Making magic

When crafting a fantasy world, be it medieval or modern or a completely new creation, one of the first things we have to figure out is the system of magic. The two biggest issues that most people focus on are power level and access: is magic capable of really big booms or mostly minor mischief, and can anyone do it or only a select few who are born with the talent or trained in its use? But beyond those major questions lies the real fun of making up magic: how does it actually work?

The possibilities are virtually limitless. You can go with wands and oral spells, like in Harry Potter. You can use scrolls and scrips and songs, like in The Magicians of Caprona. You can have energy manipulation with command words and add more elaborate approaches ad hoc, like in the Dresden Files series. How do you decide what methods and materials to use in your system, in your world?

One thing that most magic systems seem to have in common is that they are relatively simple for the reader to grasp. Take Harry Potter as the example. Congratulations, you’re a wizard! Please collect your wand at the shop. To cast a spell, wave your wand and say the magic words. There are occasionally more steps involved, but that’s the basic gist. It doesn’t get much simpler or most straightforward than that.

But how satisfying is it to the magically jaded? Once you’ve read enough fantasy books, do you find that you crave something different? Something new and original? Or do you feel comforted when you can slip into a familiar system without questioning the technical aspects? Even Harry Potter eventually adds things like shapeshifting and non-verbal spells to spice up the story, but these merely supplement the relatively strict wands+words=spell formula.

Let’s take an analogue from science fiction. There’s hard sci-fi, which places more emphasis on using theoretically feasible and specifically detailed scientific ideas that are often carefully explained in the story. Then there’s soft sci-fi, which tends to focus on the characters and the story with more hand-waving with regards to the mechanical stuff. Neither one is inherently superior to the other, and each attracts a different set of readers.

Is there anything like this when it comes to fantasy? If not, why? Is it that readers of fantasy have more in common with readers of soft sci-fi? Does fantasy itself slant towards character-driven tales such that any technical jargon alienates readers who just want to know if the hero and the heroine defeat the bad guy and fall in love? Or is there something fundamentally mysterious about magic that defies explication, so that in explaining it you destroy the very thing that makes it, well, magical?

The novel I’m working on takes place in a magic college, with lots of courses and different majors that run the gamut not only in terms of purpose, but also methodology. Even a mere divination student has to learn astrology, cartomancy, oneiromancy, I Ching, tasseomancy, cheiromancy… And that’s just a single major! As the author, it’s hard to step away from the magic system building and focus on incorporating only those elements that are essential to the story, in the same way that a hard sci-fi writer must chomp at the bit to explain exactly how that deep sea geothermal energy plant works.

So, people… how do you make the magic happen?


15 Responses to “Making magic”

  1. I LOVE this post. Great job touching on the major points. It gives me more to think about for my WIP.

  2. @lil_monmon says:

    Ah, the eternal problem (good subject btw, well done you!)

    I write fantasy so I have to use magic, but I extremely limit the use of it, because there’s nothing I hate more than an easy out. If a problem is solved I think it better that it be on the character’s merit rather than an all powerful “Deus Ex Magica.”

    I use magic much in the same way as Terry Pratchett, to make modern appliances/conveniences exist in a non-anachronistic way. Science=magic so magic=science. This way I can have jokes about atm machines, long-distance messages and hybrid transportation without setting my fiction in the modern day.

    I also like to have my mages/wizards either unreliable or incompetent. I need to make the magic-users on the same functional level as the non-magic or everything gets thrown out of whack.

  3. Tony Noland says:

    Oh, I am *all* about the hard approach. If magic is too easy, simple or widespread, then where’s the challenge? That makes it far too easy for the hero to pull a deus ex machina rabbit out of the hat to save the day at the end. Sci-fi certainly suffers from this (see most of “Star Trek: Voyager”).

    I like to see the rules of the world established and followed. You want to have zombie faerie werewolves with sylph-like powers of seduction? Fine, but make sure they don’t also sprout wings half-way through the book. And make sure everyone around them has a realistic response to the situation, since they would already know all about the zfwws-lpos and how they act & interact.

  4. cell_at_sea says:

    To date my favorite magic system has to be the one created by Diane Duane for her Young Wizard’s series. It is almost scientific in its stipulation that if you know how to describe a thing, you can affect it (kinda like the name-based magics found in some folklore). The specifics of the magic, however are very much about the smallest detail; if you don’t leave room for air in your transportation spell, you’ll suffocate on the moon. Doing a spell takes a toll on the caster, the bigger the spell, the bigger the price.

    When I write my own fantasy, I’ve the tendency to try to make magic a normal part of life, but then again it’s mostly small spells I have my characters perform – lighting lamps, cleaning dust… A lot of them fall more into the “something’s slightly off” camp of being able to See things as they truly are than being able to alter the fabric of space and time with a wave of a wand.

