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So I'm writing an urban fantasy story about the modern day after a mysterious unknown entity suddenly imbues humans with the ability to use magic powers. While the story initially starts out as a more adult Harry Potter-esque mix of magical slice of life and mystery involving the teenage protagonists, as the story progresses the situation is going to gradually deteriorate as it becomes more and more obvious that life as we know it was not designed to handle humans having magic powers, until finally, in what appears to be a maliciously calculated move by the unknown empowering entity, humanity is given access to powers that completely destroy our modern infrastructure and render nearly all technology useless in the presence of anyone who wants it to be useless.

The result is that from the third act of the first book onward, the setting turns into a sort of post-apocalyptic "power punk" world where large-scale infrastructure is basically rendered impossible for the foreseeable future and humans need to supplement a tech level somewhere around your average zombie apocalypse with supernatural powers they get access to in order to survive in far more isolated and smaller communities that are largely self-sufficient by necessity.

The problem, obviously, is that the average modern person doesn't have that many skills that would be relevant to surviving in a world without the internet, power plants, plumbing networks delivering running water, and the massive supply network producing and delivering food, tools and other goods. Obviously if the story's cast didn't include such people then it would be a very short and unsatisfying story once this went down, but having tons of people with extremely rare skills readily at hand in the cast or swiftly introduced to it when needed sounds like it runs the risk of being incredibly contrived.

One of the biggest complaints I've seen about another book that had characters put in a similar situation, Dies the Fire, a book about a mysterious event permanently rendering all of modern technology useless, was that the two groups the story focused on just seemed to have people with the necessary survival skills just drop into their laps, or otherwise run into ridiculous amounts of luck at the story's start. Now obviously when you're put in a world where the physical laws have been intentionally altered to render guns and electricity and combustion engines useless, the main characters aren't going to survive unless they have people who can hunt, grow crops, make and use medieval-style weapons, build shelter, and treat illnesses without relying on modern technology. But while I mostly enjoyed that book, I can't help but agree that it was a bit ridiculous how people with these absurdly rare skills just seemed to fall into the main characters' laps in rapid succession all throughout the first half of the book.

Of course I've got magic at my disposal too, and so I can choose to address some issues with characters' skills and others with magical abilities, but that also seems to run the risk of being contrived if I don't balance it properly and work out how much luck is necessary for survival and don't accidentally sacrifice dramatic tension by getting rid of problems it would be far more interesting for them to have but still believable for them to solve.

How can I work out what I can and can't get away with in terms of populating my cast with characters with rare but survival-necessary skills, and which problems I should solve with luck and which should be solved with skill and hardship on the part of the main cast?

7

People die, and Kings emerge.

I would operate on the notion that our human nature itself, how we see the world and what we will do for survival (of ourselves or kids or those we love) will not be changed by this event.

There are people with the skills you need, even without magic. You can even watch many of them on TV, in competitions. Currently those skills are in low demand, hobbies or entertainment, or they are only seriously taught for actual military practice or field work for charity purposes. But besides that people do learn self defense, to street fight, to fence and sword fight and knife fight, for real. There is plenty of mixed-martial-arts fighting that is not faked, the fighters have real skills and in slow-mo you see people getting hit and knocked out for real.

In your apocalypse, all these skills become important. Human nature will not change, if a man can beat people up or kill them without being armed, and he needs to feed his kids, he will fight for food. people without food will die. I have two real-world books on my shelf I purchased as writing reference material: Where There Is No Doctor, by David Werner, and Where There Is No Dentist, by Murray Dickson.

People that know field medicine, like Army medics and some E.R. doctors, will be in suddenly much greater demand. Most of us currently do not know anybody willing to casually murder others, but such people exist in gangs and we will quickly come to know them, they will be led by ruthless sociopaths seeking power, and may clash with each other, but the Kings will emerge, surrounded by their Knights enforcing the collection of taxes and enforcing the slavery of serfs to their benefit.

The feudal, medieval systems of the non-technological past will reassert themselves; that is our best bet as to what human nature does without technology, and all the beginnings of a transformation into such a system will kick into gear: Fight for your food, fight for your females lest they be stolen or raped, serve a king or die resisting one, or die trying to become one.

Most of us will die: For lack of medicine (it just won't be manufactured any more, what exists will be confiscated and only sold for gold), for lack of food: Nearly all cities will run out of food within three weeks, no more will be shipped, and no more produced because modern farms depend upon electricity and gasoline they do not produce, and ship their products hundreds of miles to be sold. Also, without refrigeration, most food would rot on the trip. This is the reason we used to have dry grocers, that sold grain, flours, cereals, beans, rice and some dried meat, vegetables and fruits that could be kept for months without refrigeration.

Magic is just another kind of weapon, that operates by unexplained principle. A modern 9mm handgun or solar-powered pocket calculator in 1200 AD would be considered a piece of magic, usable without understanding the mechanism. (In fact most users of those items today do not understand the mechanism! Not well enough to make another one.)

