Six impossible things

Designing magic, part 1

A couple of years back, I was on a panel about magic systems and how one handles magic in fiction. Near the end of the session, someone asked a question about “magical maturity” stories – the sort where children go through a sort of magical puberty during which they develop greater magical power or control or specific magical gifts. The discussion turned to exactly when such a magical puberty ought to occur: at some arbitrary age, like 16 or eighteen; in conjunction with some outside phenomenon, like whenever the planet of one’s birth returned to a particular part of the sky; etc.

One gentleman opined that any magical maturity ought to occur at the same time as physical puberty, “because it just makes sense, you know?” The discussion began to get heated, and finally I looked at him and said, “You do realize that we are all just making this stuff up, don’t you?”

What this particular person appeared to want was a set of rules that he could apply, in order to determine whether a particular author had or hadn’t “done the magic right” in a particular story. The trouble is, it doesn’t work that way. Mr. X was and is perfectly capable of deciding that he doesn’t like stories that have a magical maturity which occurs at an arbitrary age, and he is certainly within his rights to avoid them and even complain about there being too many of this thing he doesn’t like. But he doesn’t get to impose his views on anyone else, and particularly not on writers.

Because when it comes to writing about magic, the writer is really, really making it up, to a far greater degree than they are with any other aspect of story. Characters, plot, setting, dialog, action, etc. all start with some kind of relationship to real people and the real world. They can be realistic or cartoonish, but they’re all recognizable to some extent, even when they are deliberate caricatures. Magic is far more flexible, because it doesn’t have one obvious real-life analog.

One can, of course, opt for one of the systems of magic that human beings have believed in at one time or another in the past or present. However, magic isn’t like physics or chemistry – there aren’t things that everyone in real life agrees work, or reasons why everyone agrees they work. There are four or five or seven elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water seem to be agreed on by many of the magical systems that go this route, but some substitute Wood or Stone or Metal for one or another, or add them and/or Spirit or Ether or Blood…). There are spirits or demons or elves to bribe or force to perform tasks. There are elaborate ritual systems, some of which require rare ingredients (dragon bones, unicorn horn) or tools and careful drawing of diagrams, others of which require nothing more than extremely specific preparations by the magician himself (e.g., fasting, sex, knowledge of certain languages). There are systems that require animal familiars (cats, ravens) and systems where some, most, or all magic is a specific gift that you are born with (the Sight).

Consequently, there isn’t a right way to portray magic. It isn’t like orbital mechanics, where there are actual calculations involved that have a right answer and a wrong one (and you will get cranky letters from fans if you put the wrong one in your novel). When you are writing a fantasy, you have a plethora of possible sources, many of them mutually incompatible and/or contradictory. There is no “right answer.”

Most of the time, this means the writer comes back to the story. What kind of magic does this particular story need in order to work the way the writer wants it to? If I want to write a story about a thirty-something-year-old-woman coming into her magic for the first time, I’m highly unlikely to look at a magic system in which there’s a magical maturity that’s tied directly to physical puberty. The point of my story wouldn’t be the same if I had to make the main character twelve or fourteen in order to accommodate the “rules” of a magic system that I am making up just as much as I’m making up the rest of the story. Mary Francis Zambino’s A Plague of Sorcerers wouldn’t have been the same without Jermyn’s odd familiar. The Lord of the Rings would be a totally different story if the magic system had been one in which everyone, Hobbit, Human, Elf, Orc, or Dwarf, was born with a specific magical gift or talent.

As always, how different writers work with magic in their fiction varies along a continuum, from the highly intuitive writers to the highly rule-bound ones. The difference from other aspects of writing is, I think, that when you’re writing about magic, even the most intuitive it-just-feels-right writers need a bit of attention to rules, and even the most methodical follow-the-rules writers need a bit of feel for what makes their magic magical. Because the other main way to come up with an interesting and effective magic system is to look outside the story, at the things in the real world that the particular writer finds magical. J.R.R. Tolkien started with languages; C.S. Lewis with “Northernness.” Other writers have based magic on everything from poetry to cooking or gardening – whatever gives them that little thrill down the spine, whether it’s watching the space shuttle launch or standing on the edge of a remote cliff overlooking the ocean.

