The Magic of Limitations

Limitations are more important than Powers, Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic.

Say one thing for Brandon Sanderson, say he’s unparalleled in creating hard magic systems. (Some of you may have caught what I did there*; 50 DKP Minus if you didn’t.)

One of the key Aesir is Heimdall who “requires less sleep than a bird, can see 100 leagues, and can hear grass growing in the meadows and wool growing on sheep.” In the myths, Heimdall guards the Bilrost (Snorri calls it the Bifrost) and watches for Asgard’s enemies. In my books, he’s not quite that Aesir. Not yet.

These are the limits I put on Heimdall’s powers of sight and hearing:

  • He can’t see through solid objects, clouds, fog, etc.
  • Just like we have to focus to hear in a loud pub, so too does Heimdall have to focus to hear certain things. I also thought of his hearing as a keyword search. Listening to everything all the time might drive a man mad.
  • And, what might someone do to cripple Heimdall’s capabilities? Someone who maybe has a vicious streak and a deep hatred of the Aesir. 😉

Consider, too, that the Jotunn know that Heimdall has these abilities. So, in my world they developed a sign language to keep their secrets. And, they moved underground not only to escape Utgard’s unforgiving climate, but also to shelter what words they did speak. Maybe that’s not particularly inventive, but these actions do seem like logical responses to an enemy’s advantage.

Not only do the Jotunn have to deal with Heimdall’s prying eyes and ears, but Odin sends his ravens (Huginn and Muninn) out in the morning to fly around the whole world. When they return, they whisper all the news they saw and heard into his ear. Odin also has two wolves, Freki and Geri. I have them act in a similar capacity to the ravens — except they mostly travel at night. And, Odin’s Hlidskjalf…his High Seat…lets him see out over all the worlds.

Sucks to be a Jotunn, eh? But wait, there’s more!

In the Hovamol, stanzas 147-165, Odin lists all the “songs he [knows] | that king’s wives know not, nor men that are sons of men.” Beyond those songs Odin knows many other types of magic. He learned one type from Freyja and other magics from his time upon the tree.

In all, I found six sufficiently different types of magic in Norse myth: gandr, galdr, necromancy, rune magic, shapeshifting and what I loosely call “proto-familiar spirit” magic (disir/fylgja).

That’s a huge amount of different magic to deal with in a series let alone a single book. In his third law, Sanderson suggests that writers expand what they already have before adding something new. Given my goal (faithfully retelling Norse myth) I couldn’t cut magic types — they’re all used at different points.

Instead, I tied them all back to a single power source which practitioners would have to harvest, refine and then use.

At various points in the narrative, then, practitioners use up all the magic they have. That’s all they get until they put some work into getting more. I have an entire scene dedicated to Odin harvesting and refining “magic.” Beyond that, once the magic is consumed, there are consequences. Vidar experiences that firsthand.

Additionally, I further limited the magic by sticking to what the sources said that magic could do (with some conservative, logical, interpretative leeway :)). As an example, I have two different ways for the characters to shapeshift — greater and lesser. The lesser is really freakin’ creepy & is based entirely on an account in an Icelandic saga.

That said, those who know multiple types of magic can do the most things. Odin knows all types of magic; Freyja knows almost as many as Odin. Vafthrudnir knows almost as many as Freyja. Loki only knows one type. Vidar knows one, is learning a second and will, eventually, learn more.

What I ended up with were enormously powerful characters. Since I didn’t want them a-whompin’ and a whoopin’ every living thing to within an inch of its life, I pitted my Aesir against opponents who were equally powerful. And then I showed the strongest Aesir (Odin) getting the crap kicked out of him — while also showing normal folk getting their asses kicked by the beasties that Odin, Vidar, etc., can easily dispatch.

So, long post, right? And I haven’t even hinted at how magic is used by the Alvar, Svartalvar and Jotunn. Maybe in the future. Oh yeah, that reminds me, prophecy is a huge part of Norse myth. I guess I didn’t discuss that, either.



*This is what I did there. 🙂

The 9 realms…

Asgard, Midgard and (maybe) Utgard are among the best-known regions in Norse myth. The picture above shows not only Yggdrasil*, but the generally accepted modern view of how the Norse may have themselves viewed the interconnection of all the worlds.**

The other realms include: Jotunheim, Alfheim, Svartalfheim, Niflheim, Helheim and Muspell(s)heim. I use all 9 of these realms, but they are not “organized” in the same way as the picture nor do I use them in quite the same way.

