ghost raven worldbuilding writing

The magic of Raven’s Blood (part 1)

Chekhov’s Law is generally couched as “if one shows a loaded gun on stage in the first act of a play, it should be fired in a later act”.

Here’s my corollary law for fantasy: if your wizard character casts an ice spell in chapter 5, they should have to freeze a lake solid to save the day before the end of the book. The fact that Merlin-9000 uses ice magic needs to matter, and it needs to create a meaningfully different story than if he used fire magic or forcibly converted all his enemies to Mormonism.

Or, more succinctly – magic needs to shape and be shaped by the narrative.

Yes, this is one of those places where my theories on worldbuilding bubble up and make me massively fucking annoying to talk to at parties.

In keeping with my bottom-up approach to worldbuilding, my primary thought as I’ve come up with the magical bits of Raven’s Blood is not ‘what kind of magic would make sense in this world?’ but ‘what kind of magic would best reflect the themes and tropes of the story I want to tell?’ To develop that, I’ve thought a lot about what those themes are, what kind of principles could support narratively interesting cores, and what might engage a YA audience without replicating stuff they’ve seen before. Most of all – what kind of magic makes for an exciting fantasy superhero story?

So tonight, here’s a look at one of the two schools/fields of magic in the world of Raven’s Blood – what they are, what principle drives them, and how they feed into the story I want to tell. Hope you find it interesting.

The magic of the East

The magical traditions of the Eastern lands all rest on a single principle – change begets change. When a person, object or substance undergoes physical changes, they may mentally or supernaturally change in turn, and that change may foster and force more changes to follow.

Story function: The Easterlings and the Host were the enemies of the West, but that was 20 years ago; now the two cultures live in relative harmony in Crosswater. But invasions bring change in their aftermath, whether physical or social, and one theme of Raven’s Blood is looking at those changes and seeing how stable and/or how genuine they truly are. Basing Easterling magic on change – often degenerative, uncontrollable change – underlines that theme and pushes characters to think about their reactions to change and the Other.

Plus, hey, this is a YA story – the way I see it, such stories should always be about change in some way.


The esoteric, gross form of Eastern magic is sorcery – the direct channeling of otherworldly power through a human agent. Sorcerers deliberately induce changes in their bodies (or their minds, in some rare instances) in order to change their natures, opening themselves up to the powers of the Otherworld. There are various techniques for this, all risky, painful and difficult, but if they succeed then the sorcerer permanently gains a number of magical abilities. The process can also change the world around the sorcerer, bleeding into the land, mutating wildlife or weakening the fabric of reality – which is how the 27 members of the Host were able to enter from the Otherworld 300 years ago and enslave the Easterlings. The Host are masters of sorcery, agents of change that alter and corrupt the world just by existing, and the ichor in their veins is the most powerful of mutagens. Those changed by ichor – especially those changed involuntarily, perhaps due to being wounded by the Hosts’ powers or ichor-stained weapons – are called the blight-touched.

Sorcery is not a flexible form of magic – a sorcerer may manifest a handful of magical abilities that can only be used in a few ways. But it is powerful, especially when ichor is the mutagen that changes the sorcerer’s body – a blight-touched warrior might be totally impervious to blades, strong enough to toss a horse across a river or able to vomit clouds of gas strong and large enough to poison a regiment. In order to channel and contain that power, though, the warrior is changed – he might be nine feet tall, bulging with muscle, constantly streaming noxious vapours from his mouth and eyes or (of course) totally mad from constant pain or from the corrosive, inhuman influence of the ichor in his system. And that influence may warp him even further in future.

Story function: Sorcery gives me a way to include bizarre, twisted superhuman characters in Raven’s Blood, the kind that make for great villains. Brutes like Killer Croc or the Hulk are obvious options, but so are Poison Ivy, the Red Skull, Two-Face, the Human Torch, the Silver Swan, the Parasite… pretty much anyone that wears their power on their sleeve and doesn’t just look like a normal person. The corrosive effects of gaining power also let me include monsters, blighted lands and other unnatural phenomena, and I can tie it all back to the Host, the terrible reverse-Ringwraiths that are my spooky-as-hell boss monsters.

