A worldbuilding calendar for systematized magic

December 28, 2021

Any magic which is sufficiently systematized is indistinguishable from science

popularized by NK Jemisin

This post is actually an intentionally ambitious, almost obnoxiously ambitious, calendar to challenge myself to create fiction next month. I haven’t written any good fiction in a while, and the only fiction that I have written which I still like I wrote under (consensual) duress. One can do a lot of world-building in a weekend, but there’s some hand-waving that you have to do at a certain point when you run into the limit of your knowledge about something in your story.

Anyway, building a world from scratch is fun and I want to focus on just that, and know that I’ll have some deliverables at the end. Some writers recommend you don’t do this, that you should have a story already in mind (this is Writing Excuses’ advice in their worldbuilding episodes). This is to prevent some of the worst excesses of worldbuilding, where you just hamster wheel forever inventing endless details that never get into your stories.

I’m interested in a science fiction world with what I’m calling a magic system, which may sound like it doesn’t belong in science fiction. All I mean is that the conceit, or Element X or whatever you want to call it, feels like a system that characters can develop technical expertise in. Star Trek’s lore around dilithium engineering feels like it belongs in this category. It’s ultimately based on made-up science which violates the laws of physics, but there’s a certain amount of logical consistency.

The calendar

Each week is thematic, and finishes with a weekend of writing a short story. You can skip up to 3 days, or use all three skips on one of the short stories. Each day’s activity should be one or two pomodoros in length. Each story prompt is only a suggestion and can be ignored. If you want more context on worldbuilding, a good place to start is this NK Jemisin interview (or her class on Masterclass, if you have access to that service). The Writing Excuses podcast also has some good advice, especially in season 10.

week 1: your magic system

week 2: the big picture (macro worldbuilding)

week 3: living in society (micro worldbuilding)

week 4: just writing

day 1

Choose the basis of your magic system. Start with two note cards, and use one to write down what you want, and one to write down what you don’t want. Get to the point where you have a series of precise, succinct words. For example: “Force which allows space wizards to bend universe to their will”, “hallucinogenic dust which powers interstellar trade empire”, “some children have magic-user genetics”. This isn’t the basis of your story, it is a system that you’re creating that makes your world tick differently than ours. It also might not feel like a system yet. Optional: start diving into some Wikipedia rabbit holes.

day 2

What are the dangers of your magic system? What would a school curriculum for aspiring young users of your magic system include? what are some outstanding questions you have about the magic system? What keeps coming up for you that is confusing, unclear, or otherwise needs clarification? Write down at least 5 things.

day 3

Do whatever research you need to do to start answering those questions. Open a bunch of tabs in your browser, and keep track of your research in a journal that you can refer back and add to for the rest of the month.

day 4

Keep coming up with answers to your questions until you run out of good ones, then come up with a few ludicrous ones for good measure

day 5

Come up with a generic, cliched hero and a villain who make prominent use of your magic system. Make sure they’re 1-dimensional and follow lots of obvious tropes so you don’t take them seriously or expect them to have artistic merit. How do they use your magic system in the stories told about them?

day 6

Write down at least 10 prompts related to your magic system. They could be sensations related to it, like what it looks, tastes, or sounds like. Draw 3 of them–those are your prompts for the story you will write today. It should be at least 1500 words.

day 7

Take a break!

day 8

This week is macro world-building week. Here are some big-picture prompts that you should explore as they make sense to you.

Physics: Does physics work about the same, or is something different? Does your magic system violate our known laws of physics, and if so which ones (you can be vague if you don’t exactly know)?

Geography & cosmology: what is the sky like, and what is the land like? Figure out some things this implies about the people who live there.

day 9

Politics: who are the major state players, and how are they often stereotyped? What are the major factions within the setting you’re focusing on, and how are they often stereotyped? If there were a spy in your land, what valuable secrets would they be trying to uncover?

Power and privilege: what are ways that the powerful got their power?

day 10

Crime & punishment: If you get into a dispute with a neighbor that can’t be resolved, who steps in to help? Are the things that are illegal in our world generally illegal in this world?

Economy: Does this world have money, and does it work basically like our world’s money?

day 11 - 12

Today and tomorrow, play a solo version of the fractal story game Microscope to explore the history of your world. Begin with the start and end periods, and add more periods and the events that happened within them. Zoom in further to see individual scenes and play them out to answer a question you have.

day 13

Take the most interesting event or scene from your Microscope game and turn it into a short story.

day 14

Take a break!

day 15

This week is a mix of macro worldbuilding and micro worldbuilding.

Technology: Are there machines that perform manual labor, and if so how are they powered? Is your magic system used to manufacture or modify common household items, and if so which ones?

day 16

Classes & wealth: Is your magic system used by the powerful, the outcast, a caste, the common folk, the rich, or some combination? Is it a secret only some know, and if so how is that knowledge shared and hidden?

Power & privilege: how do powerful people behave? What are some tells that someone is rich, powerful, or has some other form of privilege?

day 17

Careers & education: Is it possible to go into a successful career in your magic system? How would such a person gain lucre or reputation?

Religion & morality: what do these people venerate, and how is that related to the structure of your world? Is it related to the magic system, and if not why not?

Health: What would it be like giving birth in this society?

day 18

Relationships and family: What is the norm of what a relationship looks like with yourself, with your friends, family, lovers, and society? What is this world’s version of Netflix and chill? If you were traveling and wanted to communicate with a loved one back home, how would you do it?

day 19

If you were going to travel somewhere for researching this world, where would you go and why? What experiences might you get there that would help you make a richer universe?

day 20

Write a short story in a day!

day 21

Take a break!

days 22 - 27

This week, take your time to write the short story. Use whatever makes sense from the material you’ve created. Remember that you’re still world-building and that the process of writing this and the questions that come up should still inform whatever research you still need to do.

day 28 - 30

Take a break!

day 31

Review day. Have you created a world you’d like to spend significantly more time in? Is it interesting to you? Do you have questions that you want answered?

a blog by Rowan Copley about fantasy data systems, unhelpful simulations, echoes from the future, and the strange ways that the digital world manifests in the real