Or, how to talk about something so that everyone is talking about the same thing
I was reading a lovely discussion on NaNo, and there was a bit of an issue with the definitions of “rules” versus “limitations”. I thought it might be interesting to look at how different terms are applied to fantasy magic systems and how we can harness and mold these terms to discuss magic systems more usefully.
See, the first problem with any discussion on world-building in general—and magic systems in particular—is the lack of a set of formalized terms. Writing has these: POV, Main Character, Protagonist, etc… This allows writers to talk meaningfully about different aspects of the “craft”. But what about for magic systems? What we have for this “craft” is a set of broadly defined terms re-tasked with specific meanings by every author or world-builder or game designer who makes use of them.
And this leads to a big fat mess. What is a “mage”? Someone who casts spells? Someone who manipulates energy? What is a “sorcerer”? Or a “charm”? Depends on the story we’re dealing with. But it shouldn’t have to. That’s one reason behind the prevalence of the neutral term “magic user” which ignores the magic system involved and focuses on the fact that the character in question can use magic. Anything else is just cosmetics. It’s pointless to talk about “sorcerers” when there are so many different conceptions out there. You can’t really talk about magic intelligently in this sort of environment. Keep in mind this isn’t about how magic is presented in the story, it’s about writers and readers talk about magic.
So, how can we talk about magic systems more intelligently? We first have to establish frames of reference. Let’s begin by distinguishing between the way magic is talked about by the characters of a world–or relatively, and how it is talked about by world-builders–or absolutely.
So, in the absolute frame of reference, we have an absolute magic system (obviously). “Absolute magic system” refers to the workings of the magic as understood by the world-builder. The world-builder creates this system to regulate the magic. In the relative frame of reference, we have the “relative magic system”. This is the characters’ conception of how magic works. (And we can actually have several of these, but we’ll get to that in a later post.) Have we got this distinction down? I hope so. It’s important.
The next step after establishing a frame of reference is to consider how magic is perceived within these frames:
Through the absolute frame, a magic system is an artificial construct whose structure is known and carefully crafted to affect the plot in the desired fashion, or not. The rules as laid down in a magic system are absolute knowledge—completely true and uncontestable. As the world-builder, you must know how the external magic system is structured, what the rules are.
Through the relative frame, a magic system is an organic and natural construct whose structure is unknown and must be explored to gain practical benefits. This structure is often in the form of rules or theories that best explain what is known of magic at the time. They are mutable and “true” only insofar as they achieve the desired effects. This is what the characters know about magic. The world-builder must also know how each characters relative magic system is structured. It’s part of that “point of view” thing writers are always rambling on about.
A relative magic system is constructed inductively—that is, the characters will take the facts at their disposal and try to create a generalization that explains these facts, what would allow these occurrences? An external magic system can be constructed either inductively or deductively—that is, the world-builder takes some chosen general premise and to discover what occurrences would this allow? Some world-builders start out with their goals for the magic system, and some start out with general premises they wish to explore, and some start out with a bit of both. But rather than taking what is true as their premises, world-builders will take what they want to be true as their premises.
So, with just this single distinction, we have already cleared up a great deal. You may be thinking: “What, that’s it? I could’ve told you that!” Maybe you could have. I have yet to see anyone adhere to this distinction, even though it would be incredibly useful in all those interminable discussions on whether magic systems should have rules or not. Well, I bet the characters have rules, even if you don’t let anyone peak at your own. Including the reader.
And it’s good for more than just discussion. Many fantasy stories rely on the clever hero to take the limited resources at her disposal and figure out a loophole to let her defeat the villain:
“No man can kill me!”
“I am no man.”
I’m sure you all recognize that little gem. (I may have paraphrased just a teensy bit…)
Now, if you break your own rules (like soooo many bad fantasy authors), you look like a cheater or an idiot, or perhaps just absent-minded. But it’s perfectly acceptable to manipulate the disconnect between your understanding of magic and the character’s. Many authors use this for lesser hurdles as well. MC just learning how to use magic? You can slip a small hurdle in there that could be overcome if they knew all the rules… but maybe they don’t. Or maybe you want them to look clever so they figure it out.
A great example of this is from Pat Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. (I feel there are significant flaws in the rest of the book, but the magic system is pretty sound, and an interesting take on “scientific” magic.) There are spoilers here, so you may wish to skip this part if you haven’t read the book. The inciting incident in Kvothe’s pursuit of becoming an Arcanist is seeing a traveler defend himself with “real” magic, as opposed to “sympathy”. This involves invoking the wind by using it’s true name, thus the title. Kvothe, not realising this is true magic, attempts to imitate the trick by using the connection between his own breath and the wind. This almost kills him (protags have all the luck, ne? You or I probably would have died) and he gets a nice big lecture about stupidity: ”Don’t ever do something like that again! Magic is daangerous! …etc” Now, if one were to just throw in an actual consequence, that would be a pretty nice scene.
A little bonus for you all is that most of the material in this series can (and will) bend has been applied to any and every aspect of world-building. History, for instance. What people “know” happened and what actually happened are usually two (or three or four) very different things. Which can lead to all sorts of interesting conflicts, like racism (well, okay, that’s a bit cliche) and heroes that really weren’t (Mistborn, anyone?) and false myths and prophecies. For now, though, I’ll be applying them strictly to magic systems. Next post, we will explore the “relative” frame of reference in more detail.