Your magic is the same; factor whatever it can do into the weaponry that will be used in the above war, as people seek power. Your group doesn't have to know the survivalists, hunters, fighters and weapons makers --- they will introduce themselves, and if you intend any level of realism, their help or protection will come at a very steep price.

The best thing you can do for your group, if I were writing this story, is to give the physically weakest member a magical power she (or he) can trade to save the rest of her group. So she becomes a coveted asset by some warlord, and her price for her service to this warlord is the protection of her friends and/or a promise by this warlord to not harm them, if he has some power (regular or magical) over them that makes them effective hostages.

6

Let me start personal. My family has been in situations where a group of people found themselves unprepared for survival, lacking both the knowledge and the infrastructure to survive, lacking help from outside (the outside trying to kill them). I had family exiled from warm Lithuania to a penal colony in Siberia in 1940, and I had one great-grand-aunt survive in the Vilnius Ghetto. Here's what I know from their stories.

  • People will rarely share food when they themselves are hungry (but that does happen, surprisingly more often than you'd expect). They do, however, share skills. Nobody likes seeing their fellow man die, and one never knows when they'd be the ones needing help.
  • Morals don't go away just because society has collapsed. People don't start "fighting for their females", the way @Amadeus puts it, just because there's nobody to tell them not to. The voice in your head that tells you this is wrong doesn't go away. (The people who never had this voice in the first place don't have it nowadays either.) One can, however, be pushed to killing another over a loaf of bread. One can be hungry enough for morals not to matter anymore.
  • In the absence of a governing body, people very quickly establish some sort of one. We're pack animals, we need a leader.
  • In the end, one survives not because one is stronger, smarter or more skilled than the others. One survives because one has been incredibly lucky, and because others helped.

Dr Zhivago presents an example of just such a collapse as you describe: following the revolution in Russia, infrastructure stops working, food doesn't arrive to the cities, there's a high level of uncertainty regarding what will happen next. In Moscow, people are starving. Any wooden public structures (fences etc.) are illegally torn down for fuel. Anyone who can flee, flees to the countryside, where at least one might grow one's own food. Precious objects (jewellery, fine clothes) lose their value - food, fuel and the kind of clothes that keep you warm are the things that matter. Money has no value at all, since there is no system to back it up.

You might think it a cop-out that the MC of Dr Zhivago is a doctor: he possesses a skill that's useful for survival, he has access to alcohol which may be sold, and moreover, people are willing to pay with food for medical help. That is, by use of his skills to help others, the character might acquire necessary resources. However, there is also the downside of this setup: when a group of partisans decide they need a doctor, they go and kidnap themselves a doctor. The skill that made the MC able to survive also made him a target and endangered his survival.


So how does this information come together to provide you an answer?

  • Your group need not be small. In fact, any group that's successful in survival is likely to be joined by more and more people, who also wish to survive. In a larger group, it is more likely that someone would possess a useful skill you're looking for.
  • Your characters might learn at least the basics of some useful skills from someone else.
  • The collapse wouldn't happen in a day, so some measure of preparation is not impossible. Even if nobody anticipates a collapse, if things deteriorate over several years, people acquire some food-procuring skills etc. - whatever is made necessary by the deteriorating conditions.
  • An advanced skill (like medicine) may be used directly, may have side benefits (access to alcohol, in the case of medicine), may be traded, and may make a person a target.
  • Luck and random strangers' kindness are key. Realistically, without a great deal of those two, your characters aren't going to make it. That's a tool you might want to be careful with, story-wise: a story can become boring if the characters are too lucky, you note this yourself. But don't hesitate to give luck too a place in the story when you need it.
1

I've recently read "The Power" and it deals with a very similar problem to the one you are facing, but with a different premise: All women on Earth gain a long-lost power to discharge energy. Men do not have the vestigial organ that allows this function.

This occurrence, of women able to electrocute men at will, flips the world on its head, every power structure changes, and the author explores the dozens of way this new female ability changes human society.

So how did this 'magic' emerge believably? The author explains the emergence of this as a result of chemicals put into the water system during WWII. This past act altered the development of female fetuses, I believe, so that a vestigial organ becomes functional. Women and men already have gender-specific organs. The reader buys the premise.

In other words, you need a device.

In terms of explaining the device without it being an info dump - Read the book. The author uses a variety of techniques, not an info dump per se. The info is spread through many means. Including ... the ability emerges in a variety of ways, over a couple years, and each emergence allows a little more of the mechanism to be explained.

I suggest this book for your dilemma. Your library may have a copy.

  • Could you by any chance edit the author in, to help people find it a bit easier? – Thomo Jun 4 '18 at 1:36
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    I appreciate you taking the time to answer, but unless I’m greatly misunderstanding, that isn’t an answer to what I was asking. The question is about how to make sure the cast has everything they need to survive the collapse of civilization when most of these things are so rare that having or getting all of them risks severely straining suspension of disbelief. Like, how can I justify the main characters knowing or running into an amateur blacksmith and a HEMA nerd and a survivalist and the myiad other things they’d need to not die horribly, without the reader rolling their eyes? – Jason Clyde Jun 4 '18 at 3:27

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