1. TokyoVigilante
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    TokyoVigilante Member

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    Magic

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by TokyoVigilante, Dec 6, 2010.

    Something I briefly mentioned in a thread concerning the stigma against Fantasy. I figured it deserved its own thread.

    What is the general consensus here on Magic? How does one go about writing good Magic? When does Magic go from being an element in a setting to being a plot device? Does Magic encourage writer laziness? What sorts of limitations and rules should writers use to keep their Magic from spoiling the drama of their story?

    Magic is the source of my general lack of interest in Fantasy and my preference for Science Fiction. My main issue with Magic is that it gives the characters the ability to manipulate the universe (and as a result the plot) to the writers convenience. It's a handy tool that, when abused, can entirely spoil any sort of drama, prevent creative ways of resolving conflict, and create lapses in logic that can't be easily explained if they're put under any scrutiny.

    I'm sure there are good uses of Magic around, but I think it's both easier to write magic and write it poorly. Hence bad magic is more prevalent.

    Discuss!
     
  2. JetMasta
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    JetMasta Member

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    I think, if the writer over does the use of magic. Then the over all plot ends up, somthing that I really think is unrealistic.
     
  3. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    It is a story - beauty of writing fantasy I can give full range to my imagination. The art is to make it work with the characters and world created. I mean whilst the likes of Narnia, Pern, Discworld, the Faraway Tree, Merlin and Morgan le Fey, Midsummers Night Dream etc are believable when reading they are never gonna be realistic :)

    In the world I created magic is normal - anyone can learn it. However it is also difficult and painful so not everyone uses. It comes out of a meditation using five elements (earth, wind, fire, sea and mystery). It has a fighting (Iron Falcon) discipline attached.

    Usually when mad they can't be bothered and resort to fist fights :)

    Main use in my books is to turn into a bird form - however it can be used merely to calm the senses - seperate spirit and bodies. It can be used to form connections with other people and to invade minds.

    My favourite use was when it took 15 people, 5 years to build a city using clay earth, mixed with water, the wind shaped it then fire fired it to create the ceramic dome buildings. It was located in the valley of the wind (the soil removal created the valley) etc

    Of course it is not realistic but then it isn't when they turn into a swan, peacock, falcon or albatross etc
     
  4. JetMasta
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    JetMasta Member

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    I didnt mean realistic, literaly XD
    I just ment that, I personally dont like it when writer's over do magic in such a way that the story line itself doesn't make enough sence.
     
  5. TobiasJames
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    TobiasJames Contributing Member

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    Magic is dangerous territory, but it doesn't deserve its bad reputation. Like so many things in the Fantasy genre, if it's used badly then it ruins the book. Some great plots have been spoiled by the wanton application of magic to solve all of life's little problems. (That's right, Sword of Truth series, I'm looking at you.)

    The best way to write magic is to think of it as an extension of physics that we haven't yet discovered. This way, it is bound to the same universal laws of nature that affect all other things. For example:
    - Every action requires a reaction. Cause and effect - if you're using magic, what is the cost?
    - Matter is permanent and exhaustive. You can't create something new out of nothing. Similarly, you can't make matter disappear.
    - Magic uses energy, which requires an energy transfer. Where does magical power originate? In what form is it manifest? 'Elemental' magic is therefore believable, because natural energy already manifests itself in the form of heat, light, kinetic, etc. Things like invisibility or healing magic, however, don't have a sound scientific grounding and are therefore less believable.
    ...and most importantly...
    - It must be beatable. Characters who are invincible thanks to magic are poor solutions to problems IMHO. Just like anything in the physical world, magic must be able to be counteracted or its effects diminished. Anything else is unrealistic.
     
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  6. goldhawk
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    goldhawk Senior Member

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    "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
    -- Arthur C. Clarke

    Don't think so? Can you describe how your computer works? I mean a detailed description of what goes on inside of it. No? Well, you're not the only one. People can use technology without knowing how it works. In fantasy, people can use magic without knowing how it works.

    What makes good magic is consistency. Does it work the way your readers expect it to work? Part of telling a story is to build anticipation in your readers and you can't do that if you're inconsistent.

    In other words, don't give your balrog wings and then drop him down a deep, dark chasm. Unless, of course, he's a really stupid balrog and never figured out what wings are for. :)
     
  7. TobiasJames
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    TobiasJames Contributing Member

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    Technology is still bound by the universal laws of physics though. ;) It's important IMHO.
     
  8. darthjim
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    darthjim Member

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    There's no reason to believe there aren't laws of physics we don't know about though. For instance, according to the laws of physics, there isn't enough matter in the universe to generate the gravity necessary to hold it together. So scientists came up with the theory of "dark matter". Mysterious matter that we can't detect in any way and no one can prove is there; but must be because otherwise we'd all be non-existent. Sounds a bit like magic to me.

