Tag Archives: Magic

Magic and Science and How Twins are Different People

Something that in my experience drives many (identical) twins crazy is how many people assume they look alike physically so they must be just alike in other ways.  Interests, hobbies, sexuality, gender, religion, whatever.  Twins may look the same superficially, but underneath they are as different as any two other people.  Or any non-twin siblings if you want to be pedantic about nature and nurture.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are like the Twins of Literature.  Whenever someone tries to talk about genre lines or the difference between science and magic, the same old shit gets trotted out.  Clarke’s Law and all that.  Someone recently left a comment on this very blog saying magic is just a stand-in for science.  My friend!  Boy do we have a lot to talk about today.  While it’s certainly true that magic can serve many of the same functions as science (or technology) in a story, the two are fundamentally different in both themselves and the uses to which they are most often put.  Sure they’re both blonde, but technology like red-heads, and magic is more into undercuts.


First, not to keep pushing the lie that science is cold and emotionless, but a prime use of science (not technology!) in literature is to influence the world through knowledge of the world’s own inner workings.  (Technology does not require knowledge in its use, often, but rather only in its construction.)  One of the major differences is that most (but not all) magic in stories requires knowledge to use it.  You have to know how the magic works, or what the secret words are.  Whereas tech is like flipping the light switch.  A great writer once said what makes it science fiction is that you can make the gadget and pass it to the average joe across the engineering bay and he can use it just fine, but magic requires a particular person.  I can pass out a million flame-throwers to the troops, but I can’t just pass you a fireball and expect you not to get burned.  That’s one aspect to look at, although these days, magitech and enchanted objects can certainly play the role of mundane technology fairly well.

Second, magic is about taking our inner workings and thought processes and imposing them on top of the universe’s own rule.  From this angle, what makes magic distinct from technology is that a magic conflict is about the inner struggle and the themes of the narrative and how they can be used to shape the world.  Certainly tech can play this role, twin to how magic can be made to act like tech.  But it’s much less common out in the real world of literature.


There are two kinds of magic system:  One is the explicit explanation of how the magic works according to the word of god(the author), and the other is a system that the characters inside the world, with their incomplete knowledge impose on top of the word of god system.  So this group uses gestures to cast spells, and this group reads a spellbook, but they are both manifestations of the same basic energy.

So magic is the power to impose our will on the world whereas science/technology is powerful through its understanding of the uncaring laws of the universe.

Then, of course, are the differences in terms of how authors use them in the narrative.  Magic has a closer connection, in my opinion, to the theme aspect of literature.  It can itself be a realization of the theme of a story.  Love conquers all as in Lily Potter protecting her infant son from the dark lord at the cost of her life.  Passion reflected in the powers of the fire mage.  Elemental magic gives a great example.  Look at the various associations popular between elementalists’ characters and the element they wield.  Cold and impersonal ice mages, loving and hippy-ish earth mages.  This analogical connection is much more difficult to achieve with technology.


There’s a lot of debate these days about “scientific” magic versus numinous magic, and whether or not magic must have rules or a system.  But even systematically designed magic is not the same as technology, though it can be made to play similar roles, such as solving a plot puzzle.  But think:  The tricks to magic puzzles are thematic or linguistic.  The Witch-king of Angmar is said to be undefeatable by any man.  The trick to his invulnerability is the ambiguity of the words of the prophecy.  One could argue that a woman is not a man, and therefore not restricted by the prophecy.  We have no idea how the “magic” behind the protection works on a theoretical basis.  Does it somehow check for Y-chromosomes?  But that’s not the point.  The thematic significance of the semantic ambiguity is more important.  In science fiction, it’s the underlying workings that matter.  Even if we don’t explain warp drive, there’s no theme or ambiguity involved.  It gets you there in such and such time and that’s it.  Or, in an STL universe, lightspeed is the limit and there’s no trick to get around it.

You can’t use science or technology the same way as Tolkien did with that prophecy nearly as easily.  Imagine magic is hammer, and science is a sword.  Sure I can put a nail in with the sword, but it’s a bitch and a half compared to just using a hammer.  Just because I can put in that nail with that sword, it doesn’t mean that sword is really a hammer.  Just because I can have magic that appears to follow a few discoverable and consistent rules to achieve varying but predictable effects doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as real-world science.  Maybe the moon always turns Allen into a werewolf on the 1st of the month, but I’ll be codgled if you can do the same thing with science.

Whether magic or science or both are most suited to your story or the other way around depends on your goals for that individual story.  Do you need magic or fantasy elements to really drive home your theme?  Do you need technology to get to the alien colony three stars down?  Magic can evaporate all the water in a six mile radius without frying every living thing around.  Science sure as hell can’t.  Not even far-future science that we can conceive of currently.  They can both dry a cup, although we’re wondering why you’re wasting your cosmic talents when you could just use a damn paper towel.

Science can dress up as magic and fool your third-grade substitute teacher, and science can dress up as magic and fool the local yokels in 13th century Germany.  But even if you put a wedding dress on a horse, it’s still a horse, and throwing hard science trappings onto a magic system doesn’t change it’s nature.


