Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


In the Country of the Mind:
The Joy of Writing Fantasy

By Jim Wagner
Jim Wagner

What might Ancient Greece have been like if the Greeks had had a magic system that worked?  Or, if one doesn't want to deal with magic, what might have happened if Alexander the Great hadn't died so young?

Only your imagination limits the possible scenarios.  You can take a pivotal point in any historical era, change it, and see what the outcome might be.

If you worry about missing some little fact in your research on the Assyrians, and having persons who collect abstruse information point it out forever, you can create your own world.  You can start with the geography, go on to climate, to peoples, to political organizations, everything the way you want it.

That sounds like a lot of work before you actually get down to telling the story, and some people really do spend a long time getting the details of their world right first, before they commit a single word to their actual story.

That's not "wrong."  As Kipling says,

"There are nine and sixty ways

of creating tribal lays

and every single one of them is right."

My own usual personal method is to start off with the area in which the initial action takes place, perhaps working out a rough map which, sometimes, remains only in my head.  If I start out with a character, what's he like?  How does he view the world?  Which attitudes does he hold that are peculiar to him, and which ones come out of the culture?  Is he among his own people right now, or among foreigners?  If the latter, what sources of conflict might be there, be they personal prejudices or cultural misunderstandings?

It might be necessary to deal with economics, too.  Through much of history, agriculture was the prime reason for one area to prosper beyond another, which also led to rivalry and sometimes warfare between nations.

Also, throughout a good deal of history, each household made most of its own clothing, shoes, pots, and tools.  Even when tailors, cobblers, potters, smiths, and so on were specialized into crafts, they worked in their own small shops, with a few helpers.  Large manufacturing concerns did not often occur until late in history.

Again, this is beginning to sound like a lot of work before you start telling the story, but not necessarily so.  You can just start telling the story, filling in the information as it's needed.  It isn't necessary to describe the local political system until the time when one of your characters has to deal with some aspect of it.  Even then, it's only necessary to set out the number of words that give the reader the data necessary to understand this present scene.  "The man facing him was obviously from the upper level of the Theocracy, since he wore the purple fringe around the bottom edge of his grey robe."

Or perhaps, "He knew he had to deal carefully with members of the Theocracy, since they had unlimited power over the people in the city."

Or perhaps he doesn't know it, but some local friend warns him at the moment it's necessary.

Some writers also say you should know more about your world than you ever set down on the paper.  In many instances, the readers will fill in the blanks according to the facts they've got.

A story needs to have a conflict.  At its simplest level, as has been said, "Two dogs, one bone, that's your story."

What does your main character want to do?  Perhaps he just wants to avoid trouble, but he gets put into a state where trouble is unavoidable.  "Trouble" can mean anything from a verbal argument to a competition between merchants to a war involving empires.

One might start writing about a fellow running cargo-barges along a major river for his living.  If he's going through various countries, or even going through widespread sections of the same country, there's plenty of room for conflict.  Think about attitudes of Texans to New Yorkers, and vice versa.

As your story continues, various other elements come in.  Wild barbarian horsemen, very civilized and arrogant city-people, small-farmers concerned solely with the next harvest -- and the only limitations are your imagination and a logical reason for this person, group, or thing to come up in your story.

In all this, I haven't mentioned magic.  Magic is a very touchy topic.  There are two rules about magic: it can't be done without cost, and it has to be consistent.

If by magic can do anything, with no cost to the user, there isn't any story.   Your Evil Master Magician casts a spell that destroys the Hero and his party before they've even gotten together.

If, however, casting a major spell leaves the caster requiring three days rest (or more) during which time he's totally vulnerable to anything, that's a different matter.

If casting a spell requires a sacrifice, then magic becomes an antisocial activity by its nature, which changes the nature of the story.

If casting a spell requires certain potions and the recitation of spells, then it's not much good for fighting.  While the magician is getting his things set up, or reciting his two-minute-long spell, somebody brains him with a club.

Consistency is a little easier to manage.  It just means you can't suggest, on page eighteen, that such-and-such a thing is not possible by magical means, then on page fifty-five have someone doing that impossible thing.

It is also necessary to look at your magic system and see just how it will affect the cultures.  What things are always done by magic, so that no other methods have been developed for doing them?  Can magic make crops grow better?  If so, is it also possible to magically make crops wither?  What sanctions are possible or available against the use of harmful magic?

There are many possible worlds there, in the Country of the Mind, each with its own peculiarities, its own sets of ideals, nations, people, and problems.

And of course, in each is the question that makes the story:  "How do they get out of this?"