Managing Complexity in Worldbuilding: Magic

Worldbuilding is a complex part of storytelling, at least for those looking to write fantasy and science fiction. And the complexity of that world, namely how much it differs from our current world, can be a great blessing for your story, or an unmanageable curse. I wrote a way of breaking down at looking at complexity in worlds, in order to compare different worlds and help determine what you want or how to make things work. This may only be helpful for me, and obviously any time I start making categorizations and generalizations, I might be misreading or simplifying things. But I thought I’d post it for anyone who might be interested.

As far as I’ve determined, there are three primary elements of a fantasy “world” (and I include “science fantasy” in this):

  • “Magic”
  • Species
  • Society/Culture

The existence and relative complexity of each of these elements contributes to the overall complexity of the world. If all three are complex, you have a world of immense complexity—which isn’t inherently bad, but more difficult to work with. If all three are simple, you have an almost-realistic world. Most fall somewhere in between.

Each element has its own continuum of complexity. I’ll discuss each in detail, but for the sake of the casual reader, I’ll break them into shorter posts.

The first is: Magic


This is the element which describes how this reality differs from ours on a fundamental level. Look at the physics of this world to determine where it is different—that’s where the “magic” lies. It could be a “science” element, such as unrealistic technology or faux-science like psychics, or it could be explained as actual “magic” and supernatural effect. Traits and abilities of species count as a “magic” system, and usually their complexity corresponds to the complexity of the species system, but a complexity within the system of abilities or within a species can raise that level.

Low complexity “magic” is a single different element within an otherwise realistic world. This could be an item—a suit of armor, a magic ring, a time machine. This could be a place—a haunted house, a time portal, a secret garden. This could be a being—a visiting alien, a vampire, a gremlin. It could a grouping (or a suggested grouping—as in a species but only one is present), but the key is that this element is the only way in which this reality is different. The only caveat is that it must be “unrealistic,” or breaking the laws of the universe in some way—merely being futuristic, if in an otherwise futuristic world, does not count; for example, having spaceships in a future-space world, is not “magic” (having psychics or the “Force” is—obviously this is a fine line).

Medium complexity “magic” is a system of different elements in an otherwise realistic world, but a relatively simple system. This could be a system of magic which consists only of spells, only of symbols, only of a variety of abilities, etc. This could be a grouping of objects which behave in a variety of ways yet underneath a single set of rules. Sometimes a “network” of species will be considered medium because of the variety, and sometimes low because of the simplicity. See “Species” for more detail.

High complexity “magic” is a complicated system with numerous different effects, practices, and details to convey. The key is that the reader/viewer must obtain a great amount of information before the magical system can be understood and predicted—it may follow a variety of paths that can obtain effects in a multitude of ways and with great variation of outcome. In “science” worlds, when there is an abundance of ‘foreign’ technology, each with its own abundance of details and quirks, it can easily become “high” complexity.

The negotiation between “magic” and “species” can be complicated, especially when one species may have a higher complexity of “magic” than the rest. Ultimately, go with the highest level as the overall.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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4 Responses to Managing Complexity in Worldbuilding: Magic

  1. Pingback: Managing Complexity in Worldbuilding: Species | J. Sevick

  2. Pingback: Managing Complexity in Worldbuilding: Society | J. Sevick

  3. Pingback: Managing Complexity in Worldbuilding: Rankings | J. Sevick

  4. Pingback: The Normal Threshold | J. Sevick

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