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I was trying to do the world building first since I have lots of decisions that I can't make when I'm creating a character. I'm not sure whether to make it all magical or realistic. I want both.

Helluva Boss did this well. It took place in Hell, and showed us the demons of Hell. Another example is Death Note. It is realistic but has some elements of fantasy, mainly the death note itself.

Jujutsu Kaisen and Persona have lots of fantasy or horror but still make it realistic.

When I do my world building it feels a little unrealistic. I am not sure.

Let me give another example: Identity V is about a detective trying to find a girl, but things went more deep as he progresses, and this is where all the magical stuff takes place.

I don't understand what makes it realistic but other things are still fantasy or magical. I asked on Discord writers, and they said that it is the character, not the world building, but I still need more advice about this.

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    Just so as you know, we have a dedicated Worldbuilding stack. You'll be able to chose among tags to specify the level of realism appropriate to your needs from the magic end of things through reality-check all the way to hard-science if you really want the technical details of something with citations and equations and the like. This site is best for writing advice that you might be wanting at present though. Mar 3 at 15:51
  • are there more stacks that i can enter?
    – Crimsoir
    Mar 3 at 15:52
  • Here's a complete list, it could take you some time to get through depending on the breadth of your interests. Mar 3 at 15:53
  • Is Dark fantasy your idea of realism, or your question is more generic?
    – Alexander
    Mar 3 at 17:40

6 Answers 6

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Realism has nothing to do with magic. You can write unrealistic police-procedurals, or unrealistic kitchen-sink dramas, or unrealistic hard-sci-fi. What makes something realistic is much simpler than that.

Actions occur, those actions have consequences, and the consequences of those actions are internally consistent

That's it. That's all there is.

More specifically for you though, that means...

You need to think about the consequences and limits of magic

The problem with magic is that you could have your characters get out of anything with the appropriate spell. So you need to think about what can and can't be solved by magic. If something can be done by magic, what are the consequences to the world? And if something can't be done by magic, what are the consequences for magicians and non-magicians dealing with that situation?

Harry Potter is possibly the most famous example of failing to think about this. There's no basis for an economy in the wizarding world, for starters, because if you can magic meals, clothes and furniture into existence then the only thing you'd ever need to pay for is luxury goods. Harry keeps wearing glasses for no obvious reason, as do many other characters, in spite of magic apparently being able to fix all non-magical ailments. And then there's the impact on laws of physics like conservation of mass/momentum/energy, or the implications of time travel.

Conversely, consider Charles Stross's Laundry series. Magic has consequences. Get an invocation wrong, or be in contact with the wrong thing at the wrong time, and your soul is sucked out and consumed. And even if you get everything right, using magic is a beacon to microscopic magical parasites which will literally eat a little bit of your brain every time you do. So most magical threats are generally put down with bullets (with appropriate banishment runes carved on them). Actual combat magicians do exist, but the ones who know what they're doing are very careful with what resources they call on.

You can take this in any direction you like, of course. But every magical action has consequences. Even if that action is as simple as food appearing, or magicking an armchair out of thin air, you need to think about what it means for your world.

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I think the key to realistic world-building is having coherent details that impact the character's every day life.

Pretend your world is 'The Flintstone's' for the sake of argument: literal stone age tech in a society that mirror's contemporary 1950's society. As a character in that world, everything you see and experience would have a mapping to your audiences' own lives. That makes it relatable, which makes it realistic.

So in many ways, it does return to the character. What are their wants and needs -- both biological and psychological (assuming they are meat puppets like us). Then, the question is how does this world require they act in order to satisfy those needs.

If its Harry Potter, then they swish their wands while mumbling mock Latinate phrases and their glasses are repaired, the table is loaded with a feast and so on.

If your audience can relate and conceptualize how the character's must interact with their environment (the world and its whole economic and social systems) then it will likely feel realistic. The more they can anticipate and predict how the character's need to act in order to meet their needs, then the more realistic the world will feel.

How?

Make a list of key wants and needs of your characters as they relate to the story you want to tell. If you don't have your story or characters yet, then start with an average joe[lene] or a couple range of random people - rich squid, poor squid, saint squid, criminal squid. Then list they things they want and need to live and love and laugh and thrive. Then, list how they interact with the world to make it so they get what they want.

When you write your story, you can use those kinds of details as part of character reaction and motivation to fill your world with lots of suggestible content that fills in that empty white space we often create when writing our stories.

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The trick is to only change one thing. The rest of the world, from the places to the characters, is either real or based directly off reality. Simply put, "Write What You Know."

Of course, don't take that too literally. Often, when hearing that as a rule they try to make a strictly autobiographical or based directly on personal experience. So, write a reality that's merely enhanced. Not reinvented.

Also, remember the most important writing tip anyone can give: It's your story. Make it what you want.

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One thing you could exploit is that there is a lot of magical thinking in this world. People believe in horoscopes, curses, superstitious rituals, and so on. So if you want to stick close to the real world, but add some magic, you could consider just making some of those things actually work in your world.

However you choose to add magic, make sure there are rules and limits to the magic. To be realistic magic has to make sense, both when it is used and when it isn't used. Maybe you can't magic food out of thin air because there's conservation of mass. Maybe using magic is exhausting because there's conservation of energy and it uses your body's energy (just like using your muscles would). And if some people have magic and others not, why is that? Is it genetic, or from studying, special items, or something else?

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Hack your World

Look at your magic / sci-fi-magic like a hacker. "How can I exploit this?"

Then, dig into that idea. How does someone defend against your hack? Why did different groups adopt different defenses? Don't handwave the "flaw" away with more magic, embrace it and world-build around it.

Most of this world-building won't make it into your world, but just enough should leak in.

Ray-Punk Example

Say someone invented a cheap, high-thrust rocket fuel, and now everyone has their own personal rocket ships. Cool - very "Golden Age of Sci-Fi."

People are immediately going to turn those rocket ships into man-guided suicide missiles, because people are terrible. How does your world defend against that? What does that say about your world?

Maybe now, instead of flying to Paris, your character flies to a place 100 miles outside Paris and takes the bullet train in, because the French don't trust the flight-safety AIs after they got hacked as part of a terrorist attack back in '86.

That little detail makes the world feel so much more real - it gives depth to your ideas, and diversity to your cultures. It keeps your world grounded.

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Start by defining what "magical but not too far from realistic" means to you, and what it might mean to anyone else; first, to your readers.

Can you set aside the decisions you can't make when creating characters? Isn't the other choice simply to drop the whole idea; the world-building and everything else?

Look at how you cite Helluva Boss and Death Note. How do Jujutsu Kaisen and Persona make it realistic, while having lots of fantasy or horror?

When world building feels unrealistic, what doubts does that raise?

Did you notice how Identity V being about a detective trying to find a girl, with things going deeper as the plot progresses, says nothing ul?

Rather than the one you don't, can you find three or four examples where you do understand what makes them realistic?

Can you set aside what other things are still fantasy or magical?

Was there anything about Discord Writers that did seem helpful?

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