Monday, July 18, 2011

Worldbuilding: Setting the Limits

I was reminded by Mike Caton's post about the sometimes artificial limits we place on our worlds when we are building them.  On some level, that's because without those limits, there's a whole other can of worms opened up that we, as writers, would prefer not to deal with.  Take, for example, my 2373 Space Opera setting.  In that setting, humans don't have artificial intelligence technology, robots or boutique cybernetics.  Why?  Because I didn't want to deal with that.

But how to explain WHY?  In that case, I put a dark chapter in human history (unimaginatively called The Cyber Wars) in which AIs tried to rise up against humanity.  Humanity prevailed, and from that point on put safeguards on their computer technology to keep it "dumb".

Magic is another thing that needs its limits.  I know one person who insists that "rules of magic" need to be defined early in a story, which I think may be going a bit far, but certainly as a writer, one needs to know what magic can and can't do.  In my various Maradaine stories, magic can't heal, touch the mind or affect the dead.  Magic is physically draining, and takes energy, and energy means calories.  Mages tend to be skinny and constantly eating. 

Magic also has to have an impact on society.  One thing I believe, and it's reflected in the technology level of most fantasy works being Medieval/Renaissance levels, is this: the presence of real, quantifiable magic impedes the progress of technology.  Impedes, but doesn't halt.  (That's why in Maradaine, technology is closer to 17th century instead of 10th.)

What ways do you all set limits in your worldbuilding?


Lex Mosgrove said...

Great post right there, and some interesting topics you're touching on.

As for the why - I don't think it always needs to be explained - depends on the story, really, and the kind of world we're talking about - you already gave a good example of where an explanation would be necessary.

As for magic, there's a difference between the worldbuilder knowing the rules, and telling the audience what those rules are. The first is non-negotiable, as is sticking to these rules. The second - well, that depends on the story again, and on the magic system. If you look at LotR for example, it would have made little sense to explain the rules of that magic to the readers.

I completely agree on the magic-limiting-technology part. That's one thing I'm exploring in my current setting, which is a hard sf / high fantasy hybrid. It's also what I thought was a rather unrealistic about the Harry Potter books.

To answer your question, I set limits in my current world by having the main set of cultures be gender-equal, because I didn't want to deal with those issues. That turned out quite interesting because it allowed for a completely new set of views on things, and allowed me to emphasize other forms of oppression instead.

dbonfitto said...

You know what I hate? When the hero overcomes an obstacle with magic by 'wanting it more' or 'pushing harder.' That's pretty much the pinnacle of deus ex machina magic. It pretty much poops on any sort of detail-oriented world building that has been done.

Also, the map a few posts back is sweet.

Rob Bartlett said...

Right now, the way I'm thinking of magic is...I'm not using passive magic. Like, you can't charm a sword to be unbreakable. You can maybe help make it the best damn sword possible, but there's no statute of "This sword doesn't break, period." Likewise, if you want to say, make the air unbreathable, you have to keep going back and doing it. For the most parts, the feats are largely in the realm of psychic phenomenon and "acts of chemistry" (Which may need to be augmented by potions every now and then.) I may even do a divide between those who really mostly on psychic/"ethereal" magic and "chemical" magic.

Likewise, in my universe, humans cannot ordinarily do magic. Usually they have to be the offspring for a non-human, serve as a host body, or had something in them altered so they can perform it. (And doing it the latter way can deform you or drive you mad) This is pretty much going back to the source of Merlin.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Lex- I agree, there's a big difference between the author knowing the rules and spelling it out too much. I'm a big believer in "know, don't show" being a companion to "show, don't tell".

Dan- So you wouldn't like, "Oh, your wand goes up to 11"? Thanks on the map.

Rob- That's a good way of looking at it, I think. I do think magic works best if the rule is it creates a shift from reality, but reality will reassert itself once energy has stopped going into it.

dbonfitto said...

Wands can go to 11 as long as there is a story reason for them to go to 11.

My car won't go faster if I yell while I push the gas pedal. If I installed a nitro booster and saved it till the end of the race, that's a good way to go to 11.

The Karate Kid took it to 11 when he busted out the crane kick. It's a crazy move, but they backed it up with story. I think it also failed in the second movie. Dammit. Peter Cetara is in my head now.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I just imagined a wizard whose wand has a nitro booster.

Michael Caton said...

Even when I was young I was a curmudgeon about fantasy, because the writer can just make up whatever they want, and there seem to be no real rules (most of the time). I find in my old age I'm having the same reaction more often to science fiction, which is mostly fantasy with physics terms. I'm frustrated about my cynicism to be honest because if you're NOT making stuff up, it's not science fiction, it's a speculative journal article with characters, and that's not what people want.

dbonfitto said...

Ever read that Mark Twain essay about Fennimore Cooper?