Sunday, October 25, 2009

It's Magic!

Thursday, Kate talked about world building and some of the issues it raises in science fiction and fantasy. Her post started me thinking about a question raised in my local critique group this past weekend. Specifically, a couple of the new writers in our group wanted to know how you make magic a part of your world and what I meant when I said it had to “follow the rules”.

We've all read books where everything is going along according to the rules set out by the author and then BAM the main character – or the bad guy – does something not only unexpected but distinctly against the rules as they've been established and the book goes flying across the room. Maybe your main character has no magic and then, just in the nick of time, he does and he manages to save the day – this usually happens with no foreshadowing that his powers are growing, etc. Just a form of deus ex machina in the shape of magic to solve a plot point the author couldn't or wouldn't take the time to solve by following the rules.

So, what are the rules, you ask? I wish I could tell you there is this magical little rule book that sets it all down for you. But there's not. The one rule I try to abide by is that it must follow the rules of your world, ie your worldbuilding. To do so, I ask myself the following questions:
  • What is magic in my world? This seems simple enough, but think about it. There are still places in our world where technology seems like magic. So, do inventions such as steam-powered engines or electrical lights and telephone-like communications count as magic? Or is it more along the line of potions and rituals and spells? Maybe it's something else. It is up to you to decide.
  • Where does magic come from? Simply put, are your characters born with magic, do they learn it or is it a "gift" from the gods?
  • Who can perform magic in my world? Basically, does everyone have it or only some of the people.
  • If only some of the people in your world have magic, how do those with magic look at those without it and vice versa?
  • If you have a hybrid system of "natural" or god-given magic and "learned" magic, how do the practitioners of each view the others? Is there a hierarchical system involved?
  • How does the magic manifest itself, ie what magical powers exist in your world? Remember, these powers have to fit the rules of your world, so you have to take into account religion, economic and social rules as well. Depending on the storyline, you also have to look at military and technological factors.
  • What does it cost your characters to use magic? Magic has to cost the user in some form. In other words, there is a price to pay for it. Magic is energy – yes, there are a multitude of books out there where magic is a divine gift with no cost to use for the Hero. However, ask yourself if that really is no cost. There usually is, even if it isn't in the form of personal energy/health. The cost is in becoming a martyr or forever questing in the service of the god involved. Think about it this way -- how likely is it you can ride a horse at a gallop for hours on end without stopping? You can't without killing the horse. So if there is a cost for magic, you have to show it, whether it is by having your mage (or whatever you call him) be ravenously hungry or exhausted. It can even be something as simple as, to borrow from Stephen King, if you use your abilities too long and too frequently, you have nosebleeds and worse.
  • So, how does the user power the magic?
  • If by ritual, what is that ritual?
  • Finally, and in many ways the most important, how does magic fit into your world? I asked earlier if everyone in your world has magic or just some of your characters. There is a corollary to that. If not everyone in your world has magic, do they know magic exists? If they do, what are their feelings about magic, notwithstanding what they think about the magic users.
There are any number of other questions that can be asked during the course of worldbuilding when using magic as part of your plot. There is, however, one rule that must be kept in mind -- well, two actually because you always need to remember the KISS rule (unless part of the plot is making the spells so intricate that your main character, sap that he is, can't remember all of them and is always screwing up) - keep to the rules you set. Don't have a firestarter suddenly able to call the wind to fan the flames of the fire he just started or rain to put it out. At least not if you haven't laid the groundwork for it all along the lines.

Here are a few links with more information on magic in worldbuilding:

So, what questions do you ask yourself when you are writing magic? What pitfalls do you see and try to avoid?


Anonymous said...

Main pitfall is having too much fun World building.

Second is making your magic users too powerful.

I've had to limit the magic to very short distances for most effects, for most of them. I've got several systems of magic, all differently genetically conferred, with rivalries among them, so there's not too much cooperation.

