Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

Magic-like Psychic Abilities

By Jim Mills and Dawn Greenlee

2001, Jim Mills and Dawn Greenlee 

In collaboration with my good friend, Dawn Greenlee, I have written several SF and fantasy novels.  The Dragons of the East series (2 books so far, 5 planned) is pure fantasy set in a modern-day world.  The Light is SF (Jim's work).  Secret Psychics, our current Work In Progress, is mostly science fiction, but with some fantasy elements. 

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to concentrate on Secret Psychics and the efforts that went into the background work -- specifically, how we devised the "rules" for how psychic abilities function. 

Like in many works of speculative fiction, Dawn and I started with a "What if" question.  What if the world we know harbored a secretive race of humans with psychic abilities?  We are not talking about vague premonitions, or even slightly more demonstrable talents such as John Edwards talking to the dead or Uri Geller bending spoons.  What we wanted were people who could really do things that could change human society.  Dawn wanted Elves, but I said that Elves had been overworked, let's stick with human beings.  We discussed different options, and settled on humans from another world, a parallel Earth, who fled a war and came here through an inter-dimensional Gate of their own making.  With that base, Dawn and I began to build the background and history for our story, and the rules by which our magic-like psychic abilities would work. 

We started by deciding what we didn't want: mages chanting spells and making arcane gestures were out.  Psychics do things by concentration and thinking about the things they want to happen.  They don't cast spells; they wield abilities that can achieve spell-like results, at least to a degree.  We wanted to keep the story at a fairly low power level.  Superman would be way over the top. 

In order to document how all of this would work, I turned to Holly and followed her teachings.  On the site are a series of "How to" articles.  One is "Fantasy Is Not for Sissies -- Real Rules for Real Worlds" and another: "Worldbuilding -- Rollicking Rules of Ecosystems." 

All of Holly's "How to" articles and a lot of other very good information can be found at the Forward motion web site:  I recommend reading all of them. 

In the process of discussing all of this, we came up with the idea that the human beings on Urta, the alternate Earth, would have certain distinguishing traits  that set them apart from the human beings of our own Earth.  In addition, there would be several races that would have Special Abilities of their own, although in varying degrees.  The first thing I did was use Holly's guidelines to define the common and racial traits (this follows Holly's recommended format, but only part of the outline is presented here.  I've included part of Holly's instructions as well.).  Please keep in mind that these are worldbuilding notes, not a finished product, and there is some repetition: 

A: Special physics.  Faster-than-light travel, time travel, magic, extraordinary beasts, vampires, ghosts, angels, gods, goddesses and other supernatural beings or phenomena.

1.      In what way does my universe differ from the mundane norm?  (i.e.: use of magic, use of FTL, presence of ghosts, vampires or other fantastic creatures, etc.)

Magic-like psychic abilities exist in the form of alternate-race humans who have come to this Earth via a cross-dimensional Gate, fleeing a Shadow War on their own Earth (which they call Urta.  Most worship Gaea, the Earth/Urta Goddess).  Also, they brought with them certain creatures, such as the Sassarra (a very large, watery creature) and the Urtharra (a very large, earthen creature).

2.      What is the nature of the difference?  How exactly will these differences manifest?

Psychic abilities will manifest as super-human "powers" used by the newcomers and their descendants, though we will avoid calling them "powers" and refer to them as abilities instead.  These are usually, but not always, low-level, not-quite-so-dramatic abilities, such as Fading (invisibility), Healing and Moving (low-level telekinesis).

Also, some more dramatic manifestations exist, though the newcomers, who call themselves "Others" (always capitalized), try to keep their secrets, such as the Sassarra and the flamboyant Other known as FireBird.

3.      What are the rules by which the special physics operate?

We used the Champion ™ game mechanics,  mostly limited to low-level powers.  However, no mention of the use of game mechanics will be made outside of this document.  Some editors don't like it.

4.      What effects will these rules have on culture and story?

Note: Others, capitalized, will refer to the aliens, and certain abilities such as Fading (invisibility) and Healing will also be capitalized for use in the story to denote the Special Abilities.

The Others first appeared in New Mexico in 1947.  The hot, dry climate was harmful or excessively hard on many of them, notably the Water Nymphs, and they sought other areas to the north and west.  They made careful contact with the local inhabitants and, over time, learned English and the American culture.  They quickly learned the differences between human and Other, and that the humans could be as bigoted as Others, so they learned to be secretive and to hide those differences.  As they slowly worked their way into human society, the Others learned to hide their distinctive physical appearances, such as their different ears and cat-like eyes.  For the eyes they developed contact lenses, though these large, full-cover lenses tend to be irritating to the eyes.  As Others became seemingly ordinary people, they slowly built wealth and power.

