Aligare hairbrushes

In the land of Aligare, aemet folk have strict rules about cutting trees — trees being the plants closest to goddess Verdana. But other types of plants are fine to cut branches off of, as long as the cutting is done respectfully and for a good reason. There are aemet artisans who use their plantcasting to coax shrubs into specific shapes. Why carve wood — and end up with waste pieces — when you can cooperate with the plant and get the exact shape you need?

 

When aemets need to comb their hair (which is thicker and waxier-textured than a mammal’s hair would be), they often use combs made from branches. Bramble vines and rose branches can be used as is, but their thorns make more effective brush bristles when they’re cultivated all on one side of the branch.

aligarebrushespic

 

The craftsperson encourages the plant into shape, often making the end of that branch into a decorative flourish. Then the branch is cut off (with apologies and thanks given to the plant, and plantcasting used to heal the wound). The thorns are secured with a bit of glue or sealant, and their points are filed slightly blunter. Any additional decoration is simple: some twine, wire or beads. No paints that would cover up the plant’s gift.

 

Since plantcast brushes are made with such care and reverence, they’re often given as gifts on special occasions, or as thanks for a particularly meaningful favour. They’re simple but valued items you might find lying around an aemet’s home.

 


Flashback post: A magic spell by any other name

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you! This was originally posted on August 20th, 2012.

I fiddled with the Aligare world for several years before I had something I was confident in. Our human society didn’t spring up in a day and most believable fantasy worlds don’t, either.

One concept I took great pains with was the idea of magic.

colorfulmagicspell

 

In the Aligare world, every living thing has magic that is as necessary as their blood (or sap, or whatever). Whether the being casts their magic outward on a daily basis or not, they need magic to live. In my scrapped first novel, this vital energy was called simply “magic”. Fire magic, plant magic, and so on. Call a spade a spade, I always say.

That first novel manuscript had a lot of problems. Early beta readers refused to believe that my “talking animals” were intended for anyone other than children. That was, erm, the exact opposite of what I was trying to do, so I began renovating the proto-Aligare world to make it more nuanced. There were many things that needed consideration and, although no one had pointed this aspect out, I thought the word “magic” might be part of the problem.

Why? There are plenty of weighty, dramatic fantasy stories that talk about magic, aren’t there? Yes, but those stories have their weightiness and drama to skew the word magic in the intended direction. Magic can refer to grand and mystical forces we don’t understand, but here on modern Earth, we also use magic to refer to sleight-of-hand tricks on a stage. We can also sarcastically reference magic to explain a convenient event, or a clumsy plot twist. Magic is a broad term. Sometimes an unflattering term. If adult readers weren’t taking my non-human characters seriously, I thought the word magic might be one more sandbag dragging the work down.

I felt that I needed a less well-tread term for magical powers. Something less obvious. But I already had a whole non-human society to introduce, without any human characters for familiarity, so I didn’t want to use a foreign-seeming word for a relatively simple concept. My term for magical energy would need to be simple but meaningful.

Because of the intrinsic nature of my world’s magic — its connection to life itself — I considered rooting my magic terms in Earth ideas like chi. Magic, after all, used to be a term associated with religious followers, priests, and wise men. Maybe I just needed a term that hadn’t collected so many modern meanings. But I soon realized that existing meaning was my real issue. Even if I could work a term like chi into my writing in a respectful way, I’d be pitching my work to Western readers who might not be well versed in other cultures’ ideas of esotericism. I’d be right back to the problem of a magic term that needs to be explained. No good.

Not everyone sees why this sort of detail is important. Some say to just call magic magic and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. But the thing is that picking which word to use doesn’t always mean changing the root concept. It’s a matter of accurately pinning down nuances. Match up all the undertones and the word will simply feel right. And frankly, if a writer doesn’t care about the subtleties of phrasing, I say they should stop trying to write. They might as well try to construct a high-rise building out of balsa wood because it’s basically the same thing as steel, right?

Anyway, while working on my second book, Remedy, I settled on casting as a root term. My characters have different types of elemental casting — firecasting, plantcasting or electricasting. Sometimes they learn watercasting, brightcasting or darkcasting. It’s not overused nomenclature like magic, but it’s still a concise term that’s easy to associate with “casting a spell”. That way, when I mentioned Peregrine charging firecasting inside his chest, or Tillian bristling with electricasting as a response to fear, I trusted that the average reader would get the gist of it.

