Fantasy Creatures with a Twist – Guest Post by Deep Magic

Fantasy Creatures with a Twist


The Deep Magic Team

Fantasy creatures! Most of us love them in a story. Dragons, phoenixes, and unicorns are popular go-to mythological creatures.  But what spins on these popular fantasy creatures do we want to see in books and media?

Here are three creature ideas that might surprise you:

#1: Phoenixes

Wall Street Journal bestselling author and founder of Deep Magic E-zine, Jeff Wheeler, recently took a trip to China. He was intrigued by the Chinese concept of the phoenix – they’re nothing like the Harry Potter or Greek versions of the mythology!

They are considered the most noble birds, a mix of various species, and as powerful as dragons. No birds that explode into ash only to be reborn. No healing tears. And I’m not talking about birds that would let you saddle them. They are way too powerful to be used as someone’s ride.” – Jeff Wheeler

This awesome Chinese mythological creature sparked Jeff’s imagination and he developed a new majestic animal for his upcoming Grave Kingdom series!

#2: Unicorns

Wall Street Journal bestselling author and Deep Magic E-zine board member, Charlie N. Holmberg, has loved unicorns since childhood. And she is looking for less fluff and more fierce when it comes to seeing these creatures on the page.

“This will sound cliche and obvious, but I’m kind of into unicorns.

I know, everyone is into unicorns. But I don’t mean the rainbow-caricature fluffy ponies decorating every little girl’s birthday party. I mean actual rugged, spied-between-the-trees, armed-horses unicorns. I grew up on the movie “The Last Unicorn,” and one of the most vivid moments of that movie to me is when you look out into the sea and see unicorns in the froth on the waves. I had a photo on my wall as a kid of this dark blue unicorn, muscled and regal, against the night sky. Its horn wasn’t cute, it was menacing. Dangerous. I think we need to see more of those unicorns. Powerful creatures, even frightening. If you’ve ever stood next to a horse, it is alarming how big they are. Now imagine a giant sword jutting out of their foreheads.

That thing ain’t dancing at no birthday party, I promise you that!” – Charlie N. Holmberg

#3: Dragons

Deep Magic E-zine Board member and author of The Lilac Plague, Kristin J. Dawson, would like to see a variation on the massive dragon trope. Something more along the lines of the How to Train Your Dragon (the books, not the movie), or Dragonsong (Pern), where the dragons are closer to the size of a cat.

“Who wouldn’t want a pet dragon that could sit on your shoulder, or fly alongside you? They could be useful, friendly, and sit on your toes and keep them warm while you read.” -Kristin J. Dawson

When we see authors like J.K. Rowling take popular creatures and spin them into something fresh and exciting, it inspires other authors to do the same. So keep imagining and thinking “what if!”

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~ jenelle

Magical Laws or Magical Freedom: the difference between hard, soft, and hybrid magical systems and the pitfalls to avoid

February Fantasy Month Banner

The first rule of magic is…. there are no rules!

Um… (stoic eyebrow raise)

Excuse me… but the first rule of magic is… what are its limits? What is its expense? You can’t just give people limitless power, have you heard the phrase “OP”?

But… but… but…. (incoherent spluttering)

Magic is magicWe can’t go imposing limitations on it! That takes away the….. MAGIC!

So, which is it? Must magic always only have limitations and rules and some sort of “cost” for its users? Or can it be limitless and super powerful and free?

Sorry, you’re not going to get a definitive answer here. *cue evil laughter* Because honestly, I think it depends on the story you’re trying to tell and the audience you want to reach.

Let’s take a look at some of the books written in each of these camps and see what we can discover.