    I love to read both, but find unless it’s well done, the epic fantasy sort is much harder to integrate in a modern setting and, because of its age, comes across as hackneyed rather than awe-inspiring.

  5. Valerie says:

    I think we can agree that there must be rules, but how complex or simplistic must they be? Is there something about the fantasy genre that inherently begs for easy to follow and understand methodologies, rather than complex formulas and schematics like you might find in hard sci-fi?

    I tend to over-think how magic should work, what the fundamental mechanics are, that kind of thing. I want to be able to offer coherent explanations if the need arises, rather than just going “It’s magic!” and hoping that suffices. But am I missing the point of magic, then? Or am I being a thoughtful author?

  6. Valerie says:

    Cell, I actually follow Duane on Twitter. Love that series! Indeed, it is rather scientific in its approach, even if it doesn’t go into an abundance of detail about each spell. At the same time, the underlying idea that everything has a name, and true names give power, is simple and easy to grasp. So perhaps the best kinds of magic systems are fundamentally simple but more complex in practice?

  7. Mari Miniatt says:

    I try not to come up with a system. Too many years of playing D and D makes the rules almost second nature. The fantasy WIP I am currently working on uses magic like technology. Everyone can use it, not everyone know how it works. (just like us with our ipads, cellphones, etc)

    There are schools, but they are run more like apprenticeships, then like Harry Potter.

    So I am just winging it and hoping.

  8. @techtigger says:

    I’m in the midst of working on my WIP, which involves a mashup of science and sorcery. You really do have to spend time working out the mechanics of how things work, even if you never fully lay out the details for the reader. For me, the trick is to find ways to describe it that make it sound real, without spending pages on it. One line I used in a flash fic: “don’t worry, I’ll call on the aetheric box if I need help.” (tosses box into purse) – You get the idea that it’s some kind of quasi-magic phone, without explaining the details.

    I do like stories that go into detail about how things work, but I think they often get bogged down in ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. It’s something I’ll be putting a lot of thought into as I write. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a balance that will let the reader understand how things work, but still keep the story moving. 🙂

  9. cell_at_sea says:

    …perhaps the best kinds of magic systems are fundamentally simple but more complex in practice

    I’m inclined to agree with this idea. Especially (imo) due to the way it has evolved through the history of fantasy stories, magic seems to need to be easy to grasp with more difficult strictures overlaying them to make them work. It seems to me that magic should be like everything else in this regard. Sword-fighting is, at its root, easy to understand yet it needs a lot of practice to be realized to its full potential. So maybe the big magics are not easy so much as done by folk who are so well-practiced they can make it look easy.

    Personally, I love when there are coherent explanations behind magic. Magic, for all its “magical-ness” should be explainable. There’s a reason the trope, “A Wizard Did It” is viewed as a form of deux ex machina. Magic exists within the universe, so unless you’re writing in a different universe, magic has to abide by the rules of our universe the same way everything else does granted, with more shortcuts.

  10. Vivienne says:

    I have come up with three different “magic” systems for the same basic story and I’ve yet to finalize any of them… purely because I eventually run into a roadblock while writing the story that makes me go, “oh shit, loophole!”

    By this I mean, for instance, what’s the point of building huge castles when someone can just fire a giant cannonball of magic at it? Can I just explain that because it’s a huge fancy castle that the stones are imbued with the power to repel such damaging spells? Or does that seem too “convenient?”

    Essentially, I try to come up with a workable, easily explained system for how magic works in my world, including its limitations, governance, prevalence, and applications. I’ve gone from magic being widespread at varying “levels” of innate power (from cantrips to the big guns) to it being held by the very mysterious or very elite.

    I’m currently working with a system that assumes that magic exists, but not to the extent that it is heavily involved in war, and in the case of those who are able to cause more devastating effects with their magic, their pursuits tend toward the higher (i.e., you are less concerned with showing off your magic than you are in exploring it)… to the point where their interest in war is only see how far their power can take them on the battlefield.

    The limitation of magic in my world is twofold. First, it is rare. Second, it is exhausting to use (that is, think of a mana bar in a video game but with a much slower regeneration rate). One’s power is dictated by their innate levels of “magic” as well as how quickly they are able to use it again after they’ve expended their power (i.e., power of a “spell” versus frequency of a spell).

    As for enchantments in the actual land, I explain these with a much darker aspect (e.g., mortal sacrifice), which naturally makes ME unwilling to create too many magical locations or objects in my world.

    I find that for the most part, it serves me pretty well because at least it would take an awful lot of twisting and turning for me to drop one magicked-up dude into the middle of a war and basically deus ex magica it without breaking my own rules.

