Six impossible things

Designing Magic, Part 3 – Writing it

Once you have a magic system, whether it’s something that you just know feels right in the story or whether it’s something for which you have painstakingly laid out rules and structure, it’s time to actually write about it.

There are three considerations that fall under “writing about magic” – let’s call them Theory, Method, and Effects.

Theory is what you might call the physics behind the magic: how and why it works, what can and can’t be done, who can do it, where the energy for spells comes from, where the extra mass comes from/goes to when something large gets changed into something small or vice versa, and so on. Most of it is part of the original design of the magic system, the prewriting “rules of magic” that the author thought up beforehand (if the author is that kind of author), and it can be an extremely useful tool for writers trying to keep their Method and Effects consistent over the course of a long story.

However, there are very few stories in which the theory behind the magic really needs to be explained in detail in the story itself. If your magicians have to understand the theory in order to work magic and your main magician character is in the process of learning to do magic (as an apprentice, a student in school, or someone yanked from a non-magical world like ours into a magical one), then you may have to work in some explanations and rules, but even then you can avoid a lot of it if you like – witness the Harry Potter series, in which six out of seven books involve the main characters being at school to learn magic…and the rules for magic and magic system are never really laid out in any detail.

The Harry Potter books actually do provide a reasonably good example for how most fantasy can handle the theory part: by implication and dropping a few details here and there. We never get a blow-by-blow set of rules for magic in the Wizarding World, but from what is said and what happens, we can deduce a few things; for example, that most spells need both a wand and an incantation to cast, but advanced magicians can do without either. And the stories don’t need much more than that to work – in fact, a bit less might have been a good idea, since the “magic system” in the Potter books seems a bit haphazard and the dicey bits would have been less obvious if there’d been even less theory for readers to point at and complain “This bit doesn’t make sense with that bit.”

The fact that one doesn’t often require a lot of theory (or any) to make most stories work is extremely frustrating to some authors, who really want to display the cleverness of their magic system. It is, however, perfectly OK to put some of that theory in, as long as the author recognizes that after a certain point, it becomes like all the stuff about whales in Moby Dick – something that will put off a bunch of readers and cause many others to skim those sections, leaving only a handful of folks who are just as fascinated by the details as the author.

Method is just what it sounds like: the exact physical things your character(s) have to do to cast a spell, whether that’s wave a wand and shout a word, or spend hours drawing diagrams with goat’s blood and positioning red candles at particular points while chanting in Ancient Greek. It’s the mechanics of spellcasting, the tools and what your characters do with them. Pretty much any story that involves deliberate spellcasting has some method of doing the casting that can and should be described. Fortunately, this is generally the same as describing any other action; the only real difference is that the writer is making up the movements/actions/words to fit whatever Theory is behind the way magic works in the story.

The tricky bit with method has to do with viewpoint. If your viewpoint character is someone who is unfamiliar with spellcasting – either a new magician or a non-magician who hasn’t seen much spellcasting – then he/she will presumably be interested enough in what spells entail to notice and describe it in sufficient detail for your equally unfamiliar-with-magic reader. If, however, your viewpoint character is native to a world where magic is commonplace, then there may well be a lot of spells and magical effects that, to him/her, are as commonplace and not-worthy-of-notice as driving a car or flipping a light switch would be for us. In that case, it is often helpful to have someone bungle a spellcasting early on, which allows the viewpoint character to see or comment on the difference between the mistakes the klutzy magician made and what a “real” spell would look like. Another possibility is to have the viewpoint character admire some advanced tools or techniques (or complain about some sub-standard ones), or realize that someone is using a new technique they want to acquire and have to observe closely. What you’re looking for in these cases is reasons why your POV would notice the particular aspect of some commonplace (to him) spell that you want to get across to the reader.

Effects are all the various results of magic, from the obvious and intended effect of a particular spell (the boulder exploded), to unintended side effects (his hair stands on end and he looks like a dandelion puff every time he casts a spell, or there’s a pulse of colored light from her wand/finger), to the internal or emotional sensations that magic generates in the viewpoint character (the smell of ozone that lets them know they’re in a highly magical area, the tingle when they touch a magic object, the rising anger that powers a spell). Like the method of casting a spell, these generally need to be consistent with whatever Theory the writer has come up with, most especially whatever Theory the writer has actually put down on paper within the story itself.

The way the writer describes the effects of (and to some extend, the methods used to create) spells and magic determines to a large extent whether readers will find the magic convincing and believable. It therefore behooves the writer to put some thought into the physical, mental, intellectual, and emotional impact magic has – how a spell looks to a mage (and whether it looks different to a non-mage), whether spells have different sounds or smells, what sensations magic in general causes. The clearer and more vivid the writer can make all this (not just what the spell looks like, or the picture of what it does, but the sound and smell and sensations and feelings that are associated with working magic), the easier time most readers will have visualizing it.

The other powerful tool fantasy writers have is consistency, though not necessarily the kind of consistency that means everything is predictable and repeatable the way an experiment is. There have been books written where the way magic worked was by a consistent inconsistency (for instance, one where magicians got to use a particular wording for a particular spell one time; if they wanted to cast it again, they had to make up a new incantation, and the greater the difference from all the others ever used, the better. People did not tend to use this kind of magic to light a campfire every evening…). The important thing is that there is a pattern to magic, spells, and spellcasting…or at least, that the reader is pretty sure that there would be a clear and obvious pattern if only they knew a bit more of the Theory. Magic that operates according to a consistent pattern, especially a pattern that is obviously and clearly different from the patterns of science and technology, tends to be more convincing and believable for many readers.

Keeping the methods for spellcasting and effects of magic consistent can be harder than it sounds. I know rather a lot of writers who have gotten through two-thirds of a story, or several books into a multi-volume series, and suddenly had an idea for a scene or story that is just perfect…except that it doesn’t quite fit the “rules of magic” as they have been described in the material thus far. A great many of them have gone ahead and written the scene/story anyway. Usually, I personally find this a serious flaw, though sometimes a story has enough other virtues that I grit my teeth and keep reading. Not everyone has this reaction, however. Also, it is sometimes possible to get away with this kind of rules-changing either by revamping or inventing new rules (i.e., changing or adding to the Theory until the Cool New Idea actually does fit in), or by presenting convincing evidence that the Theory everyone in the story has believed thus far is as wrong as the pre-Copernican model of the solar system.

Alternatively, and provided the work in question hasn’t yet been published, one can rewrite the first two-thirds so that the magic is consistent with the Cool New Idea. When one is talking about a multi-volume series, however, this is frequently an unworkable solution, and the author may be better off saving the Cool New Idea for a completely different standalone book, rather than trying to shoehorn it into the existing work.

  1. I’ve never considered the whole “bungling a spell” thing before to make the magic known to the reader. That’s a brilliant idea! And I agree with how sometimes less is more – As much as I love it, Harry Potter does have a few inconsistencies in that regard…

  2. Coincidentally, I just finished re-reading the Mairelon books — I can see a lot of these techniques being put to work in there! Very cool.

  3. “Magic that operates according to a consistent pattern, especially a pattern that is obviously and clearly different from the patterns of science and technology, tends to be more convincing and believable for many readers.”

    Because of the consistent pattern, it is a technology: a technology of magic. Scientific method and all that.

    • Gene

      What about, for example, the many magic systems which violate conservation of energy?

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