The Struggles of World-Building in Fiction

And now for something completely different.

*cues “Philadelphia March” music*

But seriously though, for this post I thought I’d take a break from all my blabbing on about “The Showstopper!” to talk about something a little different. But in case you haven’t heard, my debut novel, “The Showstopper!” is currently available on Amazon.com and the Kindle store, plus I’m publishing it online, chapter by chapter, every week for now on this website. You should read it.

Okay, really, I’m done now. For those of you who may not be that closely associated with my writing process, over the past couple of years I’ve been working on another story entirely unrelated to “The Showstopper!”, with the working title of “Camp Ferguson”. It’s inspired by a lot of things, but mostly that magical cult classic series “Harry Potter”. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

First, a brief background on what the heck this book is about anyway. I’ve never been a huge fan of “Harry Potter”: there, I said it. I’m not saying they’re bad books by any stretch, but I’ve just never really cared for them, despite my love of fantasy and sci-fi stuff. One thing I did love about them, though, are the uncountable parodies of them that have risen up over the years, and I’ve always kind of wanted to do one of my own. I was also very much looking to try my hand at humorous writing, and thought this might be the place to do it, but I promised myself I wouldn’t be content with simple parody. If I was going to do this, it had to be good. It had to be original. It had to be a spin on the teen wizard genre that no one else had done before.

My first logical move was to set it in the U.S. instead of Britain: there’s just so much more material for cultural satire here, in my opinion. I also decided that the wizard characters in the story would be older, so as to dip into the somewhat raunchy college-and-above humor scene, a la “Animal House” and TV shows like “The League” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. But I was stuck on a potential setting until I saw the awesome Wes Anderson movie “Moonrise Kingdom” and fell in love with the raggedy crew of Khaki Scouts. That’s when it hit me: instead of a ritzy, classy school for wizards like Hogwarts, what if I dropped them into the other end of the spectrum and put them in a place that’s a cross between Boy Scouts and Army boot camp? Plus, I could then also draw from the humor of “MASH”, one of my other favorite shows. It seemed like the perfect plan.

The name of the book comes from the main character, Jack Ferguson, a gifted young wizard who is also a huge slacker and an incorrigible prankster. Upon coming to the camp that’s the main setting of the story, he makes friends with a rag-tag crew of geeks, freaks, and rejects who eventually band together to take on the forces of evil at this camp: a.k.a., the overbearing, authoritarian Scoutmaster, his greasy yes-man assistant, and a group of more privileged and higher-ranking scouts who want to keep everyone else under their thumb. Like I said, “Animal House” factors into the plotline A LOT. Sorry not sorry.

Anyway, as you may have guessed by the fact that “Camp Ferguson” isn’t on the shelves yet, it never ended up happening. I decided I just wasn’t happy with the way the story turned out after numerous re-writes and benched the whole project indefinitely. I’ll go back to it eventually, but I figured it might be a good move to put it aside for a while because it was becoming very frustrating for me.

Which brings me to the main purpose of my entry today: discussing world-building in a world of magic. See, part of the reason “Camp Ferguson” didn’t turn out like I wanted, as I now realize, is because I didn’t put enough thought ahead of time into just what this fictional magical world would be like. One of my biggest beefs with “Harry Potter” is that, while the wizarding world is portrayed in great detail, we never really see how it interacts with the REAL world and all those societal institutions we know so well. Thus, one of my goals in “Camp Ferguson” is to blend the normal (mundane) and magical worlds together so that they seem incredibly intertwined, while at the same time invisible to everyone who doesn’t have magic. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s harder.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Military

I don’t know about you, but when I attempted to think about the existence of magic in the world with a “realistic” point of view, the first thing that jumped to mind was how much it would change the game militarily. In the world of “Camp Ferguson”, the primary driving tool for the recruitment of young wizards is to drive them into military service in one form or another; hence the boot camp situation. The hierarchy of the Bureau of Magical Affairs (which I’ll get to in a minute) is made up very much like the military, with ranked officers, the topmost of whom is called “Scout Marshal”. Other inferior grade officers under the Scout Marshal are Scoutmasters and Assistant Scoutmasters, who may have control of a camp in the camp system or may have been given it as an honorary title. There is also a governing body called the Scoutmasters’ Council, made up of many of these people. Finally, there are magical units in all military branches (secretly of course), as well as in the police, but I really haven’t hashed out details on those just yet.