The human beast is a curious and competitive creature, and the presence of illegal aliens did not go unnoticed forever.  Those who know how it started don't talk about it, but certain Others began to disappear.  At first the disappearance were made to appear as tragic mishaps – house fires or auto accidents that claimed the lives of Others, the bodies burned beyond recognition or simply missing.  The Others soon grew suspicious as the numbers of dead and missing mounted.  An Elder Seer discovered the truth – the humans had organized a secret government "Agency" to find and apprehend what they considered to be illegal and very dangerous aliens.  The Agency had secret hospitals set up, staffed by carefully screened and selected personnel, who were constantly "made aware" that the Others were not human beings, but aliens who had come to Earth to invade and conquer from within – the Agency constantly reinforces this as fact.

The truth is that the Others are refugees from a devastating war.  Their descendants, , for the most part, just want to be allowed to live in peace, raise families and get along with their neighbors.  They fight only because the Agency has made it necessary.

The Agency scientists have studied the Others that they have captured, and have projected that if the Others were allowed to live and breed with human beings, eventually natural selection would favor the Others as a more viable subspecies, and the Others would become the dominant race(s) on Earth.  This could leave human beings as slaves or second-class citizens, and if unchecked, that could happen very soon.  This is what they fear.

There are also those who see opportunity in this situation and seek to exploit it.  Ever since Others were first detected in the seventies, they have been secretly testing Others' abilities and performing experiments that make the Nazis seem like amateurs.

5.      What are the laws of my special physics?

The psychic abilities may be categorized.

Benders dominate the minds of others and bend them to their will.

Binders are those who, through their psychic ability, can gather and manipulate matter or energy.  For example, it's said that some Bind fire to their will, others Bind light or kinetic energy.  Binders are specialists; they can usually affect only one thing.

Controllers telepathically control people.

Finders are those who can find people or things.

Healers are those who can fix the hurts of others.

Movers can make things move with the power of their minds.  This is more general than Binders, who can often only move one thing.  Some Movers can wrap light around themselves, called Fading, effectively making them invisible (but it's hard to 'keep up' for long).

Readers read minds or objects.

Seers see things that are not there.  Sometimes it's remote viewing, sometimes they see the past or future.

Senders send thoughts to others.

Shapers change one thing to another.

Shifters change their own bodies into a different form.

There are those who are truly extraordinary and they are called Masters.

6.      What is the nature of the people who will use these laws?  How do they differ from regular people?

Others always have cat-like eyes and somewhat noticeably pointy ears.  Their 'half-human' offspring, when they mate and breed with Earth human beings, always have cat-like eyes and somewhat pointy ears, though the ears tend to be more rounded in those who are half-human.  All are psychic and share a Mind Link or "the Link" as they call it, which can be turned on or off.

In other respects, the Others don't differ from humans all that much.  They know that they exist and accept that their abilities are real.  They are secretive, mostly out of long years of training and experience.

B:        Organized terrain.  Everyone needs a map.  If your entire novel takes place inside a single house inside a single day, you still need the layout of the house – the placement of windows, which side faces north, where doors, halls and rooms lie in relation to each other.

If working in a town, acquire a town map.  If a fantasy world, detail your development process in three map segments, moving from west to east.

C:            Defined inhabitants.  Who lives in your world?  Tripod-legged aliens and telepathic humans?  Dragons?  Cute, furry magic-users?  This is not the area where you define the cultures of human beings – if all you have in your book are humans with no special powers, go to step D.

But if you have (main character) ghosts, vampires, aliens, or fantastical creatures, you need to develop clear definitions of what these folks are, and what they are not.  Don’t satisfy yourself with saying “Oh, they’re Tolkien elves,” or “Oh, they’re typical vampires.”  Actually sit down and create the rules by which your creatures work.  These are the minimum things you need to define:

1.      Physical form of the Others:

Telepathic humans with cat-like eyes that give them excellent night sight, but also make them distinctly different, as do the pointy ears.  The ears are easily concealed by long hair.  The eyes need special contact lenses or sunglasses to pass unnoticed.

2.      Advantages and disadvantages of the form

Advantage: excellent night sight.

Disadvantage: distinctly different eyes and ears, and an increased vulnerability to iron and steel.

3.      How the creature propagates, or how the condition is passed on.

By breeding, either with Others or with Earth human beings.  In the latter case, the Other features are always dominant, though the ears are usually more rounded.

It is possible for a couple to LifeMate, sort of psychic marriage.  A very deep LifeMating, called a Soul Bond, actually bonds the two souls to each other, which can be both good and bad.  The two so bonded can always communicate with each other, even if separated by great distances or dimensions, and they can usually locate each other.  They also feel a part of each other's pain, although they don't both suffer identical injuries.