A quick aside on a few things Old Norse that should help make the various place names a little clearer:

  • -gard means something along the lines of “protective enclosure or wall”
  • Asa = Aesir
  • -heim = means home / world / realm
  • Mid means middle (e.g., Tolkien’s Middle Earth)
  • Ut-gard means outer-world/-enclosure — that place outside of the region inhabited by the gods and men.
  • And, yes, in the myths, there is a blur between -gard and -heim

What I’ve done is make the naming scheme more consistent, very simply: a “-gard” is bigger than a “-heim.” I figure that’ll make the reader’s job a bit easier.

Below, I’ve included a little of my nearly final worldbuilding***. It details the two regions that are most important in the first books.

  • Asgard: The realm of the Aesir. Asgard is divided into districts, each ruled by a Jarl. Within each district are various cities several cities — Gladsheim, Ifington, Hals.
    • Gladsheim (Bright Home / Joy Home, according to Simek) is the main city; it’s where Odin and Frigg rule from. The city is built on, and around, a hill. At the top of the hill is the “old wall,” the one built before the Vanir War. The New Wall encircles the hill/city and it was built by the Jotunn master builder with the help of his horse Svadilfari. The Plains of Vigrid lie outside Gladsheim’s eastern gates.
    • Ifington is to the northeast of Gladsheim. It is a town built along the mighty Ifing river. Ifington had been built by the Jotunn, but they were driven from it by the Aesir. At the time my story happens, Ifington is a trade hub.
  • Utgard (the outer world): This is the land of the Jotunn who mostly live in a single city called Jotunheim.
    • After the Aesir and Jotunn fled their original home (after Ymir’s murder), both Jotunn and Aesir lived in what came to be called Asgard.
    • Years later, after a war with the Aesir over land/territory, the Jotunn were forced back into what came to be called Utgard — a frozen place full of glaciers, lakes, snow, ice and rock. Over the years, the Jotunn have learned to live in Utgard, both by living a nomadic existence in the steppes, rough forests and along the rivers and lakes, but also by making homes in natural caverns and even cutting their own, with the aid of the Svartalvar (while they were still around).

In my first two books, Midgard is as-yet undiscovered. This may strike folks as strange, but as faithful as my books are to Norse myth, I’ve also put my own spin on ’em — hopefully in a way that readers think is cool. I think it is, at least :).

The other realms mentioned (and pictured) are all included in my books, but not in exactly the same way as the myths suggest. I still need to do a full worldbuilding pass on the first book — something I’ve been delaying b/c when I worldbuild, I’m not writing. Usually. And right now, finishing the current revision (focused mostly on plot/character) is more important.



*Yggdrasil is worthy of at least one blog post.

**The picture is based on references from the Eddas as to where things are; we obviously can’t know what the Norse actually believed. Moreover, where things are changed over time. For example, Asgard was once a set-off place within Midgard. Over time, it came to reside “above” Midgard much like the Christian belief that Heaven is above.

***At some point I’ll probably post on my worldbuilding process — as an example of what not to do.

In the beginning…

…was Audhumbla, the primordial cow, and Ymir, the first Jotunn. Both existed in the Ginnungagap, the void between the fires in the “south” and the cold in the “north.”

Ymir (a male) suckled upon Audhumbla. She licked the first “man” from a block of ice. That man, named Búri, had a son named Burr. Burr married Bestla and they had three children: Odin, Vili and Ve. Ymir (also called Aurgelmir) was the progenitor of all Jotunn. He had three offspring (via autogamy)– two sons and a daughter.

The above is a heavily abridged version of the Norse origin myths pulled from the main sources*. To suit my books, I tweaked the myths — but I stuck as close to ’em as I could**. When I couldn’t figure out the lineages (among other things), I went to secondary sources like Simek, Lindlow, Crossley-Holland, Davidson, etc., to help me figure out what and who should go where and when.

So, with that out of the way, here are my tweaks (some of ’em, at least).