My initial World building had them a very reduced population, due to their usefulness in wars getting them targeted. So they're a few generations away from being able to take over the World, even if they wanted to.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, glad to know I'm not the only one who tends to have too much fun world-building. If I'm not careful, I get so wrapped up in it the story takes a backseat.

I also agree with you about making sure your magic users aren't too powerful. If they are, you do away with too much tension in the story. After all, if your magic user is all-powerful, and the bad guy, why would anyone risk going against him? Conversely, if he's the hero, what does he have to work for? If he's so powerful, he can have whatever he wants, whenever he wants it.

How are you handling the way the rest of your world views your magic workers? Do they look upon them suspiciously or value their abilities? Curious minds want to know.

Kate said...

Oh,yes. Too much fun world-building is a serious issue. So is feeling that you need to put all that world-building in your story somewhere. Not that I've ever done this. Oh no. Never.

Generally I use magic that's self-limiting. The energy has to come from something living, and often some types of magic don't work against some kinds of critter - for instance, in ConVent vampires act as a kind of magical 'ground'. They can break any spell, but the more powerful the spell, the more damage they take when they break it. At this stage in the series, the reason for this hasn't emerged, but there is one (which is an example of not shoveling everything from the world building in at once).

Pratchett uses a somewhat different arrangement with the Discworld. The wizards there don't use magic all that often, and when they do it's usually of the "find the right balance point and push" variety, because as Pratchett explains, levitating something means something else is pushed down (conservation of motion) so either the wizard has to fight to keep his brain from dribbling out of his ears or he arranges for something else of about the right weight to fall down.

Another system I've experimented with, the 'magic' is entirely psi, genetically based, and outside passive 'sensing' uses energy the same way walking or running does.

As far as I'm concerned, regardless how it's played, magic always comes down to a very simple principle of the universe: everything costs something. (Somewhat relevant aside here - even breathing costs something. It takes energy to pull the air into your lungs and energy to separate the oxygen and have it react with your blood so it can be carried through the rest of your body to fuel/catalyze all of the multiple millions of biochemical reactions that keep the thing running. Food and water are the same - we get more from them than we use, but there is a point at which we don't have the energy to trigger the reaction in the first place. It's not, funnily enough, a good state to be in.)

Anonymous said...


I had a war about fifty years ago, and killed most of the magic workers. So, everyone believes in magic (especially the more salacious stories) but they don't think there's anyone around who can do magic any more.

My stories are starting a few generations later, where the grandchildren of the few survivors are starting to leave their nice safe valley and interact with the greater world again.

I'm explaining all my magic with genetic engineering thousands of years in the past, sort of lifting all the various psi stuff out of the background noise and adding a bit so they can tap into outside power sources, but do use their own metabolic energy as well. The splitting headache is a sign it's time to quit. Damage, both mental and physical is possible with the onset of critical hypoglycemia, although by that point they are rarely capable of doing enough more to manage to kill themselves.

Brendan said...

In most of the magic using stories I have read the practitioners have the raw power from day one but need to learn to channel it to become useful. As the hero gains skill s/he can wield the inner power more effectively and surmount the obstacles in the way.

Diane Dunne has a nice twist to her Young Wizard books in that her characters start off very strong but with not much knowledge but as they gain in experience and are better able to wield their power, the actual wattage they have available decreases.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Perhaps we should form the 'Too Much Fun World Building' Society?

WangZheng259 said...

Well, my first questions usually involve what kinds of systems are in the setting (magic, psionic, training the body, or just purely physical), and how rigorously I will think about them.

Magic can be divided into magic that is part of the setting and magic used by characters. The discworld being on elephants on a turtle is part of the setting, and does not really need to be balanced and justified in the way character magic does. Magic is another type of action that can be used by characters. All actions have a cost, even if it is only the time required to decide to take the action. If a character's list of available actions includes items significantly cheaper or more effective than those on the lists of everyone else, this can make a gamebreaker which is boring. Magic system design, if consistently adhered to, limits the available magic actions for everyone.

