Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Building a Fantasy World - Fantastic Creatures by Matthew Presley

Just as humans are boring, horses are boring. In a fantasy world where magic allows any animal to be trained, why bother with horses? Why not bears or lions or dinosaurs? What do small races like gnomes or pixies ride into battle? Not all animals are war-mounts either; why have cows in the farm when there’s better eating on a diplodocus? What in the animal rooting through your bins is something worse than a fox.

Lets start with some bullet points;

Ecology of the X: Even creatures that didn’t evolve need to fit into the world at large. Let’s say you have griffins, and to avoid arguments, a wizard made the first ones. Where do they live now? What do they eat? What impact did introducing a giant flying predator have on, for instance, sheep farming>? Or children playing outdoors? When a bird crap hits you, it’s meant to be lucky; if a griffin crap hits you it’d break your neck. And how much would a griffin need to eat to stay airborne anyway? Flight isn’t the most economic form of movement.

Fantasy ecology has been written about, particularly in Dragon Magazine articles relating to Dungeons and Dragons monsters. Beyond that, looking at similar creatures (Lion prides, for example, might be a useful basis for our griffins) can give you an idea how your new creation fits into the world.

Beast of a thousand Adjectives: When a person reads a story, they get their own mental picture of an animal. It needn’t be exactly the same as the mental picture you have when you imagine it, and leaving a description with no room for interpretation will put a reader off.

For example;

An ostrich.

We all know what an ostrich looks like (and if you don’t, image search for ostriches, I think you’ll find it worthwhile). If we’re being fantastic, though, we don’t want just ostriches!

A yellow ostrich.
There! We now have a slightly more fantastic ostrich for our story. But why stop there?

A yellow ostrich with a lizards tail.

Why stop there?

A yellow ostrich with an iguana’s tail, and cloven hooves.

 Why stop there?
A yellow and red ostrich with a deep crimson iguana’s tail, flat wide cloven hooves and a thin curved vestigial spur running parallel to its ulna...

Over-describing becomes a barrier to a reader. If you’re artistically minded, by all means draw the creature you’re describing. But don’t spend longer describing a creature in-story than is vitally necessary. Let the audience imagine the creature they want, even if it’s not exactly how you picture it. Take, for instance, the Balrog from the Lord of the Rings books. There’s a lot less description of it than you’d imagine; the book doesn’t even specify how big it is or whether it has wings; artists have depicted it as demonic even though the text makes no assertions as such. We’ll never be entirely certain how Tolkien envisaged the Balrog, but it doesn’t really matter. The description of the creature is enough for artists to interpret in many different ways.

Also, when describing a creature, never ever do this;

A yellow and red ostrich with a deep crimson iguana’s tail, flat wide cloven hooves and a thin curved vestigial spur running parallel to its ulna went past, never to be seen or spoken of again.

Those blasphemous Qliphoth!: This is at the other end of the descriptive spectrum, where the audience is given too little to actually envisage anything. Sometimes, this is the point with truly alien creatures. It defeats the point of an unimaginable horror if the author goes on to describe it. However, if its a creature we don’t have any clear idea of, its hard to imagine how it interacts with the world. For example;

The Qliphoth attacked.

The who-what-now? How do you even pronounce that? How does it attack? Does it bite, or shoot a gun? Let’s try again;

The protagonist couldn’t see the Qliphoth clearly; ungodly adjectives obscured its unknowable, blasphemous form. Raising its surreal tentacle, it struck out to attack.

Did you spot the most important word in that example? It was ‘tentacle’. Soon as you say tentacle, the audience know what to expect; some form of squid-lord, probably borne from Lovecraft’s allergy to seafood. But the Qliphoth isn’t Lovecraftian! It’s a totally different unknowable horror with tentacles! Now there’s nothing wrong with squid-like monstrosities, but if the protagonist can see the thing, he’ll understand it as a squid like monstrosity and therefore so will the audience. Giving more description of the weirdness, as viewed by a protagonist looking at it, makes the creature seem more real.

The protagonist could see the Qliphoth, though what he saw didn’t make sense. What could’ve been oily skin tore away from metallic bones, leaving them exposed before new flesh quivered to the surface. It was as if it was trying to appear human, but the protagonists shape was as alien to it as the Qliphoth was to him. Razor teeth rose to the surface like bones at low tide, converging at the ends of its boneless limbs. With a metallic screech, it lashed out at the protagonist with every limb it had.

Example creatures

Before we make some new creatures, let’s figure out some variables to work with.

Description: What does the creature look like? How big is it? Does it resemble any real creatures?

Origin: If a creature didn’t evolve, where did it come from? I consider this one optional; the best creation myths are multiple choice, after all.

Ecology: How does the creature interact with its environment? Is it in balance with nature, or a destructive parasite? Where does it like to live? How is it adapted to its habitat?

Relationship to humans: Which eats the other? Is the creature feared, or hunted? Can it be domesticated, or is it too wild?

Looking at our example kingdom, we’re already got two new creatures; our first King was Darus of the Golden Steed, and we’ve hinted that the Shadow Way ends up with its casters becoming Dark Horrors. These two seem like fittingly disparate examples.