Ymir’s sons are Thruthgelmir and Bolthorn. I haven’t figured out his daughter’s name yet, but it’s going to be XYZ-gelmir. She was Búri’s wife. Bestla is Bolthorn’s daughter.

In a prior post, I mentioned that the distinction between Aesir and Jotunn is somewhat muddy. From the above, you can see why. Odin is himself part Jotunn — descended directly from Ymir through his mother (Bestla).

Since it was clear enough, I made no changes to Odin’s lineage. Thor and Vidar are Odin’s children by two different Jotunn women (Jord and Grid). Yet more mud in the Aesir vs. Jotunn waters.

And so, with all that in mind, here’s the gist of my (global) backstory:

Once, there was a tribe led by Ymir. He caused a massive falling out with some of those in his tribe — Burr and Bestla. Sh!t went down that snowballed into the tribe splitting apart and leaving the land in which they had lived for so long. Some went with Odin and became Aesir; some went with Bergelmir and became/remained Jotunn; some went with Thruthgelmir and became the Sons of Muspell. Because of this initial conflict, the Aesir and Jotunn have been at each other’s throats ever since.

And, yes, I’m leaving a lot out 🙂



*The Norse Myths come to us from two main sources: Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson and the Poetic Edda (also called the Elder Edda).

**Note that my characters are not gods, nor are they super-advanced techno-aliens (Marvel) or little grey aliens (Stargate SG-1).


The English word “evoke” comes from the Latin word “evocare” — to call up memories, call forth/provoke a reaction, to summon the spirits of the dead. Harry Dresden uses “evocation” magic to blow sh!t up.

In (fiction) writing, “evocation” is the idea of drawing something out of the reader, evoking vivid memories and engaging their imagination so that they fill in the gaps of what the writer is merely suggesting. That’s according to Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques by Professor James Hynes.

Here’s a bit more — it’s also mostly paraphrase, but I’ll set it off anyway:

When you show, you make the reader a participant, putting them in the story along with the character. It’s both the writer and reader using their imaginations together — the reader may be doing half the work, but she doesn’t know it.

All writers have heard the cliché advice “show don’t tell” — along with its corollary “except when you need to just tell.” I’ve never really understood the cliché — beyond the obvious (show what characters are doing/thinking/feeling with descriptive language).

A very simple example: Thor clenched his fists and stormed in versus Thor was angry!

And, of course, I’ve been trying to “show” in my writing (hopefully better than the above example).

But, hearing the same thing called “evocation” made a whole lot more sense. Maybe b/c the word is cool (I kid), but maybe more so b/c it emphasizes the calling forth of an emotional response in the reader.

I can “show” a fantastical battle with pretty language, but to go the next step and really involve the reader…get him/her to experience it, to feel it viscerally, that’s something else entirely.

Maybe I’ve just been obtuse in not catching the real meaning of “show don’t tell.” Maybe not. All I can say is that evocation did the trick.


One tiny step closer…

I’ve hired an editor to perform a “manuscript evaluation.” She’ll provide a written report which will critique my manuscript’s plot, character motivation, conflict, etc., narrative techniques (POV, scene structure, characterization, dialogue, etc.), and language (style, mechanics, word choice, etc.).

As a first-time novelist, I felt that this type of critique was crucial to:

  • Figuring out if my book sucks
  • Improving my craft (writing, not witch)

To be clear, I don’t think the book sucks. The beta readers would’ve told me (indirectly). But, I know it can be better. I’m just not sure where. And I don’t want to spin my wheels for a year figuring it out on my own. Hence the evaluation.

On October 31st I deliver my manuscript to my editor. So I’ve a good bit of time for another rewrite with a particular eye on character motivation and characterization/POV. If my handling of the characters suck, then no one will slog past the sample chapters.

She’ll have my manuscript for all of November. I’ll get her report back in early December. If I like what I see in that report (the good, bad and the ugly), then I’ll use her for the line edit. Which I’ll schedule quickly to make sure there’s minimal lag time between me finishing a revision based on the eval & her availability to start that line edit.

Ideally, the line edit will start by March 2017. Figure at least a month for her to finish (April 2017) then another for me to revise (May 2017). With a month’s leeway for the unexpected, I should be able to publish by June 2017.

Should being the operative word.

