Metaphysics & Matter: Should Elves Have Atoms?

by Austin Conrad

Fantasy’s enduring appeal stems from our imaginative exploration of the impossible. Each branch of speculative fiction asks the question “What if?” in their settings and stories. Many flowers on these branches portray a world which is plausible—outlandish and beautiful, but similar in nature to our own. In contrast, fantasy’s flowers enable us to imagine worlds whose fundamental nature would never have been possible within the rules of our own. We humans are built from atoms—but what about elves?

In philosophy, the “fundamental nature” of the world is called metaphysics. Coined in antiquity from the Greek phrase ta meta ta phusika, the term translates roughly to “after or beyond nature.” Empirical sciences describe a world, and metaphysics describes why the world happens to be that way. Biology defines my cat’s muscles and bones, physics quantifies the force with which his claws dig into my shirt, and chemistry explains how his belly transforms dead mice into energy with which to climb onto my shoulder. Metaphysics seeks to understand why he’s made of atoms and why natural processes shaped him to be so fluffy. Put another way, science tells us that the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second, while metaphysics asks why it happens to be that number.

In the Beginning

Every fantasy writer should consider their setting’s metaphysics because doing so strengthens your worldbuilding. Metaphysics is unavoidable, so it’s better to intentionally define the setting than to reflexively assume it’s similar to our own. Any part of the creative act defines that world’s fundamental nature (even if it just says “this world’s basically like our own”). More importantly, though, the world’s metaphysics encourages the author’s creativity to bloom.

Start with asking yourself about the basic nature of your world. Some useful questions are:

  •     How should it be? Is existence fundamentally beautiful or repugnant? Neither? Both?
  •     Is the universe made of physical elements? Why or why not?
  •     How did the world come to be? Will it eventually pass away?
  •     Is good real? Is evil? What does it mean, to you, to say that good or evil is real?
  •     What is the nature of time? How does it relate to space?

These types of questions help generate and support other aspects of fantasy worldbuilding. For example, if good is real but evil isn’t, what’s the cause of suffering and conflict? One answer might be that the world was created by a flawed deity, unable to reproduce its goodness within its creation. This then provides interesting lines along which to explore what the story’s characters believe. Do humans erroneously believe this flawed creator is evil because of suffering? Do metaphysical beliefs define and divide cultures, religions, and politics? After all, while the writer may well know the setting’s truth, that doesn’t mean the characters should!

Speculative metaphysics enriches worldbuilding beyond its consequences on the fantasy’s cultures and their beliefs. These sorts of questions help the fantasist develop the most distinctive aspect of a fantasy story: magic.

Creating Magic

A setting’s fundamental substance (or substances) impacts its magic and cosmology. Modern science describes our world as built from atomic and subatomic particles which constitute matter. This is basically a materialist position.

Most fantasies take place in a setting where there are worlds or substances apart from the mundane (such as a Fae world of elves, or an eldritch unknown beyond the stars). At its core, magic is the interaction between the seen and the unseen. This dualist or pluralist perspective is typically fundamental to fantasy because this interaction takes place between multiple types of substance (like atoms and souls), worlds (like Earth and Fae), or a combination of substantial and cosmological principles. Contemplating the nature of the constituent stuff from which your setting has been shaped enriches a story’s description of how magic works. This can provide explanatory power to the characters’ use of magic during the story, and can deepen the impact of reveals and plot twists by grounding them within the setting. In a sense, this worldbuilding acts as a very discreet method of foreshadowing.

It is important, however, to note that devising metaphysical principles for your world does not require your fantasy to define an explicit system of magic. Defining your metaphysics is useful for worlds with either “soft magic” or “hard magic.” Metaphysics is about more than just the structure of magic. For example, The Lord of the Rings is built upon a simple, yet profound, premise. There exists both Good and Evil, they are real forces which act within the world, and we can choose to act with or against them. The reality of Good and Evil in The Lord of the Rings is why, in my opinion, the story has endured for generations despite its apparent simplicity. Tolkien’s beliefs are rooted so deeply below Middle-earth that they invigorate the whole work. This provides meaning and purpose to the created world, but does not impede the “soft magic” approach generally found in Tolkien’s stories.

Make Your World Strange!

The power of metaphysics in worldbuilding is greatest when we deviate from the world in which we live. Conceptually, it is plausible to imagine a world which is similar to ours in the day-to-day, but which has a fundamentally different nature. Familiarity on a basic level eases the reader into the story. This allows strangeness to fully unfold through the characters’ experiences. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is distinctive because a familiar medieval fantasy is supported by a flexible and intriguing perspective on fate—each person’s life is a thread from which the Wheel weaves the universe.

If elves don’t have atoms, what are they made from? Your answer shapes and empowers your settings, stories, and characters.

Austin ConradAustin Conrad is a full-time writer and game designer. He is best known for his indie publications for RuneQuest. His work for other systems has been published by EN Publishing and Menagerie Press. Austin’s most recent release is “Treasures of Glorantha 2,” the essential RuneQuest guide to magic items from the Imperial Age of Glorantha. You can learn more about Austin’s work on his website,