Golden Steed

Description: A gold coloured horse isn’t particularly interesting; how about a literal gold horse?  Although a solid gold horse would be worth more dead than alive (in the few seconds before it sank into the earth and imploded), I like the idea of living metal. Perhaps only its coat and mane are golden; its body is magic-infused metal, with the flesh flexible and light, while its bones are hard as steel.

Ecology: What would a metal horse eat, other than metal? It’d roam round otherwise barren rock fields, breaking down boulders to chew on whatever ore it could find. Like a real herbivore, doing this propagates a whole ecosystem; if it’s unable to digest soil or organic material, the horse’s gravelly droppings would be the most fertile soil in the kingdom. Herds of metal horses could convert indigestible mountains into loamy hillsides in a few months!

Making the Golden Steed a species rather than a one-off lessens Darus, in my opinion. Perhaps a golden horse is incredibly rare; tin, iron and copper horses are more likely to form herds. Capturing and training a gold horse is a Herculean task, and worthy of our king’s legend.

Throughout writing the example kingdom, I’ve pictured it on flat prairie land rather than mountainous regions. Perhaps the land was full of outcrops and boulders long ago, until the rock-eating horses flattened it out.

Origin: I’m leaning towards ‘Forged by the Gods’ for this species. It’s a bit of a cop-out, as it handwaves the creation myth and means the creature needn’t have a prupose beyond ‘divine curio’. Some things in the world, though, should be inexplicable; even if the metal horses aren’t divine creations, the kingdom’s people might believe them to be.

Relationship to humans: We don’t want metal horses to usurp regular horses entirely. There’s a lot of reason why humans domesticated horses, most of which don’t matter in a magical world. But the example kingdom is low-magic, with unpredictable powers; the horses, therefore, must stay. Changing one thing could make the metal horses less desirable as steeds; what if we changed their temperament? Looking at cousins to the horse, zebras are more aggressive than horses, and panic under stress. They can still be broken or trained, but doing so is far more risky than horses. Our metal steeds could be similarly wild; this would make Darus riding one into battle even more impressive.

Dark Horror

Description: Unlike the Golden Steed, Dark Horrors are insidious body-stealing parasites. Details vary from one individual to another; we’ve established that there’s been a grand total of seven potential Dark Horrors in our kingdom. Let’s say not everyone who practices the Shadow Way inevitably turns, but there’s been a few; enough to be considered more than one-offs. It’s not entirely clear when the Dark Horror takes over; some believe the human side never truly dies, but becomes trapped in an alien body, still able to see and hear and sense the world but unable to control the Dark Horrors actions. As no-one’s ever recovered from becoming a Dark Horror, details of how they work aren’t common knowledge.

Dark Horrors begin as humanoid, but as the spirit takes over, it ‘forgets’ how the body fits together and begins to mutate. Hands split into claws, bones begin warping before being spat out altogether, and skin falls away to reveal swollen musculature and withered organs. No-one’s witnessed further mutations; at this point witnesses are usually stabbing the Horror till it stops twitching, then burning what remains as far away from their crops as possible.

Ecology: Let’s say there’s been three Dark Horrors thus far. No-one’s sure what equilibrium they might have with their environment, due to the aforementioned stabbing/burning. Seeing as the ashes of a Dark Horror are toxic enough to kill any plant life they fall on, it’s unlikely a living one would benefit its host ecosystem.

Origin: The bound spirit that was mother to the Shadow Way was the first Dark Horror; although it started with human appearance and personality, the darkness took over in the end. The spirit that was bound wasn’t analogous to the spirits of the Wild Way; I like the idea that it was a forgotten spirit, older than the Wild Way. It didn’t resent the binding as a Wild spirit would; this doesn’t mean it was entirely benevolent. Perhaps Dark Horrors are its method of procreation, using humans as a host.

Relationship to humans: Remember the whole ‘stabbing and burning’? Don’t think the Dark Horrors aren’t deserving of this fate; once their cover’s blown, they’re unlikely to be friendly. Perhaps if they start appearing in less manageable numbers, our example kingdom will see some other form of social interaction with them. Or the Horrors will eat entire continents and leave nothing but ash in their wake. I’m not sure which makes the more interesting story right now.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

New Logo

This weekend I would like to reveal the new group logo for the Sheffield Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Group.

(Sorry for the short post recently - we had a lot going on in the group but I wanted to keep getting the posts up.)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

One Million Words

Starting on the 1st November to coincide with Nanowrimo, the Sheffield Science Fiction and Fantasy writers group have set themselves the target of writing one million words in space of one year (or faster if we can manage it).
Those that wish to sign up to have their word count registered to be part of this need to contact Kathryn ( for more details.
Those who have signed up will be listed on this blog with their word count target for the year on the blog post of the Saturday 31st October.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Blog Post What Genre Is That? – Horror

So today we are moving onto the horror genre and without further ado, let just get on with describing the subgenres.

·         Body horror – can also be known as biological horror, organic horror or venereal horror. This is basically the destruction or degeneration of the body, often done in a very graphic fashion.  It may deal with topics that include disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation. Or the focus maybe on unnatural movements or anatomically incorrect placement of limbs in order to create 'monsters'.

