Worldbuilder’s Disease: Oops, I Did It Again

In which I alienate writers who use index cards.

Tools for writing this week: quotation mark sticky notes, D&D Player’s Handbook, and the ever-watchful Elsa.

Earlier this week I celebrated getting to the climactic chapter of my novel Firesage, where pregnant sorceress Elspyth Stonehouse, and her rival Bálarmos of Dwynhagen finally confront each other over her husband’s traitorous attempts to make the magical academy independent of their warlord king. Everything comes together in this chapter, and as written, I thought it was very exciting. The two groups of sorcerors clash on the grounds of the academy itself, along with a group of soldiers: there’s a huge conflagration, quite a bit of tragic drama, some heartbreak, and different magics that no one was expecting! On top of that it all starts out with an awesome catfight between Elspyth and another sorceress: an epic “Hands off my man!” leads to an all-out battle.

Unfortunately, as I started sorting out the details of this fight to make sure everything worked, I could see rather rapidly that it didn’t. There were several realizations that fell into a few groups:

  1. Wouldn’t they just…?
  2. Why is she…?
  3. If they can just blow each other up like this, wouldn’t they have
    done that a long time ago?

It was this last one that really stuck in my mind. When you’re dealing with magical characters, you have the problem that if they are too powerful, you don’t have a story. On the other hand, if they’re not powerful enough you don’t have much that’s interesting. You have to give them interesting powers with limitations. There are several solutions to this: one is to create a rule-based magic system where the reader definitely knows what the characters can do and can’t do. Someone will inevitably break the rules (and this is what happens in Firesage), and this creates tension, as other characters have to figure out how they did it, or how to topple a villain who can break the rules, or deal with the psychological or moral consequences of breaking those rules.

A lot of books have the prohibition that magic can’t be used as a weapon. As realistic as this is, as it deals with a power differential, i.e. you should pick on someone your own size, I find it slightly artificial sometimes. The other big solution is to do more like what Sword and Sorcery does, and have your wizard character be an aloof, mysterious evil guy instead of a main character, even a sidekick for the evil king. That way the form of the magic is not as important as getting the hero into the right position to make sure the wizard can’t strike back.

To solve this problem then I embarked on an in-depth exploration of the magic that I’d created, the moral and psychological consequences of it, and the strengths and weaknesses of each character. I figured out a lot that I didn’t understand about the magic system, and most of it makes sense with the scenes that are already in my draft. However, at the end of three days of digging into the magic, I didn’t have any better idea of how to rewrite the Final Battle. I did have a few great ideas of how to change it, but none of it relied on the magic, its flaws or the characters’ magical weaknesses. For example, the final battle can’t take place at the magical academy, because my secondary protagonist can’t just come in and blow the place up when he says he’s saving it. Also, if there are other wizards there, and this is their home, wouldn’t they step in and stop him, even if they’re not explicitly allied with his enemies? Furthermore, I’ve already established in earlier chapters that plenty of the other wizards are against him, so him bringing in soldiers and torching the place won’t accomplish his goal.

Coincident with this rewriting problem, a friend from my writing group invited me to play Dungeons and Dragons with him, and I was intrigued. I have never played D&D, despite hanging out with the D&D kids from middle school through college, nor have I witnessed anyone playing it. I read the player’s handbook and got the general idea, and I have to say I can see its influence on the fantasy genre. I had completely underestimated it! However, I also saw that the way it codifies character traits and abilities and adds randomness is a great way to think about storytelling (think about, not actually to tell a story). In the end, however I think a good game of chess is probably more important.

That’s because none of the problems I was having were due to poor understanding of magical systems. Look again at the list of questions I had, and you’ll see the first two have nothing to do with magic. No, the problems I was having had to do with the characters doing things that were cool but stupid and unmotivated. I wrote, in my original draft, an idiot plot. Well, maybe not an idiot plot but an idiot sequence. Things seemed to really flow when I first wrote it, and I never paused to think “Wait, why is she going there? Wouldn’t she go to the stables and get her horse?” I didn’t pause to think about how the characters would strategically attack or strategically get away. It looks instead like they are just rushing around bumping into each other. It was cloaked in a good drama, and there’s good stuff that I will keep, but I had to just say it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense because I lost track of the characters’ motivations.

Time to remember key dramatic principles:

  1. Union of opposites
  2. Conflict
  3. Motivation

If you can remember these, you will always know what your characters want to do.  The problem is remembering that when you’re in the throes of writing something really cool.

I realized again this morning that some might call this writer’s block, and I totally have to take issue with that. I could have written if I wanted to, if I didn’t have these serious problems. I had to step back and reform the story. It wasn’t “the words just won’t come out.” It was Worldbuilder’s Disease again! I had a problem with getting the plot right and I went into worldbuilding instead of character. Character character character. Characters do things because of their motivation, their goal. They have to have that, and you the author have to know what it is. Otherwise there is no story. Well, you might have a story, but it will be a stupid story about stupid people doing stupid things.

So, instead of figuring out more of the magic system, I got some little sticky notes and I’m writing out the steps of the three points of view in the sequence, and tracking them by sticking them to the wall, and seeing where they intersect. It’s a new approach for me, but since I have to either be writing or manipulating something to see how these things work, I think it will come out well.


4 thoughts on “Worldbuilder’s Disease: Oops, I Did It Again”

  1. Sometimes making a paper timeline (who knows what when) helps me. Then again, I tend to start from character and fall ass-backward into magic systems and worldbuilding, so it could be too specific a situation. 😉 Good luck, and I hope you give D&D (or Pathfinder, another very good tabletop variant) another try. I find that DMing makes me a much better novelist, because it helps immensely with recognizing story problems and even with motivation, if your players are good about staying in character. Players will make the decision that makes the most sense to them with limited knowledge and the sort of character that they’ve built, regardless if it’s what you the DM wanted them to do. After you’ve had to herd your players back onto the path of the plot a few times, you begin to get better at anticipating problems. (At least, I hope I am.)


    1. I haven’t written off games: I just didn’t consider doing it until my friend invited me, and I haven’t had a chance to actually play yet. The problem I see is that some authors write as if they are a DM or as if the reader is a player, so it affects viewpoint in a way that can be strange to someone (like me) who’s much more literature-oriented.


      1. Oh yes, I’ve seen that too. It’s actually really easy to spot if you play or DM at all, and I think it takes you out of the story in a nasty way. RPGs have a lot to answer for in the form of bad tropes, too, like “ah, well, they’re all orcs, so clearly they’re all bad, so clearly we don’t need to worry about this being genocide or anything, we can just get to the cool battle”. But I like breaking stuff down mechanically at the early stages of writing, and it does help when plotting to make sure that I don’t go too far into the weeds.


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