Pre-writing for National Novel Writing Month 2014, Part 2

Note: I plan on publishing this as it’s written through or some other platform, so if you want to be surprised, this is your cue to leave.


I love magic, mostly because I love things that break the universe in various ways. Magic is a fairly difficult thing to get right though. Sanderson’s first law of magic is “An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” Because both of the main characters of this story will be magic users, a fair amount of the conflict will be solved through magic, which means that this is something that needs to be pinned down now in pre-writing so that I don’t bumble into problems during NaNo. Ideally, every aspect of the magic systems is a Chekov’s gun that gets fired in the final act, where every trick is used and the story completes its circle. In the kingdom of Donkerk, where the story takes place, there are several varieties of magic. What follows is, in part, a design doc for me to consult when I need to remember something while writing.


The world is filled with spirits. While some small fraction of them take a physical form, it’s generally accepted that for every one that’s seen there are a thousand that are invisible and intangible. The physical spirits generally get divided into house spirits, which live in houses or buildings (generally one for each), and animal spirits, which live in the woods or fields. House spirits usually cobble themselves together from discarded or broken things around the house, while animal spirits usually take some variation on an animal, or some combination of animals. With that said, the spirits are wildly varied, and any time you might try to make a rule about what spirits are like, you’d also have to add a string of caveats and exceptions. The people of Donkerk generally have a copacetic relationship with the spirits. Having a house spirit is considered a boon, and killing an animal spirit is deeply taboo (mostly because they tend to come back angry).
A person with a deep connection to the spirits is called a spirit caller. While almost none of the spirits can speak, a spirit caller has a certain empathy with the spirits which allows them befriend the spirits and to soothe the troubled ones. Sofia, the female lead, is a spirit caller, though she is only distantly aware of it where the story starts. In times of need, she can call on the aid of the spirits, but they don’t like to be called to do too much. In terms of setting up Chekov’s guns for the finale, Sofia will meet and befriend a number of spirits that will help in the final showdown – their abilities and natures will be shown along the way.


This is the variety of magic that’s all about giving up one thing for another. It’s my take on goats and chickens being sacrificed in a pentacle of blood under the light of black candles. One of the major planned themes of the book is that “dark is not evil”. Killing a chicken to cure a woman’s infertility is dark, but it’s not evil, and much of the taboo around this form of magic is simply superstition.
The power of a sacrifice is dependent on how much value there is in the thing that’s being sacrificed, though of course “value” is rather subjective. Many books have been written on the nature of these trades, and if you were approaching the subject from the position of a modern man, you would probably have trading tables and exchange rates with all the variances calculated in. The dark mages of Donkerk instead consult a large number of tomes which tell them the circumstances that affect the power of a sacrifice, as well as dubious lists of information about what might be pulled from a sacrifice.

Generally speaking, sacrifice is tiered. Plants are worth less than animals, which are in turn worth less than humans. Material objects can also be sacrificed, with raw materials being worth less than finished goods – a lump of metal is worth less than a dagger, which is in turn worth less than a jeweled dagger crafted by a master. The simplest forms of sacrifism involve simply breaking or ruining a thing as part of the exchange, while more complex and powerful forms of the magic require a proper ritual to make the barter. Permanent sacrifices are worth much, much more than temporary ones – a lock of hair or a clipping of a nail produces a very small effect, where a sacrifice of bone or a life has the absolute greatest effect.

The effects of sacrifism fall into a number of categories (which are only loose descriptions that blur around the edges). The most important of these is warding, which is a protective magic. The smallest of wards can be done with a lock of hair, and will only hold a door shut for a few good pushes, while the largest of wards could completely lock away an acre of woods from sight, sound, and physical trespass at the cost of the lives of a hundred innocents. Wards can block all manner of things, and are highly useful to that purpose.

The second large class of sacrificial magic is bodily modification. Usually, this means healing wounds, fixing afflictions, or extending the life of the dark wizard. However, there are also much more evil uses of this class of trade, such as creating monsters out of animals or even people. There are also weirder applications, like replacing your arms with tentacles or lining your back with bone spurs. The thing to keep in mind is that sacrifism is all about trades, which means that you might be able to make a favorable arrangement, but you’re unlikely to get out more than you put in (though you can use outside materials in order to make these trades).


The world is divided into three realms. The Physical Realm is where the animals, plants, and the bodies of people are located. The Spiritual Realm is where the spirits live when they haven’t taken a corporeal form. The Mental Realm is where minds live. While the Spiritual Realm is barred to all but the most powerful of spirit callers, the Mental Realm is fairly easy for someone with a little knowledge and some small amount of skill to get to.
The Mental Realm is not really a place per se – it’s more an interconnected set of cognitive spaces. Each is, essentially, a memory palace taken to the extreme and made very literal. Every person has their own mental domain, which reflects their psyche in different ways, and changes as their mind changes (attachments are made, memories are formed, skills are acquired, etc.). The exact shape and character of the mentis locus (which is probably-not-correct-Latin for “place of the mind”) vary from person to person. For some, it’s a small, cramped place in the middle of an indistinct city, while for others, it’s a secluded glen. The size of the domain varies wildly, though the more there is to the mind in question, the more room is needed for all of the representational objects.

