So I got the first part of Chapter 1 of DIffusion critiqued in my writers’ group. And while I am pleased with the feedback, the magic confused one reader who hasn’t read book 1. (Diffraction, available here, shameless plug!)
The primary magic is Refocusing, where the four Aristotlean elements (earth, water, air, fire) are transformed from one into another. Some elemental shifts are complementary – air turns into fire pretty smoothly, with minimal loss of energy. Others are contradictory – fire to water and vice versa, for example. These conversions waste significant energy, so the amount of the end result is the amount you start with, cut in half or more.
Additionally there are two secondary elements produced by combining two primaries: magelight (fire and air), and shadow (earth and water).
The impression my crit group member got was that I had written something like Avatar, where one learns to bend a particular element only. I obviously have some clarification to do in the writing so that the idea of transforming one element into another comes through clearly.
But I thought there might be other ways to convey this information.
I love books that include art or “scholarly perspectives” on aspects of the story. Sanderson has been doing this with his Stormlight Archives, and it’s awesome. To me, that level of detail helps reinforce the idea that this is a coherent world.
One of my favorite hobbies is drawing to pass the time. So I took a couple hours and whipped up an artist’s rendition of sorts for the elemental continuum in my fantasy series.
I still have some annotations to add… maybe a couple arrows or connections showing which elements are contradictory… and I’ll have to fix the parts where the top sheet of paper sticks up from the bottom layer. (The perils of drawing with pen instead of pencil, I suppose. I finished the outer parts without any deal-breakers, then totally botched the magelight on the right side and had to start those parts over.
Still, overall I’m happy with this and intend for it to be close to Chapter 1 in the eventual print version of Diffusion.
In my experience, there are some questions a fantasy writer is told to ask themselves right from the start. And one of the most important is: What is different or unique about my setting?
What is it that sets the world I’ve created apart from any or every other fantasy work?
In other words, “Give me a reason to pick up this book.”
So much has been done before that it’s hard to come up with an idea that feels original. When you say, “elemental magic,” people say, “Like Avatar?” When you talk about rampaging hordes of savages, people say, “Like the Reavers in Serenity?” Bring up corrupted, shadowy creatures, and D&D players ask about displacer beasts or doppelgangers. And that’s without the standard sword-and-sorcery tropes that conjure images of Lord of the Rings,World of Warcraft, and countless other fantasy settings.
How does a writer set their world apart? How do you highlight what’s different?
I knew I had a few differences I really liked: a religious system of Gracemarks that bestow divine power, a system of elemental magic fused with a material or technological component, and a problem of a broken world where rifts of chaotic energy twist creatures into corrupted, destructive versions of themselves.
In the process of revising and tightening my first fantasy novel Diffraction, it hit me that what I liked most in fantasy settings wasn’t the sort of book that called all kinds of attention to “Look how strange and fantastic this is.”
Much love to Narnia, but I didn’t want a ‘magic wardrobe’ book or some “fish out of water” contrivance like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
What hooks me in worldbuilding done by authors like Sanderson is how the unique quality of the setting is adapted and utilized as a part of the world.
Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives is a great example. The world is ravaged by frequent powerful storms, and almost every living thing has adapted in some way to this rather negative quality. At the same time, gemstones gather energy from these highstorms, creating sources of magic power as well as a monetary system (the larger and better quality of gem, the more stormlight it holds, thus the more valuable it is). And this stormlight fuels both magic and the limited technology of the world.
In other words, it’s all connected. The unique “problem” in the setting also serves an important purpose and acts as a solution of sorts to other questions. It’s a testament to human determination, survival instinct, and ingenuity.
As I thought about the various unique qualities I liked for Diffraction, I realized something very similar from a worldbuilding perspective would work in this setting.
The rifts of energy that cause trouble by corrupting animals into powerful forces of destruction are also the source of magically-enhanced conductive metals necessary for the religious orders and Arcanists’ Hall to function. What’s a problem from one perspective is a solution from another. It feels more natural, since things in our day-to-day lives are rarely entirely good or bad. More often, the critical factor is how we react to the circumstances around us.
