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Magical Systems
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 12:49 AM
I was going through notes for my novel and realized that my character doesn't understand a lot about the magical system... He is distant from it at the start of the novel before being dragged into it through his death... I am completely on board with a thorough magical system that has a great deal of explanation and logic behind it (I was raised on magical video games like WoW and Asheron's Call after all). However, I think most things in life carry some level of mystery to them... why should I explain the ENTIRE magical system if my characters are still exploring them? Should I? How do you view this process?

I actually think back to the duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort. Whether you like her writing or not, it was a brilliant, enticing scene that I think we all wanted more of... We were so accustomed to her system that these two brilliant wizards ability to go beyond those borders we had come to know were captivating... How do you handle YOUR magical system? (For an opposing example, I think that Paolini is quick to explain how magic works... even if its done over time through mentors)

Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 1:07 PM
Joined: 4/6/2011
Posts: 31

I don't see any reason to explain how magic works, unless how it works is important to the plot. If it's crucial to the reader understanding what is going on, then by all means, include the nuts and bolts, but generally speaking I don't need to know how and why it works as I'm reading, only that it does.

Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 1:41 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

When I am writing, I need to know how my magic system works. When I am reading, all I want to know is that the writer obviously knows how it works. I don't want the system fluctuating in the middle of a novel unless there is a specific reason that is shown to me.

I think all that matters with a magic system is that you suspend disbelief.
Rachel Russell
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 2:29 PM
Joined: 4/29/2011
Posts: 27

I handle my magic system by detailing out every single tiny detail on how it works. However, I don't include that in the actual story unless it is pertinent to a certain part. If there are certain facets of the magical system that I want the reader to know about, I sprinkle details sparingly throughout the story. There's no need to drop a massive info dump on their head and give them brain damage.

For me, all that matters for a magic system is that it fits seamlessly with the setting, and doesn't feel like something the writer decided to toss in as a superfluous addition for no reason.
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 2:53 PM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 11

Brandon Sanderson actually wrote a pretty interesting article on magic systems and the need to explain or leave them a mystery. He says that there are two main types of magic systems: Hard and Soft (and of course some grey area in between).

Hard magic is explained intricately, and, because the reader understands the rules of it, it can be a part of the solution to the story without coming off as deus ex machina.

Soft magic, on the other hand, is left in a space of mystery/wonder, and usually exists in the periphery of the main character as an obstacle for them to overcome (without having much understanding or use for it themselves).

That's a rough summary and I'm not doing the article much justice, so you should just read it for yourself here:

Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 3:02 PM
Thanks for the article, Casey. Very helpful. I had a good basis for what I would do with mine, I just wanted opinions!
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 4:15 PM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61

I like my magic systems to seem magical, and though I will read a story where magic is a few charts and test tubes away from being a real science, I won't write them. As long as magic has a good sense of balance, I think any system can work.
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 4:42 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

I think the biggest things with a magic system is that it's as internally consistent as the world you've built around your characters. If you establish early on that it's a will and word type of system, your characters can't just wave a wand with an empty head at the end of the book and expect everything to happen the way they want.

Personally I think you need to establish enough of the nuts and bolts of your magic system that the reader understands why there's a lack of magic wand or the need for the magic wand (or whatever object is needed to channel the magic). Your readers don't need the philosophical debates surrounding magic.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 5:45 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

My two personal favorites in this regard are the Gom Gobblechuck novels by grace chetwin, in which an intricate magic system is presented to the main character, but it is full of holes and flaws that he discovers.

Also, Madwand and the rest of the series, by Zelazney, in which its revealed that every magician SEES magic in a different way, and therefore there can be no SET system, since everyone sees and interacts with magic differently.
Paul Guthrie
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 8:40 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 3

Depends on the story, I think. For example, I wrote a book about the discovery of magic. So I had to know how it worked and let the reader and characters figure it out together. Like any story, it isn't really about the magic, it's about what happens to the characters.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, May 6, 2011 11:40 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

It took me a while to figure out my magic system, but I try to explain only as much as a reader needs to know. I have plenty of notes on how it works in my world, but I still struggle with how much to tell the reader. In my world I have those that don't need anything to channel "magic" and those that do. It is one of the reasons my novel has the title it does, but I still have problems with when and where something might be appropriate. I've discovered I "tell/show" the reader what ever is relevant to the plot.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Saturday, May 7, 2011 12:56 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

I think that the most important thing to remember about any magic system you set up while world building is this: Follow your own rules. IE, every magic system has rules and limitations; once you introduce those rules and limitations, be consistent throughout your story or your readers will know, and your world building will suffer overall.