Government

Okay, this is the one I’ve put the most thought into. In my world, there exists a secret government agency called the BMA, or the Bureau of Magical Affairs, which handles all things magical in the country. Instead of having branch offices all across the U.S., the main BMA office is a gigantic complex that, through magic, is only accessible in another plane of existence, and has access points on the 13th floor of every building everywhere (hence why buildings don’t have 13th floors). As mentioned before, the hierarchy of the BMA is very militaristic, with the exception of its head, who is always a civilian, as compared to the mainly military backgrounds of all the other officials. As with most government agencies (he said, with satire intended), the BMA runs on inefficiency, bureaucracy, and mountains upon mountains of irrelevant red tape and paperwork. I really want to make the point that wizards, despite having magical powers, have just the same concerns and issues that normal people (here referred to as “mundanes”) have. For a bit of history, the BMA was founded in the 1930s by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the “alphabet soup” agencies of the New Deal, in response to outcry from the wizard community about their lack of legal protections and civil rights up to that point. The BMA is tasked with protecting, regulating, and monitoring the magical community, up to the point of spying programs like the NSA, CIA, or the “men in black”-type agents they use to track down underage wizards and take them away to camp. Paradoxically, the vast majority of employees at the BMA, including most field agents, are not actually magical themselves.

Business

This is one area that I haven’t really given a lot of attention to, but that I plan to going forward. Obviously with the whole government satire thing I have going on here, I’d like to also put it out there that, much like real life, monied interests and businesses pervade every level of decision-making and government in the magical world. One example of this is how the head of the BMA, as of the first book, is Marcus Masterson, the scion of the Masterson family, which is one of the oldest, richest, and most powerful magical families around. I’d also love to joke around with magic and Wall Street because, let’s face it, no one really understands how all that stuff works.

Sports

I focus on this a little bit over the course of the story, and while I’m not looking to make it a major point, I would like it to mean something. Rather than inventing a crazy made-up sport for wizards to play like Quidditch in “Harry Potter”, the established sport of the magical world in “Camp Ferguson” is baseball. However, it is common practice for participating wizards to use magic during games and effectively “cheat” by doing it, which is something that is not discouraged and actually encouraged at points. Therefore, the whole sport is shown to dissolve in a way as creative cheating has become the whole point of the game, along with teams’ attempts to counteract or better the cheating of their opponents.

Religion

This is the area I’ve probably focused the least on, and it’s something I’d really like to pursue a bit more, especially given that I’d eventually like the camp’s student chaplain to be one of my characters at some point. I know that in one of the books my characters will have to deal with the Cult of the Phoenix, a magical apocalyptic cult that’s sort of related to religion, but only in the vaguest of ways. I also know a lot of the more senior wizard characters often use “Merlin” as a synonym for “God”, but I’m not sure where I want to go with that. Really can’t say I have many ideas here.

Race/Gender Equality

While the “Harry Potter” series didn’t really show this off a lot, I always kind of thought of that world of wizards being a lot more open, accepting, and liberal philosophy-wise than the real world, seeing as how the wizards themselves are outcasts from traditional society in a lot of ways. In the world of “Camp Ferguson”, however, I thought I would turn this perception on its head. What if wizards, because they had magic and can do things most other people can’t, were even more bigoted and prejudiced than normal people? I haven’t really gotten into specifics, but I plan to explore this a bit, especially in relation to some of my characters who are minorities, and one who is gay. The way I see it right now, the wizarding world should be very behind the times when it comes to equality, especially in the conflict between men and women (women, or witches, are still looked down upon in general), same-sex relationships, and race relations. Also, I’ve thrown in quite a few subtle and not-so-subtle hints that some of the “bad” characters, especially the Scoutmaster and his henchmen, see magical people as a superior race to mundanes, and think that wizards should rule society in a vaguely sort-of-creepy Hitler Youth vibe, and spend a lot of their time promoting this kind of propaganda. I wouldn’t want to get too deep into that part though, at least not at first, because of how dark and heavy that could get.