Due to the sometimes-capricious nature of LifeMatings, morals and customs sometimes differ among the Others, a point that causes our 16-year-old heroes some grief when Earth morals say that they are misbehaving.

4.      How the form works.

The form is human in all other respects.

The night sight is much like a cat's sight, but combines a human eye for detail with the cat's eye for movement and low-level light sensitivity.  Others can see well in very dim light, but not in total darkness.

5.      A history of the form.

Evolved on another world, an alternate Earth, the Others sought to flee a devastating world war that they call the Shadow War because the Shadow Lord, a very powerful Other, instigated a war of worldwide conquest.  Seers sought out a world to which their master-Shaper could make a Gate, a world with biologically compatible human beings.  They fled through the Gate and the greatest Shaper who had ever lived stayed behind to be sure that the Gate was destroyed and that the Shadow Lord could not follow them.  They know that the Shaper planned to have her LifeMate kill her to protect those who fled.

D.        A uniform method of counting time on Urta (some Elders may refer to it).

E.             Defined cultures: rich/poor, literate/illiterate, north/south, east/west, mountain/valley, etc.

The people, as they call themselves, are the only intelligent life forms on Urta.  They are culturally divided along ability lines, rather than ethnic or geographic lines.  Long ages of psychic power usage, which was a conscious decision made many, many Turnings (years) ago, have made the people different compared to Earth people.  The DNA of their offspring does not always follow the DNA of the parents.  Some Elders have argued, and it is an old debate, that by altering their brains and minds, the people have violated natural evolution.

Others have argued that it merely has sent evolution in new and interesting directions.  The Change, as it was called, was implemented by scientists, and at the will of the people of one land.  It was meant to allow the people to manipulate matter and energy with their minds, and it did do that, but there were unforeseen side effects.  The races of the people had been divided much as those on Earth – Black, Red, White and Yellow – and the racial and family traits held true, for the most part.  But with the Changing, everything changed.  White people started giving birth to Black, Black to Yellow, Yellow to Red, and all manner of combinations.  Very confusing in the early Turnings after the Changing, after a few tens of turnings it became accepted as the norm.  In time, those that had psychic abilities became dominant on Urta, and non-psychic human beings were of very small numbers.

In addition to racial changes, the psychic abilities gained were not uniform.  Abilities differed between individuals.  In time, these abilities were recognized as falling into several categories.  First, there were the common abilities that almost everyone had: night sight, telepathy and a sensory awareness of those in close proximity.  The uncommon abilities fell into five categories that correspond to the five "elements" – earth, air, fire, water and life.  Each grouping had common abilities, though not all individuals were so blessed by Gaea.

The Dao or Earth Spirits' abilities center on the earth.  Some can walk through and breathe earth and stone as if it were air.  A few can animate earth and stone.

The Sprites or Air Spirits can often become one with the wind (Fade, Fly, Desolid).

The Salamanders or Fire Spirits usually generate and/or manipulate fire in some way.

The Nymphs or Water Spirits usually breathe water and swim well.  Some have gills and others breathe the water in and out of their lungs (the exact biology of how this works is one of the things the Agency strives to learn).  Some have extraordinarily long, webbed fingers and toes.

The Fauns or Life Spirits are the rarest, and most unusual of the Other races, and also the most varied.  They include those who LifeBond to plants or animals, those who can alter their bodies to become something other than human, etc.

Culture A: The People, also known as the Others on Earth.

Subculture 1: The Dao or Earth Spirits, usually of dark skin.

Subculture 2: The Sprites or Air Spirits, usually of yellow skin.

Subculture 3: The Salamanders or Fire Spirits, usually of reddish skin.

Subculture 4: The Nymphs or Water Spirits, usually of fair skin.

Subculture 4: The Fauns or Life Spirits, who may be of any skin color.

F:             Spoken and written languages.

G.             Consistent (or explicable) technology. 

* * * * * 

We have also made similar documentation for the other animal-like races that appear in the book, such as the Sassarra (a very large, watery creature) and the Urtharra (a very large, earthen creature) that I mentioned earlier.  Maps, definitions of how the Others measured time on Urta, and other similar details have all been documented.  Much of it will not make it into the book(s), but it serves to enrich the story.  I have left them out of this article in the interest of brevity. 

I hope that sharing this example -- how Dawn and I used Holly's system of world building to establish "rules" for our book Secret Psychics -- will help you to better plan your stories and give them greater depth. 

Good luck – and keep writing! 

-- Jim Mills ( and Dawn Greenlee (