    With regard to magic in fantasy novels, I'm willing to run with most things as long as it's not used lazily, i.e. "the hero zapped the dark lord with enormously huge amounts of magic from his magic thing-a-ma-jig and whaddya know it's the end". I hate that.

    Make it intrinsic to the world, make it not all-powerful, make it accessible to most of your characters. I always thought that the Force in the original Star Wars movies was a good use of "magic" without having ridiculously over-powered characters that ruin the story.
     
  9. AnathemicOne
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    AnathemicOne Member

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    And here comes the argument on whether the balrog had wings or not =P
     
  10. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    What makes a good system of magic?
    Rules, limits, cost. These are the pegs that hold the tent of your story to the ground and keep it from being whisked away by a puff of wind. Rules, limits, and cost. Love them, use them, fiddle with them, and never ever abandon them.

    Rules mean that the magic user has lines he cannot cross, things he cannot do. Sometimes these are imposed by society, sometimes they are imposed by a god or other higher power, sometimes they are just part of the world, like the law of gravity.

    In the Dresden files, for example, you can animate animals with necromancy but trying it on a human corpse is a death-penalty offence all across the globe. You can't even go to Amsterdam and do necromancy; the local wizards will kill you just as dead as they would in Mexico or the U.S. or in China. Necromancy is bad, so even though it is possible for suitably focused wizards, there are rules that stop most people from even looking up the necessary rites, let alone actually trying an animation spell.

    In The Name of the Wind, several characters run smack up against the rules against using magic in non-wizarding towns or to cause violence -- even self-defensive magic is frowned upon if you try to use it against a nonmagical thief or hired killer.

    In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, each kind of metal can power one kind of magical reaction. That's it. Those are the rules of magic. Nothing you can do will make gold useful for pushing, or make tin useful for predicting the future. That's just how it is.

    Now, on to limits.

    Limits are boundaries that are hard to cross. Everyone should have them. It can be that a particular spell takes a great deal of finesse, so it's hard to do the spell for that reason. It could be that a spell can only be cast by people who know the relevant sigils or glyphs, or only be cast by people who know trigonometry, or only be cast by people who speak both Ur-Aramaic and Latin.

    Now, a character can cross these boundaries, these limits. Perhaps he needs to put in another hundred hours of practice in order to get that very precise spell correct. Perhaps he needs to hit the books and review his trig functions or learn differential equations. But the point is that there are barriers to certain magical spells or processes which many people will find hard to overcome.

    This is important because it's how the real world works. Even if all healthy people can run, it takes lots of additional effort to work up to running marathons. Even if all normal people can learn math up to geometry, it takes extra schooling and extra effort for people to learn the calculus and other higher mathematics necessary for aerospace engineering. People who are awesome-fantastic at math, who can learn multivariable calculus in their spare time at the age of ten, are ridiculously rare -- you don't meet them much in the real world, unless you go to a place like MIT that collects them. And even then, they're unusual.

    In other words, limits make your magic real. They turn magic into something almost tangible, something that readers can relate to; it becomes a profession, one that you can get better at by working hard, but one that most people wouldn't choose as a full-time job.

    Think of it like this. If I get sick, I don't go to med school; I go to a doctor. If my car breaks down, I go to a mechanic. Well, magic should be similar. If a blacksmith needs a bunch of magically sharpened blades, he doesn't go to the Academy to train; he hires a metalbinder who comes in, sets up the relevant workspace, examines the fifty or so blades the blacksmith sets before him, and sharpens them. Then the metalbinder collects his equipment, gets paid and leaves -- on to the next smith's shop, or perhaps to the jeweler's where the proprietor needs a bunch of copper and silver bars stretched out into fine strands of wire. Or to a farmer whose cow has eaten a sharp bit of wire, where the metalbinder can mold the sharp wire into a little harmless round blob instead, saving the life of the cow.

    Third, there must be a cost.

    The cost can vary. Perhaps it is in time spent, or resources required. Perhaps you must make a sacrifice to the relevant ancestor or god. Or maybe you need to provide a bit of your own flesh, blood, spirit, or soul to power the spell. (And there go all the casual uses for magic.) Perhaps you age a bit every time, or take a coinflip chance of going mad. Perhaps you'll spend a day in a dead sleep afterward. Or maybe you'll have to summon a wraith to do your bidding, making an enemy for life in the process.

    Cost differs from a limit in that limits can be overcome with practice or training, and costs cannot. In some systems you can reduce magic's cost through experience or practice, but you can't eliminate it entirely; you just have to use a gram of gold instead of three grams.

    This also puts magic firmly in the real world. Even an engineer or a doctor will be hard-pressed to help you without their tools -- what good is a doctor without bandages, splints, blankets, even a bit of water and sugar for dehydrated people? What good is a soldier without the field kit they carry, or weapons or vehicles? Of what use is a mechanic without his toolbox?

