Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Magic Systems guest post by Steve Thomas

Magic Systems Guest Post

If you ask someone what defines a fantasy novel, one of the first answers is always magic.  Magic is what separates one fantasy world from another.  It drives plots, motivates characters, causes and resolves problems, all to help the author express whatever themes he’s trying to convey.  But sometimes, it just doesn’t work.  The magic seems inconsistent, or irritatingly unpredictable.  You can get the feeling that the author is just making things up as she goes along.  Other times it’s brilliant, and you see that the author chose a magic system so closely tied to the story that it couldn’t have been written with any other system.  What defines a good magic system, and how does a reader recognize one?
Suppose you’re reading a mystery novel that takes place in a realistic version of our world.  The main character is a private detective.  He’s working in Boston, and finds evidence that leads him to Los Angeles, so he hops on a plane at noon.  By one p.m. that day, he’s in a warehouse in Los Angeles beating up thugs.
The astute reader will say, “Wait.  One p.m.?  That flight takes six and a half hours, minus three for the time zone difference!”  That’s a plot hole.  The author failed to follow the rules of his setting, and it pulled the reader out of the story.  There’s an implicit trust between an author and a reader.  The author expects the reader to go along with the story and suspend disbelief, while the reader expects the author to have things planned out and to play fair.  Why should a fantasy novel be any different?
Now suppose a book has a wizard named Dimorphocles who spends the whole plot hanging around the hero and casting invisibility spells or mind-controlling the local nobility into submission, but never casts a single offensive spell, even in dire situations.  Then the epic final battle ends with “Dimorphocles casts Nuclear Face Melt and totally face melts all the bad guys!”  That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the reader will wonder: 
a.      Where did that come from?
b.     Why didn’t he do that 20 chapters ago?
Is that any different than an airplane travelling faster than modern technology allows?  Of course not.  They are both cases where the author isn’t following the rules of the setting.  The only difference is whether the reader knows the rules.  In a realistic setting, the author doesn’t have to do any work to explain the rules to the reader—they already know how the world works.  In fantasy, though, it’s the author’s job to codify the laws of magic, explain them to the reader, and above all else, obey those rules.  Otherwise, the author is facing charges of Random Event Plots (exactly what it sounds like) or using Deus Ex Machinas (solutions to problems that seem to come out of nowhere at the last second).  In other words, a fantasy author needs a well-defined magic system.
Without a properly defined magic system, an author runs the risk of making his audience feel toyed with.  If they aren’t privy to the rules, how do they know that the difference between an expertly-crafted plot twist and a B.S. cop-out?  If the wizard could just face melt the entire enemy army, why didn’t he do so in chapter one?  A good magic system lets the reader know what’s fair, and what the limits of a given character are.
A magic system should have close ties to the setting of the novel.  Why did the author pick this specific system?  How does it affect the world?  How did civilization react to this particular magic?  Is magic common enough that it will influence the economy?  By answering these questions, the writer can strengthen their setting and plots will grow out of the premise.  By avoiding these questions, the world and the plots can seem forced or contrived.  A great example of magic and setting mixing well is the Dragon Age video games.  Magic is only possible through tapping into another plane of existence, one populated with demons.  A mage’s mind, then, is constantly exposed to demonic influences, and it’s not uncommon for mages to become possessed, which can be catastrophic.  The government reacted to this system by turning mages into pariahs.  The use of magic is strictly regulated and overseen by a group called the Templars, who are warriors specifically trained and conditioned to combat mages should the need arise.  Magic is chaotic and dangerous, and without the utmost discipline, a mage exposes the entire world to unthinkable danger.  This is just one aspect of the world, but it firmly cements the series as high fantasy with a touch of darkness.  Later on, Dragon Age II begins to explore the friction between the mages and the Templars, setting up for a war between the two factions.  If the magic were more academic in nature and lacked the connection to demons, then the Templars wouldn’t make sense.  They’d lose their moral ambiguity, and tone of the games would be changed.
When I say that the rules need to be clear to the reader, I don’t mean that every magic system has to be laid out like a physics textbook.  As well as enhancing the setting, the best magic systems are linked to the plot and themes of the story.  Take “Harry Potter” as an example.  In the first book, Harry is discovering a hidden magic world that is connected to his own.  Rowling wanted to write about a magical boarding school, so her magic system thrives on rote memorization, precise utterances and gestures, and years of study.  She wanted to create a whimsical world where anything could happen, and so her magic system  follows suit.  She wanted the magical world to feel familiar, yet alien, so her magic system includes analogs to much modern technology, only always less efficient and a little off-kilter.  Magic can do anything, and is only limited by laws imposed by the government.  As the series goes on, though, the stories shift away from childhood in a secret magical world to the story of Voldemort and his attempts to conquer England.  When the themes become bigotry and oppression, a whimsical and goofy magic system is suddenly at odds with the setting.  It makes the books harder to enjoy.