·         Ghost story – dealt with this subgenre in fantasy, perhaps, no more than perhaps this subgenre should have been included in horror instead. It is basically any story with a ghost (in any form) in it.

·         Gothic fiction - is a combination of horror and romanticism. This type of story feeds on romance and a pleasing/seductive terror. Think Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There is also often a Victorian feel to this work either because it was written then or dates back to that period.

·         Monster literature – the terror from this story comes in the form of a monster, be that some put together from different parts, vampires, werewolves, zombies or anything else you can dream up with.

·         Psychological horror – this story focuses on the characters' fears and emotional instability to build tension rather than a growing body count.

·         Slasher – for these stories, think bad guy with a weapon (usually a knife) killing pretty much anyone in sight. These stories have high body counts and no one is safe, except maybe the protagonist who needs to be alive to ‘kill’ the slasher at the end.

·         Survival horror – can be very similar to slasher (see above), with the focus on the story just being on the characters survive until the end of the story despite everything being out of the favour. High body counts are to be expected.

·         Werewolf – these stories includes humans that turn into some kind of wolf whenever there is a full moon. These stories can include other shapeshifters too.

·         Vampire – this is any fiction that includes the blood drinkers. This can either be told from the side of their victims (those who have their blood drunk) or the vampires themselves. Vampire can have their restrictions namely crosses, holly water and sunlight – and remember real vampires don’t sparkle.

·         Zombie – people being brought back from the dead to either lead the story or be the main threat to the other characters.


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Word Counts – How Long Should This Be?

There are no hard and fast rules to word counts. The truth is that a story is as long as it needs to be or in other words as long as it takes to tell the story. But that doesn’t help when you are trying to work out how long your story should be. So sometimes it is good to basic guidelines.

The basic terms are (taken from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Nebula Award category guidelines) –

·         Short Stories – under 7,500 words

·         Novelettes – 7,500 to 17,500 words

·         Novellas – 17,500 to 40,000 words

·         Novels 40,000 words plus

However in practical terms very few novels are as short as 40000 words, with a couple of notable exceptions for example Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is 49,000 words, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is 46,000 words and The Lion, The Witch and Wardrobe is 36,000 words. And at the other extreme very few novels hit the other extreme 400,000 plus words. Notable exceptions here are Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell at 418,000 words, The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein at 455,000 and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy at 587,000 words.

The truth is that most novels falls somewhere between 40,000 and 400,000 words – but that is a large gap between the two. And the gap between the low and high word count really depends on what you what you are writing, some stories just take more words than others, especially if you are building a new world in your story.

The following is rough breakdown by genre –

·         Middle grade fiction – 25,000 to 40,000 words

·         Young adult fiction – 45,000 to 80,000 words (although young adult fantasy can rise to 120,000 words)

·         Literary fiction – 65,000 to 120,000 words

·         Mysteries – 75,000 to 100,000 words

·         Crime – 80,000 to 100,000

·         Horror – 80,000 to 100,000 words

·         Mainstream – 80,000 to 100,000 words

·         Thrillers – 80,000 to 100,000 words

·         Westerns – 80,000 to 100,000 words

·         Paranormal romance – 85,000 to 100,000 words

·         Romance – 85,000 to 100,000 words

·         Science fiction and fantasy – 90,000 to 200,000 words (although this breaks up into many subcategories with urban fantasy at the shorter end – 90,000 to 100,000 and epic fantasy at the longer end – 120,000 to 200,000 words)

The other thing to note is that books tend to get longer in a series. The main reason for this is that once an editor and reader from that matter, enjoys a book/trust the author, they are willing to read something longer. See the examples show below:

·         Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

o   Philosopher’s Stone – 77,325

o   Chamber of Secrets – 84,799

o   Prisoner of Azkaban – 106,821

o   Goblet of Fire – 190,858

o   Order of the Phoenix – 257,154

o   Half Blood Prince – 169,441

o   Deathly Hallows – 198,227

·         Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

o   The Hunger Games – 99,750

o   Catching Fire – 101,564

o   Mockingjay – 100,269

·         Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R. R. Martin

o   A Game of Thrones – 292,727

o   A Clash of Kings – 318,903

o   A Storm of Swords – 414,604

o   A Feast of Crows – 295,032

o   A Dance with Dragons – 414,788

However the real word to word counts is as mentioned in the first few lines. There are no hard and fast rules to word counts but a story is as long as it takes to tell it (and within the submission guidelines to whoever you submit the story to).


Sunday, 13 September 2015

Blog Post What Genre Is That? – Fantasy

So let’s move swiftly onto next genre of the three (science fiction, fantasy, horror) and examine the sub-genres that make up the realms of fantasy.

·         Bangsian fantasy - uses famous literary or historical individuals and their interactions in the afterlife.

·         Comic fantasy – the focus is one of humour both in its intent and tone. It is usually set in imaginary worlds and often includes puns on and parodies of other works of fantasy.

·         Contemporary fantasy – this can also be known as modern fantasy or indigenous fantasy. It is set in the present day. Most of the time contemporary fantasy goes hand in hand with the other fantasy subgenre, urban fantasy.