In any case, one of the most important tools a writer has for getting the readers to believe in the magic in the story (at least while they’re reading it) is consistency. If the writer decides that fire-starting magic only works on Wednesdays, he/she can’t suddenly have the hero using fire-starting magic on Saturday – not without a really good explanation, anyway. It is perfectly possible for the explanation to be “Well, that’s how they thought it worked, but they were wrong,” but in that case, one has to at least think about how likely it is that every magician in this world, for however-many years magic has been working, has believed that they can only start fires on Wednesdays…and why nobody, not even some ignorant kid who doesn’t know any better, has never, ever tried to use fire-starting magic on any other day of the week.

Consistency can be achieved in several ways: by working out the rules for magic in advance and then following them; by writing the story and then examining every scene where magic is done or talked about, deducing the rules, and then making sure all those scenes work the way they’re supposed to; or by having a really, really good feel for what works or doesn’t work in this particular story. I doubt that the author of Like Water for Chocolate had an elaborately worked out set of rules for how magic worked in that story, but the scenes work…in part, I think, because the author makes no effort whatsoever to explain them. They feel right, so they are.

Intuitive and magical-realism writers do have to be a bit careful that they aren’t mistaking “What a super-cool idea; I must write this no matter what, and to heck with the rest of the story” for “This odd little scene just feels right for this story.” I’ve seen several stories that were, for my tastes, ruined because the author simply couldn’t resist writing a cool scene that was incompatible with whatever they’d said or implied about how magic worked. I find that even more unsatisfying than a deus ex machina, because one assumes that a god would have the power and ability to interfere if they wanted, it’s just that they generally don’t bother. If you absolutely love Fourth of July fireworks and want to write a magic scene involving them, find a story where that scene will fit; don’t stick it in the middle of your semi-historical tale about the building of the Pyramids (or at the very least, don’t call them Fourth of July fireworks, and give me some explanation as to how and when gunpowder got invented early in Egypt and what effect it’s had on your less-and-less-historical society).

Rules-based writers, on the other hand, run the risk of making magic look, sound, and feel exactly like science and technology. I’ve also seen stories in which the plot seemed to revolve around gaming whatever arbitrary magic system the author had invented – “These are the rules, and look how clever my hero is being at using them in unexpected ways!” They always give me the feeling that the writer deliberately designed the magic system with a bunch of loopholes just so their hero could exploit them, rather than that the hero was terribly clever and inventive.

Next time, I’m going to talk more specifically about what I have and haven’t done in making up the magic systems in my books, and then if there’s interest in some of the specifics of doing the actual writing itself.

14 Comments
  1. This is timely, as I’ve realised I need a more-intriguing magic system for one of my stories. I have interconnected worlds with some magic being similar across them all — for some people — but for the most part each world has its own broad type, and then different cultures have evolved different systems from those ‘givens’. So far, so good … except that I’ve been a bit lazy in what those big-picture differences are. My first story had as a main character a mage who’s one of the same-across-all-types sorts, so I could get away with it, but that’s not the case for the current one. I’ll look forward to your further discussions of the topic.

  2. This is a great break down – if only more writers would think about it 🙂 Right now I haven’t gone into why my magic works – it just is. But I need to get it all figured out soon!

  3. Fascinating! I can’t wait for the other posts on this topic.

    In my WIP, magic is worked by means of currents of power that flow through the air everywhere, which only certain people have the ability to sense or use. (I’m not sure of the precise details of how one uses them, but I’ll need to get it worked out for the sequel, since one of the viewpoint characters for that is a mage.) The two cultures featured in the story both use the currents for magic, but their magic-workers are quite different otherwise – in one culture they live communally in houses with ranks and a head mage, and in the other they’re solitary wanderers.

  4. Aside from the need for magic to be internally consistent, it has to fit the nature and mood of the setting and period in which the story is set.

