It’s not fantasy without magic and it’s not science fiction without advanced technology. What your characters can do, the means by which they communicate, defend themselves, travel, and so on, will have to be as plausible as they are imaginative.
It may be fair to say that the existence of magic puts a work of fiction in the fantasy genre, and the presence of imagined technology makes any story a science fiction story.
But then doesn’t all fantasy contain some technology? And even some science fiction, like Star Wars, can offer up a modicum of magic (the Force, anyone?). And couldn’t you write a fantasy story—set in a wholly-created world, rife with dragons and orcs—with no magic? After all, anything someone makes, any tool, is technology. And if dragons are just animals, and orcs are just a race of people, then both are possible without working magic in the world. What that means is that authors of both genres will have to pay attention to both magic and technology.
When creating a system of magic or some new technology for your world, always start with character and story.
Every story is about characters in conflict, and everything about the setting should be purpose-built to move that story forward, not the other way around. Though you do want your readers to be awed by your magic, and lust after your technology (I want a light saber so bad . . .) it’s compelling characters in a surprising and satisfying story that will win you those readers in the first place. So no matter what, invent just enough magic and technology to move your story forward.
Once you have a story and characters in mind, you’re ready to start building your world, and you do that by asking yourself questions.
The process of worldbuilding is all about answering questions both before you start writing and continuously all through the writing process. Though you will want to have a decent handle on what your world is like, what sort of magic and/or technology is available to your characters, let the characters and story tell you what you need to create as you go along.
In both fantasy magic and science fiction technology, the rules for how things work are entirely yours to create. You set the rules, and those rules can be anything, but once you set those rules, it’s essential that you follow them, or give your readers some good, story-rich reason for why the rules have changed. Almost all of what we’ll be talking about in all four sessions is how to set those rules, not just for magic and technology, but everything else, too. This is how you lend your setting, however bizarre and unearthly, a sense of plausibility: by the consistent application of a clear set of rules.
According to Bronislaw Malinowski in his book Myth and Primitive Psychology, magic is meant to accomplish one of three things:
And it’s easy enough to extend that out to technology as well. This is a great place to start. Think about how magic or technology in your world might accomplish one or more of these three basic tasks. That’s at the very top level, but in both cases, when creating a system of magic or high technology, keep asking questions that begin with: what, who, when, where, how, and why.
This partial lecture came from the course Worldbuilding.
- How to build an authentic and consistent world for your sci-fi or fantasy story.
- How to set up the “rules” of your world.
- How to create gripping and meaningful monsters or aliens.
- How to craft a culture that feels as if it were real.
- How to make a government and religion to impose order in your world.
- How to use your world to benefit your story.