I don’t think anything else needs to be said.

So, it’s been a while since I did my last world building post, and since my Thursday writer flaked out and didn’t write a post for today, and since I’ve put up four picture posts in the past week, I figured I’d write a new one for today.  I honestly don’t know which part this is (5 maybe?), but I’m too tired right now to go back and figure it out (I’ll do that for the next one I promise).  We’ve been talking about people groups (races) in fantasy and science fiction, and one of the defining aspects of the fantasy genre is magic (this actually appears with reasonable frequency in science fiction as well, though usually under different names).  There are definitely going to be a couple of posts about this (i.e. how magic affects your people groups, your cultures, your nations, etc), but before any of that I want to talk a little bit about how to write magic.

Many authors will tell you that you have to know how the magic in your world works, and to some degree this is always true.  Star Wars is an excellent example of doing this poorly, largely because so many authors write about Jedi.  In the EU novels there is a wide variety of force use, and none of it really follows a standard set of rules.  In one novel Luke can use the force to pull a Star Destroyer out of orbit, but in another he has trouble getting his lightsaber off of his belt.  Some authors impose their own rules on the force (Michael A. Stackpole does an excellent job of explaining and standardizing force use in I, Jedi… not that anyone follows him), and others take their rules from other sources (Drew Karpyshyn’s novels read as though all he knows about the force came from the Knights of the Old Republic video games… which admittedly he helped write, but it leaves him very limited).  However, throughout the novels (and the movies) the idea of the force is written and rewritten (midichlorians? really?), and then rewritten again (what is this thing in KOR2 about someone ‘eating’ the force and destroying it?) to the point that there is no clearly recognizable standard.  Obviously, this is a bad thing.

Magic should be something that seems to make the impossible real.

However, an author should also be careful to leave himself some freedom when it comes to magic.  Magic is magic, it shouldn’t feel like science.  Karpyshyn is a great example of this, another great example is Brandon Sanderson.  Sanderson is a good author (hit and miss for me though, I love The Way of Kings but hate the Mistborn series), but his ‘magic’ systems feel like scientific formulas, everything is exactly known, and it all has to be explained.  Patrick Rothfuss (Name of the Wind) does a good job of making rules for his magic (sympathy), but also leaving a lot of real magic (naming) in his world.  On the far end of the spectrum is Glen Cook (The Black Company) who’s magic is delightfully surprising, and (to the reader) feels ‘real’ without being remotely formulaic.  I honestly can’t say whether this is a product of Cook having a solid core of what can and can’t happen somewhere in the background (the reader never gets much of it explained), or if he’s simply a good enough writer that he can pull it off without one, but the magic in his books makes it feel like anything is possible, while it is clear that not everything is possible.  It is always surprising, without ever feeling ridiculous, which is exactly what magic should be (in my opinion).

It should be dangerous.

Magic does not exactly have ‘rules’ in Avnul, but it does have guidelines.  For instance, there are the Hatarim and the Sannur, two different sets of god like beings, one more powerful than the other.  Both have the ability to grant their power to mortals, but obviously Hatarim can grant more power to more mortals than Sannur.  Magic is limited both by a character’s knowledge/creativity, and by a sources willingness to give up the power necessary for the spell.  There are, of course, other sources of power (such as blood), but these are very limited, and certainly can’t take the place of a Hatarim or Sannur.  I’m not going to go anymore into detail about magic in Avnul right now, suffice it to say that I have an idea of what is possible, and what is not, and this is the core of what you need.  Magic can be as powerful as you want in your world, but don’t write about how Arktosh the sorcerer can call down the sun from the heavens and sink continents, and then limit your sorcerers to petty tricks… at least, not without a good reason (i.e. Arktosh was so powerful that he all but destroyed magic and now everyone else has to make due with what’s left).  George R.R. Martin handles this well in Game of Thrones as he shows how magic in his world is connected to dragons.  When the last dragon died, magic all but disappeared (a few vestiges), but as dragons come back into the world through the course of the books, magic becomes more powerful, and other magical creatures begin to awaken.  The key is to be consistent, and if you appear to break consistency, both have a good reason for doing so (i.e. the plot line requires it) and provide the reader with a strong explanation for doing so.  Cook did this well in the later books of The Black Company.  I’m not going to try to explain all of it (it would require a second whole post) but the series is worth reading anyway, this is just one more reason for you to do so.

And it should be haunting.

Alright, that’s enough of my prattling for now.  Remember, with your magic: have an idea of the possible/impossible, be consistent, don’t turn it into science.  These are the three core rules of writing good magic.

5 thoughts on “World Building Part… I forgot… Anyway, it’s about Magic

  1. Something else to consider, and I don’t know if you plan to talk about this later on or not, is the consequences of your magic. If any random priest of your favorite local deity can resurrect your dead companions for a few gold coins (D&D), why can’t the villain be resurrected the same way? If any decent mage can produce a lightning bolt from his finger tips at will, why are so many warriors running around in metal armor (almost any high-magic fantasy you can name)?

    There are, of course, solutions to these problems. In most cases, there are many. Maybe the dead can only be resurrected if you have all the parts, and you took the villain’s head. Maybe it can only be done within three days of the person’s death, and you sat around for three days to make sure. Maybe only good gods can resurrect the dead, and they don’t like villains. Whatever the reason is, just make sure you have one.

  2. This is a good point, and it is something that I plan to talk about at a later point. In fact, this is actually a part of two different posts: how magic interacts with culture, and how magic interacts with government and law. For instance, maybe magic can resurrect the dead, but it is illegal to resurrect criminals. Maybe only specially sanctioned inquisitor priests can resurrect the criminal dead, and then only for specific reasons. … … …Oooh… I think I just gave myself an idea for a short story.

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