Posted: Saturday, May 7, 2011 4:02 AM
All of the thoughts in this thread have been very helpful! I was wondering (and perhaps I'll have to start another thread for this) if anyone found certain things about magical systems in popular fantasy limiting?! Or you thought it might have been done better if they had done it a certain way?

I for one am not the biggest fan of the magic in Eragon. I think he's a great writer and it was still fun to read, but the magic that Eragon eventually learns seems like an odd system to me that doesn't bring out the fun in magic. Any other examples you guys/girls can think of?
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Saturday, May 7, 2011 4:33 AM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61

I feel like a lot of authors don't really know what they want to do with their magic system, if they want there to be rules and constrictions and limits and costs, or if they simply want one thing that makes X do Y and that is the only law. Love them though I do, I feel like Harry Potter suffers from this. For instance, one of the rules we establish is that you can't create food with magic. Fair enough, it explains away why there can be hunger. But we see people transfigure many things into plants, or animals. Surely we can harvest these plants or slaughter these animals for food. I won't get started on wands, for the sake of brevity.

I can't say much about Eragon's - I never cared for the books, personally, though I have read all three that came out in spite of that (I have a problem about abandoning series, I'm afraid) - but from my memory, it had similar problems. It would establish something, and then sort of abandon it later. Like, how the words spoken required intent. They tell us the magical language is one spoken by people, and that the reason they aren't spouting off fireballs with every 'brisingr' is because they need to feel it. Yet he curses some girl after he misspeaks in the language, clearly not with the intent to curse her. Many stories suffer from this, because they want to create these boundaries, but they don't REALLY want to limit their magic.

I don't think unlimited magic is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. A world where every man, woman, and child could destroy the world with a snap would balance itself out even if the magic didn't. For every mad man who wanted to blow up the moon, there'd be a good man to keep it in place. But you can't say there are no limits on magic and that any mad man can blow up the moon, only to later add the caveat that he can't, in fact, do just that.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Saturday, May 7, 2011 5:40 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I agree with Alex that magic has to be limited from the beginning so that somebody can't just snap their fingers and blow up the earth. Everything must be considered. I'm a very controlled writer, so contradictions like those mentioned above bother me. Eragon has always been a huge one with me, besides not liking the books, how magic is used confuses me. I suggest Ursula K Le Guin's Earth Sea Cycle if you want a better example of "spoken" magic in the similar vein as Eragon (not to mention her books are way better written).

I also never thought about the Harry Potter system much. Good point.
AJR Sottil
Posted: Saturday, May 7, 2011 5:00 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 9

Revenant (or Scott, whatever you prefer), I of the opinion that things in a story need to seem "as a distant tower seen through mist". Some details to show the reader there's something there, but not more than that.
As an example, I would use Tolkien's use of this idea in LOTR, where we see that there's the whole cosmos behind it, but, since Silmarillion wasn't published yet, we don't know exactly what it is.
As long as he does, its good enough for me.

The same applies to magic systems.

Eragon and Harry Potter are fun in that you know how they work, but unless the MAIN aspect of the story (not necessarily the novel) is magic, I, as a reader, will get distracted by all these other threads.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Sunday, May 8, 2011 2:14 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

Magic can be great for instilling a sense of wonder, but without rules it becomes a deus ex machina. There are two major things I think you need to do with a magic system.

First, whether or not the reader knows anything about the magic system, the *author* needs to know every nut and bolt before he starts writing, or it will wind up being too easy an out. Stuck in a corner? Throw some magic. Life too easy for the MC? Toss some magic at him. Boredom? Magic!

Um, blech.

Second, if magic is going to play a plot critical role, you need to foreshadow that role. It doesn't matter if the reader really understands what's going to happen, as long as afterward they can look back and say 'hey, he told me right there what could happen'.