So, I have a word that meets all my criteria. I’m satisfied with how casting fits into the world of Aligare. And my average reader still doesn’t comment on the magic terminology: I hope that means I did it right this time.


Trying to write colourfully

When I was writing my first terrible manuscript — set in the beginnings of the Aligare world — I showed it to people. Because I was proud of my work and I wanted praise, of course. But also because I had heard critique was a good thing to get.

One scene in particular was set near the Great Barrier, the dome of casting essence that shields the land from the deadly Cold. The characters had seen plenty of casting but never like this, never an amalgamation of all casting elements. This Barrier was clearly a work of the gods. It was a semi-transparent wall that seemed evenly golden from a distance, but up close it shone with flecks of every colour.

hs-2009-28-b-large_web

I imagine that magic looking like some of the more beautiful galaxies in our solar system — just more near and present. Like a shaft of light one can stick a hand into.

It was just one detail of the world I was trying to paint. But it was far from the first time my characters had used or seen magic. They brought it glowing forth from their hands and shining out of gemstones on plenty of occasions. And one of the people reading this Great Barrier scene — an acquaintance who just liked my fanfiction and was curious about my original work — made a comment that struck me. She said this fantasy world sounded like a beautiful place, with all the colourful magic.

 

That’s definitely part of what I like about fantasy. It’s easier to make colour just spring out of nowhere when you’ve got whimsical powers and environments to work with. But the “beautiful place” comment resounded with me so much because it was about a specific fixture of my invented world. Not some random pretty castle or waterfall, but a vital part of the proto-Aligare world and its mechanics. It sounded beautiful. Like human readers might enjoy visiting this place and imagining the sights.

 

I’m sure every writer has a mental gallery of feedback made on their work. And it’s easy for negative comments to fill up that gallery. If we hear ninety-nine comments of, “It’s kind of interesting,” and one comment of, “It’s terrible; never write again”, there’s no question which one will stick in the human mind more firmly. I’m just grateful that one of my early gallery comments was so simply positive. Maybe that casual acquaintance was just fishing for something nice to say, or maybe she really thought my world would be a great place to visit; I can’t know that. But I saw a lot of meaning in what she said. Colourful can literally refer to visible spectrums of light, or it can refer to the variety and interest in the world around us. I’ve always tried to be colourful in my writing. I don’t want to blend into everything “normal”.

 

And while I developed the Aligare world and got lots of discouraging comments, it was nice to have that positive comment to fall back on. Every time someone said, “No adult will ever read this”, I was able to think in response, “Hmm, well, someone already has. And they thought it was colourful.” I guess you could say it’s the compliment I’ve based my goals on.

 

 


Flashback post: How I used light and dark magic in the Aligare world

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you! This was originally posted on December 8th, 2012.

About a decade ago, a teenaged Heidi C. Vlach began writing her first fantasy novel.

It looked like this. Kidding, kidding! I was wearing pants.

What I wrote was a clumsy precursor to the Aligare world, where the high gods Light and Dark had a terrible, eons-long feud ending with Dark being imprisoned in the earth. It caused Dark to go berserk and inadvertently transmit its madness to all other darkcasting creatures. The main characters knew that Dark wasn’t inherently evil, but that the world had been critically unbalanced somehow. So the story was a Ragtag Fantasy Quest against a Powerful Dark Lord, except that this particular Dark Lord didn’t need to be defeated so much as snapped out of a really vicious panic attack.

Even in that early stage of my writing career, I knew I wanted magic elements that opposed each other. Light and dark, obviously enough. But I didn’t want to use the classical fantasy versions of light versus dark. You know, where light represents all things good, pure and truthful, while darkness means evil corrupted lies and lust. That’s an incredibly simplistic way of viewing the world, and it doesn’t hold up to questioning. Murder is okay when a good person does it? Not because of the murder’s circumstances, but because the person doing the deed has an innately good soul or something? Good luck making that premise morally coherent.

There is some logical basis for the idea that light is good. This Earth needs light to feed all our food plants. Humans need sunlight for our basic physical and mental health, and we also rely heavily on our eyesight, so we’re vulnerable when it’s dark. We’re just generally more comfortable in a well-lit area. Light even makes a good dramatic device, since we can wield a light-shedding object to drive the shadows away. Why not assign light to our heros and warriors? Why not assign darkness to everything we consider an enemy?

angeldemon

But the dark isn’t all bad. I mean, we sleep in the dark, and sleep is usually a time of peace and restoration. If anything, darkness isn’t evil so much as a lack of information — but ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate. Light versus dark has the same troubling undertones as saying that all orcs are born evil. And too much light can be harmful  — like when it causes sunburn or blindness.