Of course somewhere in there I also need to: get awesome cover art, ISBNs, a proofreader, write my blurbs, etc., figure out my launch strategy (and tactics), and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. And once all that’s done?

Start back on “Book Two,” which I’ve already decided to break apart into multiple shorter novels (80-90K).

I’m pretty excited.


Why these characters? Part 3

The last couple characters in my books are probably among the least well-known figures in Norse myth.

Let’s start with Hyrrokin. She’s a female Jotunn who rides a wolf that has vipers for reins. In my book she rides a wolf named Viper, because…ow…bitey.

She has two references that I recall. In the first, she shoves Baldr’s boat into the sea setting the rollers aflame and causing the land to rumble and quake. All of which angers Thor. He takes up his hammer (Mjolnir) to smite! her, but is prevented by the other Aesir. The second reference I’m not going to mention. Hyrrokin may also be depicted on this runestone. And yes, I use one “k” in spelling her name.

If I had some elbow room in developing Frigg, Vidar and Hodir, I had a warehouse full of elbows for Hyrrokin (and Vafthrudnir). Which probably puts me on a list somewhere.

For Hyrrokin I had to figure everything out — fun, but tough, especially since the reference above was a weird situation. Why would Odin call for a Jotunn to help float Baldr’s ship? Her death was also problematic because it was just a mention — no circumstances, no sense of time between the Baldr event and her death, etc.

Eventually, I tied Hyrrokin’s backstory directly into the main motivations for the Jotunn themselves. (I use “Jotunn” for singular & plural; not accurate, but simpler.) And I made her a warrior. I know where she’s headed through Book Two, but it still feels a titch flat.

Vafthrudnir (in Old Norse, the accent is always on the first syllable) has his own ballad. It’s cool — a battle of wits between Odin and Vafthrudnir. Think Gollum & Bilbo in The Hobbit and you’re not far off.

Two things (among others) made Vafthrudnir compelling:

  1. Odin pitted his wisdom against the Jotunn’s.
  2. Frigg cautioned Odin, saying that among all the Jotunn* she doesn’t know one mightier.

To me, then, it seemed that Vafthrudnir was at least Odin’s equal — and that’s how I’m writing him. My Vafthrudnir is a shaman, a shapeshifter, older than he appears, and has a really big axe to grind against Aesir skulls.


*In a future post, I’ll go into the differences between Jotunn, Aesir and Vanir.

Why these characters? Part 2

In my personal category of lesser-known Norse deities, I included: Frigg, Hodir and Vidar.

Frigg (sometimes Frigga) and Hodir (sometimes Hodr) are likely better known than Vidar. All three are pretty cool cats. Well, not cats. That’s Freyja. She’s got a cart pulled by ’em. It’s also possible, according to some, that Frigg and Freyja are different aspects of the same deity. But not in my book! (Literally, not figuratively.)


Frigg is a Jotunn who marries Odin, the Alfather. The top dog. Why does she do this? I answer that. Odin ditches her all the time to go a’wandering. What does she do? I answer that. She sees the doom of all men, but never speaks it. How does that work? I answer that.

Hodir is the blind brother of Baldr. Both are the sons of Frigg & Odin. Why is Hodir blind? I answer that. How does he get around? I answer that. What does he do in the story? Same as in the myths. Read ’em if you want spoilers. In my book, hopefully I deliver on it.

Vidar is the son of Odin and Grid, a Jotunn. He’s nearly as strong as Thor, rarely speaks and does…some other stuff. Eventually. 🙂 He’s one of the characters who hooked my imagination and dragged me into writing. Contrary to the myths, he talks quite a bit in my book. “Vidar stared at him” would get a bit boring, after all.

Because less is known about these Aesir, I felt like I had more elbow room in developing them. But, since one of my goals was (and is) to be as true to the myths as possible, I took each mention of these Aesir and extrapolated upon them. 

As an example, developing Frigg meant asking questions (as above) and researching women in Viking/Norse society. Not only did that help me visualize how she dressed — which was practically important for multiple scenes, but gave me an idea of gender roles and how Frigg could break them.

One such historical tidbit on roles helped me resolve a problem in Odin’s plot line (it’s a doozy). Since that happens at the end of Book Two, I had to foreshadow it — which meant writing several new scenes and making multiple references both in Book One & Two. Ideally, all of those look like worldbuilding so that resolution happens in the second book looks “surprising yet inevitable.”


