Some could argue that a fantasy world without the supernatural isn’t really fantasy, though we can still consider it that if it has all the other trappings, such as fictional species and races. But in SF, we can skip the supernatural altogether and not ruffle any feathers; unexplained phenomena are considered science we don’t understand. In either case, the supernatural can significantly impact the world(s) we invent, so we should look at what we can invent. Chapter Six covers magic systems and there is some overlap of subjects covered, so readers may want to peruse both.
The most obvious type of supernatural energy is magic, but divine power also exists. While radiation, dark matter, and similar items that we might find in SF aren’t necessarily supernatural, they can be considered this way by both us and inhabitants; this means we can invent fictional types or decide what happens when characters are exposed to those or real ones. Humans have seldom if ever been exposed to many real energies in large doses, or at least, most of us don’t think we have. This allows us to do things like invent The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, or the Fantastic Four due to exposure and audiences will believe it. As usual, plausibility is the bar to get over.
Regardless of the source or what we call it (magic, radiation, etc.), we are inventing details about:
- Its origins
- Its properties
- Where it occurs
- Whether it can be controlled and how
- What protection against it exists
- Past incidents involving it
Origin is an area we can skip if desired because scientists often don’t know the source of an energy in the real world; it can take decades to discover this and omitting the source adds mystery. But gods are typically considered the source of their own power, while magic is thought to derive from them if they exist in our setting.
We may want to name the types of energy because inhabitants will, and it eases all references to them. SF authors can invent them or use existing radiation, like gamma rays, while inventing new effects, and fantasy authors may have even greater leeway to start fresh. Try to find a name that sounds cool or intimidating; a nickname can help and can be based on something that once happened when someone was exposed to the energy.
Decide where this energy can be found, such as only in space, in a lab, in areas prone to supernatural phenomenon, or in seemingly random places. Are there conditions that must be met before this energy is detected or surges to life? With this decided, we’ll know how often it’s encountered and by who. If such a location is near an elven settlement, for example, they’ll probably be local experts. This can help when the energy (or something like it) is found elsewhere in our world, with that expert elf present for our story, to explain facts and suspicions to audiences and companions alike.
Inventing the properties of our energy is useful and fun to do. This includes its appearance, with invisibility being one option. Does it remind people of anything? If it looks like blue fire, there’s a nickname we can use. Does it give off heat or cold? Maybe it does neither until we touch it. Can people detect it before making contact, and if so, what does it feel like? Electricity, heat, and cold are some options. How close do people need to be before they are affected, or is there a range of effects based on proximity? How intense is it at each distance? If the phenomenon is temporary, we can also decide on duration, such as it happening in a given location but each flare up is only a few minutes and maybe predictable (like the “Old Faithful” geyser).
Deciding if and how this energy can be controlled is another subject for the imagination. The ability to control it may come and go. Perhaps long ago no one could, now they can, but in a nearby future, technology needed for that control will be destroyed. What if it’s been brought into civilized areas and now it’s out of control? Or unforeseen circumstances, such as interaction with a nearby and different energy, causing changes to its behaviors or properties? For SF, we’ll invent technological devices that include weapons, defenses, and containment fields. In fantasy, this energy may be assumed to be magic unless we offer some explanation that it’s different. If people can control magic with spells but not this energy, that helps distinguish the two. We may want some supernatural energy to still exist naturally so that people encounter it either by accident or on purpose.
We can add interest to this energy by inventing past incidents involving it. This can result in monsters, tall tales, myths, legends, and famous characters that may provide a cautionary tale. These can be as short as a few sentences tossed into our narrative, like this:
Nasha blanched at the idea of passing through the Nifling Hills on the way to Illiandor. “Isn’t that where Olian the Fool had half his face burned off?”
Kier nodded at the legend. “They say the flames got him, if you believe that story.”
“Blue Fire coming out of the ground without warning? Seems far-fetched.”
A template in the appendix can assist with the invention of supernatural energies.