Friday, May 28, 2010

Ghost Ghost Ghost Placenta!

I've got this story idea kicking around my head and I want to know what you think of it. Here we go:

The basic premise of magic in the setting is this: there are two branches of magic, both of them deeply intertwined, but with one of them clearly superior to the other. The first is known as "Foundation," and is basically training in psychic powers. The Foundation is normally quite weak and inflexible, but can be an important asset nonetheless. With the Foundation, a magician can move small objects with his mind, exert some control over his own biological processes, and communicate with others telepathically. The greater your skill in the Foundation, the more open you are to the Foundation's power; a master of the Foundation can be killed with the Foundation's powers alone, but the most he can do to a normal human is give him a headache or some bad dreams. Most importantly, anyone can study the Foundation, and many do. It isn't at all unlikely to come across a simple farmer who can calm his sheep by concentrating at them or talk to his sons and daughters over great distances.

The second branch of magic is dependent upon something called the Fetch, and understanding the Fetch requires a little understanding of the world's mythology. In this world, the only real difference between living and unliving matter is the presence of a soul. Souls come from a mysterious place beyond the world, and are largely immune to magical interference.

Now, when you were still inside your mother's body, you had two bodies connected by a narrow cord - you and your placenta (your placenta and you; two pals, together again!). In this world, your placenta had its own soul, its own animating spark. When you were born, that spark died and returned to wherever it came. Are placental souls only used to usher new life into the world? If it's lucky, will it get to be person next time? Are placental souls working off some crime? Nobody knows, and it isn't really important to the story. What is important is that if your mother keeps a part of the placenta or umbilical cord, preserving it, and performs a small ritual worshiping the placental soul, then the soul might stick around, becoming an invisible and intangible familiar spirit, a Fetch.

With the help of a Fetch, you can do real magic. Rains of fire, bolts of lightning, prophecies and curses; the world is your (magical) oyster. The more you worship your Fetch, the more and more expensive sacrifices you make for its well-being, the more powerful it becomes, and the more powerful you become. Learning to use the Foundation also helps, as you are better able to communicate with your Fetch.

Of course, the downside is that your disembodied twin isn't necessarily a good person. In fact, lacking a body means that it lacks basic human feelings. A well-treated Fetch linked to a basically moral person will learn to ape that person's morals, possibly without really understanding them, but a bastard's Fetch will quickly grow into a real sociopath.

By the way, wacky and gross as it is, the whole ghost placenta thing reflects some real world beliefs (by the way, that article is really neat and you should read it). Go figure.

Before I leave it at a "well, what do you think?" I'd like to give you an idea of where I'm going with my particular story. For that, I need to give you one more piece of mythology.

In magical circles, identical twins are considered bad luck, because they share a placenta, and therefore, a Fetch. They can also use each other's Fetch-tokens (the dried umbilical cord that lets you access your Fetch's powers). This spiritual mingling creates a bit of cultural panic, and there are lots of stories of identical twins fighting over their shared Fetch, killing each other for the Fetch-token when one of them loses hers, driving their Fetches mad with their rivalries, and generally fucking shit up.

However, for the unscrupulous, the birth of identical twins is a huge opportunity. You see, if you murder one of the twins at birth - usually the weaker twin, since before modern medicine one twin was almost always smaller and sicklier - keep a strip of its flesh, braid it with the surviving twin's umbilical token, and perform a worship ritual that names the placental ghost and the dead twin as one being, you can coax the two spirits into becoming one uberFetch, a must-have for evil Emperors everywhere!

This piece of dark magic is the heart of my story, and from here it flows pretty naturally. An evil king (frustrated because he was born during a civil dispute in his country and the midwife didn't have time to keep a piece of the afterbirth, thus dooming him to a life without magic, a disadvantageous marriage to the princess of a neighboring backwater, and a life of obscurity) is blessed with twins and tries to go through with the Evil Ritual of the UberFetch (tm). His wife, the princess of the neighboring less magical kingdom he was forced to marry, balks and spirits the doomed twin away with his own umbilical token.

I think you can see where this is going. The queen is imprisoned on some trumped-up charge, the evil king raises his son evil until he's powerful enough to murder parliament and the two of them can live high on the hog and plan an invasion of the kingdom that disinherited Dad for not being magical enough to inherit his father's magocracy. The land is blighted by oppressive laws demanding that everyone worship the evil twin's Fetch, which increases its power significantly.

In the meanwhile, the good twin grows up to become a freedom fighter, drawing on the same Fetch for power, until the brothers are drawn into a climactic confrontation that certainly can't be evited (because it's, you know, inevitable... I'll be here all week; try to deal).

The real lifeblood of the story, though is good and evil. Is dad evil because he wanted to kill an infant for power? Is bro evil because he wants to take the power he still has and lead his nation to martial greatness? Is Our Hero good because he wants peace and freedom? Most importantly, can he teach his shared Fetch to favor his point of view, because in the final battle, the Fetch's favor is what's going to decide who wins and who loses.