·         Dark fantasy – combines fantasy with elements of horror. This genre has a dark, gloomy atmosphere or a sense of horror and dread.

·         Fairy tale – is typically a short story. It includes folkloric characters, such as dwarves, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, mermaids, trolls, or witches. It usually involves magic or enchantments. Fairy tales tend to have some kind of moral message at the core of their story.

·         Fairy tale parody – this parodies traditional fairy tales. This can focus on either the retelling of one particular fairy tale or can mix several of them together, like the television show ‘Once Upon a Time.’

·         Fantastique – this is French term. It is a genre that overlaps with science fiction, horror and fantasy.

·         Gaslamp fantasy – can also be known as gaslight fantasy or gaslight romance. It mixes fantasy with historical fiction. It is set in either Victorian or Edwardian period. It has elements, themes and character which are that of a gothic nature.

·         Ghost story – could easily fall into the horror section as well as the fantasy one. This is any type of fiction that includes a ghost. This is can be an actual ghost in the story or could just include the possibility of ghosts or characters' belief in them.

·         Gods and demons fiction – this focuses on immortals and monsters. Traditionally this genre deals with Chinese gods and demons but has been expanded to include other mythologies.

·          Grimdark – is dark in tone and setting. It is usually dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic. There are no winners in grimdark and very few characters if any have happy endings or even moments in the story.

·         Hard fantasy – is similar to hard science fiction, in the fact that it has strict rules that have to be kept to, in a rigorous and logical manner. Hard fantasy has starting conditions that do not, and often cannot, exist according to current scientific understanding.

·         Heroic fantasy – think hero journey/character defeats all evil and concurs evil. The hero of the story take off to imaginary lands, leans what they can. Completes in several battles and wins.

·         High fantasy – is epic in its terms of characters, themes and plot.

·         Historical fantasy – this is historical fiction that incorporates fantastic elements (such as magic) into the narrative. Most of the crossovers are focused around Arthurian, Celtic, or Dark Ages fiction.

·         Juvenile fantasy – is children’s literature with elements of fantasy and includes characters that are not yet adults.

·         Low fantasy – these stories involve strange happenings and events in an otherwise ‘normal’ world, where these types of happenings stand out and are not supposed to occur. In these stories there is less focus on the fantasy and more on how the characters react to the werid things that are happening to them.

·         Magic realism – is an acceptance of magic in the rational world.

·         Medieval fantasy – is fantasy based in the medieval periods of history.

·         Mythic fiction – are stories that are inspired by myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales. This subgenre can have a big cross over with urban fantasy.

·         Romantic fantasy – is romantic fiction that includes fantasy elements.

·         Science fantasy – is science fiction combined with fantasy.

·         Slavic fantasy - use of Slavic folklore (legends, epics, myths) for the rules for fantasy works. It can also be used as a broader term Russian fantasy.

·         Sword and sorcery – is characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. Stories also tend to include a romance, magic and the supernatural. The focus of the story tends to be on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters.

·         Urban fantasy – is fantasy that is set in real cities from this world and not made up ones, however in many fictions characters can cross from the ‘real’ to the ‘made-up’ world in the story. The key to this is that the characters have something that keeps them placed (in some fashion) in the normal world.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

New Group Venue

A short but important update. The Writers Group will be changing venues and from 21st September the group will be meeting in the Three Tuns Pub.

The Three Tuns can be found at 39 Silver Street Head, Sheffield, S1 2DD.

This is in the Sheffield town centre, in the streets behind the cathedral, just off the side of Paradise Square.

The writers group meets first and third Monday of each month from 7.30pm (reading of work starts around 8pm). All are welcome.

(Normal blog post will return on Sunday.)

Sunday, 6 September 2015

What Genre Is That - Science Fiction

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror – that is just three genre’s right? Hmm, not quite. There are lots of different subgenres within all three. In this series of posts, I hope to run you through a brief description of most of those subgenres – I say most as new subgenres are emerging all the time.

This week, the focus will be on sci-fiction genres:

·         Alien invasion – in simple terms, the aliens have come. Extra-terrestrials have invade Earth to exterminate and get rid human life, enslave it, to harvest humans, steal the planet's resources, or destroy the planet altogether. Needless to say it’s not a fun time for the humans in this story.

·         Alternate history – this mixes science fiction and historical fiction and changes one small (or maybe not so small point) and develops the narrative from there.  A common example of this is what if Germany had won the Second World War.

·         Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction – Apocalyptic deals with the end of the world and the end of human civilisation usually through some kind of catastrophe event  such as zombies, nuclear warfare, a pandemic, technological failure, resource depletion, ecological collapse or some other general disasters. Post-apocalyptic is how the survivors deal with that new world.

·         Atompunk – This is cold war fiction set between 1945 and 1965. Naturally this means that there is a lot of tension about the end of the world and the use of the atom bomb and other weapons that may have the same effect.

·         Biopunk – Is near-future fiction that deals with the playing with and changing people’s DNA, usually to make a better human with the creation of designer children, soldiers, workforce etc. It builds on synthetic biology, in which individuals are usually modified and enhanced by genetic manipulation.