This to me feels like a natural way to look at a fantastic setting. It’s less about “what kind of quirk can I put into the world to make it special” and more about making a world that feels real… despite the quirks that set it apart from the worlds of other novels, and from our own.
Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback from Amazon. You can find it (and my other books) on my author page.
Last year, I made it my goal to get my forever-in-progress fantasy novel out the door as a finished book. Diffraction is the result of all that effort (most of it at the beginning of the year, when I set out to finish it, and at the end when I felt under the crunch to make good on the promise).
A while back, I spent just over two hours walking on the treadmill and digging through alpha reader feedback to figure out how to approach what seemed like a daunting task: Revision and Editing.
The good news? It wasn’t as daunting as I expected.
Even more fun, I engaged in further world-building to sort out some of the relationships and conflicts going on in the story.
To my critical eye, it felt like too much jammed into one setting–too many separate and unrelated elements all vying for a reader’s attention.
Like many fantasy worlds, Diffraction is set in the ruins of a once-great Empire, whose scientists incorporated elemental magic with a form of technology in order to reach its heights. It’s also a world that experiences limited yet direct interaction with the Divine, whose seven Aspects bestow symbols of power upon their most worthy adherents.
As I sat back to imagine a world where gods prove their existence to men and where magic-users apply some level of scientific thought and experimentation into the use of their powers, I realized these can be complimentary elements of the setting rather than competitors.
My religious orders gain divine power through Gracemarks: a radiant, metallic symbol on an individual’s right hand that represents which ideal or Aspect they identify with. Gracemarks often appear spontaneously, bestowed by the Divine. But the orders can also apply a Gracemark made of a blessed metal, which confers similar powers upon the marked person.
A world with obvious divine interaction would reflect that in the culture. If many people wear a symbol that implies something significant about their individual values, then displaying the back of the right hand like a wave would reasonably become a common form of greeting.
If you show me a symbol of Justice and Order, I expect you to treat people fairly and uphold the law. Showing me a blank hand might not give me a stereotypical box to fit you in, but neither does it mean I assume you’re untrustworthy. Showing a hand with a scar in the shape of a Gracemark — that tells me to be on guard, because here’s an individual who once had a specific, public moral allegiance and forsook it.
On the other hand, I always meant for magic to have a technological component. Humans need a special lens to see the arcane energies they use for any magical ability. But that only allows one to see and draw on magic. So (based on some thoughtful alpha reader feedback) I added an output device to match the input of the lens – a metal etching that guides or focuses the energy the magic user sends forth.
Given human propensity to take what exists and use it in new ways, it hit me that these Arcanists would study Gracemarks used by the religious orders, then create a similar method or means to use their own abilities. Using conductive metals, touched and transformed by the magical nature of the world, Arcanists would have etchings that grant them fine control of magic power.
Like any good reverse-engineered technology, improvements can adapt the tech to the new user’s needs. Picture a golden tattoo, placed anywhere on the body. Unlike a Gracemark that is always on the right hand, always exposed, the Arcanist’s etching can be hidden if desired. This fits their character more as well. If you want to be brazen and show off your etching, you certainly can. But if you’d rather keep your abilities hidden, a simple pair of spectacles and a covered etching prevents anyone from guessing you’re about to tap into elemental energies and unleash devastating magic.
Thus the effort to clarify how divine power and magic work in this setting becomes a means of character development and description.
I picture a rough-and-tumble tough guy whose Ocular is a monocle secured by a leather band around his shaved head. His riftgold etching is affixed to his face in a sunburst around his eyepiece. He’s an Arcanist thug, and he doesn’t care if you know it. That’s a very different character from the rich noble who wears the Ocular equivalent of a contact lens, practically invisible, and whose etching is hidden from view on his right shoulderblade.
The best part is that this system of Gracemarks and Arcanist etchings is something a reader can see themselves in, much like “which house would I join in Hogwarts?” or “which faction would I belong to in Divergent?” One of my co-workers who is also a fan gave me some feedback, and one of the first things she said was she enjoyed trying to decide which Gracemark she’d choose.
I’m chalking it up as a successful concept.
Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback on Amazon. You can find it (and all my books) at my author page.
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.