Those in the “soft magic” camp think it should be wild and free and limitless. They want their magic powerful and not over-described or explained. Examples include:

  • Gandalf’s power in LOTR
  • The Force in Star Wars
  • Shannaa
  • The Enchanted Forest Chronicles
  • Harry Potter (sure, you get a lot of description of spells and things in the classes at Hogwarts, but we are never really told how or why it works or why certain people are born with this ability and others aren’t, and there aren’t really any limits or costs to the magic – it takes the same amount of effort to disarm someone as it does to kill them as it does to petrify them as it does to turn them into a paper airplane – I could see an argument being made for this being a hybrid system, but I’m putting it here because I think it belongs here… you can put it in a different category in your own blog post if you wish) *grin*

Those in the “hard magic” camp think that magic should have clearly defined rules and restrictions and there should always be some sort of cost to using the magic. Examples include:

  • Anything written by Brandon Sanderson, ever.
  • The Dresden Files
  • Dragonlance Chronicles
  • Earthsea trilogy
  • The Darksword trilogy

But wait… there’s more! Because sometimes authors use a mixture of both hard and soft magic (or they have both… in the same book/series!)

Examples include:

  • The Kingkiller Chronicles
  • The Wheel of Time
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender

With all of this conflicting information, what’s a poor fantasy author to do?

Courage, dear heart. If you take away nothing else from this post, please walk away with the certainty that there is an audience for either type of magical system you want to include in your stories. And there’s even a growing audience for fantasy without any magic at all! (It even has a proper genre name and everything: Kingdom Adventure).

I hope the brief lists I’ve included above give you some assurance that you can write a wildly popular and entertaining story no matter what sort of magic you decide to include in your books.

What kind of story do you want to tell?

Creating a hard magic system allows you to build the world around the magic and its rules, integrating the world and the plot, intertwining culture and politics and magic in a way that gives your world a solid, realistic setting. With clear limitations and costs, it is easier to realistically allow the main characters to use magic to solve problems, and when magical solutions go awry it is a result of the character’s lack of understanding or ability, and not because the magic itself is unpredictable.

Creating a soft magic system allows you to gift your reader with a sense of wonder and awe that enhances the fantastical setting of your story. Using magic to solve problems can often go awry, because the magic itself is unpredictable or difficult to control. (a la Luke misinterpreting a Force vision that sends him off to Cloud City, making a lot of things worse). The focus of a story with soft magic is often not the magic itself, but rather by the character’s developments and the lessons they learn. The overall main conflict is not usually solved by magic itself.

Pitfalls to avoid

There are mistakes that can be made with either approach to writing magic.

With a hard magic system, the very real danger is in over-describing it. In jumping up and down throughout your story and shouting at your reader, “Look at this wondrous thing I’ve created! It has all these amazing rules! It’s logical! It makes sense! It’s scientific! It is integrated perfectly into my world and my story doesn’t work without it! Isn’t it shiny? Isn’t it perfect? Don’t you just love it?” (Mistborn, I’m sad to say, did this to me, and after a while, I realized that much of the plot and character development had been sacrificed at the altar of the amazing magic system – after the first book, the rest of the trilogy bored me. The sense of awe and wonder for me was swiftly replaced by annoyance as the system took front and center stage for most of the story).

With a soft magic system, the most insidious danger is in making it the answer for everything. The problem-solving deus ex machina bunny that your characters can pull from their hats whenever they need it is not something that most readers will thank you for. If your magic is too convenient, to accessible… you can easily wander into this dangerous territory of depriving your readers of any sense of urgency over the plot or fear that their characters might not make it through the story. The Star Wars sequel trilogy is a prime example of a place where the writers began adding in all sorts of new abilities to the Force, and many fans went, “Oh… so we can do that, now? When did that become a thing?” The ease with which Rey managed to conquer what had heretofore always been considered “more advanced” abilities took away from the sense of danger. I never worried that she wouldn’t make it or that she wouldn’t accomplish the thing she was trying to accomplish, because everything came easily for her.

Another danger this type of magic system falls easy prey to is the question of WHY the magic CAN’T fix all the things. Equally difficult to understand (still using Star Wars because it’s an easy target, sorry… you know I love Star Wars) — especially when watching The Clone Wars cartoon — are the moments when the Jedi don’t use the Force in cases where it would make sense to. Why is the Jedi Master physically pulling the apprentice up off the cliff with her hands when she could lift her up and prevent her falling with the Force? This sort of thing happens over and over again, and even my kids will blurt out, “Seems like a good place where they could have used the Force, instead, don’t you think?”

