Friday, September 11, 2009

Magic Systems

OK, this is geek time now. What are some of the choices in creating magic systems in fantasy?

For originality, Steven Erikson's idea of the Warrens was really something different. I enjoyed his Malazan books of the fallen, but they eventually got a little bogged down in the storyline, or maybe the characters didn't grab me as much as some of the earlier novels (Gardens of the Moon is a classic). The originality in the magic did not abate though.

As much as I liked David Gemmell, his magic was pretty straightforward and fairly familiar from the SFF spectrum.

I guess as fundamental distinctions go, one of the most basic is Innate Magic Vs Learned Magic. For example in the Earthsea books, or Wheel of Time series, the talent was there from birth, whereas in other books - I think one of the Lawrence Watt-Evans's books comes to mind - it is a skill that can be learned, a bit like learning what needs to go into a science experiment in our world to make it work according to our physical laws.

I remember a great little scene (not sure what book this was from) - this skinny, white-bearded, yet very fit Mage, pounding away with his feet on some sort of platform to generate the energy for his spell. The idea here was a sort of conservation of energy, where the Mage had to first generate the energy with his own sweat before he did the spell. That was kind of neat. He also got to burn off lots of calories.

You can have a blend as well. In my fantasy novel The Calvanni, there are innate magic-users (Sorcerers) who are quite powerful, yet rare, while most others can be trained in other less powerful forms of magic (Druids, Priests and Priestesses). The premise was that the Sorcerers came to dominate their world and formed a magic-using nobility. The power in the upper classes - feared and hated by many - waned over time and the Druids took control, forcing a purge of the now 'evil' Sorcerers and monopolizing magic.

Another fundamental distinction is just how Powerful is Powerful? Is the pinnacle of magic the ability to obtain a vision, or perhaps influence a person's thoughts - as in shamanism - or can an 'Adept' wipe out armies with the wave of a hand (Pug from Fiest comes to mind)?

I think some books take the ultimate power of the Mage way too far. I like it better when the magic-user is limited, and has to pay for the use of his power.

What magic systems from fantasy literature take your fancy?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Limited magic always makes for more a interesting story.

I get frustrated with a book or movie where I can't work out the rules. I just watched the first series of LOST and it annoyed me because it was being deliberately obscure. What? Two people get kidnapped and neither can remember what happened to them?

Dave Freer said...

Lyndon Hardy -Master of five magics - did one of the best jobs of formally codifying it in fiction. I detest (as you know) something for nothing magic as an easy out in novels.

C Kelsey said...

Raistlin Majere (you knew someone was going to bring up Dragonlance ;)

By the end of the classic character books, Raistlin was among the most powerful wizards ever to live, but his body was totally wrecked because of it. It is, of course, a something-from-nothing magic system. However, since it's based on D&D, I always just took the source of his magic to be a particularly lucky twenty-sided die.

Anonymous said...

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on writing magical/fantasy stories is "there has to be a price to pay for working magic." That makes it more interesting and gives the character an immediate challenge/conflict. IMO, it mirrors real life where nothing comes free.

Linda Davis

matapam said...

One big divide in fictional magic is the God-granted vs innate magic. I blame the divide on D&D. Even Jim Butcher keeps to it - but then he incorporates all the myths and fairy tales ever invented into his series. Loved the Billy Goats Gruff. Bujold's Five Gods series is a good example of the god-given type.

Ritual magic is occasionally something anyone can do, but more commonly something only a few are capable of. Thus dragging the Nature vs Nurture debate into the realms of Magic. JK Rowling and Barbara Hambly are the later. I'm blanking on an example of the "anyone can" type.

But I like them all.

And if only some people are capable of it, we should be able to find the genetic basis and engineer up some really top notch mages. Will we someday find that _Fantasy_ has led the way to a new discovery, as SF has done so many times?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I think the 'terrible unknown thing' can be a great hook in stories - like they did in lost with the unkowable-might-be-a-dinosaur-but-its-also-a-black-cloud thing, but usually at a price. If you can't deliver a believable and satisfying explanation eventually the whole story sags.

Lost was very much like that for me. It hooked me in on the promise of a satisfying mystery, but in the end the story disappeared up its own kazoo.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. I loved those Lyndon Hardy books. There were two others as well that followed it that were great too. The character was also a bit of an underdog, which alway hooks me in.

I like magic better when there is a price to pay - or at least an element of danger that is proportional to the power released.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I guess when it comes to D&D the simplified magic was really part of the fun.

'A lucky twenty sided die' :) I like that.

Having the Mage a physical wreck works for me as a price to pay for their magic - particularly if their spells threaten to taken them too far and kill them. Nice idea really.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. I agree completely. You can even extend it further to any kind of 'super' ability. It becomes a lot more interesting if their is a linked weakness or consequence of them having to use their powers.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Ah! I had forgotten about the god-granted powers. I never go for this in my own fiction so I kind of forgot about it.

Magic is one of those things. Deep down you feel as though it 'should' be possible. That is one of the tantalising things about it. I guess I have had a few experiences that might qualify in this spectrum. What is fun is watching other people reaction when they see this.

I have literally seen black and white minded people 'doublethink' an experience away - editing it out of their minds because it was too outside their experience.

'I don't believe that happened,' they will say, then blink and - hey presto - it's like it never happened.

Kate said...


Some of the more interesting ways of dealing with magic systems I've seen:

Holly Lisle in her Secret Texts trilogy had a system where power came from living things, and what you could do with it was entirely based on how much of it you could get. If you used your own blood, you couldn't raise much power, but the only side effects were bloodloss and possibly dying if it was a larger piece of magic. Big spells needed a lot of people working together. Alternatively, the less ethical could raise power by using other people's blood. This had side effects especially if anything went wrong, and of course meant killing a lot of people and often torturing them first. Then there was the "best" way - trapping people's souls. Less magic per person than using blood, but once you had them you could keep using them for power pretty much indefinitely.

Then there's PTerry's magic, where the wizards don't usually DO much magic because it's not exactly easy to do things like levitate a glass when you're trying to keep your brain from flipping out of your ears. :-)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. That's another devide I forgot to mention - drawing magic from other sources Vs having it 'inside'. I tend to use this quite a bit in my own magic systems.

In my latest book Tower of the Mountain King, which is set in ancient neo-Ireland, the forest Sidhe draw their power from the natural world.

It can make for come good conflict as the various parties vie for the same 'pool' of magic.