'John pushes the button, and he wins.'

Rigorous magic is something of a change of pace from my main project, which is rubber magic. With rubber magic, you just need to make a distinction between the magic that will be used in the plot, and the magic that won't. You need to have reasons well supported by the world building for why actions are used, or not used. However, rubber magic can be poorly defined in the same way that rubber science fiction ignores the actual laws of physics.

With rigorous magic, the energy involved is strictly according to the physics understanding of the term, as opposed to something like 'Getter Energy is the power of evolution'. IMOAO, either this comes from standard energy sources with limits that can be calculated by the appropriate engineering formulas, or one taps an extra dimensional heat source and cold source, creating a portable, magical heat engine. Either way, thermodyanmics causes heat to be produced. Additional effort can dump most of the heat into the cold source, aka the heat sink. This can all be hidden by the magic, which is a phenomenon or set of phenomena that acts as a user interface for human minds with the universe.

Rubber is like saying, 'I am going to have giant humanoid robots with swords, and not pay physics or feasibility any mind'. Rigor is saying: 'There will be hard and soft limits. Soft limits will be difficult for everyone involved, and if I have to violate a hard limit, I will start over.'

With rigor, if magic is powered by metabolic energy, I might look at the excess calory consumption, and figure out how much physical work can be done. What kind of energy losses should there be? About where in the metabolic cycles should the energy transfer to the magic? Where do I need to do more research? What is the mechanism?

I am not sure that magic heritability should be done via genes. Genes are transcribed to produce proteins, and if magic is done by proteins, well it seems like it would be something a machine could be designed to do, and I have trouble imagining the resulting mechanism for the mind-magic interface. I generally assume a mystical, non physical component to heritability where magical traits are passed down in families. On the one hand, some of the inborn, inherited occult traits I have in stories are too specific to inherit via DNA, RNA, mitochondria, and so forth. On the other hand, some of the characters I have as neuter parents are too alien for their human offspring to have any genetic material from, so something else must have been transferred.

Other questions generally involve reliability, repeatability, testability, and the effects on history and war. If I assume that the modern Japanese have magic, for example, if it would be militarily useful I want to know what effect it had on WWII. (Or I want to know how they got it after the war.) If the Japan in the setting is closely cognate to our Japan, than it's history must have at least rhymmed with ours. In which case, did the Allies have militarily useful magic, or a counter for same?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam why is having too much fun in worldbuilding a pitfall? I had SOOOO much fun with magical British empire!

As for magic, I don't like using it. Yes, I know I do. A lot, considering how many fantasies I've written. But it weirdly always feels like cheating. I swear I end up researching magic more than science, to get over that feeling.

Anonymous said...

Because we're supposed to suffer for our art? Err, not let the Muse get too distracted from the story? Umm, because we start telling instead of showing?

Amanda Green said...

Kate, your vampire "ground" is an interesting concept. It is also an idea I haven't seen used too often. More often than not, in the stories and books I've read, the "ground" had been more of a counter-spell or some magical object that is specifically "tuned" to break a certain kind of spell.

As for your "psi" magic, what is the cost to the user? In my stories where the magic is of that sort, the cost is physical to the user. Kind of like how Matapam described in her comment.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, interesting how you bring both genetic engineering and magic together. I also like the scenario of people knowing about magic but believing no one now lives who can use it. The possible scenarios as your magic users come back into the world and their abilities are revealed can lead to some very interesting situations. I'd be interested to find out not only if your magic users try to hide who and what they are, and what steps they go through to do so, but also how the world at large will react upon learning that there are still some who can use magic.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, I've read a number of stories like those you've described. The ability is something you are born with -- whether you know it or not -- and you have to learn to use it. I haven't read the Young Wizard series and probably ought to. That's a twist on magical ability I haven't seen before. Thanks for the recommendation!

