Magical No-Nos

03 Nov

Well, last post I talked about what it takes to create a believable magic system. There’s not much more to talk about in terms of basic magic theory. And I don’t have the materials on hand for the field work right now. So for now, we’ll just look at a few of the Do’s and Don’ts of magic. All those little things that authors do to drive the reader nuts, whether it’s avoiding good plotting with magic, or making their mage a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, but let’s just pretend “Mary Sue” is a neuter gender noun for now.) So, in this post, the top ten ways to make your mage hero a Sickeningly Speshul Snowflake:

  1. Making them the most powerful mage ever. This is boring. If they’re the best, where’s there competition? Maybe a few authors go as far as to make one of the bad guys the second most powerful mage ever. And maybe the gap isn’t even wide. But we still know the hero won’t lose. Unless the bad guys gang up on him, but that’s unfair and makes them bad sports. Because intelligence is evil. It’s okay not to be the best. Might even be better. Means you have to work and grow as a character and not coast through the conflict like you’re riding a greased watermelon.
  2. Making them the least powerful mage ever. Often leads to angst and whining and bullying of the pathetic MC. Look authors, we don’t want them to be the best ever, but why in the world would we want them to be the worst? A little adversity is good, but when everyone and their pet goat is beating on the hero, it gets old pretty fast. Just because not everyone is for you doesn’t mean everyone is against you.
  3. Making your mage a magical genius. (Somewhat related to #1.) Maybe they’re a newbie now, but they learn fast. Pretty soon, they’ll be taunting the teachers and beating the bullies and out-scoring the nerds on their Theory of Magic Exams. Patrick Rothfuss, I’m looking at you. Maybe the teacher’s are dicks. Maybe your mage is a master already. But leave the schoolboy fantasies for your Hermione slash fic. Always getting your own way is the number one characteristic of a Mary Sue, and having them play the most difficult song in the world while missing a string isn’t exactly making you look unbiased either.
  4. Making your mage the only one of her kind. Very popular in elemental magic systems, where everyone else had one element—two at most—and the hero has four… or five. Why doesn’t anyone ever have three? Or else they’re the only one who can use the fifth secret element. There are plenty more examples of this type of author favoritism. Fantasy may be escapist, but that’s supposed to be for the reader, not the author.
  5. Making your hero the only mage in the world. You’d think I wouldn’t have to go there, but I do. Some authors just don’t get this. There’s a limit to how speshul your snowflake can be before the book hits the wall. A very tight one.
  6. Making your hero immune to the rules. Somewhat related to #4. If there’s a rule that says one person can only use one element, giving your hero two—or four!—is bad. It’s a very blatant attempt to make your hero “speshul.” There’s a frickin’ book written about them, for heaven’s sake. How much more special do you need them to be? ‘Nother issue: if your hero needs to cheat to succeed, then maybe they’re not as heroic as you’re making them out to be. Which leads right into the next issue:
  7. Making your hero all about the magic. People are heroes because of who they are, not what they can do. If you keep piling on the power, people might begin to wonder what you’re compensating the hero for.
  8. Making your mage an auto-didact. Yes, it’s possible to learn something on your own. I taught myself piano. But you will not be as good at it as someone who has had nine years of lessons from a master. And neither should your hero. I know at least eight people who are better piano players than I am. All of whom live within twenty minutes of me. One reason that those with formal training are likely to be better is that they have learned from a comprehensive curriculum. Blah-blah curriculum blah stifling—whatever. Having a good basis in theory means you know what works and why, and that lets you extrapolate to other uses. Also, it’s a lot harder to get unstuck if you don’t have someone to bounce ideas off of. In an age when there aren’t any internet forums or Wikipedia articles, this is even more relevant.
  9. Magic by birth. Yes, ancient lines are cool, but just because you’re born with more than others have it doesn’t mean you’re better than they are. It’s a lot more impressive when the hero struggles for their power than if it’s handed to them on a golden platter.
  10. Making your hero an intuitive mage. Yet another reason Eragon is stupid. Randomly spitting out exactly the right ancient word you’ve never heard before to deal with a dangerous situation? Not at all unreasonable, right? Right. Sure, there are a few excuses, if magic responds to strong emotion (we’ll talk about that one next time), or if magic is like learning to skip—a physical skill gained through experimentation or practice. But learning another language on the spot? I don’t think so.

There are a lot of these sort of lists on the web, I’ll admit. But, unfortunately, there’s always room for another. People need a good reminder now and then. Besides too much theory burns out the brain. Next time, I think we’ll look at the most common systems of magic and their pros and cons.


Posted by on November 3, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, Ideas, Magic, Writing


Tags: , ,

10 responses to “Magical No-Nos

  1. Ellyn

    November 3, 2009 at 2:44 AM

    Agreeing with you completely on all counts. Your magic posts are great fro me at the moment, because my current NaNo is very much based on a magic system, and I get to see what I’m doing write and wrong. I’m proud to say I can tick off each of these as something I haven’t done! 🙂
    Admittedly one of my MCs used to be one of the elites, but this was before it took it’s toll, so I think I’m OK. 😉

    I thank you again for your posts!


  2. atsiko

    November 3, 2009 at 2:50 AM

    Well, these are just the most common issues I have seen with a magic. A good writer could take any or all of these and tease a wonderful story out of them. But, in general, they can get newer writers (and published writers, though less often) into trouble.

    Also, I’m a big fan of creative magc systems. Not necessarily *unique* ones, but ones that take a sound system and find something fresh and exciting in it. That’s the principle aim of this series.

    I’m glad you’ve found these posts useful.

  3. bigwords88

    November 3, 2009 at 2:15 PM

    If you keep piling on the power, people might begin to wonder what you’re compensating the hero for.

    This made me immediately think of the old joke about robots and cyborgs missing ‘vital components’…

    And as for Hermione slash fic… Uh, yeah, I wouldn’t normally suggest people look through some of those fanfic sites (I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about), but reading bad Harry Potter stuff is funny in a “I want to turn away but I can’t stop reading” kinda way. Hilarious.

  4. ralfast

    November 3, 2009 at 2:48 PM

    Good rules on what not to do.

  5. atsiko

    November 3, 2009 at 3:55 PM

    Well, they’re really more guidelines than rules. 😉 But very important guidelines.

    Bigwords- as long as you _don’t_ send me the links you can enjoy all the HP FF you like.

  6. ralfast

    November 5, 2009 at 5:13 PM

    A common “weakness” is that whatever can be done through magic, can also be undone, or those that use magic open themselves up to magical attack. One way to stop the Mary Sues from blasting everything with magic on Page 6.

  7. zornhau

    December 2, 2009 at 10:09 AM

    Useful! Haved added a link to this from my Authenticity article.


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