In the last post I talked about the relative frame of reference in regards to magic. Quick refresher: A relative frame of reference is the knowledge and experience of a single character. In this case, their knowledge of—and experience with—magic in the world of the story. Each character has a different one. And the reader has an absolute frame of reference (in most cases). And that’s where we run into trouble with character reactions.
A lot of you may be familiar with a joke whose punch-line goes: “Oh my god, a talking sausage!” The humor comes from the fact that this line is itself in fact uttered by a linguistically capable sausage.
A lot of readers and writers have this idea in their heads that characters in high magic worlds cannot be surprised or awed by magic. After all, it’s everywhere, even if they can’t use it themselves. Flying broomsticks, and fireballs, and talking flamingos… whatever. But just like our friend the talking sausage these characters are perfectly capable of being surprised by such things. In the real world, many people are still in awe of perfectly normal things: A quadruple axle in ice-skating, a launching rocket, stage magic, a particularly impressive floor routine at the Olympics, anyone who can play La Campanella. It’s not just about whether we are familiar with something. There’s also whether we are capable of it ourselves, and also the remove at which we experience it. We’ve all seen moon landings on television, but to be face-to-face with a person who has walked on the lunar surface is still somehow incredible.
Maybe the King does sponsor 13 mages of the “Adept” level, but so what? If all a little street rat has seen are hedge witches treating headaches, one of those adepts calling a thunderstorm to kill an orc raiding party is still going to be quite impressive. I can get quite a few bulls-eyes on the YMCA archery range, sure, but I certainly don’t have as many fan-girls as Legolas, an entirely fictional character. The point I’m trying to make here is be very careful how you judge a characters reaction to the fantastic. Just because you’ve seen 37 dragon-slaying elf-lords, that doesn’t mean our humble heroine has the same experience. Now, if she were married to a dragon-slaying elf-lord, that’s a different story.
Just because we’re reading about a high magic world doesn’t mean everyone has exactly the same exposure. We had silks for hundreds of years before your average housewife could afford to buy one at all, much less without bankrupting herself. Even in a world with magic refrigerators, the fantastic can still amaze.
All right, enough of my ranting and raving. How can we create believable relationships with magic for our characters?
Step 1: Know what your character has seen or experienced.
Are they a total noob? Have they never even seen a sympathy lamp1, much less someone calling the wind? Even the tamest fire-calling will probably shock them. But perhaps they’ve talked with snakes and found themselves on roof-tops unknowing of how they arrived there. They might not be entirely shocked when an invitation to England’s magical boarding school arrives in the mail. Are they the arch-mage of Glockenspiel? Perhaps even a divine visitation is nothing more than another damn form to fill out and alphabetize.
There will be characters in your fantasy running from one end of this spectrum to the other, and you have to somehow make them all work. There’s a lot of guess and check here, no simple rules or formulas. A particularly imaginative child may not be at all shocked to find a faun and light-post in the back of the wardrobe, while her older siblings might be rather dismissive of the girl’s claims.
Step 2: Decide what your character knows.
Even if your character can’t use magic themselves, they may be familiar with a great many of its principles. Lore-masters, priests, and worldly mercenaries all have the opportunity of falling into this category. If they do use magic, they could be at any step on the ladder of mastery: a lazy apprentice barely able to levitate an apple2, a jaded playboy known throughout his people as a flamboyant master3, or even a maxed-out journeyman resentful of his small ability. Wherever he is, how much he knows will inform his responses. He may be contemptuous of a clumsy apprentice’s first fireball, and wildly jealous of a child-prodigy’s Greater Demon Summoning. He may be surly and capricious towards others, or earnest and benevolent in pursuit of his lowly duties. Every character is different, but it’s important to consider how their personality affects relationships with other magic-users (or non-users) and with magic itself. Knowledge is one type of pecking order, and strength another, and you should know where the character stands in both.
Step 3: Know what your character feels.
Does your character see all healers as saints, or all mages as sinners? Do they have religious objections? Emotional ones? Did a mage murder their father? Are those who need magical assistance pathetic? Have they succeeded without magic in a field where mages pre-dominate? Have they ever felt in debt to a mage? Begged for help? Been spurned? These questions and many more affect how they relate to magic and those who use it. Attitude is a very important factor in how a character feels. Those who look on magic with contempt will not be impressed by displays of skill. Those who have been harmed with not admire it. Those who have been spurned or let down may hate it with all their soul. And those whose lives it has saved may view all mages (deservedly or not) as angels, saints, or heroes. But you’ll never know how your character feels or responds if you don’t know explore those feelings.
Step 4: Know how your character views magic.
This is the final and most complicated question to answer. Does your character see magic as a means to power? Does anything go? Do they have ethics or morals? Perhaps magic is the tool of demons… or a gift of the gods. Maybe there are no built-in penalties for “misusing” it. Or maybe the slightest deviation from protocol will bring divine retribution. What are the rights and wrongs of magic as far as your characters are concerned. Would they support bring back the dead? Stealing souls? Healing the sick? Fighting wars? All of these questions can help predict what sorts of conflicts will arise among your characters. (Emotion will, too, of course.)
Truthfully these steps can be done in any order, but I’ve lined them up in the way that seems most sensible to me. You can’t know what they know unless you know what they’ve experienced, and same goes for ethics and emotion (which I’ve put after knowledge/ability since that is often a major part of attitude.
So, those are the main four things that will determine how a character responds to magic. Whether creating your own character or reacting to another’s, it’s important to keep these things in mind. One’s own prejudices and experiences are irrelevant to whether a character has responded believably or not. All that matters is the character.
Since I spent half this post ranting about high-magic worlds, I suppose I’ll have to explain that term, and it’s opposite, “low-magic” worlds, next post. To avoid a dry and boring series of definitions, we’ll take a look at how to decide which is best for your story, and I’ll support the discussion with examples from various fantasy books I’ve read.
1 A reference to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, regarding the two forms of “magic”, one of which is common and well-known, and the other which is rare and mysterious to non-Arcanists.
2 Darian, from Lackey’s Owl trilogy is a village boy who begins with very weak magic. Levitating fruit is one of the exercises set him by his master.
3 Firesong from Lackey’s Mage Winds and Mage Storms series is a powerful and learned mage of the Tayledras, with a reputation for romantic flings and a childish attitude.