Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Superiors and inferiors in a magic system

This week's entry for the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop comes from Nicole Sheldrake. Thanks so much, Nicole! It's hard to believe I've been doing this for fourteen weeks now, but I really enjoy seeing what you all come up with, and I hope you enjoy hearing my opinions. Special thanks go to all those who have shared this workshop and invited their friends... we wouldn't still be doing it if not for you!

As usual, I'll begin by marking words in the text that give me clues to worldbuilding (with the color blue!).

***
When Benjamin Skyhammer opened his office door, the Relic collector remained seated, hidden behind an open newspaper. The collector was early and Skyhammer was alone. He glanced at the bare brick walls, the two shuttered windows, and the three lone pieces of furniture, one table and two chairs. Higgins was definitely not there. He swallowed and stepped into his office.

"About time you got here, Skyhammer. I had to waste energy on a spell to unlock the door. Where's my Relic?" Kelhenia, collector of Relics, tossed her newspaper on the wooden table, then crossed her arms over her pristine white jacket.

Skyhammer's jaw tightened as he shut the door. He strode to the table in the middle of the room, nose wrinkling at a waft of her heavy floral perfume. Eyes trained on the jiggling jowls of the overweight woman across from him, he lifted his backpack off his shoulder.

"I said where's my Relic, Untouchable scum?" Kelhenia slipped a red, rectangular glass slate from her pocket.

Skyhammer's eyes widened. She was going to perform a spell on him! With a swift movement, his right hand gripped the hilt of his longsword, then fell away. He was defenseless. He could haul out his sword and attempt to slice her in half but like most humans who lived in the Royal Circle, she would be protected by a magic shield.

Kelhenia's sausage fingers drew in the impressionable glass, a sketch that looked like nails had pressed hard into sunburned skin, creating white lines. She blew across the drawing.

First the drawing then the table disappeared, leaving the newspaper to plummet to the wooden floor and land with a soft smack.

He clutched the strap of the backpack he'd been about to drop on the table. "In here," he muttered, relieved that she'd used her magic on the table instead of him. He didn't consider himself good-looking but over the years he'd grown attached to his spiky brown hair, six-foot-four height and prominent ears.

"Well? Aren't you going to put the table back?" She sniggered, then raised her eyebrows.
Two years. Two years he'd been selling the woman Relics and every time they met she had to taunt him about his lack of magic powers. His teeth clenched. It wasn't his fault he was an Untouchable, born without magic.

His backpack thumped onto the ground.

"How dare you abuse my Relic!" Kelhenia leapt up, face red, fingers starting to trace another pattern on her magic slate.

"It's not yours yet." Skyhammer knelt and opened the clasp of his bag. Maybe he could distract the collector. Higgins wasn't due to arrive for at least another ten minutes. Kelhenia could easily steal the Relic from him before then.

She gasped as he withdrew the Relic.

Thick cyan liquid filled a simple red clay bowl to the brim. Three inches above the bowl, a stream of the liquid erupted out of the air and poured down like wine from an invisible bottle.
***

As with many stories, we get our first worldbuilding clue from a name, in this case Benjamin Skyhammer. It's an interesting name with a lot of possible connotations, including 1. anyone named Benjamin is likely human 2. an evocation of Luke Skywalker and 3. an evocation of detective Mike Hammer. Location-wise we see an office door, which suggests Earth - but the title Relic collector isn't a very familiar one. Without further information it could be Indiana-Jones-ish, or fantastical. Seated reinforces the humanity of the participants here, and newspaper gives us a very specific technology level and possible era. In fact, the constellation of Hammer, the office door and a person seated behind the desk holding a newspaper may already have evoked the classic private detective scenario. We soon discover more about the office with bare brick walls, shuttered windows, and three lone pieces of furniture, one table and two chairs.

Things change a bit when we hit the phrase waste energy on a spell. Now it's clear (if it wasn't already) that this isn't our typical private detective scenario. The visitor's name, Kelhenia, fits with this, because it is fantastical. She does, however, use human body language with crossed her arms. In the next paragraph things seem to fit with the expanded vision we have of humans, a detective scenario, plus magic, until we hit the phrase Untouchable scum. This phrase instantly invokes the idea of caste, since Untouchable is a concept common to numerous caste systems including the Indian and the Japanese (remnants of which still remain). The caste idea isn't much expanded on, but we soon get a red, rectangular glass slate that she takes from her pocket. This illuminates the magic system that we'll be seeing. We get another piece of the fantastical from Skyhammer's instinct to grip the hilt of his longsword (rather than reading for a gun). More social hints come from the phrase like most humans who lived in the Royal Circle, and more magic information from magic shield and impressionable glass.