  11. Valerie says:

    What cool ideas, all! I find it interesting that playing D&D would lead to a rebellion against too much explanation… I feel like my time playing it yielded the opposite effect. I wanted to get all specific, though not in the “X damage” sort of way. More in the means of casting and the effects.

    There certainly is a compulsion to want to show things off when you’ve put so much thought into them, but I agree that it’s usually best to focus on the story. I only wonder if there’s a place for, as I mentioned, some amount of explanation in the same vein as hard sci-fi can sometimes have.

    The sword-fighting analogy is a good one, especially considering that people in fantasy novels often sword fight, too. I’m willing to bet that most people who write such things aren’t trained in any kind of fencing, which results in the kind of vagueness that, again, may be more satisfying within the narrative than a technically detailed description of parries and thrusts.

    Viv, you bring up a good point… simple is all well and good, but a lot of thought has to go into the practicalities of magic merely existing. Limitations are a huge part of that, as well as the ethical implications. While perhaps things must be explained to the reader in simple terms, even the least complex magic system has to function cohesively. Haha, deus ex magica.

  12. Matthew Dyer says:

    I’d push back a bit and question the basic assumption that you need a “system.” Systematizing the magic of your fiction is a time-honored tradition in fantasy, but it’s almost certainly not found in the genre’s roots. I think the focus on systems and system creation is an symptom of our rational culture (dating back to the Enlightenment) and is exemplified by RPGs.

    Internal consistency doesn’t require a system, only a lack of contradictions. Before you spend weeks or months designing the perfect magic system, question whether you need to do it at all. Far too often novels read like plot hung on the systematic bones of a setting. Maybe your setting should work to enhance your plot, and questions about limits and practice of magic in your fantasy novel should be solved only after they are asked by what really matters: your story.

  13. Valerie says:

    I would argue that it’s easier to foresee possible contradictions if you give the system some thought in advance, though. But to take your approach, it is just as easy to argue that such contradictions could be addressed in the outline phase while working on the plot. Presumably the important magic would have significance in the story, and thus be mentioned in the outline, so any thinking about systemic issues would be rooted in how they directly affect the story.

  14. John Wiswell says:

    Hard SciFi is in a rare privileged position. It’s based in real or theoretical science that readers can go look up and, in general, are expected to already know. That is a level of familiarity original Fantasy can’t afford, because you’ve invented it. The closest we get are common creatures, like vampires and ghosts, which are familiar enough to millions of readers that you can tinker with how they work and create more complex fantastic worlds. Even then, though, the Fantasy reader wants to see the neat things vampires and ghosts will do, while the Hard SciFi reader wants to see the neat things and is equally interested in how they fundamentally can work. Exposition, the high holy sin of most writing, is a feature attraction in Hard SciFi.

    Luckily some Fantasy readers love world building and will read every sentence you’ve got on a world’s mechanics. The Death Gate Cycle could have been edited down into three books, but the seven are packed with more and more neat mechanics and justifications for their function. I forget which book, but the first hundred pages of it were explanations for how these two parallel worlds worked, affected each other, and the ramifications. Weis and Hickman had great success with that series despite (or I think, because of) all their explicit world-building.

    I can enjoy either. I like good exposition (Douglas Adams made it hilarious). I like flowing action (I do not need to know the metaphysics of a Ring Wraith to be afraid for Frodo when he’s being chased by one). It’s usually not even balance, but knowing what’s right where. In most storytelling it’s good to leave some crucial things to the imagination. It builds reader investment, shows your ability, and gets the prose into a generally superior flow. I loved the composition of Stephen King’s Dark Tower Fantasy world, wherein he gave you more clues to how to put it together than actually laid it out for you. Only crucial things, like the metafictional connection to the author, were spelled out. You got a sense of the difficulties, rarity and unavoidable rules that Tony Noland said he craved in an earlier comment, but without going into inhuman detail justifying why. It’s more interesting to me to get a character’s perception on how Fantasy operates than the objective truth, partially because that’s what real life is like, and partially because characters can have such neat takes on it.

  15. Matthew Dyer says:

    I think what I’m suggesting might be two things. One, a refocusing of story planning away from setting details towards story details. Two, a more poetical approach to the fantastic, as might be found in say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or even Tolkien.

    It’s pretty damn clear that Gandalf is a wizard. But I’ll be damned if I have any idea of what he can do, or how he can do it. It just happens when it needs to happen. I think my suggestion boils down to the idea that there’s no need to set limits or boundaries for yourself if you don’t actually need them. That’s not the same as the reader needing the illusion of order or realism (if that’s what your fiction calls for).

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