Worldbuilding and the Marks of a Bona Fide Wizard

I think anyone who wants to write mythopoeic fantasy should pick up The Encyclopedia of Russian Criminal Tattoos.

The Encyclopedia is a collection of tattoos from a very specific time and place. Most of the tattoos and their owners were prisoners in the GULAG, the nation-spanning prison system of the Soviet Union, where everyone from political prisoners to murderers and “hooligans” were forced to work under horrifying conditions. The tattoos, as the book explains, act as a resume for a criminal, and each tattoo can have several layers of hidden meaning based on where it is on the body, what words and symbols appear on it, etc. It’s fascinating how the cruelty, despair, corruption, and sheer violence of the whole Soviet police state is summed up so elegantly in one medium, the prison tattoo.


As you read through the encyclopedia, the book asks you to think about the language of symbols. It asks you to imagine a world in multiple dimensions. You have to take on the mindset of an artist, an anthropologist, and (especially with the tattoos) an occultist. This is the mindset of esotericism, where everything has hidden meanings, and it’s the mindset that should inform worldbuilding.

The symbols and levels of initiation in the Russian criminal underworld, as well as the “made men” of the Mafia, ended up inspiring the way I thought about mages and hedge wizards–if a true wizard is a master of his or her craft, how do they distinguish themselves from one-trick mages and beginners? If there’s no central authority that dubs people bona-fide wizards, like Roke in Wizard of Earthsea, what keeps amateurs from claiming to be masters?

Wizards and the Bona Fide Hallmarks

“When I was growing up, there were seven hallmarks to a wizard: a name, a song, a card, a craft, a hand, a tongue, and tired feet. For Muzin, there were tattoos added in.” — Samal of Muzin

Masters of any craft can always recognize one another. It’s expressed in the smallest things they do: how a wu-shu master walks, how a carpenter makes his measurements, or how a guitarist bends a string up only a half-step.

When you become a monk of the Shaolin temple, you are told to master three types of techniques: physical or “basic” skills (like stances, stamina, and balance), combat skills (like barehanded and weapon fighting), and the 72 arts of Shaolin qi-gong. Similarly, when you become a Buddhist monk you are given several different tiers of techniques to master, each one more difficult than the last. When I imagine wizards, I think in these terms. I ask “What kinds of things does a mage have to master to become a bona-fide wizard?”

I decided that wizards, true wizards, would have something like a secret handshake that would allow them to identify who was bona-fide and who was a neophyte. I came up with certain hallmarks that would serve as guidelines. These would not be meticulously defined tests; whether someone met each of the hallmarks would be left up to the observer, but for those who were bona-fide, there would be no question.

  • A Name: every wizard an epithet or nickname bestowed on them, similar to those given to the warriors in The Illiad. It sums them up and serves as the center of their reputation.
  • A Song: every wizard has a song or a story about their accomplishments. These don’t have to be true, but behind the lie should be something significant. A Song should be a wizard’s legend.
  • A Card: every wizard has a trick, a little demonstration of who they are and what they’re capable of. Like someone who can tie a knot in a cherry stem, it should be simple and quick. This is their “calling card.”
  • A Craft: every wizard must be a master of at least one school of magic, whether it be weather control, elemental control of water, beast-taming, summoning, or something else. Mastery is relative; if no challenger can beat a wizard in a contest, they are considered a master.
  • A Hand: every wizard must have a part of their body replaced with something other than flesh. This alteration often gives them heightened abilities, such as a second heart granting the ability to survive impalement.
  • A Tongue: every wizard must be fluent in at least one other language, though the best can speak multiple languages. This is meant to demonstrate one’s worldliness and commitment to understanding different sides of the world.
  • and Tired Feet: every wizard must have traveled to the ten extant continents and stayed at least a year in each. This is, again, meant to demonstrate one’s worldliness, as well as one’s ability to travel and survive many different parts of the world.

Any mage can begin trying to attain these hallmarks, but only once they gain all seven can they try to claim the title of bona-fide wizard. Every self-respecting mage, however, would have at least Card, a little demonstration of who they are so that other mages could recognize what kind of mage they are.