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, LOLOL. I happen to be a charter member of Too Much Fun with World-Building Society. I also have at least 2 books shoved under the bed right now because I had so much fun with world-building that, when it came time to actually write the book, I couldn't do it. Can you say, "Info-dump extraordinaire"?

Amanda Green said...

WangZheng, the main issues with magic are still, imo, where does it come from and what is the cost to the magic-user? The role the magic-user has in society depends on your world-building. Even in your "rubber" magic, there should still be a cost somewhere. Otherwise, it becomes too much of a deus ex machina (I guess that should be deus ex magica).

As Kate commented in her thread, even breathing takes energy. There is a cost for the gain. It is the same with magic, no matter what the magic is, if your system is going to be believable to the reader. Even gamers who are well-familiar with the magic format in games such as D&D and the myriad of games that came after it, usually want more definition and development of their characters and the characters' abilities in a book than they do in a game. And that, imo, is why using a gaming's magical systems never quite works in books -- with a very few exceptions of course.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, the fact that using magic feels like cheating means, imo, that you are approaching it with the right mindset. You don't use it as the only way your characters get into or out of trouble. They get into it through their own missteps or through the machinations of others -- or both. And, once in trouble, they use not only their magic but their minds, their ability to think and plan and adapt, to get out of it. Also, your magic-users aren't all powerful. In Heart of Light when the lion attacked, Nigel didn't suddenly have the ability to cast out a plume of fire to roast the beast or throw up a magical force field or shield to hold the beast off. No, he remembered what he had seen and heard and used a spear to kill the attacking beast. In other words, you didn't cheat. Thanks for setting a good example for the rest of us to follow.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, so speakest the slush reader? [VBG]

Anonymous said...

I think the key to a good, believable magic system is to look at if from what could be considered an engineering standpoint: everything's a trade-off, and There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. If you want to get X out of a spell, you're definitely not going to be able to do any Y for at least a day. Plus, you better make sure you have plenty of Z on hand. You might be able to make things a little easier by adjusting W -- just make bloody sure that there's not even the slightest hint of V going on in the area when you do, or those trolls will be the least of your problems!

Amanda Green said...

RJCruze, YES! Of course, I'm a big believer in TANSTAAFL in world-building, and in life. Of course, the fact that you have a character willing to do X without thinking about Y, much less Z is what can make for a good story, especially if you, the writer, are into making your character suffer for being stupid [VBEG]

Anonymous said...

Plus, there's always the chance the characters will be tempted to push things to the limit, like trying to get the most Y out of a spell even if it means X will turn around and bite you (and in fantasy that can mean literally). Now that temptation can be brought on by a lot of thing: dire necessity for one ("Z will probably blow up in our faces, but it's either that or wind up Vorpal Bunny chow"). Another reason could be emotional desire ("I'll show them all!!!"). Then of course, there's arrogance ("Of course I know what I'm doing.") And finally, pure simple stupidity ("Hold my beer and watch this!")

Any of those things can be used to push the boundaries and punish those characters that push the boundaries too far and too foolishly.

Of course, with a magic system such as this, the "Evil" characters could be defined as those who push the boundaries no matter what the consequences -- as long as those consequences fall on someone else.

Amanda Green said...

Robert, it's that temptation to push the limit that makes the characters believable, imo. That's especially true when they aren't in dire straits. Whether it's stemming from trying to show off to score points with the girl -- or boy -- of their dreams or bragging to proof they are just as good as their rival or just sheer stupidity, I think we can all identify with that compulsion to do something even when we know we shouldn't. And yes, it will reach up to bite us, and our characters, figuratively if not literally. Although, it is fun to see the characters get bitten literally at times.

The situation you mention regarding the evil characters is what makes it so easy to boo them. They will do anything, or at least we think they will, as long as someone else has to pay the price. And that is also why we love it so much when the magic they've been using and abusing backfires onto them in some form of karmic retribution.

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