Sorcery also allows me to add a note of horror into the story (which I always have to do) thanks to both the grotesqueness of the blight-touched and the contagious nature of their powers. A character like Jack Twist the Scavenger Prince isn’t just disturbing because he can manifest a nest of whips around his mutilated left fist, glowing and writhing with ichor-blight, but because even if you survive the touch of his whips you may end up blight-touched in the process. That horror of involuntary change will, I hope, speak to the YA audience as much as it speaks to my YA protagonist.


The mundane, subtle form of Eastern magic is alchemy – altering the properties of normal substances in order to create new effects. In its simplest, stablest form, alchemy simply creates stable and mundane substances with unusual uses, like curative poultices  smoke-powder or the burn-salt the Easterlings used to make explosives. More unusual alchemical substances are harder to make but can have limited supernatural effects, like oils that briefly render metal transparent or drugs that send you into a clairvoyant trance. The most powerful of these substances cause permanent changes when taken or used, opening the body to receive sorcerous power – and so, of course, they are forbidden.

Story function: Smoke bombs, baby, smoke bombs all the way. You can’t have fantasy Batman without smoke bombs and grenades and knockout gas and all those other wonderful toys. Alchemical tricks are a good way to give non- or lower-powered characters an advantage when dealing with their enemies, allowing me to write scenes where a careful, smart hero overcomes a monstrous, blight-touched villain and have those feel believable.

Alchemy also lets me present a more socially-acceptable, less terrifying facet of Eastern magic, in turn giving me story options for portraying the role of Easterlings in Crosswater society. They can be doctors, engineers, apothecaries and sages, capable of small miracles – but because alchemy can be directed into the service of sorcery, they still aren’t liked or trusted. And that distrust propels the social tension and fear that springs up when the threat of sorcery returns to the city…

Huh. That was wordier than expected. These things are so simple and straightforward in my head; it’s only when trying to explain them that they become long and complicated.

Anyhoo, tune in next week for a discussion of Westron magic and its story functions, as well as a bit of compare-and-contrast between the two world of magic and some thoughts on where else I could take things.

As always, comments are greatly appreciated so that I know I’m not just mumbling into an empty room after all the punters have gone home HELLO HELLO IS THIS THING ON

ghost raven worldbuilding writing

Head down, bum up, build a world

I hate worldbuilding.

Well, okay, ‘hate’ is too strong a word. ‘Don’t enjoy or care about’ is probably more accurate. As I’ve mentioned before, my taste in fantasy runs less to Tolkien and more to Borges, who emphasised the ability to create ‘poetic faith’ in the reader rather than convince them that anything they were reading was or pretended to be ‘real’. Fiction is all about making things up, and I like to acknowledge that.

And that’s all well and good in theory, but I’m writing a fantasy novel right now, and worldbuilding isn’t optional. I get that – fantasy is based on things are not as you know, and any kind of consistent narrative has to position the reader in a space where the impossible, magical turns feel not just believable but justified. Events are supported by the setting, and the setting is in turn defined by events. Also, fantasy readers really, really care about worldbuilding, and I’d like them to buy read my book. So Raven’s Blood is making me confront my antipathy towards worldbuilding and work to overcome it, and that’s something I’d like to talk about – not just tonight, but for maybe the next half-dozen posts, assuming y’all don’t get bored.

To begin, let’s talk about what worldbuilding actually means and how you (and by you I mean me) go about it.

Look anywhere online and you’ll see that worldbuilding can be approached from two directions – top down and bottom up, both of which sound slightly homoerotic. (And there’s nothing wrong with that.) But in truth they’re less about manlove than about direction and priority.

If you’ve never heard of these two approaches, well, Wikipedia has a pretty good article on them and you should read that. But in summary, top-down means starting on the large macro scale – city, country, world, ENTIRE UNIVERSE OMG – and determining its parameters, then drilling down through the implications to detail things on an ever-smaller level until you reach the boundaries of your story. Going bottom-up means starting on the local level and filling in the details as you go, building upwards and adding on detail as the story or focus moves. Both approaches have value, and they have more in common than some people think – because let’s face it, in both cases you’re just making things up. On the whole, though, it seems like most fantasy authors like the top-down approach – to start with the world writ large and then pushing through to see the way that world shapes the story within.