·         Black Science Fiction – This is where the characters are of African diaspora take. In the late 1990s, critics began to use the term Afrofuturism  for fiction were characters of African diaspora who were science fiction as means of exploring the black experience.

·         Clockpunk – Set in the renaissance period. The focus in of the scientific and technological change that was being discovered in this period.

·         Cyperpunk – Is set in a future, and focuses on "high tech and low life". It contains advanced technology and science, such as cybernetics, and a breakdown or radical change in the social order

·         Decopunk – Is set between 1920 and 1950, which means this genre can overlap with dieselpunk. However unlike the level of technology playing a clear role in influencing the story, this is influenced by art, specifically art-deco.

·         Dieselpunk – Is set between the start of World War One and the end of World Two, in a period where extreme political ideologies (mainly fascism and communism) loom large. It has technologies that are fuelled by diesel.

·         Dying Earth - Takes place in the far future at either the end of life on Earth or the End of Time, when the laws of the universe themselves fail.

·         Feminist science fiction - Tends to deal with women's roles in society. It focus on social issues such as how society constructs gender, the role reproduction plays in defining gender and the unequal political and personal power of men and women.

·         Gothic science fiction - It captures the dark atmosphere of gothic fiction while also incorporating elements of science fiction.

·         Hard science fiction – Is characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both. Quite simply in this story the science and getting it right comes first.

·         Libertarian science fiction - Focuses on the politics and social order implied by libertarian philosophies with an emphasis on individualism and a limited state—and in some cases, no state whatsoever.

·         Military science fiction – The use of science fiction technology is for developing weapons, for military purposes. Characters are members of a military organization involved in military activity; occurring sometimes in outer space or on a different planet or planets.

·         Mundane science fiction - Is characterized by its setting on Earth or within the solar system, and a lack of interstellar travel or contact with aliens.

·         Nanopunk – This is a new genre and therefore still in it infancy. It is very similar to biopunk in a lot of ways with its near future setting and the playing around with human DNA, However this focus is on concerns linked to artistic and physiological impact of nanotechnology.

·         Paranormal romance - Focuses on the love story but includes elements from the speculative fiction genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. This mainly comes in the form of vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, or time travel, but can also include characters with psychic abilities, like telekinesis or telepathy.

·         Science fiction western –This is a cross between the science fiction and western genres.

·         Scientific romance – This a story which has an reasonably equal mix between the elements of a science fiction story and a romantic one.

·         Social science fiction – Is concerned less with technology and more with speculation about human society.

·         Soft science fiction - Uses the science elements as a backdrop for the story, rather than the central topic. It either explores the "soft" sciences, and especially the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science etc), rather than engineering or the "hard" sciences ( physics, astronomy, or chemistry), or is not always scientifically accurate, or both. Simply the story comes before the science.

·         Space Opera – Focus on space warfare often told in a melodramatic adventure style. It usually includes a romance or the development of relationships.  It involves conflicts between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons and other sophisticated technologies.

·         Space Western – Cowboys in outer space. It has all the typical themes of a western frontier story except this one is set in space.

·         Steampunk – Set in the 19th Century Victorian or American Wild-West Period. The technology is fuelled by steam and clockwork devices.  It features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is rooted in the era in terms of fashion, culture, architectural style, and art

·         Stonepunk – Fiction is set in the Stone Age.  Characters utilize Neolithic Revolution and use stone technology to progress society – think The Flintstones car.

·         Transrealism – Mixes elements of science fiction with natural realism, exploring the scientific boundaries.



Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Building a Fantasy world: Magic by Matthew Presley

Adding magic to a story can make it fun to write, because there’s no hard or set rules as to how it works; it’s magic! Want to turn an army into pigs? Rain fire on your enemies? Have a Griffin fly indefinitely while carrying a fully-armoured Dwarf? Magic! Even stories without actual spells and magic users have some hand-waving involved; if I could get back the time I’ve spent thinking about werewolf physiognomy (Where does the hair come from/go? Do teeth and nails change? What happens to a pregnant werewolf if she gives birth under a full moon?), I’d probably add it to the time spent thinking about centaur physiognomy instead.

Even though there’s no rules to magic, there are some things to consider when adding it to a story.

A spell for every occasion: Magic shouldn’t be able to solve every problem the protagonists encounter. If you have a character who can use magic, they shouldn’t have a spell ready that circumvents any obstacle they face. There’s some leeway to this; it’s not expecting too much of a wizard to know how to unlock a door or start a fire, but in a story, if the wizard can easily fly over a river or slay a dragon, the audience will wonder why the obstacle was presented in the first place. If you need the character to be effective, set up their abilities beforehand; if the wizard has access to flying magic and has been shown to use it, it’ll seem less of a cheap method of escape/travel later on (and once you’ve set up how spells normally work, it gives you a chance to show them going wrong later). This doesn’t mean a magic user should always be caught unaware; if a wizard is off to fight a dragon and he has chance to prepare, its not unexpected that he’ll have a fireproof shield, flying spells and some dragon-killing magic. If he didn’t know the dragon was there, however, or didn’t have adequate preparation (a library of spellbooks and time to learn the right spells would be the least I’d ask if the characters have never faced a dragon before), then it’s a cop-out. Having a prepared character also allows for reversals; what if the dragon has freezing or poisonous breath instead of fire? All of a sudden the fight isn’t as one-sided as it first looked.