History/Society

Again, this portion would take a while to get into in great detail, but I’ve had some ideas. First of all, part of the humor could come from established historical events and famous people being recast as wizards, or as having happened because of wizards. My short list of secret wizards right now includes Babe Ruth, Mick Jagger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nicolas Cage, and Morgan Freeman. I think those kind of speak for themselves. Wizards who don’t go into the military I could also see as gravitating toward law and medical professions, for obvious reasons. Also, this might be the segment to explain the whole “camp” system I’ve been talking about. The story takes place at Camp Prospero, which is just one of three camps across the country where wizards are trained. This normally happens over the summer for a three or four-year program (haven’t decided which yet) so they can still go to college like normal kids. The other camps are Camp Gandalf and Camp Merlin; as you can see, all named after pop culture wizards. What camp you get into is based on standardized test scores. Camp Merlin is considered the best and gets the best treatment from the government, followed by Camp Gandalf, and then Camp Prospero at the bottom of the barrel. The camps have a vaguely-established rivalry that I haven’t really gotten a chance to explore that much yet. Social division is also enforced within the camps: at Camp Prospero, scouts are divided into four troops, mostly based on their background. Griffin Troop is for ROTC members and jocks, Quetzal Troop takes mostly kids from rich and influential families, Sphinx Troop is full of geeks and socially-awkward nerds, and Jackalope Troop, which most of my main characters are in, is made up of rejects and losers who don’t really belong anywhere else. As mentioned before, a lot of the classes the scouts take turn out to be pro-wizard propaganda, as magical officials have rewritten much of history to suit their own self-empowering narrative, which makes the characters question the value of their magical education. Also, there are very real and serious consequences for wizards who wash out of the camp program. First, they have to go to remedial instruction, and if that doesn’t work, they get put away without trial in a specialized “containment facility”, kind of like Guantanamo Bay. The logic by the government is that wizards who can’t control their abilities properly are dangerous and can’t be allowed out in public, but the social injustice of it all is a big point of hypocrisy and conflict for the characters in the story.

Science/Technology

I’m planning on exploring a lot of this through one of my side characters, who is an inventor, scientist, and generally a child prodigy. He’s one of a certain type of wizard who can’t actually use magic themselves, but who can sense it and build artifacts or devices that can harness magical energy. He ends up constructing several such devices throughout the series, including magical gauntlets, a wrist-mounted magical manipulator, and even a magic-powered battle suit to keep up with the more powerful wizards around him. I’m portraying magic as a universal force, just like gravity, but one that most people just don’t or can’t accept exist because it doesn’t conform to any known laws of physics. This came from my interest in exploring the concept of a wizard who had the gift of magic, but didn’t believe in it because he can’t accept that magic is real, and nearly drives himself crazy with denial. In the end, though, my character will come out of the problem stronger because he is now driven by science to understand how magic works and to deconstruct its mystical nature.

Nature of Magic

Just a few more notes on the nature of magic here. In my world, most wizards find out they have magic around the end of puberty and the beginning of adulthood: i.e., just entering college or in their 18-19 age range. This starts with uncontrollable bouts of magic and making things happen that most people would say are impossible, which allows the government to track them down and put them into the camp system to contain them. All wizards carry wands, because without a wand to focus a person’s magical energy, that magic would be dangerously unstable and could get out of control. Some more senior wizards also use staffs, for more control over more powerful forms of magic. Wizards also associate themselves with one of the four major elements, a la “Avatar: The Last Airbender”: earth, wind, fire, or water, which allows them to manipulate the chosen element in all of its forms and control related types of magic and/or emotional states. Earth is the most common, followed by water, with fire being rare and wind being rarer still. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Fire—destruction, lightning, magma, anger

Water—inner peace, illusion, invisibility, ice

Wind—capricious, teleportation, tricky

Earth—solidity, earthquakes, strength enhancement, defense

I’m still working on these definitions, of course. Also, again very much like in “Avatar”, there is a legend in the magical world about the “Archmage”, a wizard who has power over all four elements and can bend them all to their will to champion the magical world at times of great crisis in history. How does that figure into the story, you ask? Sorry, no spoilers.

Again, this is just the start of my magical world-building, and some of these categories are much more well-thought-out than others. If anyone has any suggestions for any of these and how I can relate magic to the “real” world or established things in life and culture, please feel free to share.

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