What to do, what to do?

Personally, I tend to lean somewhere towards a hybrid system of magic. In the Minstrel’s Song series, magic is a genetic trait gifted by Cruithaor Elchiyl (the Creator) to certain races: myth-folk and wizards. It is neither good nor evil in and of itself, the use of the tool determines its nature.

In Turrim Archive, magic is extremely limited. Only two people have access to it, or at least, that’s what my good guy has always believed. And even their access to it came about through a somewhat cataclysmic event. However, the villain has found a way to use other humans to help him access power that was thought lost, and it’s kind of a genetic thing… it’s weird, and using it has limits and rules and a cost in effort… but it’s also kind of nebulous in terms of how it works. So… hybrid. More “hard” magic than I’ve ever written, though, so that’s been fun.

When it comes to reading, I love both types. Every book I listed above in this post, I have read (or watched, in the case of Avatar) and enjoyed. I often prefer writing magic that falls to the softer side, but I’m not adverse to writing anywhere in that continuum.

Mountain Segue

What do you think, dear Reader? Which type of magic do you most prefer to read? Do you agree with where I’ve categorized these stories? Disagree? (You are always more than welcome to disagree with me, just keep it polite and kind, please (I don’t have to tell you that, my readers are the bestest… mostly because y’all put up with me using words like “bestest” and “y’all” and using way too many parentheticals)). Do you prefer to read fantasy without magic? Have you read any fabulous non-magical fantasy books that you’d like to recommend?

How about you, dear Author? What do you prefer to write? Do you enjoy writing a hard or soft magic system? A hybrid? Fantasy without magic?

Tomorrow, Deep Magic e-zine will be here guest posting on some of the fantastical creatures they’d like to see more of, as well as some unique ways they’d like to see authors handle them (which could be some good insider info to have if you’re interested in submitting a short story for them), so make sure to come back tomorrow to read about that!

~ jenelle

What if You Want to Include Technology in Your Fantasy?

Turrim Archive Titles (2)

Airships soar through the sky, floating above a city of brick and steel. A plume of steam puffs into the air, melding with the clouds, and on the horizon you can just make out the wheeling figure of a massive gryphon, the sunlight glinting off its golden feathers.

Although many fantasy stories set themselves squarely in the middle ages, your world does not have to be limited by a singular time period. Thanks to the subgenres of steampunk, gaslamp, urban, and super-hero stories, you can have a fantasy world set in just about any time period you like, with any level of technology you deem fitting for your story and realm.

Inserting levels of technology into your world can be fascinating, thrilling, and a little overwhelming. I’ve found that this is one of those places where I really have to do a lot of research.

But it’s fantasy! In a made-up world! You remind me… and yes, that is true. If you want a world that has airships, dishwashers, and microwaves, but hasn’t invented matches and cars… you are certainly welcome to do that. But there is a danger in losing your audience if you make the “this not that” technologies too complicated.

As there are exceptions to every rule, one place I’ve seen this done well was in William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” (the book that the movie is based on). The “author” S. Morgenstern, inserts a lot of “asides” throughout the story with random details such as, “This was before fashion, but after Paris.” or “This was after mirrors, but only just.” At one point, William Goldman even interrupts his flow to tell you that his editor was going crazy with these asides, trying to figure out exactly when this story was supposed to be set, and he says, “I think Morgenstern was just trying to make the point that this is a made-up story in a made-up time and place.” (Which is even more entertaining when you realize that Goldman IS Morgenstern and all of that was made-up, as well). But that’s a topic for a different day.


Clearly, you can get away with just about anything if you do it well enough.

If you know the rules, you can break them.

For example: if you know that matches weren’t invented until 1805, but your story set in the 1600s requires them… you can make that happen. There’s no reason matches couldn’t have been invented in your world earlier than in ours. (Especially since sulfur matches were actually in use in China as early as AD 577 and you could investigate what those looked like and give them your own sort of twist). But you might want to include some little nugget of history in your fantasy world that helps the reader accept that this is not an inconsistency, but rather a quirk of your fantasy realm that is different than our own. In this way, you break the rules with style and your readers will appreciate it, rather than being annoyed by it.