One-Trick-Ponies: On the other end of the magical versatility spectrum is the one-trick-pony. When you have pyrokinesis, all your problems start to look like marshmallow. One thing I’ve learnt is there’s only so many synonyms for fireballs you can use before it gets silly. If your character only has a limited set of powers (Linked to a classic element, blood of the Thunder God, child of Hyperion, etc.), try to think of more than three ways that power can be used. Any fight involving an earth-magic master that doesn’t have the ground reaching up to trap the opponents feet is missing a trick in my opinion.

Set limits...
Although magic is nonsensical and potentially limitless, writing magic without boundaries quickly becomes a problem. There doesn’t have to be a downside to magic, but there should be some reasons why magic users aren’t constantly defying reality and making every other character obsolete. Figure out a power level for your characters that fits your story. Is magic consistent? Is there a limit to how much magic someone can cast in a day/week/lifetime? Is there an inherent cost? Characters don’t need to necessarily know the answers to all these, nor should they be stated to the reader, but if you know the rules and stick to them, it helps keep your story consistent and shows the audience rather than telling.

... And when to break them: Despite all the protagonists valiance and daring do, the evil Lord Wumflkamf is going to succeed! Even with magic they can’t hope to stop him... Unless... No! It is forbidden! It’s too dangerous! The first half of the book was all about how bad an idea that was! And yet... there’s no other option!
Every now and then, have a character stray away from the set path. Maybe they cast too much magic in one day. Maybe they call upon the Smirking Demon of Contracts. Maybe they use the antagonists dark magic against them. Whatever they do, make sure you only do it in an emergency, or it cheapens the act. Also, show there’s some cost. If they break the rules and there’s no comeuppance, there’s no reason for the rules to exist in the first place.

Avoid System Theft: Unless you’re writing for a licensed gaming franchise (Which, if you are, congratulations! Published work is published work and I’m not going to rain on your parade), don’t copy a magic system wholesale from another source. Tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder can be used as guidelines when figuring out a magic power level, but treating a character as though they have a stat sheet leads to problems and limitations. Looking at several areas of fantasy writing and folklore, however, can give you more familiarity with concepts to incorporate into your worlds magic system. Magicians owning familiars or changing shape isn’t a new concept, so if you like a particular style of gaming magic (Druids are often depicted as owning animal companions and being able to turn into beasts), look at how else that’s been used (Navajo skin-walkers, French loup-garou, European lycanthropy) so you’re not just taking inspiration from one source.

Be inventive: One advantage of using magic in a story rather than system theft is you can use a spell in a way that was never intended. In one scene from an otherwise awful film, two wizards are arrested and taken to court. Their accuser, who is in perfect health, tells his story; he was robbed while travelling, and once his attackers had stolen his money, they tortured him, cut off various body parts, and finally slit his throat. It turns out the wizards aren’t on trail for his robbery and murder, but for  bringing him back from the dead, which is considered black magic and illegal in the kingdom. Coming up with inventive things to do with magic can stop a potential one-trick-pony from getting played out too quickly; even a simple light spell can have interesting uses in a fight, and any spellcaster who uses ice and fire should get to abuse the physics of thermal shock at some point.

Example magic system
Going back to our example kingdom, a few generations of royalty have subscribed to a form of magic called the Wild Way, while a few of the baronies also practice some vague dark magic. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call the magic of Voka and Vola the Shadow Way.

Before we detail both these magic systems, we’ll look at some variables to considers; Availability, Reliability, Power, Cost, Speed and Drawbacks.
Availability: Who can cast this magic? Is it anyone with the talent, or training, or both? Is the power a jealously guarded secret, or given to anyone who shows an aptitude?

Reliability: Does this magic always do what it’s supposed to? What can go wrong? Is it random and chaotic by its nature, or does it follow strict patterns?
Power: What abilities do you get for using this magic? What sort of scale is the effect? Can it create/destroy cities? Make magical islands? Infinite wishes? Or just throw a fireball every now and again?

Cost: When accessing the magic, something has to be given in return. We don’t have to worry about conservation of energy, but magic without cost is problematic from a story perspective. The following are common costs in modern fantasy and folklore;
‘Mana’: Common in computer games, mana represents a characters innate magical power. While stories don’t need to count the points, some reasoning behind how much magic a magical person can use stops the story escalating too wildly. High fantasy settings will use similar concepts (Dungeons and Dragons has ‘spell slots’ or ‘psionic power points’, which are similar enough to mana to be mentioned here); low magic settings can link mana in with a person’s physical energy, exhausting the caster and possibly leading to unconsciousness or death.

