The Basics, Part V – “Magic”

Magic

Welcome back!

Today’s post is going to be short and sweet because there is such a lot to think about when writing about magic. Now, just as a disclaimer here, I’m talking about magic in the fantasy genre, not ‘real life’ magic – be that stage wizardry or actual magic (I’ll leave that to you dear reader to decide whether or not you believe it’s real).

Here is my cardinal rule:

Magic must always have a source.

(Even if it’s its own source)

Or, another way of putting it: set limits.

Sources of Magic

In fäery tales that source is the story itself: it’s a magical tale. This could be the style/theme/narrative.

In other settings, that source could be unicorns; when they’re gone, there’s no more magic. Belief could be a source. Words of power since the dawn of creation, the words (or what lies behind the words) tapping into or being the source of magic. It might be the planet itself (this is one I tend to use in my own writing). The sun(s), the moon(s), constellations, perhaps? Which ones?

Is there a magical field that permeates all living things but not dead or non-living things? Is there a well of power within each person or a select few? (Dynastic bloodlines, perhaps?) Is magic a gift by the gods? Is it obtained through sacrifice – a transfer of life for power/favours? Is magic carried through leylines? The list goes on, but those are just a few examples to get the old cogs whirring.

Singular or Multiple Sources?

Now, bear in mind that it’s probably more interesting to have multiple sources of magic as well as multiple types of magic. (Whether this is necessary for your story is another matter!) Each should carry its own set of laws. For example, how long does it last? A spell/incantation/well of magic? How about the undead? Are they imbued and raised up from the ground as skeletons? Is there power in hatred and revenge? A ghost or reverent rises up and stalks their prey or roams around luring the unwary to their doom?

Consider well the rules of magic, as well as the different types. Are there some that are seen as inherently evil or are inherently evil in your setting? Perhaps all magic is evil and has devastating effects on those who partake in it? Or perhaps, it is so common that everyone uses it to varying degrees.

Remember! Just because your character (and the authorities that be) claim magic is of one source and can accessed one particular way does not necessarily mean that that’s true – perhaps there are other ways, other forms, forgotten or yet to be discovered. Perhaps there’s a reason they’ve been buried!

Accessing Magic

How is magic accessed? Rituals? Shamanistic style rituals? Hooded priests chanting? A declaration of the voice, focused through an external instrument, say a staff or a wand? Through feelings? Writing complex equations and formulae? Runes? Stone circles? Fäery circles? Verbal pacts with another being? Imbued/innate power that simply manifests when needed? Via the drinking of potions? And so on and so forth.

Questions, Questions

What about magical side effects, or magical diseases? In my own writing, I enjoy giving my mages ‘magical flu’.

How old is the magic? Is it ancient, perhaps slumbering, or is it new? Is it a mutation? (This one in particular I enjoy writing – as is the case of ‘Away’, an excerpt of which is on the blog – second from the top.) Does magic stay stagnant or does it change? (This is actually the whole premise of ‘Away’ – magic evolving, and those affected by magic also evolving).

What happens when magic goes away? Do those who rely on it for their existence begin to fade away/starve? (Also something explored in ‘Away’!)

Is magic infinite or finite? If it is infinite, are its sources also infinite?

Technology & Magic

“Technology’s the worst. Unless it’s peanut butter, or cooking meat. Can I have an apple?”

How does magic work alongside technology? Are there magically infused firearms, magical steam engines? Is magic at odds with technology?

Okay, confession time here: magic vs. technology as a trope actually really irritates me because technically, picking up a stick is ‘technology’. Having magic react poorly to say, silvered weapons is something I’m absolutely fine with, but to use the word ‘technology’ as a blanket term is just annoying – clothing is technology.
The only time I accept it is when it truly means ‘technology’ so those who can use it or do use it are perhaps ‘beings of the wood’, say, dryads, for example, who don’t wear clothes, don’t use sticks as tools, or celestial beings that shroud themselves in light. If you’re going to use a theme, use it fully, or be clear in your definitions! But maybe that’s just me.
That said, ‘Science vs. Magic’ is something that doesn’t bother me, (science in the modern sense of the word – with the laws of physics, quantum physics and so on, magic being mystical), and magic as a science all of its own is also interesting. Of course, if technology gets to a certain point then perhaps as Arthur C Clarke famously said:
 “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
That said, I do find this statement somewhat subjective and highly dependant on the magic and technology at hand, but that’s another discussion for a different day.

Pet peeves aside, it can be interesting to have the artificial clashing with the natural, or the magical. Perhaps nature is averse to magic and sees it as ‘unnatural’. All interesting themes to explore.

Obviously, the more rules and limitations you have, the more confining the framework but this can be rewarding in so far as you really have to think about exactly what your characters can and more importantly, cannot do. If magic is the solution to every problem, is it also the problem to every solution? There needs to be weights and balances, checks and counters.

And then, of course, there are magical creatures. Medusas, fey spirits (such as sídhe, pixies, goblins?)

“Take that, technology! …May I have another cardboard box please?”

Reflection

So ask yourself, really ask yourself, what form does your magic take? How rare is it? Is it magical weapons, armours, items, only? Are there dire consequences to drinking that elixir of immortality, or that djinni granting that wish? What is the price – not just on your character, but on the world and those around him/her of using that magic? How far can a person use weather altering magic before ruining the climate?

In one of my more facetious moments in a roleplaying game I was in, I spent all my character’s gold on creating a ‘common’ magical item which bore the name ‘the decanter of endless water’. I had my character make many, many of these decanters. In the lore, these decanters were linked to the infinite plane of Elemental Water and would constantly flow if unstoppered. Naturally, my character chose to flood the city and sink it rather than confront whatever the quest was head on. Admittedly, this was a thought-exercise than an actual run, but the point remains – magic can (and probably should) be abused. I say ‘should’ only in the context of making things interesting for the characters, be they heroes, antiheroes, antagonists, villains, what-have-you.

Of course, there were counters to this absurd plan, but there were also counters to the counters. It doesn’t make for a very fun tale if your character abuses everything to the point of living in a broken system, unless that’s the world you’re going for – it can be very humorous!

Summary

Still, I did say I’d keep this post short, so I’m going to close here. In summary, consider the following:

· What do you want your magic to do?

· How many types of magic are there?

· What are the different sources of magic?

· Who can use magic?

· How can they use magic?

· What is the cost of using magic?

· What are the limitations of magic?

· Is it better to use a mundane item/tool in place of magic (and when is it better?)

· What sort of story are you hoping to write?

Perhaps most important of all is this:

Can your story do without magic and would it still work just as well? If everything works without magic, then perhaps you should consider leaving it out. Otherwise, make it integral to the character of the setting. If you have a non-magic wielding character in a world that is full of magical wielders – then he/she could be considered to have a disability.

Remember: it’s never the abilities that make a character special; it’s the actual character themselves, their trials and struggles. Hobbies do not make a character – and neither does magic. (Unless, of course, that character is a manifestation of magic, which could be interesting in and of itself – another thing I enjoy writing from time to time).

Final Thoughts

Oh, and the other cardinal rule that applies to all writing? Have fun. Sometimes simple really is better, and sometimes it isn’t. Find out what works for you – play in the sandpit, get your hands and characters dirty, test things out.

That’s it for now! See you next time.

“Apples are magical.”
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