Month: May 2015

Angst-Powered Thunderbolts: A Cursory Glance at the Mechanics of Fantasy Magic

Welcome back, fellow warriors, bread-bakers, and students of arcane scrolls. I’m no longer part of the latter category, actually, seeing as I just graduated from university. Hip-hip hooray, or somesuch! The burdens and impending panic associated with adulthood have yet to hit me, so let’s write about magic as a form of escapism (and while still riding the euphoria of post-grad freedom).

Magic is a strange topic, in many ways. Firstly because it’s about as varied as fantasy elements come, ranging from city-destroying megaspells to little sleights of hand. Any accomplished D&D player can tell you about the more creative use of minor light spells, reading arcane writing spells, or fly-unzipping spells (may or may not exist). The point is, magic tends to be a branching and endless category for the writer, and the only limits to your story’s magic exist in the boundaries that you wish to construct for it.

And boundaries, I submit to you, are really what transform magic from a story’s “crutch” into its sense of realism. Fantasy worlds are entirely constructed by the writer, so we should be responsible and put a lid on our mad-scientist-vials from time to time. Build walls (even if only you know what they are) to keep your magic consistent and engaging.

“But wait,” you grunt, slamming down your stein full of lager, “I don’t want magic to be controlled. I want it to be MAGIC, not another technology!”

Ah, there’s a point to be made there. This is probably where magic should be split into two headings: wild, and tamed. These types of magic have nothing to do with leopards and their behavior, although your story might draw that connection. These two groups are totally arbitrary, and constructed by me to prove my own point. Logically flimsy, and ethically dubious, but bear with me.

Wild magic, in my eyes, is never explained with a comprehensible structure. It’s used to create a sense of awe and mystique for wizards, mages, and other enchanted beauties, and relies on magic being used like a liquid, filling in whatever mold it likes as required. This type of magic crackles from fingertips and radiates from chosen ones, causing typhoons, or fireworks in the sky, or stampedes of armadillos. There’s no rhyme or reason to the magic, and its main purpose is to remain, in a purist’s sense, magical. By its very nature, it’s beyond human understanding or metaphysical laws.

The second type, which probably seems like a balding and flat-toned biology professor by comparison, is tamed magic. Tamed magic has definite laws and rules that are (mostly) followed throughout the story, perhaps broken once or twice to illustrate extreme power or unpredictability. Harry Potter and Brandon Sanderson’s works follow this concept, relying on systems of memorization, prepared spells, physical training, or other methods of organization to bring magic into the world. The role of this magic is specified, understood, and studied, and it can be manipulated like any other element.

I personally fall into the second camp for most of my works, since I enjoy being able to pore over my own magic system like it’s a legitimate field of study. What a narcissist I am – a brilliant and handsome and funny narcissist, but a narcissist nonetheless.

Now, what exactly should magic do in your story, or for your characters?

You tell me.

It’s always fun to start a story by kicking around concepts of magic, since magic and otherworldly creatures tend to be the defining traits of fantasy (and some science-fiction). By creating magic that filters through your whole world and impacts its development, you’ll be able to sink more deeply into the story and the reality of your characters’ plight. You’ll give their world some logic, and some grounding, and of course, a kick-ass magic system for the denizens to use like a playground.

If you want to create a system of magic that relies on sacrifice to call down powers, then consider this: would people have more children to use as “fuel?” Would people sell their children, or kidnap others as slaves? Would the local governments carry out these kidnappings as “war munitions?”

See? There are plenty of intriguing questions to ask once you consider the implications of something in magic. Ask yourself how people solve a particular problem, then imagine them doing it with magic. Imagine what the consequences are. Ask yourself how long the magic has existed, who holds it, who doesn’t hold it, who wants it, who hates it, and so forth.

In essence, have fun with your magic, whether or not it’s tamed. Consider the butterfly effect when placing it in your world, and be curious about how your characters would interact with it.

I also leave you with a few sample ideas to try your hand at magic creation:

  • Magical aptitude is tied to how limbs have been severed.
  • To use magic, one must transfer their spirit into an inanimate object.
  • Magic is granted by departed spirits who do your bidding. The catch? You have to kill the spirits’ owners to make them serve you.
  • Alcohol grants magic.
  • Magic ability increases as you become sleepier.
  • People “outgrow” their ability to use magic.

Go forth, create magic, and enjoy your summer, my friends. Peace, love, and joy ❤