Blood: The idea of paying blood for magic is probably the most identifiable cost; it’s prevalent in various mythologies and shows an obvious price for the power. How blood is used or misused can explain why magic isn’t for everyone; how do you limit the bleeding? What if the blood price is more than you have? If you can use someone else’s blood for your own magic, how long before the character starts a slippery slope into evil? Are there good and benevolent spirits that still ask for blood? If so, why? If you use blood for magic, remember the following; drawing blood hurts, wounds take time to heal, and losing more than a pint of blood in one go has a knock-on effect to health.
Sacrifice: Linking into blood, sacrifice can mean killing someone or something, but can also mean giving up something a spirit might want. It could be an expensive object, an innocuous but plot-valuable mcguffin, or even a task they want you to complete. If the cost is a task, it should be something the spirit can’t do themselves (A spirit of Fire might want his plot-rock retrieved from the bottom of a well, for example). Giving characters additional tasks (known as ‘side-quests) in gaming) might seem like unnecessary complication; if it furthers the story, however, it can be made to work. For example, a ghost might be seeking his murderer and agrees to help the hero in return for the killers identity. As the story progresses, the murderer is revealed... to be the Hero’s best friend! Now the previously off-the-point side-story of the killers identity is very important to the protagonist.

Rigmarole: On the seventh day of the ninth month, lay a goatskin over a standing stone and light a fire at sunset; you’ll have a successful hunting trip tomorrow. If you collect the three pieces of the golden table and throw them into the fountain of destiny, you receive its blessings. A special type of sacrifice, rigmarole makes you sacrifice time through hoop-jumping to gain access to magic. Rigmarole is usually a one-time effect; if it occurs reliably and with a predictable effect, its less magic and more bad science.

Speed: How long does it take to cast a spell? Is it a single word of power? Ten minutes of chanting? A day of ritual and ceremony? A lifetime? Speed dictates a spells efficiency; if throwing a fireball takes an hour, its more use in siege warfare than a personal fight. Increasing casting time might seem boring, but there’s more chance to have something go horribly wrong during a long ritual.
Drawbacks: Channelling power shouldn’t be 100% safe; giving magic consequences stops it from being a skeleton key for all problems. Does magic hurt when you use it? Does it leave scars? Is there a corrupting effect to such power; does your body deteriorate faster? Does each spell cost a day of your life? Does it drive you insane? Or does it attract the attention of otherworldly beings that are best avoided? Too many drawbacks and you end up with the question of why anyone would learn magic. No drawbacks and the question of why anyone wouldn’t comes up.

The Wild Way

Availability: The name ‘The Wild Way’ suggests a freely available but potentially dangerous magic. Anyone who knows about it can practice it, but the inherent risk of it stops the average peasant from dabbling in it.
Reliability: The Wild Way shouldn’t be entirely consistent. We’ve already suggested that there’s risks involved; risks big enough to stop everyone using it. If it’s a nature-based magic, it could be less about casting spells and more about communicating with nature spirits. This is a big enough cause for unpredictability; nature isn’t friendly, and talking to a spirit might accidentally offend it or cause a retaliation.

Power: Because we’re dealing with spirits, the Wild Way should lack personal scale spells, like attack or defence magic, but have access to larger scale effects. This makes it personally dangerous, communally beneficial. Calling on spirits could make crops grow, rains fall, ensure a successful hunt, protect a village from the floods- but smaller concerns may be too trivial to bother the spirits with. There might be special exceptions (finding a lost child, cure a villager of the plague) but treating the spirits as omnipotent nannies carries risks (anyone who knows folklore will tell you; if a child goes missing, the last thing you should do is inform the spirits about it)
Cost: The Wild Way seems like sacrifice would be an acceptable cost. Maybe not in the form of animal or human sacrifice (exceptions may occur), but more burnt offerings. The spirits it panders to are fairly chaotic, so the price may vary between castings. This prevents it from being a consistent repeatable effect; if the sacrifice isn’t enough, the spirit won’t do the job, or might turn on the casters for the insult.

Speed: Due to the powers being larger in scale, it should take longer to conjure the spirits. In fact, it should take a day; in time the week could revolve around special days for each spirit invoked. In emergencies, the rituals could be cut down to an hour or two, but rushing the job is likely to anger the spirits.
Drawbacks: Through the fleshing out of the Wild Way, I’ve talked about angering spirits accidentally. While this works as a drawback, we could go further with it as a concept. There are some spirits open to negotiation, while some will always be angered by being summoned. The Wild Way has no way of guessing which spirit will be called; it’s whichever happens to be closest and paying attention at the time. There are ways of lessening the chance of prodding the angry spirits, such as only calling as certain times at certain places. But there’s always an unquantifiable chance of something going horribly wrong, and the spirit taking its anger out on the caster. We know our shamanic magic will convert to a more formal religion, however; the dangers of direct contact are enough to stop people dabbling, but not so great as to be shunned as black magic. As we said before; personal danger, communal benefit.

Each spirit leaves a different scar; adepts in the Wild Way can identify each other by the marks of their previous contacts. If we come up with some common spirits and their signatures;
Spirit of the Forest- Ivy shaped scars, green skin, mossy hair. Angry spirits leave nettle stings and turn body hair to thorns. Spirits that kill turn the caster into a tree.

