1. GHMP
    Offline

    GHMP New Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2012
    Messages:
    5
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    South Florida

    Well-defined systems: do people really care about them?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by GHMP, Oct 16, 2012.

    Hey, this is my first post (other than my introduction post a few months ago), so I apologize if I'm doing anything wrong. I'll get right to it.


    Lately, I've been wondering what others think of the "systems" writers lay out in their stories, such as how magic works. Personally, I'll feel rather cheated/disinterested if a magic system changes abruptly or isn't defined well.

    For example, take the Harry Potter series. I didn't like the magic because I thought it lacked a defined system to go by. It seems like the author made things up as they went on, rather than defining a system and sticking to it.

    For example, how do you 'make spells' that have specific effects, if magic is essentially "voicing irrelevant syllables and waving your wand"? How did all of the original spells come to be, and how did wizards learn them all?
    I just think the magic system could've been a lot more interesting if the author elaborated a bit more and explained how it works gradually through the book. Instead, it was just this bland, flat system where you wave a wand, say a word, and things happen based on what the author needs to happen for this specific part in the series. Occasionally, someone will make a spell with very specific effects; who knows how they did it? Apparently, no one cares, because none of the characters try to figure out how to make spells so they can make a Kill Voldemort Spell.

    Not only that, but magic was cruelly underused. They didn't use teleportation or the spells that could kill people in one shot nearly enough, and sometimes the author just pretended certain spells didn't exist.


    Anyway, I shouldn't let myself rant about Harry Potter. The point is, I think it lacked a system, and I'm wondering if people (other than me) actually care about systems. When I think about magic systems for my stories, I think about more than just "what happens". I also think "how does this happen" and "how is this used in everyday life" and "what causes the effects of magic".

    I think about the underlying systems and the technical details behind them. I feel kind of cheap if I leave it at "You wave a wand and say words, then effects happen based on the word you say". Some of the first things that would come to my mind if I came upon this idea for a magic system would be "How does that make any sense? Why is it just those words, and not other ones? What system is used to define how the syllables of the word determine the effects of the spell?"

    Maybe it's just me who thinks this way, because I haven't seen any magic systems that actually make some form of sense; in fact, most of the high fantasy magic is completely neglected when it comes to explanation. I don't mean "hit me with the technical details about magic at the front page", but at least put some effort into explaining how things work to me throughout the book (or the first half of the book or something).

    Am I the only one who cares about this kind of stuff?
     
  2. Mr Mr
    Offline

    Mr Mr Active Member

    Joined:
    May 28, 2011
    Messages:
    701
    Likes Received:
    9
    Location:
    London, UK
    While I do love Harry Potter, I have to agree with you on the lack of an explanation for how spells work. The spell making thing stuck out to me aswell. Although it doesn't affect the series greatly not knowing how magic works. In most of my stories I make sure to have a set out system for magic, and if it's important, an explanation for how it works.
     
  3. Shard
    Offline

    Shard New Member

    Joined:
    Oct 15, 2012
    Messages:
    4
    Likes Received:
    0
    It depends. As the author, you must always make the decision that fits with and enriches the story. Obviously, J. K. Rowling didn't feel like she had to detail the magic system. In a way, by the nature of magic, it can seem silly to just ascribe it to a system. Many stories present magic as a living, breathing force, such as Harry Potter. There was actually a system in place, but it was very vague, which works just as well, from both a narrative and practical perspective. Part of the, well, magic of magic is the mystery of it all. You can't quite grasp it all. If you knew everything that magic could do, it would be less exciting. It lets the author throw curveballs.

    Of course, as the author, you can do anything. Ascribing a system to magic is similar to making up futuristic technologies for science fiction. After all, any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, and any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. I myself am making a magical system for a story I am writing that makes magic sort of resemble computer programs, but a specific link in magic was lost through a conflict. Concrete magic systems seem to work best in stories with a more cynical bent, in my opinion.

    Or if your story is particularly video game-y, but that may get on some people's nerves.
     
  4. 123456789
    Offline

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    6,351
    Likes Received:
    3,092
    Actually, I disagree.

    I am not a Harry Potter fan, but I will say I thought her inclusion of magic was done fairly well. She created a field (magic) that worked similar to how science works in the real world. That is, it doesn't always work. Everything is nuanced. A spell that works once, might not work again so well next time, which would explain why those mega spells you mentioned were not exploited to their fullest extent.

    Second off, we only ever experience the use of magic through the POV of novices. They don't know what the heck's going on.

    Lastly, the magic system was divided in such a way (just like science is in real life) that everything was esoteric enough that I would not expect many of the characters to have a great grasp on the concept in its entirety.

    I think if J.K.R had went out of her way to fine the magic system any more explicitly than she did, I don't think the credibility would necessarily change much, just the tone of the story.

    If the main characters of the story were expert wizards, then I might have problems.
     
  5. futureblind
    Offline

    futureblind New Member

    Joined:
    Oct 17, 2012
    Messages:
    9
    Likes Received:
    0
    Magic is supposed to be misunderstood and have a mystique about it. It's supposed to be dangerous and mysterious, in my opinion. When you take that away, and let everything be known, not only do you lose the ability to come up with things later, but you also take the magic out of magic. On top of that, does it really matter? It always annoys me when writers bog their stuff down with useless, irrelevant information that does little to add to the story. Does one really have to explain magic? It's magic.
     
