Magical Location Design: Establishing a Mood

I talked yesterday about designing a magical location around the effect it was supposed to have on the audience. But it’s one thing to say “I want this effect”, and another thing entirely to get the effect in question. How do you go about it?

First, of course, is actually choosing the effect. It goes without saying that this is usually the easiest part of the operation.

Now that you’ve gotten the effect chosen, start thinking about the sorts of things you associate with it. You might need a sheet of paper or a blank word processor document for this. Just start sitting down and listing out concepts. Once you’ve got a decent set, start winnowing them back down, figuring out which ones are worth using here and which are not. Don’t forget to consider what other people might react to as well; I’ve found that my perceptions and associations, at least, are often somewhat different from those of the people I create for.

Once you’ve got these associations, look for things that can evoke them. Sometimes, the association on its own is enough to do it; for instance, something like an air of silence or a particular loudness to the characters’ footsteps can carry itself on its own, without needing to come from something else. Other times, though, you have to come up with something to serve as a way of getting across the concept in question; if you’re looking for fear, for instance, and one of the concepts you’ve chosen is death, you might use the scent of rotting corpses, or liberal amounts of dried blood, or bone-based decorations.

One thing to take advantage of is that magical locations such as these are, well, magical; you can use elements that just wouldn’t exist in a normal sort of building. It might simply be fantastical elements, like light from things that shouldn’t give off light (if it has a source at all), walking dead things, fire with a life of its own. Sometimes, it’s a magical effect that actively enforces the mood—for instance an area that’s dark not just because of absence of light, but because it absorbs or quenches any light that someone tries to bring in. And sometimes, the magic is inherent to the place itself, and you get walls made of moonlight, buildings that float, places that rearrange themselves…. you get the idea. All of which can, in turn, further feed into the desired impact.

Even if you don’t begin with mood, you can still use it to further embellish an image based on a different seed. Perhaps it allows you to distinguish trappings of one library from another. Or maybe it gives a certain edge to that pool in the center of the hidden glade where the only thing to be done is to cross the stepping stones—which themselves might sing, or scream, or just make for very difficult footing.

In all cases with mood, the important thing is to know how to evoke it, and to try to not let your elements work at cross-purposes to each other.

1 comment

  1. satyre says:

    One trick I’ve used is to check the intended mood’s word against a thesaurus or reference of synonyms. This has spun off some interesting associations and can suggest supporting characters and fixtures.

    Cool article, good advice. Thanks!

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