Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writing 101: The Magic Next Door

This week will be the first of multiple posts on the big question: how do you develop a magic system?

Making magic is tricky business. All fiction requires some level of suspended disbelief, but fantasy authors have the extra challenge of writing about things we're reasonably sure could never happen in the real world. Done well, and you can win over readers who love fantasy as well as those who shy away from it. Done poorly and you risk yanking readers out of the story, something a writer should almost always try to avoid. So how do you come up with a system that's interesting, non-cliched, and that makes readers want to suspend their disbelief?

I'm going to use one of my favorite words now: verisimilitude! (Try saying it out loud, it's a blast.) It means something that looks and feels true. It's a quality you want to strive for when writing about magic. Give your readers a magic system they can believe in, and you've got an attentive audience.

Today I'm going to go over some tips and basic questions you might ask yourself when working on a magic system. These topics are designed to bring out the verisimilitude of your magic.

Waaait just a minute... am I saying this is the only way you should write magic? Definitely not. Stay tuned for posts from Michael about some different styles of magic systems, which you may prefer. What you get today is my method!

HOW do you use magic?

Is it an innate skill, or can it be taught? How much training is required for basic use, for mastery? Is it voluntary and/or controllable?

What traits must a person possess to be a magic user -- physically strong, intelligent, imaginative? Maybe it's a skillset unique to your world, but maybe not.

Close your eyes and imagine you're a magician in your story. What do you do? Where are you drawing the power from? The air around you, a spiritual force or higher being, yourself?

What effects does magic have on the user? Does it leave you hungry, thirsty, tired, ill, sneezy? If magic comes from within, magicians sure as hell better get exhausted if they do it for too long. Nothing comes from nothing. Something has to be used up, gathered, transformed, or what have you before it turns into magic.

Maintain internal consistency.

Magic that can do everything is boring and strains a reader's suspension of disbelief. Figure out what your magic can do; figure out the logical extensions of that; figure out where it can't go. It can be a huge help to write down physical laws of magic. Then make sure you don't break them.

How far can magic travel? How long does it last? And on that note....

Have ontological inertia.

Forgetting about it is a common trope. If you bake a cake and then you die, the cake doesn't stop existing. So if you make some magical creation or effect/illusion, why would it go away when you die? Of course, there's the possibility that you're constantly working at it to keep it in existence... just, make sure that's what's going on if you take that route.

Then again, if you bake a cake and you die, the cake would eventually start to mold. (Note: death not a necessary precondition for molding cake.) If you mix the batter and then you die, no cake happens, but the batter is still there. What happens to magical creations in your world if left alone for a long time? What if they're not completed?

What are the laws surrounding use of magic?

A blanket ban, or at least ostracization, on all magic is a common plot device. What spins can you put on it? Is there a certain type of magic that's outlawed? Classes or types of people forbidden from using magic? Do you need a license to practice magic, and if so, how do you get it? Are there any safety regulations akin to seatbelt and helmet laws? If your magic hurts someone by mistake, to what extent are you liable?

Can animals use magic?

And if not, why not? Don't handwave it!

Can magic be used to hurt people?

An unfortunate truth is that if it can be, it will. Don't have your people be all unpleasantly shocked when some mastermind decides to use magic in a completely obvious evil way.

What technology has your society developed with magic?

Generally speaking, sci-fi is good at showing the ramifications of technology in many areas of life. Fantasy, not so much. For example: if people in your world have the magic to make things levitate, why aren't there elevators? You can put in constraints if you like, but do make sure they're there. Similarly, consider what technologies would never be developed or would be obsolete. Given that same power of levitation, would the wheel ever have been invented?

Of course, no technology happens overnight; it builds over time. Just don't assume human civilization with magic will mimic human civilization without.

What about other societies in your world?

Do they use magic too? Do they use it differently? Have they discovered aspects of it unknown to other cultures, or on the flip side, are they still "developing"?

If anyone would like to share some of their answers in the comments, go right ahead! I'd love to see what people have come up with.


Holly Dodson said...

Lauren, this is an AWESOME post!! Wow!! I want to print this and hang it on my wall!

Jennifer Rush said...

Great post! Creating a magical world is a tall order, and it's something I've failed at over and over. This post will be a HUGE help on the next project! :D

Alicia Gregoire said...

This post is so timely. I'm about to revise a WIP that relies heavily on magic, so this is getting printed.

Yahong Chi said...

like Alicia said, SO timely! This post is excellent. It's like a how-to post, but specifically for writing magic. Love it love it!

Tere Kirkland said...

Thorough post! And informative. I love to make up magical systems in my books, but to keep my characters on my toes, I like to develop the limitations of the magical system first.

More fun that way!

Thanks for this great post, Lauren!

Michael L. Martin Jr. said...

This is an excellent check list, Lauren.

IanBontems said...

Excellent post, Lauren.

I've been asking myself some of these questions about the system in my own YA fantasy story.

There's a lot to take into account, but this checklist of yours is great for making sure you don't forget anything.

Pam Harris said...

Whoa, this is awesome, Lauren. Great post! :)

Theresa Milstein said...

Great post! You wrote about a subject many people don't think enough about. Magic has to have rules just like everything else. I can't do everything and everything. There have to be limits. And it has to make sense for the readers to buy into it.

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