A device…

In one of my early drafts, I made a throwaway reference to a mostly destroyed “device” captured from a Jotunn patrol. Vidar had been given the device and was trying to figure out what it was.

At the time, I had no idea what the device did. But, I needed something to show that Vidar was someone who was curious about things, who wanted to know why the world worked the way it did.

So, I made references — the device, instruments he built, etc. I thought they were just mentions, but they were actually tiny pebbles rolling down the mountain of my subconscious.

On my earliest draft, one of my beta readers mentioned those references. He liked them. Which kicked those pebbles into motion.

Well, shit.

So, I had a choice. Leave ’em as they were or double-down.

I decided to do the latter. With respect to the “device,” I described it as a black stick of ironwood and metal, with silver inside and a shattered gem on one end. It had been broken and scorched in a fire.

On the next draft he mentioned it again, saying something like: It’s a little thing, but it was driving me nuts that you didn’t provide a clear picture of what that device looked like.

Dammit. He called my bluff.

Truth is, I didn’t have a clue as to what it looked like or what it did. To me, it didn’t matter — it was a MacGuffin. A Maltese Falcon that people wanted and would do “stuff” to get.

But it seemed to matter to my reader. It had made an impression. It was interesting.

Again I had the choice: Leave it or double-down.

I thought, why not double-down again, and figure out the answers to these questions:

  • What was the device? What did it do? Check.
  • Why did the Jotunn have it? Check.
  • Why were the Jotunn using it where they were using it? Check.
  • Where else was it used? Check.
  • Why did the Jotunn want it back? Check.
  • Are there more of them? Check.
  • How did the Jotunn get them from the Svartalvar? Mostly check.
  • Are those other devices used now, within the timeline of the current story? Hmmm. Ya know, I am having this big problem with Hyrrokin’s story arc…what if I…yeah, that works. That works well.

In a totally unrelated scene written only Odin knows when, I put an Alvar device into Odin’s hands — a wooden wand that I called a shaper. Again, just a plot device, something to explain how he and Frigg got from point A to point B in a cool way that showed some depth to the world and allowed Odin to do something that he couldn’t do with his own abilities.

Then yesterday morning, I’m hacking away at a friggin awful, problematic scene late in Vidar’s plot line.

As I’m writing I have a revelation, which I express through Vidar’s POV. What if Vidar thinks that the “device” he was trying to figure out, the shaper Odin used, and other things that Vidar encountered are all related? (No, I haven’t mentioned those other things ;))

And since I’d already written several scenes showing the “Vidar device” in action, at this point in the book the reader would already know what the device does. And so the reader knows that Vidar’s conclusion is wrong.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s awesome. It’s also serendipity.

I just hope it works like I think it does. And if it does, I have my beta reader to thank.

Why these characters? Part 1…

I have seven POV characters in my first book. The second book introduces an 8th. What will probably be Book 3, introduces five new POVs — but I haven’t decided which of the original 8 will also have POVs in that future book. A total of 8 is probably all that I can handle, let alone a reader.

So, for Book One…here’s one way to somewhat arbitrarily categorize my POV characters:

  1. Well known (Odin, Loki)
  2. Not well known and/or not much known about them (Frigg, Vidar, Hodir)
  3. Really not well known (Hyrrokin, Vafthrudnir)

Odin and Loki pretty much have to be in the story b/c of the way I’m telling it. It’s tough writing them b/c:

  • They’re so well known in a particular, popular way (Marvel comics & movies, mostly)
  • I want them to be as much like their appearances in the Poetic Edda as possible. I don’t dislike the Prose Edda, but the Poetic is a titch more “original source”…and there are other sources, too.*

In Marvel comics, I got hooked on Odin, Loki, Thor, etc., via Walter Simonson’s Thor. I was reading ’em as they came out (yes, I’m that old) and they were awesome. Loved his art & stories. Then the Marvel Cinematic Universe came around 20+ years later and I was totally baffled, until a friend explained it to me.