Turrim Archive

With the Turrim Archive, I’ve been having a blast (and often getting bogged down) in the various technological achievements of the lands. The world is set in a sort of early-1800s time period in terms of food, clothing, and some basic levels of technology. But it is also a world where some large technologies have been artificially advanced before their time by magic. That means that I have things like trains and airships, but no electricity or cars. There is indoor plumbing in the cities, though rural areas still use outhouses. Wind-up clocks and even pocket chronometers exist. But weapons are still at the sword and crossbow level, as guns and cannons have not yet been invented.

It has been fascinating, studying different technologies and finding out when they were common and then deciding which ones would fit in this world and which ones would not have been invented or discovered yet due to the hindrance of magic being used to “meddle” in their technological development.

And throughout the story, some new technologies get developed and invented, so that was even more fun to explore how that might come about and delve into how the characters would react to some of these new inventions and how their lives are changed or impacted by them.

Mountain Segue

What do you think, dear Reader? Have you read any fantasy books with interesting technology (whether it be a sub-genre or not)? Do you enjoy steampunk/gaslamp/or urban fantasy? Why or why not?

How is Fantasy Month going for you?

On Monday we will be discussing magic and magic systems for our fantasy worlds, so make sure to come back for that!

~ jenelle

Politics and Money: how you can build them into your fantasy realms for an extra dose of realism


Politics and money.

Wait! Before you head for the hills, because those two words tend to incite some rather violent reactions… today we’re only talking about the FANTASY versions of those topics. You get to make them up!

Political Structure

When you are considering your world, you will want to figure out how and where these things fit into the fabric of the realm you are creating. Who is in power? What kind of government exists in your land(s)? Are there multiple countries in play? Do they all have the same type of government? Do the leaders of these multiple governments get along?

There are a lot of fun questions to think about and answer when you are writing a new story world. In fantasy, we often see monarchies, but that is not the exclusive type of government in fantasy. I’ve seen quite a few other types represented in the stories I’ve read, everything from nomadic desert tribes to kings to  the full-on creation of a sort of a cross between a parliament and a republic to evil dictators.

In the Minstrel’s Song, I went pretty basic with this one. I had a bunch of island countries, and every one of them was its own kingdom. The islands were far enough apart that they did not interact a ton (there is some trade between some of the islands, but others don’t even know the rest exist). Later on in the series, the politics got a little more complex as the nations were forced to work together, but for the most part, the politics were pretty simple.

In the Turrim Archive, on the other hand, the politics are far more central to the story, since you have six separate nations sharing a single continent. On one half of the world, you have Telmondir: three nations that have banded together and formed a Council, comprised of elected officials from each nation, who work together and represent their people as the heads of state. They share a single military force and trade without restriction across borders. On the other side of the continent is the Igyeum, three nations that spent centuries under the rule of warring chieftains, but a single ruler has risen to power and subdued that half of the world through military might. There is an uneasy truce between Telmondir and the Igyeum, but the Council knows the peace could end at any moment and are working to prepare for it. This leads to a lot of tension and some interesting political interactions as we start the story.

It has also been quite a growing experience for me, writing more political intrigue and interactions into this series. I’ve had to think very differently whenever the story called for events dealing with the various political entities. There has been a lot of research into different types of government systems, as well. Writing political motivations and intrigue just does not come easily for me, and has definitely stretched me as a writer!

In Revelod, since it’s such a big world, there are a lot of interesting ways we can play with the political structure of the various continents.

Here's the map of Revelod again for reference

Here’s the map of Revelod again for reference

The Eldoran Commonwealth

The Council of Eldoran is made up of 5 individuals: the King of Eldoran, the High Mage of the Arcanium, the Lord General of Revelod, the Archon, and the Citizen.

