Genre Talk

The Chemistry of Paranormal World-building

When I was in college, organic chemistry was the hardest class I had to take. It’s infamous for causing biochem majors to jump ship, and for the first half of the semester, I wasn’t sure I would survive it, either.


I have no idea what this reaction is called anymore.

The number of reactions you have to learn to make it through O-chem is astronomical. Every mixture of chemical compounds is a puzzle, and you can’t figure out what the products will be unless you know how each reaction step fits into the next. Trying to cram every chemical possibility into your head, well…it’s no wonder I didn’t exactly ace that first test. Then I learned the secret.

Chemistry isn’t about memorizing every possible reaction, not any more than learning language is about memorizing every possible combination of words that can make a sentence. The players might be almost infinite, but the rules that govern them are not. Learn the rules, and the whole game is yours.


Rowland’s demons obey rules I can remember.

I don’t remember much about organic chemistry anymore, but I think the same principle of rules holds true when it comes to fictional world-building. Some of my favorite paranormal worlds are the ones with consistent internal laws. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, Diana Rowland’s Kara Gillian Demon Summoner series, Ilona Andrews’ Edge series: The rules that govern their universes might be subtle and complex, but they’re there, and the authors never break them. Part of the joy of sinking into these books is discovering the rules, and then using that knowledge to try and figure out what’s going to happen next. When I’m in the hands of an author I trust, I can indulge in all the joys of speculation without fearing they’ll pull a plot bunny out of a hat in the final moment.

I try to take this to heart when I’m writing my own stories. Whatever rules I create for my fictional universe, they have to hold true throughout the book—and the series. It can be a challenge when the plot wants to go one way and the rules won’t allow it, but if it were easy, I guess I wouldn’t need all of this coffee and chocolate to do it.

What are some of your favorite fictional paranormal worlds?

13 thoughts on “The Chemistry of Paranormal World-building

  1. EGADS !!! Have I gone into shock. The last time I took Chemistry was in high school [1966-1969] in the 11th Grade which means about 45 years ago. I still can remember H2SO4 being Sulfuric Acid. The triangle under the line indicates heat being applied leaving you with one else molecule of [H]ydrogen and one else molecule of [O]xygen.
    OH = Hyrdoxide, or [O]xygen and [H]ydrogen turning into a gas. It could a bit, and a double check on Google to verify SO3H as being another acid, Sulfonic Acid.

    Not bad for a B- student, my best high school subject was History, my worst was French.

    As for my paranormal worlds: In my first YA Paranormal/Time Travel/First Kiss romance novel entitled “I Kissed a Ghost.” Mary has to move away from all of live-long friends at the end of the school year because her father had gotten a promotion on his job. In her new home, Victorian Style home, she discovers has a ghost living there by the name of George. George takes her on several trips into the past of a hundred years ago where he turns into a real boy about her age, and she experiences what life had been like for children of her age. [Don’t want to give away too much of the storyline]

    • Wow–great job on the chemistry, Robin! (I guess I should’ve put a hydroxide in the products…lol) Your YA paranormal time travel sounds very cute! I think old Victorian houses have so much dramatic possibility. They’re so intricate and unique… they crave stories. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

      • You’re quite welcomed. !!! 🙂 🙂 🙂
        THANKS for the compliment and the trip down memory lane. 😀 😀 😀
        If you get the chance I hope you’ll check out my book on Amazon.

    • Thanks, Elisabeth! I’m glad I don’t need to use organic chem in my daily life anymore! It was interesting while it lasted, but…yeah. (I probably wouldn’t last a day at Hogwarts, but I’d love to try…)

  2. Harry Potter’s magic was so irritating. The series started out as cute-for-children with spells based on wands and witty word-play by the author, and tried to develop into something serious. When, at long last, we got to see Dumbledore talking about the nature of magic, he was killed off before we could learn anything interesting.

    Master of the Five Magics (and its two sequels) by Lyndon Hardy is wonderful for its careful construction of laws of magic. Lord of the Rings I love for its world of magic with its extremes of beauty and dark terror.

    • You may be right that there was no theoretical bedrock under the spells in Harry Potter. We got some sense of the rules and the fact that people develop new spells later in the series, but I never felt I knew how that worked at a detailed level. At a broader level, though, the notion of the power of sacrifice was consistent throughout, and that’s what I found so compelling about the magic in the series.

      Lord of the Rings is amazing, of course! I should’ve mentioned it. Another consistent and intricate world. I’ve never read the Master of Five Magics, though. Thanks for the rec!

  3. There are so many paranormal worlds I love, and you are completely right about plot bunnies. As a reader, I hate them. If an author is stuck in a corner, she/he should rewrite something and not devise a cheap solution that does not really make sense. O, is this a problem? Then the vampire can have this other surprising and o so convenient gift/power as well to solve it!

    • Ha! Exactly. This bugs me to no end, and not just in paranormals. I’ve seen it in all kinds of fiction. Though I guess with a paranormal, the temptation to just invent a magic power and be done with it is much stronger. 🙂

  4. AJ–thanks for this great post. It’s timely for me, since you helped me work out that organic chemistry scene in my soon-to-be released Blood Reunited. Yay vampire biologists!

    I had some pretty far out there world building in the series, related to blood bonds and vampires being tied to their native soil, and sometimes I would try to talk a plot point out with my husband, and he would warn me about the danger of over-explaining, using an example from Star Wars, and how the Force got reduced to something about mitochondria and lost all its mystique. I think consistent, but not precise, or explicit, or reductionist, is the trick, maybe? In the end, the third book is at least in part about this desire to understand scientifically, versus accepting somethings ought to remain mysteries.

    I like the fantasy book The Name of the Wind for its magical world building (though the plot moved WAY too slow for me to read the sequel.)

    • So true. I have to remind myself sometimes that not *everything* needs to be explained in detail–it just has to feel “explainable.” I have to be able to follow the rules, even if I don’t know what they truly are. As a scientist, I’m faced with this often. For example, we knew the “rules” of gravity for a long time before we had any physical explanation for it.

      Hooray vampire biologists! I had so much fun brainstorming that stuff with you. I can’t wait to read the finished product! 🙂

  5. Agree that cool magic can lose its mystique when too much explanation is attempted. Like Amber said: did anyone actually give a shit how the Force worked? No. We didn’t. We’d rather our Jedi be all force-choke, light-saber, Zen-and-the-art-of-study-hard-to-kick-your-ass than have it reduced to some genetic accident, or whatever that crap was in Phantom Menace.

    But also agree that the basic do’s and dont’s have to be consistent within the magical world. You can’t change the rules halfway through… although, it always makes an interesting story when people *think* the rules are one thing, and they turn out to be quite another…

  6. Pingback: Genre Talk: Is Dopamine Behind Our Obsessions? | Paranormal Unbound

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