Accessing the mentis locus takes some training and focus, but it gets easier with practice. Access to the locus can greatly improve memory if the mentalist gains a familiarity with where representational objects are within his mind. It can also be used for self-awareness, such as examining feelings or connections. Though mental modification is dangerous, and the locus is an imprecise place, some mentalists use access to their locus to force changes in the makeup of their mind, usually in the hopes of self-improvement. Making actual changes through physical force is difficult, and takes an extraordinary amount of will, and the easier way is to change your mind through more conventional means with the locus as an aid. With more training, you can inhabit the locus and the Physical Realm at the same time with divided attention, so that you can take advantage of being able to see inside your mind while at the same time carrying on a conversation.

It is also possible to invade another person’s locus in order to make changes to it, though this takes an extraordinary amount of willpower and skill. It gets much easier if you can deliver one of a variety of poisons (or drugs) to your target in order to weaken the natural barriers around their locus, but the most powerful of mentalists can do it naturally – and at the very highest tiers, can even do it without their target knowing that an intrusion is being made. Once inside someone’s locus, you can almost all of the things that you can do within your own locus, though the abstract nature of the Mental Realm along with the unfamiliar surroundings makes this quite difficult. In theory, anything is possible when you have access to a person’s locus, from removing memories, to altering their interpersonal connections, to changing their emotions, but these things take varying levels of training, power, and natural talent.


Denialism is the other side of the coin of sacrifism. Where sacrifism revolves around seeking out a trade with the spirits, denialism revolves around attracting spirits to you. Sacrifists make a ritual (if only a simple one) in exchange for some boon, but denialists make a ritual (usually not so simple) with the understanding that if they continue through with certain restrictions they will be granted a boon. Sacrifice is like buying something, where denial is like taking out a loan.
In Donkerk, the denialists almost all belong to the Foresworn Sisters or the High Rectory. The form of denial that they usually take is mental in nature; they voluntarily restrict themselves from speech, from decadence, from violence, from sex, from alcohol, from autonomy, or some similar thing. The only thing keeping them from breaking these formalized oaths is the fact that they would lose the powers granted to them. A denialist pact can be broken at any moment, and breaking one breaks all of them. Denialist powers take a long time to grab hold, usually on the order of a year, but they grow in power the longer any given oath has been in place. For that reason, the oldest denialists are the most powerful, and the denialist organizations tend to take in children instead of fully grown adults. Denial is more powerful the higher the cost to you, meaning that abstaining from your favorite things gives you more power for your oath. Because of that, the most powerful denialist have very intense personalities, since a denialist that was indifferent to the world would be giving up relatively little with their oath (and at the same time, that type of person would probably be more likely to break their oath).
The boons granted by denialism vary somewhat from person to person, mostly because they’re granted by spirits that cling to the denialist on the strengths and durations of their oaths. The simplest effects are enhanced strength, speed, and durability, which make denialists into superior warriors. There are other effects beyond those though, which tend to be more individual and customized to the denialist in question. Because (from a writing perspective) the denialists are mostly going to be secondary characters, I feel a lot less pressure to define the extent of these, but right now I’m thinking that they will mostly be fantasy-flavored superhero powers like telekinesis, teleportation, and flight. Because the denialists don’t get granted any additional abilities over the course of the story (which takes place over too little time for them to gain more power), instead I think they’ll stay circumspect in their use of powers and not bust them out until appropriately awesome moments.

Magic Items

Magic items are, for the most part, a physical instantiation of a spirit. Normally, spirits live in the Spiritual Realm and only have the barest contact with the physical. When they take form as a house spirit or an animal spirit, they’ve halfway bridged the gap between the two. When they form into a magical item, they’ve taken the final step towards physicality, and this is one of the only ways that a spirit can truly be ended – either of its own choice, or through the willful force of a powerful spirit caller.

Like the spirits themselves, items are wholly unique, and each follows its own logic. These are magic items that are magical, and each magical item that a person comes across should have its own block of text to describe its appearance and effects. The Crown of Donkerk sits atop the head of the rightful ruler of the kingdom, can’t be lost, stolen, or broken, and confers an astounding control over the wearer’s voice. The Sword of a Thousand Forms flickers and changes in combat, taking the shape that its wielder most needs to parry, stab, or cut. Some are smaller, and more subtle – a coin that turns up heads five times out of six, a locket that lets the wearer find the nearest body of water, or a length of rope that makes powerful knots and can carry ten times as much weight as it should. Sometimes these abilities are predicated on what type of item it is, but just as often you’ll find a scissors that causes plants to grow faster or a blanket that freshens the air of whatever room it’s in.

Other Magics

There are magics beyond those possessed by the main characters, any beyond those which have an impact on the story. To the south, on a series of islands in the Juniper Ocean, the eloists are granted spiritual powers by engaging in an enormous, yearly tournament. To the northwest, the Caliphate of Carcer practices a different form of denialism which involves the binding of the body and wrapping of the eyes. There are the rare and powerful elementalists, who seem to draw raw power from the Spiritual Realm, the trahiists that can temporarily pull objects from their locus into the Physical Realm, and the dream-walkers of the Scour. The world needs to be larger than the story, both to open up the possibility of a sequel, and to keep it from feeling claustrophobic (as it only takes place in a single kingdom). These other magics are only alluded to though, so they only need token mention.

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Pre-writing for National Novel Writing Month 2014, Part 2

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