I'm going to stop there because that is my sense of the world entry. Now I'll go through the entry again with my comments in brown and marked by **[ . For those of you visiting the workshop for the first time, these comments are not corrections. They are my thoughts as I read through, and I may make note of points of confusion.

***
When Benjamin Skyhammer **[that's an evocative name! We're most likely dealing with a human] opened his office door **[this is consistent with a human model, and we're clearly in a place that supports offices and their doors] , the Relic collector **[unusual title; I'll be looking to learn more] remained seated,**[this person is also probably human] hidden behind an open newspaper**[newspaper places our technology in a certain era on earth. I'm not certain whether the Relic collector is seated inside the office or outside it]. The collector was early and Skyhammer was alone.**[Since I assume this is relevant, I'm guessing there is some kind of peril here for Skyhammer. I wish I had a clearer idea of what he thinks it is.] He glanced at the bare brick walls, the two shuttered windows, and the three lone pieces of furniture, one table and two chairs.**[A lot of physical details of the office. It's starting to look like a familiar detective scenario. I don't get much evidence from this description that it's Skyhammer's office, however. More judgment words might help this.] Higgins was definitely not there.**[I wonder who Higgins is and why he is supposed to be there, and whether that would be a good or a bad thing.] He swallowed and stepped into his office.

"About time you got here, Skyhammer.**[So she's his superior.] I had to waste energy on a spell **[oh, we have magic in this world too - and it costs energy.] to unlock the door. Where's my Relic?" **[So he's supposed to be bringing her a relic?] Kelhenia, **[definitely a fantasy name; this fits with her use of magic.] collector of Relics, tossed her newspaper on the wooden table, then crossed her arms **[she uses pretty human body language.] over her pristine white jacket.**[I notice that this world is familiar enough that color values remain the same, as well as some fashions.]

Skyhammer's jaw tightened **[more quintessentially human body language, but it sounds as though it's being observed from the outside] as he shut the door. He strode to the table in the middle of the room, nose wrinkling at a waft of her heavy floral perfume.**[I like this sensory detail. It places us back in Skyhammer's viewpoint] Eyes trained on the jiggling jowls of the overweight **[If she's got jiggling jowls, I'm surprised to see the word "overweight." I associate it with a time period following that of the detective scenario, and also with a weight considerably lower than the jiggling jowls evoke for me.] woman across from him, he lifted his backpack **[more interesting technological grounding]off his shoulder.

"I said where's my Relic, Untouchable scum?**[Wow, there are castes here?] " Kelhenia slipped a red, rectangular glass slate **[this is very distinctive and I'm curious, watching for its significance.] from her pocket.

Skyhammer's eyes widened**[external body language]. She was going to perform a spell on him! **[That explains the significance of the slate, so we know the magic system is based on some kind of objects.] With a swift movement, his right hand gripped the hilt of his longsword,**[This surprised me. I was expecting a weapon to fit with the detective scenario technology level, not with the fantasy elements.] then fell away. He was defenseless. He could haul out his sword and attempt to slice her in half but like most humans who lived in the Royal Circle,**[this is interesting social information. I wonder where her position, Relic collector, places her in the Royal Circle. Probably not among the royalty.] she would be protected by a magic shield.**[I wish I knew more about this magic shield. It must be invisible; I wonder what he expects would happen if he made the attempt.]

Kelhenia's sausage fingers**[this is very earthly] drew in the impressionable glass**[this is very unearthly; a nice contrast.], a sketch that looked like nails had pressed hard into sunburned skin,**[I like how this evokes pain] creating white lines. She blew across the drawing.**[I like what we learn by seeing her work magic. This reminds me of the magic system in Howl's Moving Castle.]

First the drawing then the table disappeared, leaving the newspaper to plummet to the wooden floor and land with a soft smack.**[what disappeared? Is the whole tablet gone?]

He clutched the strap of the backpack he'd been about to drop on the table. "In here," he muttered, relieved that she'd used her magic on the table instead of him. He didn't consider himself good-looking but over the years he'd grown attached to his spiky brown hair, six-foot-four height and prominent ears.**[This surprised me. Did he think she was going to alter his appearance? I'm not sure he'd be thinking of the details of his own appearance if she was just going to make him disappear.]