But as the wizard Samal says in his short scene with his apprentice in The Crownless King, the original and enduring hallmark of a bona-fide wizard is much more pragmatic:

Samal made eight points on his chest with his fingers, each one touching a different star. “The eight points of the world, the eight ports…the seven hallmarks and the tattoos show you’re bona-fide.” Samal shook his head slowly. “Real bona-fide wizards don’t die.”

Samal reveals that the most important hallmark is the one that is unspoken: survival. If a wizard is dead, they can no longer influence the world. They no longer matter. This belief is a product of its world, and it guides the ethos of its masters, the wizards. The Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo offers the ultimate counterpoint, however: for Tsunetomo, the ultimate hallmark of a bona-fide samurai is loyalty for their master, demonstrated through their death in his service. Tsunetomo claims that the masters of swordsmanship and martial prowess, the samurai, are not masters because they are able to survive any opponent, but because they have already resigned themselves to death.

Worldbuilding and the Marks of a Bona Fide Wizard

World Map Sketches #1

Mapping out a world has got to be one of the toughest parts of worldbuilding. Geography shapes narratives and spawns its own. Anyone who’s played TES: III Morrowind can explain how the lay of the land turned the experience of travelling into an adventure: travelling lava canyons, climbing over mountain ridges and squinting through the ash storms coming off the slopes of Ur, the landscape spoke to you.

When I started sketching out my world years ago, I had one map in mind: Ursula LeGuin’s Archipelago. I loved the idea of an island-hopping culture and far reaches being separated by seas and oceans rather than long roads (like Tolkien’s world). The ocean was a major part of the Earthsea series, and sailing made travelling feel free, dynamic, and vivid. Sailing became a form of wizardry in itself. I wanted a world that was dominated by the ocean, so I looked at islands rather than slices or corners of continents.

But another influence on my vision of a fantasy world came from H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. The passages where the two scientist protagonists descend in the frozen, dead city of the Old Ones and begin deciphering the hieroglyphics on the walls is still the most insane, mind-bogglingly detailed fantasy histories I’ve come across, except for The Silmarillion. Lovecraft describes how the Old Ones arrived on Earth, built cities, created life forms, went through periods of upheaval, revolt, and cultural renaissance that spanned thousands of years, all while describing the forces that finally brought the Old Ones back to the sacred, terrible city in the Antarctic to die. The key to the Old Ones, as I saw it, was that they didn’t just settle on Earth, they shaped it to their own ends: they fabricated life, changed climates, cleared lands. This was a renovation on a planetary scale.

With the idea of the Old Ones creating the world according to their designs in my mind, I started looking at Buddhist mandalas and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches of the ideal city. The idea of a worlds or palaces crafted in perfect symmetry made me think about world architects and what terraforming a planet would entail. Rather than being shaped by the chaos of wind and water, what if landforms were based on geometry and giant metapatterns? What if someone could structure the tectonic plates and the volcanoes to create islands or ridges? I imagined volcanoes being raised out of the ocean and erupting in eight-pointed radial patterns like compass roses, until the resulting island could form a circle. I thought of giant underground water cave systems like sewers, supplying groundwater to different parts of a continent, and giant scaffolding shooting off from islands and weaving them together as the spaces were filled with stone and soil.

Finally, I thought of Morrowind. It’s just such a beautiful, vivid land, and it crushed me to hear it was destroyed by the events of Skyrim. But by the time you arrive in the land of Morrowind, it’s already a ruined ghost of what it was–the continent is littered with abandoned Dunmer fortresses, old overgrown routes through the Ashlands, dead Dwemer cities, and the overwhelming sense that there was a great civilization here once. But it was all gone.

I imagined my terraformed world built on the ruins of another one, where the old continents were still there but sunken to the bottom of the ocean, and the new continents, created according to the designs of humans, were clustered around the old ones like the the memorial over the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Giant, ghostly expanses of ocean would separate the new islands, with old cities and mountains just beneath the surface. In the pictures above, you can see some of the scaffolding sticking out from the islands, like steel girders, as well as shaded landmasses. Those are meant to be the sunken continents.


World Map Sketches #1