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

High Resolution: Worldbuilding and the Small Details

I have a fascination with the metal buttons on pay phones, the pixels on old Zenith televisions, the writing on IV drip bags, and the lettering on manhole covers. I walk around New York with my hands running over metal railings and my eyes sweeping over the small details. Every stairway in the New York subway system has a letter and number designation written on a small plaque below one of the steps. Every restaurant in the city has a health rating in the window. And at the intersection of Madison and 30th Street is a Toynbee Tile.

Sometimes I sit on the wooden benches in the subway and imagine being the last man on Earth, confined to the island of Manhattan. I imagine crawling over every inch of it, studying a single patch of street asphalt with the same intensity as the Mona Lisa. There’s that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Cameron is looking at A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte, and he keeps looking closer and closer at the little girl, and the camera keeps zooming in on her face until it’s nothing but a bunch of colored dots.

Art has low resolution. Life, on the other hand, has infinite resolution.

There is a school of writing that says your job as a writer, first and foremost, is to notice things. This is what I was taught. It’s the same school of thought that stresses concrete details in every line of your writing, so that every dimension of your story is vivid, tactile, textured, and beautifully, truthfully rendered. All those candy wrappers and weeds poking through the sidewalk are your material as a writer, because they evoke the realness of everyday life. And that’s your job as a writer: to render life as realistically as possible. And you learn to do that by noticing the small details.

If you read American Psycho, 30% of the book is taken up in a meticulous catalogue of the colors, cuts, and brands of every character’s suit, tie, shoe, dress, cuff links and handkerchief. In fact, much of Patrick Bateman’s life seems to be taken up in the pursuit of an encyclopedic knowledge of style, fashion, and taste. This isn’t just because Patrick is a psychopath. It’s because all that matters in his social circles is the minutiae: the length of your coat sleeves, what you order at restaurants, and what kind of stereo you have. As you read, you begin to learn the language of affluence as if it’s a foreign culture, with Patrick as your guide. You get immersed in his world, his mindset, through the small details. So when the murders begin, they feel that much more surreal.

This kind of writing is based around the ideal of ‘verisimilitude,’ which is the appearance or quality of being real and believable. It’s what allows us to become immersed in a story, and, for a while, believe that it’s real. Many writers today do it by mining everyday life for those small, concrete details: smells, sights, textures. Those details immerse the reader in the story, and allow the illusion of fiction to happen.

So imagine you’re telling a story in a time, place, and universe that doesn’t exist. Imagine you’re writing second-world fantasy.

Maybe now you can understand how fucked you are. You don’t get to immediately pull from a shared pool of experiences. You don’t get to see your world laid out in front of you every waking minute, in all its minute detail. No, instead you have to steal, jury-rig, and cut from whole cloth the sights, sounds, and textures that will immerse your readers.

Watch a weather forecast, look at a street map of your town, or pick up an English-to-French Dictionary, and you’ll realize how hard it is to make up a world from scratch, down to the smallest details. But the real world is a good jumping off point. Learn about Zoroaster, the Zen poet Basho, and the economic collapse of Detroit. Then begin to work your way down to the feeling of varnished wood on your fingertips as you run your hand over the ribs of a suit of samurai armor, which is called the do. Find out what the little recycling number is on your box of cereal, and what that means about its composition. Stay up all night and watch the sunrise alone, and remember how it felt.

I think to make a good secondary world you have to be a whole universe boiled into one person, but if you do it right, you’ll never stop learning. About the stars, about music, about human history—fantasy is about bringing back stories from the bounds of imagination, and writing it is your excuse to explore it. What you’ll find, I think, is that you will begin noticing the small details around you, the pay phones and manhole covers, and admiring them as works of art, just as much as Beowulf is. There’s beauty in the small details.

And I think the advice given to writers, oftentimes, is the same advice given to those who want to make the most out of their life. Kafka wasn’t very upbeat, but he was always telling people to chase the sublime, to dive into what they feared the most in order to uncover what they needed to live. And there’s a quote by someone, maybe Picasso, that every piece of art is a self-portrait. I think that makes sense for writing fantasy, because if you’re going to write it well, it’s going to be ingrained in the way you live and the way you look at things.