    I recall a story where the protagonist in Yet Another Pseudo-medieval Society had the ability to teleport. This character spent much of the story arguing with everyone he met that what he did wasn’t magic; it was just this ability his family had. This ruined it for me, because how could anybody in that culture *not* believe it was magic? (He never explained what it was, just that it wasn’t magic.)

    And as much as people loved McCaffrey’s Pern series, it always bothered me that she spent a great deal of time explaining and scientifically justifying the Thread and Dragons and everything else in her technologically regressed world, and then she willy-nilly throws in telepathy and time travel. They simply did not fit with the empirical tone she worked so hard to establish.

  5. It has to make sense, though. At least, the writer has to convince the reader that it makes sense. If you take advantage of puberty to throw in another change, it would ride on the coattails of the change.

    • Yes, that’s my thought as well. If the magic comes from something physical, then a time of physical change makes sense. If it comes from the stars, then the stars aligning makes sense. In the Highlander universe “maturity” was caused by death, after which you would neither age nor die of normal things.

  6. Actually, my first thought for a story about thirty-something-year-old-woman coming into her magic for the first time would be to have “magic at physical puberty” and then have the story be about why this particular woman was different. But stepping back, one question that needs to be asked is “at what ages do people usually come into magic, in this setting?” Maybe women normally gain magic at menopause, and this is just occuring unusually early for this woman. Or maybe people’s magic becomes “activated” when they learn to read, so learning to read and gaining magic at 35 is not really noteworthy at all.

    To keep rule-based magic from looking too much like science & technology, one thing I try to do is make it alien, so that at worst it looks like a weird sort of science or technology. Something that “solves mundane problems as well as real-world science & technology, but not like real-world tech would.” Also, “what things are easy for modern technology to do, but hard for magic, and vice versa?” One thing I wanted to do in one of my settings is make sword-duels into a common occurance, so one of the things I did with the setting’s magic was to make healing magic really, trivially, easy.

  7. So, one day I was sitting in a grad level syntax class, which I was taking for the cheap health insurance, and it was near the end of the class. So we’d learned how to do the strange tree diagrams, with the movements, the matching features, the definitions for understanding the relationships between the elements, the strange symbols and odd words. And then we were introduced to a new diagram, a deep linking between sound and structure and meaning, and I looked at it, and I realized that this was magic.
    Ever since, I’ve wanted to write a story where magic is a natural phenomenon, and there are hundreds of universities with scrapping old dried-up professors who are coming up with more and more baroque ways of explaining it. And teaching magic involves hugely complex diagrams and ingredients and rituals to do something a simple as light a candle.
    Perhaps the normal people can light candles with a single thought, but the wizard-scholars find the fact that it just works to be the most frustrating thing about it, and they spend centuries trying to deconstruct it, and make it more and more comprehensible – derivable from natural principles – but they’ve never actually managed to eradicate the simple, easy magic impulse that they have inherently, so none of their theories actually work.
    But perhaps it would end up being slightly bitter satire.

  8. I was plot-noodling with some friends recently, trying to come up with a cool new spell for a story. One friend was asking about the magic system, and my reply was basically, “Whatever this spell establishes it to be.” Yeah, not a rules-based writer, me. 😉 Granted it’s a short story, not a novel that I’ll have to stay consistent with across several hundred pages, but it’s also a story about this spell and how to make it work. (Actually, no, it’s about what’s going on between the characters while they’re solving that problem. But shhh, don’t tell anybody.)

    and then if there’s interest in some of the specifics of doing the actual writing itself.

    Yes, please.

  9. A second “yes” for specifics of writing. I hate working out magic systems, because I’m a detail-obsessed perfectionist. I have a lot of trouble knowing where to stop. This post made me realize there are already a few places where I’ve slid too far towards making the magic sound scientific. Plus, I’m constantly running up against the idea that my characters aren’t going to think in the same way that I do, entrenched as I am in a science-focused and industrialized world. It isn’t natural for them to approach their magic the same way I’m approaching it.

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