The Rules and Reasons of Magic

Usually when people talk about magic in novels, they also talk about rules. What limitations are there on magic? Who can perform it and when? Under what circumstances? What can’t magic control? Do you have to be born with magical abilities or can anyone learn?

Most people agree that your system of magic needs some rules; otherwise your main character would never be in any real danger. But N.K. Jemisin’s post at io9 takes the opposite view. It’s magic–why do we need to explain it?

“Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death – things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense. In fact, I think it’s coolest when it doesn’t.”

My first reaction was, admittedly, a bit of pearl-clutching. “Of course magic needs to make sense! How else will we understand your world? How else will there be tension?”

But I don’t think Jemisin’s saying that creating a magical world is akin to playing wizards as a kid. (“Zap! I got you!” “No you didn’t, I’m wearing an invisible shield that protects me from spells!” “Well my spell destroys invisible shields!”) I think the point is more about over-explaining magical systems. At some level, the audience just has to buy the fact that magic exists and that it works a certain way. In Harry Potter, every wizard has a wand that’s specially tied to him. Although JK Rowling goes into a little background on what makes a wand, we don’t get pages of the history of wand-making and what exactly ties a wizard to his particular wand. Harry goes to Ollivanders, tries a few wands, and eventually get to his. Rowling doesn’t need to stop the action to explain why wizards have wands outside of “they help perform magic.” At some level, the reader just has to buy that wizards need wands.

That said, I don’t think you can just throw magic on the page and assume it’s all okay. You still need some limitations and a level of consistency. In Doctor Who, the Doctor carries a sonic screwdriver that can pretty much fix/adjust/open/etc. anything. Except a natural substance like wood. Having a limitation like that means that the Doctor can’t just go around screwdriver-ing everything; it would make for a fairly boring episode. There’s always the threat that his magical device won’t be able to help him out of a jam.

Also, I think it’s good for a writer to have worked out their magical system in detail. It doesn’t have to go on the page, but it’s good for you to know in advance so you can heighten tension and get your characters out of binds in a way that’s still exciting for the reader.

(via bookshelves of doom)(image: Kaptain Kobold)

Making the Magic Happen

We probably all wish that we could cast spells and charms, but let’s face it: magic is hard. Even for writers. Although magical elements are really fun in novels, they can present an author a whole new set of rules. Over at Literary Rambles, Laura Lascarso talks about making magic real in writing. She uses Ella Enchanted, a personal favorite, to explore the development of a magical world. A couple of her suggestions:

Introduce magic early on. In the first chapter, there should be a hint of the supernatural. It’s not cool to get halfway through a book and discover that your main character is really a mummy without several big hints along the way. It works against a reader’s suspended disbelief. In EE, Ella is cursed by a fairy as an infant and it’s introduced in the very first paragraph. Straight away, the reader knows what kind of story this is going to be and can adjust their expectations accordingly.”

I think readers are a lot more willing to accept magical elements if they’re introduced early on. Otherwise, a reader might feel like the author has been disingenuous about the characters and their world. Plus, it’s more fun to see magical elements up front. Why hide them?

Lay out the rules for magic and then stick to them. In EE, Ella is cursed with obedience. The rule is, she has to follow a direct order. The book maintains that rule throughout the book—every time Ella is given a direct order, no matter how ridiculous or dangerous, she must follow it. If the rule were to change halfway through the story (without explanation), the reader would balk. Like in playing a game, you can’t change the rules in the middle.”

Wildly important. No matter what kind of world you create, your world needs rules–even magical ones. Trying to change these rules in the middle of your book will just confuse your reader and, again, make them distrust you. A reader can accept even the wildest concept as long as it’s cohesive.

Make sure to check out the full list. How do you keep your magical worlds in order?