In the Country of the
The Joy of Writing Fantasy
By 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
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
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?"