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The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?


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Not All Elementalists Control Their Elements

Another random short-story recommendation:

Elementalism is one of the most common forms of magic in fantasy.  Flinging fire, whipping up the waters, hurlling thunderbolts.  Who wouldn’t love to do that?  But, like many other popular forms of magic, elementalism has lost its grip on real magic.  Because, real magic has a price.  And real big magic has a real big price.  Being tired for a few hours just doesn’t cut it.

And along some Helen Keeble and makes the magic magic again.  In Helen Keeble’s world of elemental magic, it’s the elements that are in control, and the humans who are just poor vessels of that power.  Specifically, I’m refering to two short stories in Strange Horizons, entitled “In Ashes” and “In Stone“, where we learn just what price you pay to control nature, and just how cruel the choice of who pays it.

And I guess what I’m saying here is that that’s how true magic works, or should be.


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Oh, My God, it’s a Flying Carpet! Or: Believable Relationships with Magic.

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.


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Magicology: Frames of Reference, Part 2

Last post (which was posted far too long ago) I rambled on about “frames of reference” and POV and how fantasy writers need to get with the program and come up with some useful jargon, and…  Well, you read the post, right?  Right?

Remember how I divided things into relative and absolute frames of reference?  The absolute frame is a simple concept; relative frames are not.  So today, I’m going to delve into just what I mean about multiple frames of reference and how they are useful. 

But first, I want to make an important distinction:  A “perspective” is a narrative device, a frame of reference is a world-building one.  A perspective in fiction is how a character relates to the story.  A frame of reference is how they relate to the world in which the story takes place.   There’s a difference.

(As far as I am concerned, a “point of view (POV)” is a structural device and refers to either first, second, or third person past, present or future.  A perspective is strictly which character (or the narrator) we are following at any given time.  Other writers may have different ideas.  That’s okay—whatever works for them.  In posts here, we will be using my definitions.)

Now, what makes relative frames of reference complicated is that each character has one—just like each person in the real world has their own ideas and opinions.  It’s not hard to get lost among all of these frames, and a common critique of bad characterization is that all the characters “felt/sounded the same”.  This is a very common criticism in regards to dialogue.  And there I am drifting off-topic.  Back to magic.

There are two main ways that the relative frames of reference can affect a character in regards to magic:

  1.  Their reaction to it-  Are they amazed, indifferent, or possibly contemptuous.  They could also be prejudiced or hostile or fawning or respectful.  The greater the difference in their knowledge of magic—whether theoretical, ethical, or emotional—the more likely their reaction is to be strong or intense.  If there’s less difference, they’ll have less of a response.  Pretty basic, right?  It’s actually more complicated than that, and in my next post, (which is already written this time, so no long wait), I’ll discuss character reaction to magic, and why many people have mistaken impressions as to what is and is not a realistic response.
  2. What they can do with it-  Are they good, gifted, hopeless, or helpless?  I know, this is fantasy.  There’s a lot of emotional symbolism involved in the narrative representation of magic.  But from a purely theoretical standpoint, knowledge is power.  No matter how strong you are (if this is aa consideration at all), you can’t win if you can’t do anything.  I’d like to leave the issue of “power vs. part of me” that often springs up here out of the discussion.  For now, “magic” isn’t “as natural as breathing (in the literal sense)”, but rather “something learned and perfected through study and training”… even if there are natural “gifts” involved.  The point here is that the more you know, the more you can do.  And knowing means learning, and learning means studying.  Hogwarts here we come! (Okay, not so much.)

You may have noticed from reading the above that knowledge is a very important part of the frame of reference.  The more you know, the more you can innovate.  (You can innovate knowing nothing as well, but you’re more likely to fry your brain—or at least fry something).

So, knowledge is power.  Right there you’ve discovered a way to make your fantasy magic system different from around 99% of the magic systems out there.  A great deal of fantasy (most bad, but some good) focuses on gaining “power” in the physical sense.  Increasing the characters’ “strength”.   It’s what a lot of fantasy writers and readers refer to as “RPG” fantasy.  And that paradigm makes sense for an RPG,  where learning new spells, and fighting, and acquiring new and better gear,  and grinding… er, “increasing your stats” (yeah, whatever) is all part of the fun.  But the fun in fantasy is the story, the conflict.  Eighteen swordfights in a row would be boring.

Now, magical conflict relies on a power differential.  But by the principle above, it’s perfectly acceptable to convert this to a knowledge differential.  You can’t hurl fireballs and call lightning if you don’t know the spell.  Lackey’s Herald Mage trilogy makes good use of this concept when one character is defeated (okay, killed) by a “mage-storm” which wears away at his magical shield.  But in a later book, we learn such an attack can be rendered ineffective if you leave the shield “un-grounded” and thus free to spin right along with the attack in question.

So, that explains how you can use the second effect of frames of reference.  The first is a bit tougher, and requires more subtlety and finesse.  I think it might be best to leave until the next post.