I, of course, have to be different. I’m bottom up all the way AND STOP SNIGGERING UP THE BACK THERE.

I’ve done top-down world design before, though – as part of my freelance RPG writing days. I’m thinking of the World of Darkness but even more of Freeport, which were created from day one to support a range of possible stories. Because that’s the way top-down approaches go – you make a world (or a country, or city etc) and then find or develop stories within that platform, and that’s what you need in an RPG setting, a platform and toolkit for making your own stories. In fact, I’d probably go so far as to say that commercial RPG worldbuilding has to be top-down – it’s what the market wants and it’s the only way to make a setting sourcebook broadly useful. On the other hand, I think most RPG campaigns tend to be bottom-up on some level, because in actual play you start fleshing out and exploring a core narrative thread and building new details around it.

Incidentally, I just want to mention that I’m totally goddamn stoked by the news today that Evil Hat and Green Ronin are teaming up for a Fate Core Companion for Freeport! Well, they will team up for one if the Fate Core Kickstarter reaches its next stretch goal, and I really hope it does. It’s a great, flexible game system, and I remain incredibly proud of the work I did on the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, perhaps the single best bit of game writing I ever did.

So if either of those things appeal to you, you should put ten bucks into the Kickstarter. You’ll get a whole lot of gaming for bugger-all cash.

Now, back to the meandering.

From my POV, worldbuilding is always about invention. Sometimes it’s about exploring implications, sure, but it’s exploring the implications of things you decide to include in the first place. So top-down versus bottom-up is less about scale and scope and more about workload and direction. It’s about whether you make them up before or as you need them, and whether you start with the things that should be in there and then move to the things you want to be in there or vice versa. Neither is better than the other.

But I struggle with top-down creation, as both a writer and reader, because of the implication that the story presented at the end is a story that can be told in that world, not the story that must be told. I can’t shake that niggling lack of urgency that comes with knowing that the world is a bigger canvas than this one painting; the choice to focus on this particular narrative feels spurious on some level, and I find it harder to connect with what’s going on. I have the same problem sometimes with RPGs, although there it manifests as dithering and paralysis as I try to justify a specific choice of ideas to myself – why this, rather that that? And so I have to cut down the setting info I take in or acknowledge until I reach a point where the options are curtailed and a specific narrative thread seems not just logical but unavoidable.

Yeah. It’s weird. I know.

So in building the world of Raven’s Blood, I’m going bottoms-up all the way.

I started with what I knew I wanted – a story about a brave girl, a weary hero and a terrible threat. And I’ve let the story and the character dictate the world around – well, the city around them (Crosswater) to be exact, with the world behind that sketched in as lightly as I could get away with. I knew I wanted a story about the aftermath of conflict, so Crosswater still bears the scars of war. I knew I wanted an inhuman enemy and human faces for it, so that war was against the burning Host and their mortal servants – and that in turn led me to sketching a world with dawn-lands and dusk-lands and different societies and spirits in the East and West. I knew I wanted parkour and stunts and weird magic and superheroic action, and I knew I wanted everything to feed back and reinforce the themes I wanted to explore in the story.

And once I knew that, filling in the details was easy. Everything came from what I wanted to write about, rather than what I felt I should include for the sake of verisimilitude. And that may not make a world that feels ‘real’ enough for some readers, but hopefully it makes for a world that feels interesting.

And I for one prefer interesting to real. That’s the whole point of fiction.

The point of all this waffle, of course, is not to say ‘this is the right/best way to write’, because as always there are no best or right ways to write – there are just the ways that work. This works for me. So what works for you? C’mon, leave a comment and tell me you totally disagree with me. That would make me so happy.

(It really would.)

Next week, I’m heading further down the world-building path with the first of two posts about the magic of Crosswater and Raven’s Blood, as well as talking about the point of magic in fantasy stories. Yes, once again I’m defining a whole genre and telling other writers that they’re DOING IT WRONG. I hope you’ll join me.