So for the Aligare world, I tried to make light and dark oppose each other without being cliched or preachy. Light magic became brightcasting and the god Light was renamed Bright– a minor semantic difference, but I still think it’s a step away from any hoary Warriors Of Light ideas. And darkcasting opposes brightcasting, but not because it’s bad. The elements are more like positive and negative blood types. (Speaking of good-and-bad nomenclature, why are half of all blood types implied to be somehow bad?)

And Aligare brightcasting and darkcasting both have the capacity to heal. Since sunlight can nurture growth and darkness can aid rest, it made sense to me that both elements can help a creature recover. In Remedy, villages receiving medical supplies need to be given bright and dark healing stones. Going back to the blood type analogy, healers need to be aware of all the casting types their patient uses; using brightcasting healing on someone who knows darkcasting — or vice versa — can do more harm than good.

But it’s overall better that people can learn bright or dark, whichever element works for them. Folk who spend a lot of time in, say, shadowy dense forests would have a much easier time using darkcasting than brightcasting. Even in simple light stones used to illuminate the surroundings, darkcasting stones are sometimes favoured because the light is less harsh. Yes, for the sake of balance, I thought dark light should be an actual possible concept. It looks sort of like ultraviolet/”black light”, just without the effect of making stuff glow.

mazda-blacklight-2

But the most important point is that Aligare folk don’t see darkness or shadow as innately bad things. Like anything in life, darkness can be good or bad depending on the situation. I need to be careful of this while writing — and in rough drafts, I catch myself accidentally describing ominous situations as “dark” or “black”. Nope, I think. That’s human perception, not aemet or korvi or ferrin.

This is just one of the concepts I write about because I want to see it more often. Dark powers are sometimes used for good in our fantasy media, but they’re not often portrayed as a genuinely neutral force. So it’s something I’m still working on.


The role of emotion in Aligare magic

In the Stories of Aligare, each animal species has an inner center that produces elemental casting. (Casting is the noun, to cast is the verb. It’s named after the common fantasy genre act of casting a spell.) Some creatures actively use their casting energy to change their surroundings, and some don’t. Regardless, everything needs casting energy inside it to live.

It’s most relevant to the three peoplekinds. Like most sentient beings, they put more thought than necessary into their basic physical needs. Casting isn’t just casting in the same sense that eating isn’t just putting calories into their mouths and swallowing. So summoning up some casting tends to be tied to a person’s emotions. Plantcasting becomes a compassionate wish to grow or assist; firecasting becomes enthusiasm or frustration; electricasting becomes determination or fear. The emotional link comes easily to ferrin, who instinctively gather an electricasting charge when something is frightening them (e.g. a large predatory animal).

magicemotion

 

Aligare casting isn’t strictly related to complex, conscious emotions — or else insects and worms wouldn’t be able to use it. The emotion is a Pavlovian sort of trigger: it’s only related because the person perceives it to be related. Firecasting, plantcasting and all the other types are just different flavours of an energy force usable by living things. Maybe it’s a sort of bioelectricity or astral energy. Frankly, it’s not something I can fully explain, or something I’d even want to fully explain: fantasy stories need a little privacy in these matters.

At any rate, casting ends up tied to aemet, korvi and ferrin emotions. Folk use emotion-based descriptions to better understand the “moods” and “feeling” of other casting types. Understanding an element’s “mood” is an important first step to learning a new casting element.

 

“Plantcasting is … Verdana help me. Plantcasting grows from inside, it’s a slower-creeping element than your electricasting. Its mood is a little like brightcasting, but it moves more like the way a vine spreads itself, measure by measure.” [Rose] paused for more thought. “I’m not sure if that makes sense. You’d probably learn best by trying it.[“]

-Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 14

 

Casting energy even gets anthropomorphized sometimes, and perceived as a conscious creature with its own desires. Plantcasting can seem like an element so bent on helping others, it becomes pushy and unruly.

 

“That’s enough, call it back. It can’t cure any more than this.”

The plantcasting still rifled through Vilhelm’s living weight, needing to help. Tillian pressed her own element into it, laced into the plantcasting and pulled. Telling it where to go seemed to help so she brought the quartz stone to her mind: storage, home.

