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Fantastical Biology – Part Seven: Fantasy Biologists

Xenobiologist by EccentricTeatimeSo far this series has focused on animals and habitats, exploring anything from the relationships between predators and prey to the deepest parts of the ocean. But what is fantastical biology, without a fantastical biologist? This article takes a look at the people who study science in our world, and how the real world study of science is applied to fantasy settings.

It may seem strange to talk about science and fantasy, but there are types of fantasy which incorporate elements of science, such as steampunk, gaslamp, and urban fantasy. The combination of science and fantasy can be found in the A Natural History of Dragons, His Dark Materials, and The Dark Tower series, as well as many others. What might be more familiar to most fantasy readers is the idea of the wizard as the fantastical equivalent of the scientist: an educated researcher of the unknown.

Back to School

The alchemist by ChrisRaThere’s a reason some of the most popular fantasy books right now cover the wizard’s training, from Harry Potter to The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Showing the reader the work the main character goes through to learn their magic makes their use of it more believable.

A character’s education is always good background knowledge for the writer to have, but it’s especially true for the fantastical scientist. Did they go to a prestigious university or are they self-taught? Each path can be used to show the character’s personality or woven into the plot. If they’re self-taught, perhaps no one takes their theories about mythological beasts or magic seriously.

Finding a Money Tree

bank by HamsterflyA shining, silvery metal boils in the alchemist’s alembic; books float back to their place on the shelf in the wizard’s study; a baby hydra hisses at the naturalist who caught it. But who paid for the instruments, books, and expedition? Unless your fantastical scientist is wealthy, the money had to come from somewhere. This is something a lot of people don’t think about when it comes to either science or magic in fantasy novels. Exceptions are there, though, and the detail adds depth to the story world. When Harry visits his parent’s vault to get money for his school supplies, it’s a powerful moment. Harry wants to go to Hogwarts so much, and needs the school supplies to do so, but fears he can’t afford them.

Scientist by Florian StitzIn today’s laboratories, the money comes from a lot of places: universities, grants from public and private institutions, and the government. Where would funding come from in a fantasy setting? There is a long history of patronage from nobles for the arts and sciences; perhaps a local lord funds your character’s work. Or maybe a guild, hoping that the researcher produces some sort of magic or invention that the guild can profit from. This is a good area to weave conflict and tension into the story, money is always good for that.

Of course there were self-funded researchers, usually referred to as gentleman scientists, who could pay for their own research. A scientist who invents things that they can sell may be able to fund their own laboratory. Or perhaps they acquire their funds and materials in less…legal ways? It wouldn’t be the first time someone robbed a grave for science.

The Dark Side

Mad Scientist by thegryphToday there are lots of regulations governing what sort of experiments can and can’t be done. But it wasn’t always that way, and much of the knowledge that builds the basics of science was acquired in experiments that are illegal today. It’s not a topic I would recommend googling if you don’t have a strong stomach. In Harry Potter, there are three forbidden curses. It stands to reason someone had to invent those curses, create them, and then test them to see if they worked. We probably don’t want to know how many people suffered before the creator got them just right. Does your main character know where the magic or knowledge he uses comes from? If they’re pushing the limits in the pursuit of knowledge or power, just how far are they willing to go? And does anyone think the ends justify the means?

The only thing that all scientists (and wizards) have in common is an unrelenting passion for what they study. Thinking about how the researchers of a fantasy world would go about their work can be used to drive the plot forward, add depth to a character, and enhance the setting. Also, most steampunk is inspired by European science, but Asia and the Middle East were making scientific breakthroughs as well, often well ahead of Europe during the medieval and renaissance periods. These places had different scientific philosophies and practices than the Greco-Roman inspired science-magic that most fantasy uses now, and could provide lots of inspiration for crafting a unique fantastical researcher.

Title image by EccentricTeatime.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Larael says:

    An amazing article. Scientists are definitely something I’d like to see more about in fantasy.

  2. Good article. I’m writing a science-fantasy series at the moment, so I’ll definitely take this into account as I write it and develop the series.

  3. […] article on Fantasy Faction is up, discussing scientists/researchers in fantasy. You can find it here. As I mentioned in the article, the wizard is often the fantasy equivalent to the scientist in […]

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