books, mentor texts, worldbuilding, writing

Lessons in Fantasy World-Building: Introducing the Magic

Josh is a HUGE fantasy fan. As in, we call the books he reads “brick-a-books” (because they’re all doorstoppers). As in, he’s keeping a list of all the series he’s in the middle of (because the writers take an understandably long time to finish the next installments of said brick-a-book series). So now that I’m working on a fantasy of my own, I’ve been picking his brain for helpful tips he’s picked up over his years of reading.

9780765350381One of his favorite authors is Brandon Sanderson, a majorly prolific fantasy writer whose YA book I discussed here a while ago. When I mentioned to Josh that I was struggling to build and introduce a believable magic system in my current WIP, he immediately recommended Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Indeed, the first book, The Final Empire, introduces a carefully thought-out magic system, and it taught me a lot about how to set one up so as not to overwhelm the reader. Over the next few posts I’ll be sharing what I learned. Today’s topic: how to introduce a magic system in a non info-dumpy way.

Briefly, The Final Empire is set in a grayed world a thousand years after the ascendance of the Lord Ruler, an immortal god who rules over both nobles and the peasant-like skaa. And by grayed, I mean it: ash literally falls from the sky. Allomancers, nobles who can swallow and “burn” metals to gain temporary magical abilities, help keep the population in line, but their dalliances with skaa women occasionally produce half-skaa Allomancer children…some of whom grow up to become revolutionaries. The skaa thief Kelsier is just that, one of the rare Allomancers who can burn all the major metals (known as “Mistborn”), and he’s planning to overthrow the Lord Ruler. He recruits the street urchin Vin to his crew when he realizes she’s also a Mistborn, and together they plan the heist of a lifetime.

Sanderson is careful not to info-dump all the details of this complicated magical system right at the beginning. Instead, he introduces the concept of Allomancy when Kelsier gets into a fight early on. He swallows a combination of metals and proceeds to burn different metals that help propel his body towards or away his opponents and enhance his senses. The reader immediately figures out the basics of this magic system just by watching Kelsier move around his world. Later on, when Kelsier begins to train Vin in the art of Allomancy, he provides more specific information about how the metals work – for example, burning steel allows you to push against other metals, which in turn lets you fly, if you push against an object with the right amount of mass.

It’s an incredibly detailed system, but Sanderson’s technique keeps it from overwhelming the reader. Instead, the initial fight give us just enough information to understand the basics: we know an Allomancer has to swallow the metals in order to burn them, and that different metals allow the user to take different actions. Talk of Mistborns versus regular Allomancers amongst the other characters tells us that Kelsier’s abilities are really unusual. By the time Kelsier trains Vin, we’re ready for more detailed information, and Sanderson uses the age-old technique of training a newbie to introduce the specifics of Allomancy. We learn how it works right along with Vin.

I’m trying to incorporate this lesson right now, since my ever-helpful critique group just informed me that the magical world in my WIP was woefully confusing. We’ll see how it goes!

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