No, the plantcasting felt, dragging against her. There was healing to do.

“Be firm with it.”

“Don’t mages have to do that?” Tillian’s tongue shaped weird sounds, far beyond the crackle and growth inside her. “It’s not listening to me.”

-Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 14

 

Overall, I wanted Aligare magic to be similar to our own inner emotions. Something ordinary, yet mysterious and mercurical. Some force inside us that hampers or helps people. Something that comes bursting out of a person’s heart and can help them achieve things — if they know how to work with it. Sometimes a job requires you to get amped up and passionate to get it done right, while other types of work demand meditative calm and understanding. I figure that’s true already in our world, but it’s fun to blur the lines between metaphorical and literal.

Although magic and emotion aren’t literally the same thing in Aligare, I wanted to give that descriptive impression. And it makes sense to me that all living things in Aligare have this emotion-like magic — because if you’re not feeling anything or caring about anything, then you’re not really living, are you? Sentient peoplekinds can be incredibly versitile with their casting — learning multiple types, including types that don’t naturally get along like bright and darkcasting. Like on any world, an emotion sparked in Aligare can be the start of a powerful change.


Light and dark magic: how I used the concept in the Aligare world

About a decade ago, a teenaged Heidi C. Vlach began writing her first fantasy novel.

It looked like this. Kidding, kidding! I was wearing pants.

It looked like this. Kidding, kidding! I was wearing clothes.

What I wrote was a clumsy precursor to the Aligare world, where the high gods Light and Dark had a terrible, eons-long feud ending with Dark being imprisoned in the earth. It caused Dark to go berserk and inadvertently transmit its madness to all other darkcasting creatures. The main characters knew that Dark wasn’t inherently evil, but that the world had been critically unbalanced somehow. So the story was a Ragtag Fantasy Quest against a Powerful Dark Lord, except that this particular Dark Lord didn’t need to be defeated so much as snapped out of a really vicious panic attack.

Even in that early stage of my writing career, I knew I wanted magic elements that opposed each other. Light and dark, obviously enough. But I didn’t want to use the classical fantasy versions of light versus dark. You know, where light represents all things good, pure and truthful, while darkness means evil corrupted lies and lust. That’s an incredibly simplistic way of viewing the world, and it doesn’t hold up to questioning. Murder is okay when a good person does it? Not because of the murder’s circumstances, but because the person doing the deed has an innately good soul or something? Good luck making that premise morally coherent.

There is some logical basis for the idea that light is good. This Earth needs light to feed all our food plants. Humans need sunlight for our basic physical and mental health, and we also rely heavily on our eyesight, so we’re vulnerable when it’s dark. We’re just generally more comfortable in a well-lit area. Light even makes a good dramatic device, since we can wield a light-shedding object to drive the shadows away. Why not assign light to our heros and warriors? Why not assign darkness to everything we consider an enemy?

angeldemon

But the dark isn’t all bad. I mean, we sleep in the dark, and sleep is usually a time of peace and restoration. If anything, darkness isn’t evil so much as a lack of information — but ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate. Light versus dark has the same troubling undertones as saying that all orcs are born evil. And too much light can be harmful  — like when it causes sunburn or blindness.

So for the Aligare world, I tried to make light and dark oppose each other without being cliched or preachy. Light magic became brightcasting and the god Light was renamed Bright– a minor semantic difference, but I still think it’s a step away from any hoary Warriors Of Light ideas. And darkcasting opposes brightcasting, but not because it’s bad. The elements are more like positive and negative blood types. (Speaking of good-and-bad nomenclature, why are half of all blood types implied to be somehow bad?)

And Aligare brightcasting and darkcasting both have the capacity to heal. Since sunlight can nurture growth and darkness can aid rest, it made sense to me that both elements can help a creature recover. In Remedy, villages receiving medical supplies need to be given bright and dark healing stones. Going back to the blood type analogy, healers need to be aware of all the casting types their patient uses; using brightcasting healing on someone who knows darkcasting — or vice versa — can do more harm than good.