    A wizard without his tools should be equally hard done by. Without a wand to focus power -- without incence of rose petals to gain the attention of the gods -- without an emerald to power the magic spell and a jade arrow to direct it -- the wizard should be like any other toolless professional.

    Now, here I'm using tools (things used to set up and direct a spell) and power sources (the energy that powers the spell) interchangeably. This is deliberate, because even tools invoke a cost. Someone had to get the wood for the wand, the metal for the rings, the rose petals for the incense. A miner had to dig for the jewels; a jeweler had to cut the raw gemstone into a gem suitable for powering spells.

    Even if the wizard's tools are his hands and mind and his power is focused with his own will, there is a cost. He can't hold a weapon in his hands while he's making intricate gestures, can he? He can't be drunk or recently concussed or faint from loss of blood and still summon his will, can he? This means he has to keep himself healthy -- wouldn't do to lose a hand if you need it for spells -- and well-fed and -watered. He can't allow himself to become so scared in a fight that his focus disappears, and he can't get drunk, or allow himself to become too tired. In a case like this, the cost is what he loses as a result of the time he has to spend keeping himself alert and undistracted. Can't run after the pretty ladies when your mind has to be distraction-free, after all . . .

    So remember. Rules, limits, costs. These three will make or break a magic system. Without these, you end up like the "Sword of Truth" series, roundly mocked for having a Gary Stu protagonist and a magic system best described as "The Art of the Arse-Pull." But done well, you get a reputation as a great worldbuilder -- like Brandon Sanderson, Jim Butcher or J.K. Rowling.

    Magic: story element, or plot device?

    Like everything else, it depends on where the author focuses her writing. An author who shows the presence of magic frequently will be said to have used it as an element in her story. An author who brings out the character's "Oh yeah! Also, I can fix this problem with MAGIC!" now and then but ignores magic the rest of the time is using it as a plot device.

    To illustrate, let's use the awesome SF / Fantasy hybrid Dies the Fire. A couple characters are mentioned to have done some hang-gliding before the story starts; near the end, hang-gliding is used to get them behind the walls of an enemy fort. Here, the hang-gliding is a plot device. When it isn't moving the story along, it doesn't show up much.

    Other characters in the story are archers and Wiccans who take their religion very seriously. The archers use bows to hunt, to defend their homes, as exercise, and in tests of skill. The Wiccans see the God and Goddess's gifts everywhere, and incorporate their religion into their daily life, into their feasts and songs, and into their art. When the archers win a battle for their side purely through their strength with bows, it cannot be merely a plot device; it's too much at the heart of the story for that. Similarly, when Wiccan soldiers go battle-wild and move fast, like they're possessed or given a gift by the Morrigu Herself, that's not a plot device; the religion is too much a part of the characters' lives to be merely plot device.

    When magic is used a lot, it becomes much more an element of the story than a plot device you pull out for convenience. In The Name of the Wind, for example, magic never seems like a gimmick because it's part of life. It's in the songs and in the streets, in the rhymes children sing and in the halls of the University. When a character manages to calm a blaze with magic, we readers don't blink an eye -- the man had already been clearly established as a master, and he used his magic on a smaller scale all the time to make fine clockwork devices and useful magic-powered tools. At that point, it would be considerably stranger for the man to use a soaked blanket to douse the flame than for him to use his magical talents.

    Does magic encourage writer laziness?
    Yes and no. Writers who are inclined to laziness will find all kinds of excuses for it. "It's a mystery! I don't have to leave clues the reader can find; Sherlock Holmes's stories didn't!" "It's science fiction! I can blame everything weird on advanced technology and nanobots!" "It's literary fiction! I don't need to have a coherent plot!" "It's fantasy! Let's break all the rules of magic repeatedly and hope our readers don't notice! Also, let's make Evil Incarnate . . . a chicken!"

    Frankly, some of the best writing I've ever read came from science fiction and fantasy. Dies the Fire, for one. Lucifer's Hammer. The Name of the Wind. Transformation. The Mote In God's Eye. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. A Game of Thrones. The first two-thirds of The Magicians. Starswarm.

    And some of the worst writing has been science fiction and fantasy -- "The Sword of Truth," One Second After, FlashForward. (I don't care that the man's a Hugo winner; you give me a set of flat uninteresting characters, and I won't read your work again.)

    How do you keep magic from spoiling the drama of your story?
    You incorporate magic so seamlessly into your world that it can no more spoil the drama of your world than could gravity or the laws of physics. Is it hard? Sure. So's everything else worth doing correctly when you write -- things like characterization, tension, measured exposition, detail, setting, dialogue. If you wouldn't let your still-developing skills of characterization or setting stop you from writing, you shouldn't stop writing just because there's a magic system in your world, either.