Still, people will ask why you spend so much time building worlds, cultures, and metaphysics for worlds that don’t exist. What’s the use of these stories, or fantasy at all? There’s a scene in Wizard of Earthsea, when Ged picks up a plant called fourfoil, and asks the mage Ogion what its use is. Ogion replies,

“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed then you may learn its true name, knowing its being; which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? Or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?”

I imagine kneeling down on a sidewalk in New York and picking up a sprig of fourfoil growing out of the seam between the cement and a building. There is no use for fourfoil, but in that moment, with fifty-story buildings looming all around me and planes flying overhead and dozens of people walking by me to get to a bar or Grand Central, I see a spark of another time, another place in its tiny leaves.

If I can immerse people in a story, what is the use of reality?

High Resolution: Worldbuilding and the Small Details

Worldbuilding: True Names, Binary, and Mathematics as Magic

This weekend, I decided to sit down and flesh out the notation and structure of magic in my world. One of the key problems I ran into is how to represent something’s ‘true name’. Ursula LeGuin and other fantasy writers have built magic systems based around invoking something’s ‘true name,’ which can be spoken aloud in order to gain power over the named thing. For example, Ged from Wizard of Earthsea learns the true name for ‘sparrowhawk’ and is subsequently able to call down a sparrowhawk from the sky by speaking its true name. During Ged’s time at Roke, the school for wizards, he meticulously learns thousands of true names, delving down into the names for the smallest thistles. Humans in Wizard of Earthsea also have true names, which they keep secret from all but their closest friends.

Looking at how true names work in Wizard of Earthsea, it seems like humans and animals follow different naming rules: there is only one person with the true name ‘Ged,’ but the true name for ‘thistle’ seems to apply to all thistles equally—they don’t get unique names. This issue comes up in Earthsea as well: when Ged learns the true name for ‘goat,’ he speaks it aloud and causes goats to gather around him. He gets scared and yells it again, trying to make the goats go away, but it causes the goats to crowd closer around him. How did Ged’s invocation of ‘goat’ affect several goats, while his later invocation of ‘sparrowhawk’ only called down the single sparrowhawk? How does a wizard narrow his invocation to a single target, or specific group of targets?


Think about it: giving each person a unique ‘true name’ is relatively simple, but giving every grain of sand and tree a unique ‘true name’ becomes overwhelming. If all discrete objects and people are supposed to have separate existences, everything must have a distinct metaphysical identifier, or ID. You couldn’t target a specific person or thing with a spell unless they had some kind of identifier that set them apart from all other possible targets. But with all the trees, rocks, oceans, and birds in existence, the names given to each discrete thing would become very long and complicated in order to ensure that they were unique. This is a problem of taxonomy.

This is the first problem: coming up with a naming system that has the potential to offer everything in existence a unique identifier. The second problem is notation: how does a magician represent these names? What kind of notation would allow those complex names to be compressed into something manageable when trying to write or speak them?

These questions made me look into binary notation—computers can create symbols, images, and sounds based on binary instructions of 1’s and 0’s. Everything in the universe, except for irrational shit like pi, has the potential to be represented in binary. You could say the universe itself is made up of opposites, like Leibniz claimed. The same idea is represented in the I-Ching, which uses binary in a form of divination. So binary will be the metaphysical basis for representing my universe numerically and alphabetically. But binary numbers are extremely long because they only use two bits of information, so there has to be a way to compress them. The answer, I decided, is hexadecimal and octal numbers (octal because the I-Ching uses an octal structure, and I’d like to incorporate it into my magic system at some point), as well as ASCII to translate the binary into letters.

But how would magicians themselves translate the ASCII-like binary numbers into letters or sounds? I decided to draw on Vocaloids, which have specific encodings for each phoneme, or distinct sound, in their language. Using the Vocaloids as a template, magicians could become text-to-speech translators, converting ASCII binary representations of true names into alphabetical, spoken, and written versions of the names. All true names, then, would have a numerical significance to them as well as a linguistic significance.

THE SOLUTION: 40-BIT NAMES and Data Compression

This is my idea: I would like to use an eight-letter “functional name” that uses 8 of 40 possible letters for everything in my world. The functional name is the true name of a person or thing, expressible in writing or speech. Each of the 40 possible letters used to create that name, however, can be represented as an eight-digit binary number, just like ASCII. This means that each eight-letter name would be represented as a 64-digit binary number.