The Citizen is the Prime Minister of the People’s Hall, a Parliament made up of representatives of the different states/provinces of Eldoran.
The Archon is the Highest Judge in Eldoran. The Lord General of Revelod is the Supreme Commander of the Revelod Army appointed by the King.  The High Mage of the Arcanium is a representative of the Arcanium Order, the educational and magical organization of Eldoran. And finally, the King is the hereditary monarch of Eldoran. He represents the Lord’s Council and the Aristocracy of Revelod.

The Tundarin Empire

The Tundaran Empire functions as a Hereditary Empire, that has been ruled by a several dynasties for the past 1000 years. Cultural Layers are firmly adhered to and structured as such:

Aristocracy – Hereditary Peoples, of many races, though not all
Merchant Lords – Financially established merchants who can rise and fall within this class, including fall from it.  These are unable to ascend to the Aristocracy without familial ties (usually marriage).
Citizenry – This is the common class of people throughout the Empire.
Slaves – Persons owned by any of the classes above them Most often Aristocracy and Merchants, though a few citizens have slaves in their keep.  Slavery can span anything from dregs of society to entire family lines bought in servitude to a Aristocratic house or Merchant Lord guild or company. Some slaves have more power and influence than aristocrats or merchant lords.


Nine tribal/nomadic communities make their home on Seyberron. The wild lands are roamed by these tribes and are governed by the peaceful if tenuous relationships between the chieftains and their families.

The Sovereign Territories

This is an archipelago, and each island has its own nation/kingdom as follows:

The Orc Nation of Votar – Loose association of Goblinoid City States

A continent sized region populated by Goblinoid Tribes. There are several regions that are controlled by Warlords and the borders are constantly moving based on warlord control. Areas are effectively defined by regional names only. Formal political boundaries are not recognized.

Tathamor Dominion – Human Mix Kingdom

Mixed Kingdom heavily reliant on trade. Ruling council operates the most of the functions within the kingdom. There are cities and provinces that operate within the kingdom. Constantly at war with Votar.

Rekar – Elvish / Gnomish Equatorial Jungle Island

Wilderness continent heavily covered in Tropical forrests. Many settlements can be found around the coast, but there are hidden realms within the interior.

Haedrus Spire – Arid Mountain Island home of the Titans

This is the cultural homeland of all Titans. Their holy site stands at the middle of the island on the highest peak. It is capped with a monument to the Titon Lords who blessed the ancestral Titans to defeat the giants who invaded their land. The Titan culture is one of no aristocracy caste system. The only power resides at the individual communities, however there is an order that guides the culture as clerics to the Titons.

Itascan – Elven Stronghold of a Temperate Forest

This island is shrouded in mystery. Surrounded by a large evergreen forrest there are two primary mountain peaks on the island nation. One peak is a light tan golden color, while the other is a dark gray blue rock. There are two factions of Elves represented in this stronghold, the Light Elves and Dark Elves.  They each reside within their respective territories and both lead to a vast maze under the island that stretches far beyond the coasts of the Itascan island.


Currency & Commerce

Once you’ve answered some or all of the questions about how your world is governed, this could be a good time to turn your attention to how things will get paid for.

Hehe, sorry, Aladdin GIFS are just working for me today.

We talked a little bit about currency when I posted about Middle Earth earlier this month and pointed out that Tolkien didn’t create a specific currency for his world. But I’d like to talk about it a little bit more, for anyone who didn’t join us in the comments. (Also, I did some more digging, and Tolkien DID come up with some currency names: in one of the Appendices we learn that Gondor used silver coins called Castars, and a smaller coin called a tharni, and the Shire had a system of copper and silver pennies (which I believe we do see come up at the Prancing Pony when/after they purchase Bill the pony), but again, he does not go into detail on this at all in the books, rather making general references to “coins of little worth” or the descriptions of the vast amounts of gold and wealth within Erebor.

As George Bailey famously says of money in It’s a Wonderful Life (can we count this as fantasy since an angel comes down and we see an alternate reality? No? Okay then), “It comes in pretty handy down here, bub.”