But it’s overall better that people can learn bright or dark, whichever element works for them. Folk who spend a lot of time in, say, shadowy dense forests would have a much easier time using darkcasting than brightcasting. Even in simple light stones used to illuminate the surroundings, darkcasting stones are sometimes favoured because the light is less harsh. Yes, for the sake of balance, I thought dark light should be an actual possible concept. It looks sort of like ultraviolet/”black light”, just without the effect of making stuff glow.

mazda-blacklight-2

But the most important point is that Aligare folk don’t see darkness or shadow as innately bad things. Like anything in life, darkness can be good or bad depending on the situation. I need to be careful of this while writing — and in rough drafts, I catch myself accidentally describing ominous situations as “dark” or “black”. Nope, I think. That’s human perception, not aemet or korvi or ferrin.

This is just one of the concepts I write about because I want to see it more often. Dark powers are sometimes used for good in our fantasy media, but they’re not often portrayed as a genuinely neutral force. So it’s something I’m still working on.


Magic and minerals: a magical match

When a fantasy writer decides to use magic in their story, there are many decisions to be made. What it does, how to invoke it, how to control this possibly destructive force once you’ve invoked it. The magic might not even be called “magic”, if that’s what the tone of the story calls for.

Unlike mundane physical objects, magic doesn’t need to justify itself with a location. It can just appear in the air before our eyes. It might exist everywhere and nowhere at once. Or it might be a nebulous concept, like truth or life essence. A big part of magic’s allure is its mystery, the way it can ignore physical laws if it wants to. But even with something as amorpheous as magic, there are physical problems like where to put it and how to move it from place to place.

But I notice that magic is often associated with natural materials. In Earth cultures, things like animal bones and crystals have been thought to have connections to magic and spirituality. In fantasy books, certain animals, plants or minerals might be connected to magic. Just look at the Harry Potter world’s attention to what wands are made of: specific types of woods and magical creatures’ hair/feathers. Or look at the allomancy magic of the Mistborn series, where consuming different types of metal can enhance a person’s senses, or give them telekinesis.

Basically, magic pairs well with nature. If magic is meant to be a natural part of its world, how better to add legitimacy than to bind magic to something we know exists in our world? Animal, vegetable and minerals can all serve to ground magic in realism. Some fantasy worlds use fictional animals, plants or minerals, but that still serves the purpose — as long as we can imagine that a unicorn is a believable animal in its ecosystem, we can accept it as a ground for magic.

Magic’s conductors can even reference Earth mythology in a meaningful way. Oak wood is used as a conduit for lightning magic in your world? Oh, just like Greek mythology, where Zeus is associated with thunderbolts and oak trees. Greek mythology might not be real in the same sense as an oak tree we can actually touch, but it can still add legitimacy to a more recent concept of magic.

In the Aligare world, the six elemental castings are connected to living things. All animals — peoplekinds, deer, birds, insects, everything — have elemental magic in their bodies that is necessary for life. Trees and plants are all bound by plantcasting magic, so they’re still living things but they’re treated a little differently than the mishmash variety of animals. Okay, so my type of magic is still nebulously everywhere because it’s part of life itself. Mysteeeerious. But I wanted a way to physically pass magic around, too. A way to stick magic in a physical object and make it a little more mundane. Plants are living things with an existing elemental alignment, so they’re out.

That left minerals. I picked gemstones because, well … gemstones are pretty.

Oooh, shiny!

An early beta reader told me that the Aligare world sounded like a beautiful, colourful place, and I like the thought of such a positive world also being visually appealing. Colourful elemental magic would go well with colourful gemstones.

Especially in some kind of … cover-like artwork.

That, and gemstones have conductive properties that even we humans can detect. Some stones hold an electrical charge better than others. Even common quartz has useful transmissive properties, which is why we use quartz as a component in clocks and other precise instruments. This translated well to the Aligare world. A rare topaz is specifically useful for an electricaster, while common quartz is a broadly useful stone that accepts all elements — as long as it’s a pure, clear piece of quartz, that is.

A gemstone paid for Maythwind’s service, this time a clear quartz sullied with amethyst purple at one end. Tillian repeated the broadest points of Maythwind’s chatter: there weren’t nearly enough darkcasters in Skyfield to make these amethysts worthwhile; Maythwind would at least get to practice his dark healing on this one; gods’ good fortune indeed, Peregrine, that these stones kept turning up so free of flaws or there’d have to be some hard-knuckled bartering.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 3

I guess we can say that magic in natural materials is a hallmark of fantasy — because when plastic and synthesized compounds have magical qualities, that’s usually science fiction. But finding new magic in wood, rocks and pelts? That’s a pretty sure path to dragons and lore.

Recently read a good book with magical materials in it? Are you a writer with some cool worldbuilding of your own? Share in the comments!