Now, I want my names to be compatible with the I-Ching, which uses octal notation, and I want to know the maximum number of digits in the octal number used to represent an 8-letter name that uses 40 possible letters. Using all 27 of the lowercase ASCII designations of the alphabet and 13 of the uppercase, I found that the octal number for any name using eight letters would have 21 digits max, and the hexadecimal number for the name would have 16 digits max. This helps me convert names into a format that the I-Ching can translate into bagua.

Here’s a summary of the different numerical and alphabetical representations of a true name:

Binary representation of true name:
01100001 01101011 01110101 01110010 01100001 01101110 01100010 01101111

Octal representation of true name:

Hexadecimal representation of true name:

Functional name:

Each of these conversions, from binary to octal to hex to the eight-letter name, represents a sort of data compression. The next step, which will take a lot more thought, is how the functional name “Akuranbo” can be translated into a single, compact symbol by translating its syllables into strokes or shapes.

Binary and magic: “All I see is blonde, redhead, brunette…”

The next question is whether magicians are really seeing 1’s and 0’s when they discover someone’s true name, like Neo in the Matrix. The answer would be no. In a metaphysical sense, everything can be expressed as binary, but there are hundreds of ways to express something or someone’s true name in my system, which is still under construction. These include expressing something’s name as a song (which expresses those 1’s and 0’s in rhythm and pitch, tempo and frequencies), expressing something’s name as movement (expressing the information in body motions, like a dance or the hand signs in Naruto). There is an almost infinite number of ways to analyze and represent someone’s true name, all of which are based on information that can be expressed in binary.

At the same time, I’m thinking that wizards and magicians in my world can immerse themselves in esoteric mathematics, discovering magical patterns using theory, similar to how astronomers can discover black holes using gravity and mass calculations. Considering how everything, from chemistry to music, can be expressed in mathematical terms, there will be mathematics woven into every aspect of my magic (like how geometry is woven into spell maps). One of the tools I’m looking forward to implementing in my world is the I-Ching, which turns a random binary system (flipping coins, essentially) into groupings of six bits (hexagrams), which can be translated into a table that converts hexagrams into one of 64 meanings. Imagine a magician taking stock of the state of world using an I-Ching-like system, predicting weather or earthquakes, or even human actions based off of things like the butterfly effect.

Even more interesting, imagine being a wizard who is trying to discover the true name of an enemy. When their very essence is contained in everything they do, every drop of blood and spit, you could take someone’s blood and begin to decode it, like finding DNA. You could begin to learn their essence through their speech, their movements, and begin to mimic them until you started to see their behavior consolidate into patterns that can expressed in graphs or functions, then dig into those numbers until you start finding the numbers that make up their name. This is all extremely high-level stuff for a wizard, near-impossible to master, but for the right kind of magician, the right kind of mind, approaching reality as a giant, dynamic math equation could yield tremendous insight…or absolute insanity.

Wonder vs. reductionism: Magic is not chemistry

One last thing. When anyone builds a magic system, there’s the tendency to treat it like a science. That makes sense, since you’re trying to create a system, which means there have to be solid rules and limits, and science is a collection of rules that describe the functioning of nature. Within a story, however, magic has to become more than just dry chemistry or physics—magic, I think, should reflect the nature and truths of your world, and the themes that appear in your stories. There’s a great scene in Hogfather by Terry Pratchett where Death gives Susan the ultimate challenge:


What Death is trying to say is that there is no meaning in the universe if we look at it from a purely logical, scientific point of view. But worldbuilding and fantasy have the ability to turn the very structure of the universe into a grand tapestry of meaning. What does it mean that magic in Wizard of Earthsea is based on names? To me, it means that humans in Earthsea are trying to catalog and control the world around them by turning the unknown into the known, which means that encounters with the unclassifiable and unknown, like the Nameless Gods of The Tombs of Atuan and the gibbeth in Wizard or Earthsea, are loaded with dread and meaning—these are things that are outside the bounds of magical naming and human understanding.

All of the rules and laws in a magic system don’t have to be explained, as long as they remain consistent behind the scenes. At the same time, having that ‘back-end’ of a complex, fleshed-out magic system allows your reader to start figuring out the limits and possibilities of magic, which creates a sense of realism and immersion. It also gives you limits to explore, test, and exploit, just as your characters would do—and that’s exciting.

Just don’t fuck with this guy.

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Worldbuilding: True Names, Binary, and Mathematics as Magic