As a corrolary to the second rule, if magic doesn't play a plot critical role in any way (including magical side effects like magical beasties), why exactly are you writing your story as a fantasy? If fantasy doesn't play a part in your story, it could just as easily be a contemporary or historical, and might be a better novel because of it.
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Sunday, May 8, 2011 5:32 PM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61

@Roman, Fantasy does not have to have magic or magical creatures. Just setting it in another world also counts as fantasy, and has many great possibilities you can explore that would be impossible in historical fiction. "Titus Groan" and "Gormenghast" by Mervyn Peake are the ultimate example of that one.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Monday, May 9, 2011 1:43 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Alex - I would posit that without some supernatural addition, you're looking at science fiction rather than fantasy, even if you are on a different world. Off Armageddon Reef is a good example.

Honestly, though, we're really splitting hairs, methinks. My point was more to make sure that you're not using fantasy or magic as a crutch.

Of course, now I want to read those two. Looks like my summer reading list is getting longer.
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 1:51 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

For fantasy, it helps to have the writer understand magic as a technology, but write it so the reader feels it as magic.  In other word, the writer knows the limitations--what can and cannot be done by those who use it--but the reader finds out by exploration of the story.  

Laying out the rules need not be all front-end worldbuilding--the writer can also discover things as he or she goes along, if--and it's a big IF--the writer is willing to fix mistakes.  Otherwise, the natural human tendency is to go for the easy route, and that way lies "easy magic, cheap grace."  Writers who cannot trust themselves to avoid the easy route should do front-end determination and put in the hard limits.

I introduced several different magic systems in the first books I wrote in the fantasy world I still work in.   Some humans had inborn talent that needed training.   Almost none of them are left (and of those, all are in hiding at the start of the first book.)  A more "modern" approach has developed--a magic as a skillset to be learned by study and accomplished with physical aids (spellbooks, potions, etc.)  Nonhuman races have other magical ability, only a small bit of which is shown in the first books.  Now I'm writing in the next group--close-up views of various non-human forms of magic, the return of inborn, untaught magical ability, and the existence of extremely powerful artefacts.  Oh, and a dragon. 

The dragon's been implicit since the first book, because one of the patron saints was "Camwyn Dragonmaster."  No one's ever seen a dragon (the general belief is that Camwyn conquered them and drove them away)  so the old legends about dragons' eggs are shrugged off as "just stories."  There are no surviving legends about what kind of magic dragons might have...unlike the magic powers of the nonhumans (different for each race) about which stories abound.  "Everybody knows" certain things about elves, dwarves, gnomes,  the "tree shepherd" Kuakkgani and the "tree spiter" kuaknomin,  the mikki-kekki and the rockrollers and so on...but some of what "everybody knows" is wrong.  Sometimes it's trivial stuff, but sometimes (as when a visitor sticks out his tongue and it's burning)  the character had better learn very, very fast.

The unexplained bits, the surprises, the characters' own confusion and surprise, are what let the reader enjoy it as magic and not as bordering on the mundane.  Think of the forging of the magic sword in Dunsany's  The King of Elfland's Daughter.  The old woman, the witch with her vegetable garden, has the technology--knows how to get sky iron, knows what to do with it--but the way it's written it's all magical, and the details given only add to the magic.

Magic requires some mystery--some sense of layered mysteries, nested mysteries, one thing after another, so that even if all is revealed, all is not explained. 

So I know what each form of magic can do--and why it was divided among those who have it or can find a way to make something work--but through almost ten books, readers feel that it's real--it's there--it makes enough sense for that--but they don't understand it fully.  Which is why it works as magic. 

So have it make enough sense that the reader can trust you won't pull a new rabbit out of the hat every time someone's in a tough spot....but don't explain the trick with the rabbit when you do use it..  (And that's part of the reason the title of my next book--the one coming next year--is Limits of Power.)

Robert C Roman
Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2012 12:10 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

I've thought about this since I posted last, and I realized that for my ParaRom series, magic is very idiosyncratic. The characters each have a unique sort of magic based on who and what they are, and most of that magic is incorporated into who and what they are, not something they do.
Golem are indestructible and supernaturally strong and fast, but only when following the directives of the Words that animate them. Angels can smell magic, summon up weapons of light, and teleport short distances. Unique supernatural entities like demigods and demons each have broad powers based on their portfolio, but are limited by traditional religious strictures and iconography, and the bodies they wear are mortal. Fae are similar to demigods, only in most cases much more limited, and bound by their own psychology rather than religious symbology.

Still, for each of them I've given them a unique set of rules, limitations, and powers. It's kinda exhausting, but I *think* it's worked out so the whole gives off a solid feel of 'magic' rather than the feel of 'different science' I sometimes get from Urban Fantasy.