What the story is really about is philosophy, good and evil, and how to distinguish between them intellectually. When you lack a body - as the Fetch does - to give you a gut "good" and "bad" feeling when you think about helping or hurting people, what do good and evil mean, if anything?

The story is also about family, especially the ambitious, controlling, and dysfunctional kind that Our Hero will find himself thrust into. One thing I'm considering is that nobody in the story really wants to kill any of the other major actors. Now that he's too grown up to kill for power, Evil Dad doesn't really want to murder his son. He just wants to rule the world through his son(s) and punish the people who humiliated him; is that really so bad? Evil Brother actually kind of likes the idea of having a twin. Imprisoned Mom is just kind of pitiful and terrified that her sons are going to kill each other. She loves both of them fiercely even though she's alienated from one of them and hasn't seen the other since he was an infant.

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I'm going to post some questions below. These are the questions I really want answered, though of course, I'm eager to read whatever you might want to write.
  • Where's the suck? What potential pitfalls (or pratfalls) am I missing in this concept?
  • What are some of the other potential consequences for this magical system? I've already got that magic is a very female thing, that mothers and midwives decide who to give magic to, but what else might happen?
  • What possibilities do you see in the plot? I've asked you where the suck might be hiding, but I also want to hear where you see the cool.

* * *

By the way, because I want to write this some day, I'm going to repost the Creative Commons license I use for this blog. That is, just a reminder: you can repost anything you want, as long as you give me credit and don't try to sell it, but please don't take my idea. I like it and want to use it someday. I want to be able to use this blog to talk about my creative process, but I don't want to get scooped because of it. If my ramblings here today have inspired you, just drop me a line and we'll hash it out, make sure your idea and mine aren't too close together. I'm not claiming to be the owner of placenta ghost magic, as I linked above, that's a thought as old as human civilization.

So, just a reminder:


Nick Pilon said...

So... I really like the idea of the metaphysics you describe there. The distinction between the power but unreliability of inborn magic and the train-ability of the psionics is very nifty. The idea that training your psychic power makes you mere vulnerable to other psychics can lead to all kinds of nifty ideas. I can see powerful people keeping untrained bodyguards, lawyers, etc about to protect them - maybe something almost like a monastic order? The way magic works almost seems like it'd inevitably lead to some kind of class system, with the upper-classes permitted to do the appropriate rites at birth, and the lower-classes forbidden from doing so. Midwifery also suddenly becomes of immense political importance, so they'd have a lot of power.

The story outline you include, on the other hand, kinda leaves me cold. I was reading through the description of the metaphysics, and really enjoying it... The the plot write-up was like a bucket of ice water. I see how you're looking to invoke the metaphysics underlying themes, but I don't think that plot is a good vehicle for that. The summary, at least, reads like a bog-standard fantasy intrigue, complete with secret heir, evil king, etc. I'd actually go so far as to suggest assembling a plot for this setting that either focuses on something other than politics, or focuses on politics not normally found in a fantasy setting - IE, social justice issues?

Scattercat said...

Seconding "Cool metaphysics, lukewarm plot." On the other hand, every plot is hackneyed in summary, and I'm not one to give up on a plot just because I've seen it before so long as an author can bring a new insight or twist to the retelling.

Personally, I'm more interested in the metaphysics qua physics. That is, this ritual to bind a Fetch is an action on the part of willful people, akin to the way we here in the real world dug up liquefied dinosaurs and used them to fly. So what natural process is this Fetch-creation interfering with and how will it impact the world in the long term? The amount of power apparently released is tremendous, and if it's being used to hurl incestuous fireballs instead of whatever purpose it originally served, then something surely must be happening to the metaphysical environment? (The Foundation seems like the vegan/renewable energy of this world, with its higher initial costs, slower returns, and tendency not to have much impact unless everyone buys in and one big user sticking with the flashy and wasteful approach ends up having a significant advantage over everyone else such that a prisoner's dilemma situation breaks out and the Fetch-using Big Oil companies keep on their self-destructive path lest their opponents and rivals reach oblivion first.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the acknowledgement that all plots are hackneyed in synopsis. I'm the kind of writer who likes/needs to hash out ideas verbally with trusted creative partners, and that stresses me out a lot.

That said, the problem is that I don't really want to go into the metaphysics of it. Perhaps that's just the mood I'm in - right now, what interests me most is writing magic as both relevant to the plot but still, well, magical - but perhaps its central to the story. I'll need to keep that in mind as the idea simmers. That said, if I were going to go a more metaphysical dirction, yours is the direction I'd go.

Nick, your suggestions are interesting. I'll have to contemplate that. Social justice issues... where can I go with that.