Nanowrimo #12 – Using Magic

The thing about having researched something quite intensely for a year is that I have a lot I can say about it. And, more importantly, I find it fun to talk about as well, so my apologies to those who aren’t writing with magic – I swear I’ll come back to more general story-creation posts soon! But first I’m going to write some more about the thing I know well: magic. Or, more specifically, how to use magic within your writing.

I obviously already covered some things in my post about making magic yesterday, so this post is leaping off from there to think about important questions a writer may ask themselves about their magic system. The answers to these will vary according to the story you’re writing – a soft magic system, like Lord of the Rings, doesn’t necessarily need to know exactly where Gandalf is getting the energy for his spells for example – but they can still be good to ask nonetheless.

How much do you, the writer, need to know?

Some writers develop their magic systems to the point where they have formulas to know exactly how much energy it takes up to move a grain of sand. Others are much more free and just write it as it comes to them. I know I fit somewhere in between the two, because I find some of the working out part fun to do (but am also intrinsically lazy). But any option is fine as long as you know what type of magic system you’re using.

Because of the wonder element of soft magic, it’s the one where you can more easily shrug and write away without stressing. The magic is there to make things feel… magical. And, for some authors, biting down into the minute detail of how their magic works takes away the wonder and turns it into a slog. So, as long as it’s not being used to fix all your narrative problems (which would make readers feel cheated), if you’re writing a soft magic system you might decide that you don’t need to know the full ins and outs. Not thinking out the questions around your magic is a lot more difficult for a hard magic system. By their very nature, these types of magic need rules, consequences, and a good degree of consistency, and so it’s probably a good idea that you as an author know what’s going on.

Where does it come from?

And, to some extent, where does it go? If your magic system is a passive one, where everything is natural and can’t really be wielded by your characters, you might only have to take a passing glance at this question. Active magic systems, where the characters can learn or develop their skills, very much have to work this out. Physics tells us that all energy comes from somewhere; it can be transformed or transferred but cannot be created or destroyed. And, unless you’ve got a really interesting/developed way to subvert this understanding, it’s generally better to apply this to your storyworld and think about where your magic is coming from. Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example, had people drawing from different elements. X-men: First Class suggests that the power of mutants coming from the nuclear bombs. The energy being used by the characters is coming from somewhere.

Naturally, the opposite to this is what happens when the magic is used. Where does it go, from a character perspective? I mean, obviously if thy create a booming explosion the energy goes there, but how does that feel for them? What impact does drawing up and then releasing this energy have on your characters? A well-developed magic system often has consequences for use, whether this be a dip in energy or the clear depletion of resources, and it’s important that these a generally consistent.

How does it work?

A very vague question for a rather thorny question, I know, but this is because of the variety of magics you might incorporate. The question of exactly it works is fully dependent on the type of magic you plan to write. For example, I’m writing a water-based magic system that is generally something to do with energy from the water being transferred to whatever problem (usually healing). So I need to question how that looks, whether one type of water is better than another, what it can/cannot achieve, ect. And there are so many possible answers I could give.

D. Wallace Peach wrote a great post recently about thinking around how the magic in her writing worked (in this case shapeshifters) and in that comes up with fifteen possible solutions to one little problem in that. And that’s the thing – there are so many possible ways to work you magic that thinking out how you want it to go is essential.

Are the rules always the same?

You may have noticed that I have been somewhat wary about demanding absolute consistency in all these questions. Generally, consistency is of the utmost importance. You do not want your magic system to feel like it’s a cheat to your readers. You want them to be able to understand how or when it is going to be used so that it doesn’t seem like deus ex machina. But, contradicting what others have said, there are rare occasions where subverting these rules can actually bring exciting developments to your story.

The best way I can explain this is by pointing to examples, and we’ll start with Fullmetal Alchemist. The rules of alchemy are very clear throughout, strictly adhering to the concept of equivalent exchange and naturally obeying the idea that the energy of their magic has to come from somewhere. But then there a few key characters or occasions where the usual rules don’t apply – and this makes things exciting. By the time many of these moments are shown, the audience knows the rules of the world and knows how things should generally work, so finding something that doesn’t fit forces them to try and work out why something is different. Like Ed and Al, they have to work out how someone has managed to get around the foundational laws of their magic system. In this series, it’s this finding out why sequence that makes the breaking the rules exciting (and all the more horrifying).

Another example of rules being subverted comes in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series. Much like Fullmetal Alchemist, Nix takes the time to explain the rules and demonstrate how the magic system should work. Charter magic and Free Magic cannot go together. Free Magic degrades the Charter. The use of Free Magic degrades a person. Then, in the first book, Sabriel meets Mogget, a Free Magic creature bound by the Charter, setting up the mystery of why he is different. The second book then introduces the Disreputable Dog, who is both Free and Charter without one binding the other, and this deepens the mystery. He threads the clues through the series to explain how these rule breaks fit in, but the mystery is compelling to the reader and so they forgive the departure from consistency.

I think that’s probably the key thing: you can create an inconsistency but make it a plot point or mystery for the readers to work out. In both of these examples, the details were there to explain how the rules had been broken, but it just took times to put them all together. And because of this, the inconsistency becomes a point of excitement rather than a betrayal of the reader or lazy writing. Inconsistencies can work.

How much does the reader need to know?

It can be hard, once you’ve developed your in-depth magic system not to want to show it off to your readers – but considering how much they need to know and why is essential. Too much information can feel like info-dumping and, lets be real, it can completely disrupt the pace of things and come off a little boring to all but the most obsessive. Too little, however, and you risk distancing your reader because they don’t get why it’s there.  For example, I spent yesterday briefly researching water at a quantum level. This will never be in my novel. And I have to be okay with that. You want to hit that great balance of threading in enough understanding that your readers can imagine it themselves, and think on how it could work in different situations, without making them feel like they’ve opened some sort of magic text book unintentionally.

So what questions have you had to ask in developing your magic system? And does anyone else find themselves getting lost in the realms of physics unintentionally when they are developing it?


2 thoughts on “Nanowrimo #12 – Using Magic

  1. Great post, Kate, and thanks so much for the mention. 🙂 I just love this stuff, and its one of my favorite parts of blogging with other speculative fiction authors. I like rule-based magic systems, as I’ve mentioned, and was reading this morning about physical laws of mass and energy, so I understand exactly what you’re saying about “where does the energy go or come from?” I’m planning on using an aura of heat for dispelling energy and coldness when drawing energy out of the surrounding environment. I also love your point about how much to show to the reader. As with many aspects of world-building, the author needs to fully understand all the elements of the world, and though the reader may not get all the details, the depth and breadth will seep through. Happy Creating!


    1. No worries – I hoped you wouldn’t mind me linking to you. Your post just fitted so well with the thoughts I’d been having and you offered such interesting possible solutions to your shapeshifting issue that I’d never even considered.
      That sounds like a really interesting energy source and the way it could manifest in text would be so awesome! And having a subtle but clear indicator that magic is being used means that there can be people trying to be sneaky but the clues will be there for the reader to work out (always fun).
      World-building and magic creation are just the best parts of writing fantasy, aren’t they? It’s all just so much fun to play with 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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