Meeting Your Goals for Magic

16 Oct

Meeting Your Goals for Magic

Last time I talked about the purpose of magic in fantasy. I covered wonder/coolness, conflict, and solutions. Now I am going to talk about how magic can be used to meet these goals.

There are two basic types of magic common in fantasy. The “scientific magic system”, and the way Tolkien did it. The latter has fallen into disuse as a pure system, but there are bastard systems significantly influenced by it. First, let’s talk Tolkienian:

Magic that is left mysterious gets top score in one specific category: awe and wonder. We are naturally more impressed by things we don’t understand. Lightning; auroras; that girl down the hall who can play anything on the piano. (Not that I have any particular experience with that last, nope I do not.) Just wow. Well, it’s the same with magic. The less we understand about how it works, the more we are amazed by it. After all, you know stage magicians are fakes, but that doesn’t make the disappearing space shuttle any less awesome, does it? It’s not about the effect; it’s about the cleverness behind it.

Mysterious magic also allows the author to create conflict. Ha! You thought Mr. Protagonist was safe, did you? Too bad you didn’t know that “every magical action has an equal and opposite disproportionately large magical reaction”. Surprise! This is Atsiko’s Third Law of Magic. And it’s also purpose number two. So far, so good.

But the problem with un-explained magic arises when an author uses it to address a story conflict without. As readers, we don’t mind the first kind of surprise. It’s not piling on the pain that we have a problem with, it’s snapping your fingers and making it vanish… as opposed to, you know, actually making the characters work for their victories. This can result in us readers feeling cheated. The author ratcheted up the tension and threw this character into a difficult spot. We didn’t know how the character was going to get out of it. Great, we love that. We want to discover how the character gets out of it. But if the answer is just to throw magic at the problem—magic you didn’t tell us about, or even hint that the character could apply to this situation—that big balloon of tension and suspense is immediately deflated. It wasn’t the character that solved the problem, it was the author. This is called “deus ex machina”, a Greek term which means “the author is a lazy ass”.

The excitement that comes from stage magic in our world revolves around the magician doing something they shouldn’t be able to do, even though we know there’s a logical reason behind it. It’s supposed to make no sense. The fun is in making sense of it. But in fantasy, where real world rules don’t always apply, we don’t know there’s a logical reason behind it, and we won’t be able to make logical sense out of it—unless the author helps us. There’s more likely an arbitrary reason behind it, anyway: author fiat. Using fantasy magic doesn’t require an author to be clever–only autocratic.  But it helps if they are.

In the real world, there are rules and the world never deviates from them, even if we don’t know what they are. The system runs itself, and it can’t cop out when things aren’t going its way. But in a fantasy world, the author runs the system, and they can cheat whenever they want. In order for us to suspend disbelief as readers, we have to be convinced that the author is following her own rules, and the best way to do this is to establish them early, and have everything follow them. If the author wants to do something the current rules don’t allow, they must set up the proper conditions beforehand. Either they explain the new rule and how it fits into the old system before using it, or we feel like they pulled a fast one.

And thus we come to the “scientific” magic system. What it lacks in awe and wonder, it makes up for in suspension of disbelief. It does this by mimicking a facet of real-world “science”: logical consistency. In the case of magic, I will refer to this as the Principle of Non-Retroactive Consistency. That is: “no new rule may invalidate an old solution, or (and this is the important one) invalidate an old conflict. That’s the secret of maintaining suspension of disbelief in us readers. If a new power could have been used to greater effect during a previous conflict and was not, then it is clear to us that the either the author withheld this rule to create more tension, or else has now found themselves in a corner that they are too lazy to think through or incapable of getting out of using their old rules. In the first case, they artificially created tension and suspense to make a scene more exciting. This is not nice. It tricks readers, and we do not like that. In the second case, they artificially extricated the hero from an unwinnable situation so that the story could continue. This is not nice. It’s a way to avoid good plotting, and we do not like that, either. One way or the other our suspension of disbelief is broken. Bad author! No royalties for you! Word of mouth shall bury your book. (And that could ruin your career. As an author, you don’t get to make that sort of mistake—not if you want to keep writing under your current name, anyway.)

So what system is best for you? We have established that magic can be divided into two categories. Here’s a condensed description of both:

1. Magical— This form of magic is usually not practiced by the heroes. The author does not explain its rules, except in very general terms, and its pros and cons are not revealed. Most useful for providing a sense of wonder and awe. It is not used to get a character out of a tough spot. Rather, it is more likely to create conflict than resolve it. Or else it balances solution with creation. The real solution comes from the characters’ other strengths. Like courage, or compassion. You know, the things that make them a hero.

2. Scientific— This magic is generally explained in detail. The rules especially are known, and it has a clearly defined set of limits and costs. Most useful for direct application to plot conflicts, and is most often wielded by one or more of the protagonists and their allies. It can be used to create and resolve conflict, because it does not deceive the reader with a false sense of tension. But it is not awe-inspiring. Usually. magic systems can fall anywhere in between these two extremes, and a balance is generally best for what most authors want to accomplish. It’s like distributing stat points. You’ve got to make compromises. You can’t be both a powerful wizard and a powerful warrior… Or can you? (See below.)

Next time, I will examine in detail how magic can be used to create and/or resolve conflict. That entry will be slightly more snarky, however. Many authors have screwed this part up. Beware: Names will be Named.

Secret bonus snark: Remember that Law I mentioned in the last post? As a special bonus, I will explain it–and a few other nifty gewgaws.


Posted by on October 16, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 responses to “Meeting Your Goals for Magic

  1. David Zahir

    October 16, 2009 at 6:35 AM

    Excellent points all–but I feel compelled to point out that Tolkien’s “magic” essentially is a form of heightened existence. The Ring works best for deceit and for conquest because it is OF Sauron. Likewise Gandalf continually does things that are “magical” yet are really just extensions of his own nature.

    Likewise elven “magic” consists of simply making things do what they are intended to do extremely well, be it rope or cakes or swords or cloaks. Not scientific, but with a definite idea behind it.

  2. atsiko

    October 16, 2009 at 7:08 AM

    Excellent point from you, too.


    We agree his magic is no scientific, yes? Great. That’s the whole point of this post: the pros and cons of “scientfic” magic versus “magical” magic.

    This is one of the problems with blog posts. They have to be reasonably short, and to the point. I can only address so much in a single one.

    I suppose I could replace Tolkien with Hobb, if I come to the conclusion that it’s a big issue.

    But, since this is the comment section, we can debate and discuss in detail all we want.

    Much of Tolkien’s magic is indeed heightened existence. But which traits are heightened? That part is quite flexible. Gandalf and Saruman can use magical telekinetics. Gandalf can talk to animals. The elves can force nature to make use of heightened existence. And some things have specific effects. Like Sting. I haven’t read LOTR in awhile, but I’m sure there are other examples to support both our sides (which really aren’t that different in the first place, I suppose.)

    And I never said mysterious magic couldn’t make sense. It’s just not explained.

    • Aaron Christiansen

      August 4, 2015 at 3:46 PM

      Let’s not forget that in Tolkien’s world, wizards aren’t human beings with spells. They are magical beings who are direct servants of the creator deity, sent to middle earth to combat their evil equivalents who are bent on controlling middle earth.

      • atsiko

        August 4, 2015 at 6:07 PM

        That’s true, also. Perhaps I worded things a bit poorly, but after re-reading the post, the “magic” in Tolkien’s books is definitely what I meant by non-scientific magic.


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