World-Building Basics – Part 2: Making Magic and Wielding Technology

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Last week I talked about myth and backstory as an important part of world-building in your novel. Weaving backstory or mythology into the current plot action and using it to create dramatic tension is part of our job. And because we are writing in the science fiction and fantasy genres, it’s also our job to introduce some kind of magic or advanced technology into our tale.

You, the writer, should be intimately familiar with the special telepathic skills you’ve given a character, the powers of an ancient sword, the capabilities of a trans-galactic spaceship. You’ll want to think these things through so you can consistently apply the magic or tech in your story. Once you make rules for your supernatural elements, don’t break them! Ask yourself the following to get started:

Who can wield it?

Only the Targaryens can ride dragons. Thor is the only one who can lift the hammer. Wizards and mudbloods both use magic. 

What can it do?

The Death Star has the ability to blow up entire planets. The Galactica has FTL engines. 

What are the limits or cost of using it?

Frodo nearly loses his mind carrying the ring to Mordor.

Remember that the cool stuff is just that – stuff. It’s only when your characters interact with it that it becomes relevant to your story. Here are some things to consider as you weave your fantastical elements into your tale:

Magic and technology should serve the story, not be the story.

The Force is a fundamental element in Star Wars, but the story itself is about a hero’s journey. Arthur is the only one to wield Excalibur, but this is the story of the rise and fall of a king.

How does the magic or tech impact people and society?

Once you’ve introduced these elements into your world, it is now quite different from our world. You’ll need to think through the effects it will have on the people and the culture. For example, heading off to Hogwarts is a rite of passage in the wizarding world.

Death must be real, or only reversed with dire cost.

No amount of magic or fancy technology should easily combat death, because if death has no meaning, the stakes for your characters aren’t high enough. Or you can turn this on its head Altered Carbon style, and consider a world where immortality can be bought. Either way, death is a big deal and it should remain so.

Avoid deus ex machina.

It’s tempting to use magic or futuristic technology to get your characters out of a bind, but it’s important to think of these things as tools wielded by the characters, with limits and rules, not as contrived solutions out of a difficult situation. If the magic or technology in your story is so all powerful that it can easily rescue your characters, the story becomes more about the cool things and less about the characters. The stakes might not seem high enough and any potential victory for your characters will seem hollow.

Thinking up cool weapons, bending the space-time continuum, or imbuing our characters with supernatural powers is part of what makes writing in this genre so much fun. But we have to pay attention to how we use these elements in our story. Readers will catch us if we don’t!

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Tabitha Lord is the award-winning author of the HORIZON series. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, four kids, two spoiled cats, and lovable black lab.

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