Odin in the myths is NOT a kindly Anthony Hopkins stuffed into gold armor. In the myths, Odin is about as terrifying as it gets — and I’m trying hard for my Odin to be like that. Probably the best Odin I’ve read (outside of the Poetic Edda) is Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Wednesday. (Ian McShane is playing Mr. Wednesday in the TV version of American Gods; if you saw Deadwood, McShane played Al Swearengen…and was fan-effing-tastic.)

Loki, according to Rudolf Simek’s dictionary, is NOT the god of fire. Nor is he the adopted son of Odin as depicted in the comics & movies.

However, Loki is a shapeshifting Jotunn who, after becoming Odin’s blood brother, both gets the Aesir into a lot of trouble and then gets them out of it again. Usually. He’s often seen as a trickster figure — cutting off Sif’s hair is one example — but he’s more complex than that.

In my readings of both Eddas, I came to see a Loki who was mischievous in some stories and then flat-out “I’m coming for you” evil in others. Reconciling those two Lokis was tough, but I think I’ve a good handle on it. Reading the books by Crossley-Holland and Lindlow, along with Simek and a ton of other stuff, definitely helped. (In a future post I may detail some of the research I did.)

As with Odin, I’m going for a Loki who’s true to the myths first. Obviously there’s a large dose of my own creative license involved, but I’ve tried to ground my changes in scholarship not some wackadoo impulses. I also know where the shoals are (Marvel’s stuff), so I can steer clear of all that.

In my next posts, I’ll dive into the two other groupings of POV characters.

*A discussion of the source materials is fodder for dozens of blog posts, at the absolute least.

Flesh ’em out…

As I began revising, I realized that several of my POV characters had substantially fewer scenes than others. (POV = point of view)

In Book One, my POV characters are Vidar, Odin, Hodir, Frigg, Loki, Vafthrudnir and Hyrrokin. Up until the rewrite, the book was dominated by Vidar and Odin scenes (and words). They’re what brought me into the world, so I had the best handle on them.

Each of the other characters had anywhere from 3% to maybe 10% of the total scenes in their perspectives. It wasn’t enough. Why bother writing in their POV if the narrative didn’t lend them (roughly) equal weight?

After a long, dispassionate look at those “minor” characters (which included input from beta readers), I decided that, yes, they all brought something unique and cool to the story — i.e., I couldn’t tell the story in the way I wanted without including them.

But, I had to flesh ’em out. The way I did that was to give each “neglected” POV more impactful, meaningful “screen” time. Here’s a really short synopsis of what I changed and why (without spoilers! as River Song would say):

  • Hodir: In the current draft, he does all same stuff, but his motivations & interactions have completely changed — he went from being whiny & weak to having a defined desire. (BTW, “Hodor” and Hodir have nothing in common. Wewt.)
  • Vafthrudnir: Awesome figure in the myths and meant to counter both Odin and Vidar. By giving him more scenes, I’m able to better show the contrasts between Aesir & Jotunn. He went from shadowy figure to a bit more defined, but mostly in ways that show up in Book Two and beyond.
  • Loki: Dang, he’s tough. Such a pivotal figure and, thanks to the cool movies, really well known. Suffice it to say that my Loki is as true to the myths as my feeble talents permit while also making him the hero of his own story.
  • Frigg: She had too few scenes because I was having trouble with her story arc. That’s partly b/c I had cast her in a more passive role. Giving her more scenes meant making her more active — and now that I’ve figured out her arc through Book Two, she’s a blast to write.
  • Hyrrokin: Yes, in the myths her name is spelled with two k’s. Mine has one b/c two k’s looks weird, kk (ken who’s kkoming to kkill me)? Again, I was baffled by her story arc. I had a couple cool scenes, but that was it. After a long while, with my subconscious whirring & clicking, I now know her arc through Book Two, as well.

So, to bring it right round like a record baby, my current draft now has a roughly equal number of scenes across all the POV characters. Not only is the book stronger simply b/c those characters have more depth, but b/c I put time into making their POVs suck less I discovered new plot turns & ideas that also improved the book.

Example: There’s no way Frigg would do this. OK, what would she do? This. But, well, crap. Having her do that changes X number of scenes. *gnashing of teeth* … Oh well.  

Because of this kind of dialog (with myself), I made change after change to all of the above POVS that rippled backward and forward through the entire manuscript —  and into Book Two which may help fix some of the problems in it.