We don't use money in heaven

And yet, not many fantasy books include it. As Sarah and I were discussing, some of that probably stems from the fact that, while money is extremely important for us in our everyday lives, most of our favorite fantasy characters are either royalty (and therefore have plenty of money to pay for whatever they need so it’s not important to tell us exactly what that money is called), or they’re dirt poor and spending all their time questing through the wilderness-y areas of the world where they aren’t exactly going to market to purchase things (and therefore money just doesn’t come up).

I did find a list of fictional currencies, and I thought it was interesting how few of them there were. (I have no idea how exhaustive this list is, but it was the only one I could find with titles I recognized on it).

Mistborn (which we also talked about earlier this month) uses a system of imperials and clips.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has the Ankh-Morpork dollar, as well as several other regional currencies.

Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle uses crowns.

The Chronicles of Narnia uses crescents.

Harry Potter (the wizarding world side) uses bronze Knuts, silver Sickles, and gold Galleons (and I love the names, but I just now realized that basically this is just the standard D&D system of currency with fancy titles)

The Wheel of Time uses the penny, mark, and crown.

And of course, Star Wars has credits. (shush, Star Wars is fantasy).

Those were the names I recognized. I’m sure there are others… I’m sure. None of them are coming to mind, though. But it struck me that this is a thing that seems to often get left out of most world creations. So, it’s up to you. Does money play an important role in your story? Will your characters need it? Does your world have actual currency, or does it work on a trade/barter system?

My own Minstrel’s Song series has a fairly elaborate currency system in the country of Aom-igh, though it barely comes into the books at all:

Stater – just a copper coin, small and round with a circular hole in the middle used to buy trivial things such as single drinks

Silver Stater – a silver coin, round and smooth-edged, with a square hole in the center, worth approximately 10 staters

Silver Ryal – a silver circular coin banded with gold worth approximately 5 silver staters 

Gold Stater – a golden coin, circular in shape worth approx. 5 silver ryals 

Gold Ryal – a golden coin roughly circular in shape with a wavy edge like the petals of a flower and a hole stamped in the center worth approx 10 gold staters 

Rose Ryal – a coin made of rose-gold, roughly circular in shape with a wavy edge like the petals of a flower edged with silver worth approx 5 gold ryals

Pretty sure that all made it into approximately two lines of the book. Hehe. So… a lot depends on what you want to pour your time into. And remember one of the guidelines we learned about earlier in the month. Spend your time where it will most affect the plot and characters of the story. If you don’t need a currency system, don’t create one! But if you do, know that you’ll be one of the few, and perhaps that will be a detail that will help allow your readers to really immerse themselves in your world and make it come alive around them as they read.

Perhaps more important than currency, then, is the idea of commerce in your world. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to have the GDP of each of your countries hammered out, but it does mean that you should have some idea of how trade happens from one place to another. If you are writing in a small-scale world, how does your character acquire the things they need? Do they barter? Do they trade? Is there a currency?

If your scope is a bit larger, how does trade happen between villages? Do the villagers of one town trust those of the neighboring town and accept coins from them, or do they regard their neighbors with suspicion and only accept things in trade?

Going to the national or global scale, how is trade handled between nations? Is the currency of Rohan good in Gondor? Is there a global currency, or do your nations weigh money differently?

If you’re looking for a resource that will give you a quick run-down on the evolution of currency throughout history and a better grasp on how countries interact, I highly recommend the book Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? It is one of those books I read with my kids for school this past year to help teach them a sort of intro to economics, and then it kind of revolutionized the way I look at my own fantasy worlds now when it comes to creating commerce between countries and how I think about currency when I consider creating it for my fantasy realms. I love it when I learn stuff about writing and world building when I’m least expecting it!

Mountain Segue

Can you think of any other fantasy books you’ve read that described a specific and unique currency system? What about politics? What types of interesting governments have you encountered in the fantasy realms you’ve traversed? Are you enjoying Fantasy Month? What are you reading this month for fun? Are these posts making you think differently about what you’re reading? If you’re an author, are they helping you as you think about world building?

Make sure to come back tomorrow as we will be discussing technology in fantasy, and that is sure to be a fascinating conversation!

~ jenelle