Explaining it All — J. Kathleen Cheney


51sFA3mtzkL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Last week I talked about how most Fantasy writers do a great deal of Worldbuilding. We like to be able to explain every aspect of our worlds, even if we don’t do so on the page (in order to spare the reader.)

But what about those things we can’t explain?

I’m not talking about Differential Equations or Quantum Physics. I’m talking about some piece of our world that we simply can’t pin down.  It happens.

Here’s my example: I’m very cautious about shapeshifters. I like to have a reasonable explanation of how they’re doing what they do. At a most basic level, what they’re doing is Magic, but…what kind? 

For most of the shapeshifters I create, I use a physics-based standard; if their mass changes, then I like to have an explanation for the difference in mass. For my horse shapeshifters (puca), they draw energy from the world around them in the form of heat and convert that to the extra mass needed to go from man to horse…and vice versa…drawing on the magic of the faery realm to control the transformation. That’s not explained in the stories, but if you ask me, that’s what I’ll say.  As a side effect, when they transform into a horse, everything nearby is left cold. When they reverse that, there’s a blast of heat that goes out around them. (It’s an instantaneous conversion, completely unlike the bone-crunching transformations often used for were-wolves.)

Now, I realize that a physics professor would shoot holes in this idea, but it’s the one I’m using. 

But in the case of my selkies in The Golden City series, I never have been satisfied with the ‘reasonableness’ of their transformation.  Traditional folklore says that selkies actually remove their seal pelts to become human.  But no matter how I wrap my head around the idea of removing the pelt, I just can’t seem to get it to work.  I can’t figure out how the pelt comes off. Where does it split? Down the line of symmetry? In front or in back? What would it look like unfolded?

In this case, I decided to follow the path of folklore. My selkies simply remove their pelts, emerging as human.

How? Well…I don’t have a detailed explanation. I’m stepping back and calling it Magic. 

This was actually a difficult choice for me. I want to be able to give my readers an explanation. I simply don’t have one this time, not if I’m going to stick with the folkloric tradition.

Conversely, my sereia in these books are sirens, not mermaids.  Throughout the folklore of various cultures, sirens appear in different forms under many different names.  Not only are there sirens, nixes, and syrenka, but we have the undine, melusine, and the alkonost.  The descriptions of these sirens vary widely, some having bird-like traits, some fish-like.  Even the rusalki of Russian myth share a lot of characteristics with other water spirits who can call men to them.

But because the stories of sirens are so varied, I didn’t feel trepidation about changing up the mythology for my sereia. The same doesn’t hold true for selkies. Selkies are pretty similar throughout the mythologies of different countries, possibly because they have a more limited origin.  (Admittedly, I’m not a mythology expert by a long shot.)

So I didn’t change them up much.  I kept most of what I saw in folklore, and augmented it with some information about seal behavior and physiology.  (Why does Lady Ferreira–a selkie–possess a huge fortune of her own? Because in seal form, she can dive deeper than a human or a sereia…and happens to be the only person who knows where a particularly nice Spanish shipwreck can be found.)

But their shapechanging?  Nope, I cannot tell you how that works.  That’s Magic, pure and simple…

What have you run across in a book that needs explaining?  And what doesn’t?

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J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist.  Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s UniverseWriters of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist.  Her novel, “The Golden City” is a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). 

The sequel, “The Seat of Magic” will be out July 1, 2014.

Social Media Links:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CheneyJKathleen  
Twitter: @jkcheney 
Website: www.jkathleencheney.com

The Seat of Magic (buy links) 
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Seat-Magic-Novel-Golden/dp/0451417763

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-seat-of-magic-j-kathleen-cheney/1117229968?ean=9780451417763

Powell’s:  http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9780451417763-0

BLURB  for The Seat of Magic

Magical beings have been banned from the Golden City for decades, though many live there in secret. Now humans and nonhumans alike are in danger as evil stalks the streets, growing more powerful with every kill….

It’s been two weeks since Oriana Paredes was banished from the Golden City. Police consultant Duilio Ferreira, who himself has a talent he must keep secret, can’t escape the feeling that, though she’s supposedly returned home to her people, Oriana is in danger.

Adding to Duilio’s concerns is a string of recent murders in the city. Three victims have already been found, each without a mark upon her body. When a selkie under his brother’s protection goes missing, Duilio fears the killer is also targeting nonhuman prey.

To protect Oriana and uncover the truth, Duilio will have to risk revealing his own identity, put his trust in some unlikely allies, and consult a rare and malevolent text known as The Seat of Magic….




4 comments to Explaining it All — J. Kathleen Cheney

  • I once scoffed at a description of a magical sword that never got dull. How can that be? Friction is friction, after all, nothing stays sharp forever! Then I slapped myself on the back of the head and said, “It’s a magic sword, idiot, it can do whatever it wants.” The book was a lot better after I did that.

  • I know that I have similar examples, especially from some of my epic fantasy titles. And as you say, Kathleen, the “it’s magic” explanation does go some distance to making things possible even if they’re not exactly explainable. My most important concerns though remain 1) is the magic consistent, and 2) does it carry some cost? If these elements are in place, the rest usually takes care of itself.

  • Razziecat

    I’ve always been bothered by the fact that in most stories, a vampire’s fangs mysteriously disappear when they’re trying to appear human. I’ve had a lot of dental work done, and there’s just no room in there to hide those extra-long teeth!

  • J. Kathleen Cheney

    “It’s a magic sword, idiot, it can do whatever it wants.” Yes, this is it exactly. We have to be willing to buy into the premise sometimes or the story stops working!

    Yep, it’s all about the consistency. If you don’t have reasonable rules set up, even for your magic, everything’s going to fall apart.

    You know,I think a lot of us have personal bug-a-boos that keep us from accepting certain things. I, for example, struggle with Humans With Wings. My brain insists that if a creature has wings, it will be fundamentally different from a human, both in physical characteristics and psychological and social ones. So whenever I read a story where the handwavium just wants me to accept the wings as a normal part of ‘human’ life, I start struggling to stay with the story. And while 95% of everyone else can accept it, I just can’t seem to. (Don’t get me started.)

    So I totally understand that the fang thing might bother you. It isn’t reasonable without a physics-based shapechange. ;o)