Spirit of the River- Piscine scales, hair loss, cold hands and feet. Angry spirits turn fingers to fins, make skin froglike, or steal voices. Spirits that kill give the caster gills, making them drown in air.
Spirit of the Sky- Feathery body hair, Dramatic weight loss. Angry spirits turn hands into talons or induce agoraphobia. Spirits that kill will float the caster away.

Spirit of the Moon- Silver hair, crescent-shaped scars, oversized eyes. Angry spirits can induce lycanthropy or an aversion to sunlight. Spirits that kill make the caster fade away with the new moon.
Spirit of the Sun- Golden hair, fire-shaped scars, bronze skin. Angry spirits cause an aversion to moonlight, heat stroke and dehydration. Spirits that kill turn the caster to sand.

Spirit of Fire- Burns, scars and hair loss. Angry spirits cause severe burns, and make animals perceive the caster as an unnatural fire. Spirits that kill immolate the caster.

Spirit of the Storm- Lightning scars, aura of static electricity, shocked hair. Angry spirits cause severe lightning scars, an aversion to metal, and have storms follow the caster around. Spirits that kill send lightning bolts at the caster.

Spirit of Fertility- Youthful complexion, fecundity, thick/full body hair. Angry spirits revert the caster back to childhood, or cause an overabundance of hair. Spirits that kill regenerate every cell of the casters body, effectively replacing them with a clone.
Spirit of Waste- Rapid ageing (by a number of days per summoning). Angry spirits cause rapid ageing (by a number of years). Spirits that kill cause rapid ageing (by a number of centuries)

The benevolent spirits can still be dangerous (Fire spirits always burn, while Waste spirits only ever age you), so summoning them wouldn’t be done lightly. In time, as the spirits grow in power and the Wild Way was from a collection of rituals to a state religion, the spirits could amalgamate into divine figures. We know that the royal family devote themselves to plants, rain and fire; these could be the major deities.

The Shadow Way
Availability: The Shadow Way should be a bit more exclusive than the Wild Way; as the only practitioners we know of are sisters, it could be hereditary. Voka and Vola could be descendants of an evil magician; perhaps Gramps consorted with the wrong spirits. I like this idea; we know the Shadow Way’s family became powerful and influential enough to be barons, and had to be placated through royal marriages. So the currently nameless Baron (whose daughters were married to Prince Anaven) now has an evil spirit-binder father; and an evil spirit for a mother! Mythology has a lot of mortal/supernatural pairings as explanations of magic, so it’s not too much of a stretch to say Evil Grandpa bound a spirit to a physical form for his wife. It also keeps the magic of the Shadow Way contained to that family’s bloodline; the magic their grandfather used has been lost, or maybe outlawed, so new practitioners would be rare.

Reliability: Unlike the Wild Way (which gains power through external forces), the Shadow Way is more internal; magic is innate through the bloodline. This affects reliability; it’s potentially more uncontrollable and dangerous at first, but can stabilise and focus with practice. If this form of magic can predict the future (as ‘Vola the Ash-Seer’ suggests), the effects can be subject to interpretation instead of being reliably accurate.
Powers: The Shadow Way is very much personal scale; ‘my power, my gain’. More showy spells like fireballs and magic shields might be too much for the setting; a human who could master that sort of magic would have a definite advantage over horsemen and archers. The Shadow Way, therefore, should be subtle, maybe a bit ambiguous in how it works. It could have divination (foretelling the future), enchantment (magically affecting people’s minds), and some blessing/curse spells as well. All are invisible effects, making it magic you take into a casino rather than a battle.

Cost: As a low power magic rather than the big effects of the Wild Way, the Shadow Way’s cost could come from within; physical energy is transferred into magic, and the spell is limited by the strength of the caster. A special cost for the divinations could be the type of ashes used; any old ash isn’t much of a limitation, especially in a low-tech world. Ashes from a cremation, however, would be much rarer; it also gives the ashes a supernatural agent (ghost of the cremated) who’d be capable of foretelling the future. If it’s having an outside agent, however, it’d have to be someone trusted; ashes of an enemy or unwilling victim wouldn’t be believed if they foretold death and destruction. So ashes of a trusted advisor could be the magic substance used, and would be personal to the caster (which stops the cost appearing in ‘magic shops’)
Speed: Most spells would be relatively fast; less than a minute for complex enchantments or curses, while some more instinctive effects (such as charming someone or frightening off an opponent) could be cast in seconds. The divination through ashes might take a few minutes; the limitation could come from the cost rather than lots of ritual.

Drawbacks: Other than being tied to the bloodline of a shadow-spirit and having to cremate people you trust to access that power? We could have it really dark magic and have casters losing something vital for its use. Perhaps a corruption of some kind? The more the power is used, the strong the spirit blood gets, but at the cost of your human side. Too much magic and the shadow takes you over; you become a human abomination in the shape of your former self. After a while, the being gives up on looking like a human and goes on a horrific rampage, but that’s a small price for accessing power, right? Besides, you’ll be dead long before that happens.
So now our example kingdom has two magic systems; one communally beneficial nature magic, the other selfish and dangerous black magic. In the next part of world building, we’ll look at adding fantastic races and creatures.