One magic system that I’m particularly fond of is used in David Farland’s “Runelords” series.  Here, someone can give an attribute (called an endowment in the text), such as wit, metabolism, strength, etc. to another.  The key word is “give.”  If I were to give my strength to someone, I would be as weak as a baby until my strength was returned.  Unfortunately, the only way that would happen is if the person I gave the endowment to were to die.  Likewise, if I were to die, the endowment would be lost.  It gets more complicated than that, but I won’t go into further detail.  One of the themes of the book is leadership, what makes a good leader, and how devoted people should be to their leaders.  The endowment system goes along with that perfectly.  How does a leader get his endowments?  Does he take them by force, or do the people willingly give them?  How well does he treat his dedicates (parlance for donors of endowments)?  He has to keep them alive for his own benefit, but does he treat them well?  Wars are waged by murdering dedicates to weaken rivals, and myths tell of a king whose people loved him so much that he could siphon their strength without the need to actually transfer endowments.  It fit the story perfectly, and the setting was built around that system.
The other aspect of a good magic system is consistently applied rules.  More than anything else, the rules serve to keep the author in check.  If the author takes the attitude that “Hey, it’s magic.  I don’t have to justify anything,” then the plot and character actions can rapidly become too chaotic, nonsensical, and arbitrary.  It can end up looking like two kids playing…well, any imagination-type game. 
“I cast Nuclear Face Melt.  I win!” 
“No, I’m wearing my Amulet of Comfortable-Temperature-At-All-Times.  Your face melts instead.”
“Well I cast Gold to Lead and it destroys your amulet so the spell hits you.”
“Well I turn into a golem, and golems don’t melt.”
…and so on.  The writing can devolve into little more than a string of things that the author thought would sound cool.  That usually leaves the readers shaking their heads.
If a wizard says a spell requires three hours of intense meditation, then the author can’t have him cast a spell in fifteen minutes unless part of the story is discovering a new technique.  If magic is presented as chaotic and uncontrollable, then a wizard shouldn’t ever have precise control over the magic, unless gaining said control is an important part of the story or the character’s development.
When I was crafting the magic system for my novels, I kept all the above in mind.  Here’s what I came up with, without going into too much detail.
Becoming a wizard requires some aptitude and desire.  Magic is divided into different schools, such as conjuring, necromancy, illusion, etc.  Training to become a wizard is a fairly long process, and while someone could theoretically master multiple or all schools of magic, the training time would exceed a human lifespan.  To actually cast a spell, a wizard creates a circle of sand (it has to be a certain chemical), draws runes on it, uses a staff to direct the effect, and needs to mentally activate the actual spell.  The sand is made from a substance called seidrium, which provides fuel for the spell.  The runes are a focusing agent that help the wizard’s mind interact with the sand and create the desired effect.  The staff is another focusing agent to help the wizard pick out a direction, and isn’t strictly necessary.
I decided to use a natural resource to fuel spells because it enables some of my plots.  For example, in my second novel, “Harbingers of Mortality,” control of a seidrium mine is a central conflict.  In the future, I may explore what happens when the seidrium runs out and the civilization is left without magic.
I also wanted magic to be limited, and the limits fall out of that system.  First is the education barrier.  A wizard needs some level of formal training to know the runes and spells, and will only ever learn a certain class of spells.  Secondly, spell-casting is a slow process and easily disrupted.  Wizards can’t leap into battle spewing shards of ice and draining energy from soldiers.  With this system, wizards become squishy ranged units, and a non-fantastical military still dominates the battlefield.  As mentioned, the availability of seidrium itself is another limit.  The amount of seidrium a wizard happens to have on his person will determine how powerful he is, as the more powerful, bombastic spells will require more fuel.
This magic system is actually very open-ended to account for a lot of other effects.  There exist sorcerers, who can metabolize seidrium to cast spells without the runes and staff (and the different method of casting magic turns into a metaphor for the clash between order and chaos).  There are enchantments, which allow the spell to continue without the wizard’s continued direction, but drain seidrium like a cell phone drains a battery.  The way I designed the system gives me the freedom to add complexities as long as I don’t violate pre-established rules.
A good magic system keeps the writer honest.  The rules don’t have to be described in great detail, or even 100% fully fleshed out by the author, but they do need to be used consistently.  It’s all about making developing the setting, avoiding plot holes, and making sure that arbitrary events don’t stop the reader from enjoying a story.

Check out Steve's books on Amazon and Smashwords, including his FREE story Smite Me, Oh Dark One.


  1. Great post. Consistency is absolutely the key. And "easy" magic with no cost or danger is going to be pretty dull too in all probability.

  2. Interesting! Much food for thought here - although blog-hopping via the 'surprise me' button means you never know what you're going to get, or how long it'll take to read!(that's my only criticism!) ;)

    SueH I refuse to go quietly!
    Twitter - @Librarymaid

  3. I like the comments made about the writer having to be believable and the reader having to suspend disbelief. I tight rope to walk.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I'm glad you found it interesting.

    I agree to some extent about adding a danger/cost to magic. Like I said in the article, it's all about matching your magic to the setting/themes. Sometimes you need the casual, whimsical magic. More often, though, it's better to put limits and penalties on the system.

    I guess the part I left off about believability is that one method is to make the reader WANT to suspend disbelief, either by presenting a world they wish were real, or by making things interesting enough that they go along with it. Humor can be another good tool.

  5. Hey I love how all the books are all in the bottom of this blog, pretty amazing and interesting for readers!