Writing Excuses 10.6: The Worldbuilding Revolves Around Me (“The Magical 1%”)

Max Gladstone joins us to talk about worldbuilding, and how many genre settings seem to revolve around whatever gifted, magical, or otherwise special sort of people our heroes and villains happen to be. Jedi, for instance. Consider, then, the plight of the “regular” people, like Han Solo.

We talk about how to tell whether or not this is problematic for the story you are telling, and how one might work with the trope in ways that make stories better.


Think about the last time you lost at a game. What was the process of thought that led to your loss? Now, replicate that moment in the dramatic structure of the story, except the story isn’t about games.

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone, narrated by Claudia Alick

14 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.6: The Worldbuilding Revolves Around Me (“The Magical 1%”)”

  1. David Eddings would do that a little bit in his books. The main characters would be spying/gathering intel and random soldiers in the enemy armies would be complaining about all the marching. Sometimes, it would just be a little snippet in the beginning of chapters to sort of set a scene. It’s not the same as a full novel or story about them, but it did make his worlds more fun sometimes.

  2. First: Is that a new picture, Howard? I don’t recall seeing that smirk before. Anywho, I like it, it seems quite appropriate for a satirist.

    Second: When the Magical 1% issue becomes a problem, it might be because of authorial myopicy.

    To use Star Wars as an example, if the Jedi Order really were as powerful as movies 1-3 portray, then why didn’t the rest of civilization find ways to compensate? Where was the anti-lightsaber or anti-force technology (yes, there’s a little in the books, but none in the movies)? Why wasn’t there an outcry from the senate for the Jedi to develop ethical guidelines for the use of mind control? Heck, why weren’t there midichlorian shots that people could receive in order to become Jedi, or for Jedi to become stronger?

    The problem seems to be that the magical 1% and the non-magical 99% are essentially from different settings entirely.

    Brandon addressed this issue nicely in the Mistborn Series (and particularly Alloy of Law), where the non-magical civilization tried to develop ways to address the magic users. There were hazekillers, Inquisitors, aluminum hats, and political copperclouders. It felt like the two different parts of the world informed one another, and thus belonged in the same setting.

    It’s understandable that the author would be really excited about the magical 1%: presumably they’re the cool concept that motivated the development of the world. But if the author doesn’t look at how the 1% influences the 99%, and vice versa, then it feels like two separate settings being jammed together.

  3. “All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players.
    They have their exits and their entrances,
    And one man in his time plays many parts…” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It)

    So who is in your world, and what parts do they play? That’s the question…

    And here’s the transcript, with all the words about it! Read it here first!


    Also available in the archives, if you like it.

  4. I really like the “history from beneath” concept, and the whole idea of writing Big Events from the point of view of small, powerless people. I actually did this back in college with, if you can believe it, the Left Behind series. Read the first couple books (please don’t ask me why I kept reading), felt annoyed at how conveniently all the characters got slotted into insider positions in the Antichrist’s government so they could see everything that was going on at the top (which actually removes a lot of the potential drama as it basically keeps them totally safe), so I decided to write the Last Days from the POV of a street kid. It wasn’t very good (and it petered out pretty quickly because I really didn’t know where the plot was going) but I liked it better than Left Behind.

  5. Why has the show audio quality dropped so dramatically? There’s so much hiss and noise that it’s almost unlistenable. Please fix it, this is my fav podcast!

    1. We record episodes in a batch. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the system that we didn’t catch until after the recording was finished. We’ll be through this batch soon, and the problem will be fixed, but you’ve got a couple more episodes to go like this I’m afraid.

  6. There’s a thing audio engineers do called a “sound check”. I wonder whether that’s part of your normal recording process.

  7. Wow! There must be something in the air. I listening to this podcast right after I posted my own “Dragons and Power in Fantasy” (http://www.thekingdomsofevil.com/?p=4694) and watched Abby Goldsmith’s “Hereditary Magic Leads to Tyranny” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0r1VUZ5HILY&feature=youtu.be). And then the discussion on the subject on the Codex Forum exploded, with lots of interesting perspectives on the idea of magic as a metaphor for inequality. This is a topic that deserves a lot more discussion.

    So a question for Max: *is* magical ability hereditary in the Craft Sequence? I got the impression that it was like math skills: people might have more or less talent for it, but everyone has some basic training. Or is magic really unattainable to 99% of the population?

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