    Magic -- just another element of worldbuilding. Practice with it, and you'll get better. It's almost ... why, it's almost like everything else that has to do with writing well. *guileless look*
     
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  11. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I agree with the people who said you need to have rules of the universe and stick to them. HeinleinFan and Tobias put it better than I would.

    Main point being - don't use magic as a tool of convenience: "Oh, I can pull this off because it's just fantasy and anything can happen."

    Also, don't let the rules of the universe be broken for your MC. As much as I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, it got super annoying at times...he survived Voldy as a one-year-old, he got to play Quidditch as a 1st-year when no other 1st-years could, he got randomly selected to be in the Triwizard Tournament even though he's underage and a 4th competitor, etc....it got super irritating...and it can make your MC scream "Mary Sue."
     
  12. EagleOne
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    EagleOne Member

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    But they're vestigial wings -- discussion diffused. :)

    Cheers,
     
  13. AnathemicOne
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    AnathemicOne Member

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    Lies. It was stated in the book that the Balrog had shadows "like wings" therefore the shadow is similar in appearance to wings but is not actually physical wings. Then afterwards it is stated that the "wings are spread from wall to wall" therefore implying since the shadow as already stated "like wings" the second passage refers to the "like wings" not implying actual wings since it was stated before it was "like wings".

    -breathes in really deep and exhales-

    HAH LOTR OWNED :D
     
  14. EagleOne
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    EagleOne Member

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    Ah yes; so the wings were purely metaphysical in nature but vestigial in fact and all that smoky shadowy stuff was from the clouded mind of the weak willed observer who passed on the account to the scribe.

    I understand completely now. :)

    Cheers,
     
  15. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    You didn't really read the books did you?

    1) If anyone else had Harry's Mom, chances are they would have survived too. In fact Harry proves this at the end of the last book.

    2) Its not that 1st Years couldn't play Quiditch, or rather Seeker, its just they are normally not allowed brooms. Nothing in the rules says they first years can't play. But I suppose its a minor thing.

    3) As for the Triwizard Tourny... well he wasn't randomly selected. In fact out of everyones name who was going to be put in, Harrys would always have been picked. Something about a plot to revive Voldemort and whatnot.

    Aside from the No Broom rule... everything else he does is well within the Universes Rules and even in the last book, it wasn't an unexpected outcome that somehow defied the established rules.
     
  16. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is the same law of magic used by CS Lewis - ancient forgotten magic revived by power of love. It is how the atonement scene happens in Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

    It didn't break a law it enforced a very powerful one that has been known to take effect in real life. There are many stories of Mother's in their dying breaths using superhuman efforts to save their children - it makes sense a Mother that can use magic would be able to use that beyond her normal range of powers.

    The Quidditch thing is probably down to genetics - his father was good, no reason why son can't have the same eye etc Breaking the no broom rule has nothing to do with magic.

    Again with Goblet of Fire a reason was come up with that fit. It wasn't Harry that did it.
     
  17. HeinleinFan
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    I agree with Unit7 and Elgaisma. Over 7 books, there are a handful of places where the rules are bent for Potter's sake, with some reason -- tradition in the case of the Triwizard Tournament, a "no brooms" rule that doesn't explicitly say first years can't be on the House teams, that sort of thing.

    The rest of the time, the rules -- while crooked and wiggly and sometimes kind of mashed in all together -- stay constant. And readers can trust that the rules aren't, as a rule, going to suddenly change just to benefit the protagonists. Here are some examples:

    You need a wand to do any kind of focused spellwork; the exceptions are all people who've been working at their magic for years, or unusual types of spells like self-transformation into an animal. You need to clearly articulate your spells, because that focuses the spell; people with experience and good mental focus don't have to be quite so careful with their articulation, and a very few can get so they don't need to speak spells aloud. (This particular set of limits shows up again and again in the Potterverse, from Harry's accident coughing out "Diagon Alley" with Floo powder, to Neville's useless "Stubefy!" when his nose was broken.)

    There are even clues planted early on, in some cases, to show when something might prove to be an exception. For example, in the written-for-charity side book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it is mentioned that invisibility cloaks wear out after a few years. I thought, "Oh. I guess Rowling just forgot about Potter's cloak, then." And of course the cloak turned out hugely important in the 7th book; she knew what she was doing with that the whole time.

    And as already noted, you can have exceptions as long as the characters have to work really hard to get around the relevent limit. And occasional lapses from the rules will be forgiven, generally, if the rest of the world seems consistent -- but your readers will love you forever if a lapse turns out to be intentional and plot-relevant. Because then you've shown your readers that your world really is rock-solid believable, and you've also rewarded alert ones who found a seeming "flaw" and grew suspicious.
     

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