantasies set in modern environments. Since such stories have to answer the additional question of no one has ever heard of magic (except for those in the know), weakening magic to the point where it’s subtle by default is a natural solution that also explains why you can’t use it for conquest.

A variation of this is that magic is useful… just not for anything military. Maybe magic can be used for great works or art and for healing crippling diseases, but unless you can use it to explode your enemies real good, it won’t be very effective on a field of battle.

Magic is Limited in Time or Space

“With the vast and cosmic power of my arcane might, I shall dominate the territory between Runnybrook Farm and the Old Mill!”

Okay, you can call up the Powers of the Night to raise yourself a mighty fortress of wonders, but you can only do so when standing on one of the fifteen leylines and all your ceremonies have to take place on one of the Thirteen Special Days.

In this version of the solution, magic can do quite a bit, but only in certain places and at certain times. In such a world, wizards may, once again, have a lot of local power, but their ability to project that power globally is compromised. If most of the world is a no-magic zone, it’s much more difficult to take it over using magic.

Many Paths and Many Challenges

As we have shown, there are a lot of ways to address the question, nor have I done more than just scratched the surface of the possibilities; however, there is one thing to remember no matter what solution you come up with: your readers will try to break it.

Is magic hard? Okay, engineering and science are hard, too, but we’ve come up with ways for scientists and engineers to work together to turn those hard things into useful things like bombs and rockets. So why can’t your wizards find some way to distill the complexity down to something simpler?

It’s not good enough to just come up with a solution, you need to think about how to break that solution and then to come up with reasons that the way you broke it won’t actually break it (either by introducing new factors, or rethinking your original solution). You need to try and anticipate the reader’s objections, otherwise people will find loopholes and exploits that would render your world internally implausible (which, from a narrative standpoint,  is actually worse than flat-out impossible).

The best way to avoid that problem is to not only ask the question once, but to ask it again and again and again. Put your head in the mind of a mage and try to come up with a way to take over your world. Try and kick the legs out from under your construct and see what makes it wobble.

Indeed, if you can come up with a clever enough way to break the world you’ve created, that, in and of itself, can be your plot. Sometimes the correct solution is “because the heroes will stop it”.

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