  6. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,352
    Likes Received:
    2,896
    Location:
    Boston
    As long as it's a logical system, I'm fine with it. It really didn't matter to me that the "history" of the magic wasn't explained. What mattered was that the magic system was, for the most part, believable. The harder spells took time for them to learn (apparating comes to mind). What I didn't like was how quickly Hermione (and sometimes Harry) was able to master these spells, but that's a different issue.
     
  7. GHMP
    Offline

    GHMP New Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2012
    Messages:
    5
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    South Florida
    Thanks for all of the posts!

    Hi futureblind,
    I agree with you about how annoying it is when writers bog things down with useless information.

    However, I don't think explaining how the system works will "let everything be known", unless the system is dull. If the system makes way for creative mages and is flexible and powerful enough, then you could most certainly write interesting things that mages do with magic. The way you describe magic seems to be the kind of magic I don't really like; in my opinion, magic like you explain seems to be an author's tool to do anything they want, whenever they want, without having to think through it much.

    It's like a cop-out to any situation, like "the grand master wizard used his powerful magic ability to get himself out of this sticky situation and force the heroes to continue chasing him for another book", or "the grand master wizard knows where the hero is because he can taste the magic in him...however that's done". I see this quite often in books. Magic is in the staff, and it just does whatever is needed for the hero at the time. Magic is in the demon, so he can sense where people are. Magic is in the demon, so he can burn people up by looking at them. Magic is in the demon, so he can tell whether or not people are telling the truth instinctually.

    It's these kinds of magic "systems" that I don't like and I don't think are justifiable; the writer needs something to happen, so they use magic as an excuse. It's a part of the world and the lore, but yet all it seems to come up in are situations where X needs to happen without a rational way of it happening. It's exclusive to a few characters without any reason behind why other characters can't use it (or don't use it).


    What I didn't like was how little they used the harder spells. Dumbledore barely ever did anything with his magic, but yet he was supposed to be a great wizard. Not only that, but it seems like after a certain point in the story, they just started to throw around lightning and fire just by pointing their wands, even though they didn't do that before. If Harry learns how to throw lightning out of his wand by the end of the book, why weren't other people doing that when they were fighting with each other before? Certainly the older, experienced wizards would have known how to do this long before Harry, right?

    But there were "expert wizards" all over the place, and they didn't even use a lot of the powerful magics until later in the series; magics that, as mentioned above, Harry/Hermione could do as teenagers. Also, people were teleporting all over the place and yet they didn't seem to do it when they were actually fighting.

    Thank you for the analogy, Shard.

    Speaking of video games, maybe my entire vendetta with undetailed magic systems stems from my interest in game design. You don't want to make everything unpredictable in a game, because then the player won't be able to know what to do and when to do it. Maybe I'm letting game design rub onto my writing and that's why I seem to be...dense...when it comes to magic systems?

    I guess it all boils down to personal opinions on what magic "should be". Some people think magic is more interesting when it's unpredictable and random.

    Maybe I should just stop calling my magic systems "magic" to eliminate all preconceptions...
     
  8. futureblind
    Offline

    futureblind New Member

    Joined:
    Oct 17, 2012
    Messages:
    9
    Likes Received:
    0
    Yes. I understand where you are coming from, and I agree to an extent, although in this particular case, we are talking about a kid's book. It reminds me of the new Tron movie. The visuals and the music was great, but the acting itself was horrible, and although that disappointed me, it was understandable seeing as how the movie was geared towards kids. I think it's a matter of target audience.
     
  9. DefinitelyMaybe
    Offline

    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 31, 2012
    Messages:
    866
    Likes Received:
    227
    Location:
    Leicester, UK
    I do care about internal consistency. I haven't read the Harry Potter books. But from what the OP writes it seems as if there are circumstances similar to this:

    Harry Potter (or other character) has at some time in the past used a spell X that achieves Y.

    Later on, Harry Potter (or other character) is in a predicament that they could solve by using spell X.

    For some unexplained reason, Harry Potter (or other character) doesn't use spell X to get out of that predicament.

    I understand how authors of a series of books may paint themselves into corners. However, even so internal inconsistency like that annoys me.
     
  10. Kectacoco
    Offline

    Kectacoco Member

    Joined:
    Oct 7, 2012
    Messages:
    20
    Likes Received:
    0
    If I'm reading something and the author tells me that there's a well defined system for some aspect of the setting, I will expect that system to play a significant part in the plot. Even if you can just tell that a system is well defined, I will expect it to have some effect on the plot.

    In the case of Harry Potter we really just have a setting where one can ask, “why did foo happen?” And the answer is, literally, “a wizard did it!” And that's just fine, we don't need any more detail than that. The story is about people who use magic, not the magic itself.

    Now, in the case of a book like Wizard's Bane, where there is a well defined system, that system plays a significant part in how the story transpires.

    If you transposed their respective magic systems, I do not think either book would have worked as well as they did. It's all about giving the reader an appropriate level of detail.
     

Share This Page