"Well? Aren't you going to put the table back?"**[Who says this?] She sniggered, then raised her eyebrows.
Two years. **[This is a real-world measurement of time, which fits] Two years he'd been selling the woman Relics and every time they met she had to taunt him about his lack of magic powers. **[This makes it sound like teasing. Teasing from a position of power is very unpleasant] His teeth clenched. It wasn't his fault he was an Untouchable, born without magic. **[Wow, it's a caste system? I'm surprised to see that the Untouchable category is people without magic. Everything about Kelhenia, her power position and her magic makes her appear to be part of a magic-wielding elite. This seems to reverse that impression.]

His backpack thumped onto the ground.**[Did it fall or did he drop it? Why? Is he trying to upset her?]

"How dare you abuse my Relic!" Kelhenia leapt up, face red, fingers starting to trace another pattern on her magic slate.**[When I got here I was surprised to see the slate because I thought it had disappeared along with the design she drew. Maybe I don't have a clear picture of it in my head.]

"It's not yours yet." Skyhammer knelt and opened the clasp of his bag. Maybe he could distract the collector. Higgins wasn't due to arrive for at least another ten minutes.**[That seems like an awfully long time] Kelhenia could easily steal the Relic from him before then.**[I wonder about their relationship. Her power and position seem like they would make it easy for her to have taken all the relics without recompense, without the label of stealing. It would help if I had an idea of what Skyhammer thinks Higgins is going to do for him (if he's a transaction-recorder, or a policeman, or a free agent, or a magic-wielding friend of Skyhammer's).]

She gasped as he withdrew the Relic.**[Taking it out will distract her; that's interesting, since it could also inspire her to take it. This must be something special. I'm curious at this point to see what it is, for a further glimpse of this magic system.]

Thick cyan liquid filled a simple red clay bowl to the brim. Three inches above the bowl, a stream of the liquid erupted out of the air and poured down like wine from an invisible bottle.**[I can see that the materials of the Relic are relatively simple. Presumably there's something about it that will become evident as the story continues.]
***

First, let me say thanks again to Nicole for submitting this piece. It's a mixed real-world and magic-world piece, which is very interesting. One of the things I do as I go through a piece which mixes real and fantastical is try to determine what principles separate the two parts. In this case, I had assigned the local technology, buildings and such to the real-world side, and magic objects, social structures and professions to the fantastical side. This is the reason why I tripped up when I hit the reference to Benjamin Skyhammer's sword.

I also want to bring some attention to the social structures here. At the start I find myself accessing the scenario in which the private detective returns to his office and finds someone has broken in without his permission. For me this places Kelhenia in the role of boss and Skyhammer in the role of employee...which fits generally with the idea of the Relic finder and the Relic collector. Because I don't know much about this world yet, I wonder if the position of Relic collector is institutional, like the role of tax collector, or if it is personal, like the role of art collector. A better sense of who Higgins is and what Benjamin expects him to do might illuminate this a little. Then there is the question of magic users and castes, which appear to be interrelated. When the boss is a magic-user, that falls easily into a model in which magic users are few and take positions of power. The idea of Benjamin as being untouchable because he isn't a magic user therefore came as a surprise to me, and made me revise my concept. If everyone is a magic user, then I start looking for common everyday uses of magic (like Mrs. Weasley's kitchen in The Burrow). I start wondering whether there is something specific about the magic that would lead its users to believe that people who were deprived were worthy of ostracism (does it change them physically? is it considered cleansing? etc.). The place of the Relics in such a system is then more mysterious. Are these relatively common objects, or is the magic use restricted to the drawing of pictures that leads to particular effects - and thus, actual magic objects are unusual? Our guide to the answers to these questions is Benjamin. If magic objects were commonly available, he might have purchased some for the purposes of protecting himself from people like Kelhenia. He should show surprise at objects that are unusual, and help readers contextualize what they see. It might be helpful too for him to think of his own group as "us" and "my people" rather than labeling them as an outsider might.

I found this piece whimsical and intriguing. There's a lot of really interesting stuff here, and only a little time and space here for me to explore it. I hope these comments have provided a few ideas on strengthening how the world and the magic system come across.

As always, I welcome constructive comments.