Posted by on November 24, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Magic, Magicology, World-building, Writing


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Magicology: Frames of Reference, Part 1

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.


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Common Magic System Pros and Cons: Elemental Magic

Last post I wrote about the top ten ways to make me put your book back on the shelf. Or hit the back button—but that’s a whole other issue. Now we’re going to talk about common systems of magic and how they work or don’t work depending on how you use them.

First up is elemental magic, one of the most commonly used systems in fantasy, and also one of the most “simple”. It’s just throwing around the four five classical elements, right? Or three or seven, but the most common form uses five: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, Spirit. I’ve listed them in order of perceived “coolosity” for when “cool” just doesn’t cut it which I define as “a scale running from ‘common amongst protagonists’ to ‘what kind of lame power is heart anyway?’”

You can’t deny fire is the coolest. Balefire, Balrogs, Firestorm, red-haired golden-eyed, fire-wielding necromancers… I’m sure I could name examples all night long and well past noon. And, of course, being its arch nemesis, water gets plenty of stage time as well. Frothing foaming river stallions, weather-magic, majestic water-falls and sacred ponds, rivers, and lakes. Wind gets in on the fun as well. At least, until you put a bullet through the mage. But since when has earth magic played the central role in a story? Why are people so afraid of earthquakes and mudslides? Maybe you get a few walking trees, or land-bonded kings, but fire is just that much flashier, I guess.

So, pros:

  1. Simple concept, easy to divide up and you can have the Five Man Band if you throw in a little “Spirit”.
  2. Easy conflict: Earth vs. Wind Fire vs. Water.
  3. Lots of Earth systems to draw inspiration from: Greek, Chinese, Arabic
  4. Combine elemental powers to get any damn effect you want. I’m looking at you, Mr. Jordan. Well, I would if he wasn’t RIP. I guess that means I’m looking at you, Mr. Sanderson. Not that you can help it much, but I need someone to point at.
  5. See Con # 1: Fertile ground for clever twists. Think about it.


  1. How the hell do you put a price tag on it? Fatigue? Magical energy? Sympathy? Who knows.
  2. Gets cliché, and fast. If I see one more fire/water mage battle, I might have to gouge my eyes out.
  3. Never has even distribution between elements.
  4. Sexism: WoT again.
  5. Lame symbolism. Frisky fire mages are so last decade. And fiery fire mages. And fierce fire mages. And “cool-headed” water mages. And “flighty” wind elementals. And stolid earth mages—well, you know there would be if anyone actually used earth mages. (Don’t lie to yourself.) Mix it up people.

Please, somebody, come up with a fresh treatment. Use the Chinese system more. It’s better than another round of fire beats water beats fire beats everything else. And, last minute thought: alchemy is out. Just as cliché as straight elemental magic.

So, in the spirit of Limyaael, ways to make readers Atsiko like your elemental magic:

  1. Give some other elements besides fire and water the spot-light. Earth could be even more devastating against armies than fire. Wind could defend your coast kamikaze style. Or, you could do that thing that wind mages never think to do: suffocate the bastards.
  2. Give your system more than the old foursome. Wood and metal are both elements from the Chinese version of the system. I’d think rock and ice and sand could be culturally important to many peoples. Widen your scope. Be creative.
  3. But not “spirit”. Just don’t. How the heck is that even an “element”? Is the physical world made up of it? Not usually. Does it have a specific arena in which to work? No, it’s an excuse for whatever the hell the author wants. Set some limits and stick to ‘em, dang it.
  4. Integrate your system into the world. You know, this would be a great way to have a creative cost. Mess with the wind to make for fair-weather sailing? Hurricane nails important port town down the coast. Burn the enemy army up, well fine, but the forest they were hiding in is on fire. Or have a grassfire. Those are always fun. This isn’t hard, guys—it’s fun.
  5. Give me more deals between mages and elementals. Not Final Fantasy pacts, but a fair trade off. Maybe they want pretty flowers, or protection for their little pond. Or just a very-likely-to-be-called-in-at-a-crappy-time-for-the-hero favor. But make it some sort of price, not a freebie because your hero is so awesome.
  6. Find an appropriate cost. Sorry Tamora Pierce. Blood is interesting, but it doesn’t count as appropriate. (To be fair, her system isn’t strictly elemental.) Loved Pat Rothfuss’s method, though I think he could have at least thrown in some brain damage.
  7. Last one for now: Throw in some cool associations or symbolism. The Sun represents Fire. Boring. And planets don’t count either. I’ve always fancied flowers, or a musical instrument as an interesting association. Or maybe bone or blood or tears. Sort of like the Humours, but less body-fluidy. A little.

Okay, I’m done complaining. I really love elemental magic, if it’s a new portrayal. Shoot, I write a lot of stories with some form of it. But I’m tired of the same old same old. You don’t even really have to original—just be creative. And be sure to give me credit for the idea check yourself against what’s been written. Maybe it isn’t completely original—or maybe it is—but if it’s uncommon, it can still give your story a fresh feel.


Posted by on November 6, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Writing


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