Episode 29: Learn How to Create Languages
Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create the supernatural, including supernatural energy, magic paths, alternate realities, supernatural beings, and more.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- What energy types might be available to us and how to decide on their properties
- How to invent magical paths and what to populate them with
- How to create an alternate reality and what goals they can serve in our story
- How to decide how common each supernatural element is and the impact it may have on setting and story
- What supernatural beings we might want to create, using analogues from Earth as inspiration
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Episode 29 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven. Today’s topic is how to create the supernatural. This includes supernatural energy, magic paths, alternate realities, supernatural beings, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 5 of Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
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The most obvious type of supernatural energy that we’re going to have is, of course, magic. But we do have other sources, such as radiation, dark matter or things that we invent in science fiction. There can even be energies that are not supernatural in nature, but due to general ignorance, such as in a fantasy setting, we may have characters thinking that it is supernatural when it’s just something like X-ray radiation. But even when something like gamma ray radiation exists, most of us have not been exposed to something like this in high enough doses to know what it really does to the human body, or another species. Therefore, we can invent side effects of being exposed to this. I believe something of that nature has been done with the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Spider Man. Regardless of what the source is, what really matters is that we want to figure out a number of things about it.
For example, what is the origin? What are the properties? Where does it occur? Can it be controlled, and if so, how? And what protection against it exists? And then, of course, it’s always helpful to have thought of past incidents that people have had with this energy.
When it comes to origins, we can sometimes skip this because, even here on Earth, scientists have sometimes not figured out what the source of an energy is. This means our characters may not know either. We can even invent an energy because there have been times in Earth history where we did not know about an energy. And, of course, later on, it was discovered. So, if our story takes place 1,000 years into Earth’s future, then maybe we have discovered more types of energy.
But something we do want to decide on is where this energy can be found because, of course, our characters are going to encounter it. Otherwise, there’s really no point in us inventing it. One reason to do this is that this energy might be in certain locations where a given species tends to live. For example, let’s say it’s a fantasy setting and it tends to happen in forests. Well, the elves are typically forest-dwelling, so, therefore, they may be more likely to be experts with this type of energy. This can easily result in a cast member who is an expert because of their race.
A fun area to invent are the properties. This can also result in a nickname for it. For example, if it looks like blue fire, then that’s maybe what people call it. We should decide if it gives off any heat or cold, and if it feels like anything in particular and if we are capable of touching it. We know that something like an electrical field will cause the hairs on our arms to stand up, so is this kind of effect something that happens? This can be good to work out because maybe some of our species have more developed senses than others, and, as a result, they’re the first ones to detect that this is happening somewhere nearby.
When it comes to controlling an energy, this is something that people pretty much always want to know if it has been discovered. This is especially true if it is dangerous. So, decide if it can be controlled and how, and who is capable of doing this? Do they need a technology? Do they need to be a wizard? What is it about them that allows them to control this? It’s possible that anyone who has a certain device will be able to do so. This is true in both science fiction and fantasy. With any energy, we’re going to have past incidents because people have most likely encountered it before, unless we are writing the story of the first time they do so. We can sort of do both where our current characters are first running into it, but other people have run into it, and maybe some of them don’t realize what it is, but one of them in the group does. That discovery could happen too late after some of them have already experienced it, possibly because the group has separated from each other.
As with any past incident, we can just make up a short story about who was involved, where it happened and what happened. Did people survive? What happened to their bodies when they encountered this? This can not only give us a famous incident, but give us a famous character.
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Another area that comes up, especially with fantasy, is what I think of as magic pathways. While not original if we do the same, we can certainly make it original by adding our own stamp. These are typically presented as an alternate way of getting from one place to another, usually more quickly. But, of course, this comes at a price because there’s something inherently dangerous about this place. Those dangers are some of the most fun things for us to invent.
If you’ve read my free novella that you can get from my fantasy mailing list, called The Ever Fiend, that figure is someone who inhabits one of these alternate pathways and the land therein. I was able to think of all sorts of strange places, phenomenon, and items that people can create in there, or side effects of things that happen to items once they’re in there for too long, especially if they have been left behind. While working on that, I realized that sometimes a wizard might want to go in there and get some of these peculiar places because there are ingredients for spells that don’t exist anywhere else. In fact, this is what led to the story of The Ever Friend where the main character, Talon Stormbringer, is the person who was hired by a wizard to go in there and get it.
One of the other dangers that can be in these paths is that other people might be in there. They could be in there voluntarily because they’re after something, or maybe they have gotten lost. As a result, they might be someone who preys on anyone else who enters this place. In the real world, a path always leads to a physical place, but with these magical paths, they don’t have to. This could be the only way to reach the afterlife or the place where the gods dwell, for example.
We can pretty much do whatever we want, and one of the things we need to figure out is what do people need to do to enter these pathways? Can they do it anywhere with something like a spell, or do they need to go to a specific location, or one of maybe a few dozen that exist, and enter the pathways that way by doing something at the doorway? If they do, then, most likely, some of these paths are guarded, either by something like a monster or it’s in the control of an evil kingdom somewhere, and they don’t want anyone else to go in there because they’re going in there and doing all sorts of bad things while they’re in there, or harvesting items like I talked about a minute ago.
There’s a lot of fun that can be had with these. In Cultures and Beyond, I have a template that can be downloaded to help with the creation of a supernatural land, and anyone who joins The Art of World Building mailing list can download this once they do because it will be sent to you in an email.
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Alternate realities don’t really need any explanation because all of us have seen these, especially in science fiction. If we want to create one, all we really need to do is have several historical events that are very significant, and then change the outcome of these. Just as we imagined the existing event caused a certain timeline that is our normal reality, the alternate event will cause another one and we just have to think through what would happen if this event occurred.
In that sense, there’s not really a mystery to how to create one, but the thing we want to keep in mind is what point are we trying to get across to the audience or the characters by doing an alternate reality? For example, maybe our main character had a traumatic event and this has changed him in a certain way, but the version of him from another reality has not had that and our character sees how he could’ve been, how he could’ve turned out, and how he might actually turn out in the future if he is somehow able to let go of the demons that are driving him based on the event that happened in his own timeline.
The point I’m making is that a character can end up reflecting on their life and their choices based on seeing how things have turned out differently in another reality. So, what we’re after here is some sort of character transformation, and one that we couldn’t think of happening to this character in another way. But it doesn’t have to be about a specific character. There used to be a show in the 1990s called Sliders where every episode, they were in another reality. They would slide to that through a kind of portal. Always, something had happened that was different from their own reality. This was an interesting premise and it allowed them to comment on all sorts of social phenomenon, and even historical events.
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Another subject to discuss is that of supernatural beings, like gods. However, I already discussed that in other episodes of this podcast, so I’m not going to go over that again. What we’re really talking about this time is lesser beings, such as demigods, or maybe a human who is half god, half mortal. We could also include figures like demons, angels or someone like Cupid. If we have a setting with gods, then it is possible for some of these to exist, and it would be a mistake, possibly, not to include them. If we were to look at any mythology, we would see that, typically, a lesser being, like a demigod, is serving a specific purpose, such as Cupid or a messenger. When we go to invent someone like this, we should decide whether we have a need for them rather than just doing it for no particular reason.
On the other hand, a messenger character is fairly universal and could exist in any mythology, including the one that we are inventing. But a figure like Cupid is a little bit more specific, so maybe if we were writing a romance fantasy, then this character might actually come up. This is not to say that Cupid, or a character like that, couldn’t come up in a story that has nothing to do with romance. But, generally, we want to think of someone that we’re actually going to use.
Another type of supernatural being would be a creature, for a lack of a better word. An example might be something like Medusa. Not only does she have the really weird snakes for hair, but, of course, she has the ability to turn someone to stone if they look in her eyes. Such characters could be considered a monster, and, in fact, that’s often how they were used, and I already discussed this in a previous episode. But we still want to consider creating these characters. However, you may remember that a monster is typically just a one-off. There’s only one of them. So, if we want a whole group of creatures, then that’s something that would fall into this category. That makes them something of a cross between a species and a monster, or even an animal.
There are other figures of note that we might want to create. An example of these would be Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek mythology, or maybe even Charon, the guy who ferries lost souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron. As I mentioned before, in my book, The Ever Fiend, there’s a character with that name who rules over a specific land. So, he’s another figure of note. If we have created any supernatural locations, including in the afterlife, these figures might be inhabitants there. To create these, just decide on a purpose for them.
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Something else we need to consider is how prevalent supernatural items are in our setting, whether it’s energies, beings or anything else. Anything more common will be more easily accepted, and something that is rarer is more likely to be something that people don’t understand, and therefore fear. When it comes to energies and beings, we need to know how frequent they are so that we know how often our characters might run into these, or how difficult it is to escape from somewhere or just have any sort of interaction with something, and if the people know what to do when they are face to face with this phenomenon or being.
Most of us are probably going to opt for having these items be rare unless our story is intended to heavily feature them. If that is the case, then we may have to do a mental deep dive into how this thing existing has a big impact on our setting because it might be really pervasive. For example, if magic is really easy and everyone can do it, then it’s probably really imbued into daily life. Therefore, we’re going to have to seriously think about what life is like. On the other hand, if it’s very rare and few people can do it, then life is mostly going on without it. The same thing is going to happen with any sort of supernatural energy or being. We want to make a decision how prevalent this is while we are inventing it. This is especially important when we get to the moment where we start thinking about how other people are relating to this.
A final word on creating the supernatural is that this is one of those elements we can just create one of them at a time and then move on. On the other hand, creating something like a species could take months of working on it and refinement. So, this is one of the easier and more lighthearted ones to go about creating. I think the most important thing for you to do first is to decide on the prevalence of the supernatural in your setting. After that, it’s really going to come down to what you need for each story.
All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from the album Now Weaponized! called “Ostinato.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!