Saturday, May 4, 2013

On Writing Magic Well - Part I: Bad Habits

Rossetti's 'Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber'
The affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is one of the most recognizable representations of hidden passion in art, but the affair is hardly less well known by the characters in the story. It is a kind of open secret: something everyone is aware of, but which none dare speak against.

Under chivalric law, a man has the right to defend his honor in Trial by Combat, meaning that the fellow who dares besmirch a knight's honor must face him, blade to blade, to prove the truth of the accusation. The same tradition carried over into the modern era, with gentlemen fighting duels solely for the name of their honor--and a scoundrel who won was the equal of a truly honorable man, except the scoundrel didn't actually have to be a good person in the meantime.

It was especially problematic for any knight who took umbrage at Guinevere's infidelity, since to accuse her was to invite a crossing of swords with the most formidable warrior of the Round Table. And indeed, every time such an accusation is leveled against Lancelot, he merely raises sword or lance and does away with it. The idea behind this method of justice was that a good and righteous God would not allow a just man to be defeated by a blackguard. Of course, the fact that the disingenuous Lancelot did win, over and over, just goes to show that the Arthurian balladeers of a thousand years ago had a more developed sense of irony and realism than many modern fantasy authors.

Because fantasy authors are still doing the same thing: they give their hero a sword of Truth and Goodness, a prophecy of greatness, have the wizened tutor exclaim 'there's something special about you', and then let the young adventurer carve a bloody swath through all who stand in his way, all the while hoping that the heap of moral symbols will justify his actions to the reader. But of course, we know that such symbols don't really justify anything: it doesn't matter if a murderer calls his sword 'Justice', or whether genocide is termed 'a crusade'.

Discerning insanity connoisseurs prefer Chick
The only real way we can tell if someone is good or not--if their actions are justified--is to look at who that person is, and what they actually do. It doesn't matter how often the author tells you who the character is supposed to be if it doesn't actually match what's on the page. If the author spends Chapter 1 telling you how strong a certain female character is, but then in Chapter 2 she's easily kidnapped by some henchman and spends most of the book waiting to be rescued, she's clearly not actually strong at all.

In the Narnia series, the kingdom is taken over by the incompetent White Witch, despite the fact that we're later shown that Aslan seems to have the power to get rid of her at any time. So, we're told that Aslan is good, but in actuality, he lets a whole kingdom suffer for generations, apparently so he can teach a few kids a lesson about the true meaning of friendship. 

Lewis insists that this is all part of a prophecy, but of course, in a fantasy novel, 'prophecy' just means 'something the author arbitrarily says is true because it suits his purposes'. It's another attempt to accomplish with an empty symbol what he cannot through character, structure, and story. As in most of his books, Lewis' attempt to create some kind of poignant moral about the nature of good and evil is completely undermined by the fact that the implications in that story don't match up with the ideals presented.

Fletcher Hanks' 'Stardust: The Super Wizard'
Alan Moore parodied the idea of the 'self-justifying hero' insidiously in Watchmen with the character of Rorschach: a mentally-unstable, delusional character who thinks he's always right, and responds with violence to anyone who disagrees with him. But remarkably, a huge number of fans have bought into Rorschach as the hero, precisely because his nonsensical, insane motivations are indistinguishable from those of many heroes in fiction, who exist for no other reason than to beat up equally nonsensical villains, with the implication that silencing your opponents through violence and intimidation is just as valid as actually being right.

So, what does all this have to do with magic? Well, magic is always symbolic--ideas embodied in physical form. Magical objects, creatures, and effects are metaphors sprung to life. So, as fantasy writers, it is vital that we ask ourselves: what does my magic represent?

We tend to see the same generic symbols over and over: power, purity, 'rightness'. Magic is used to facilitate the plot, making everything achievable--the hero can defeat an entire army because he has the magic sword--and then symbolism is used in an attempt to justify those actions: because it is the sword of justice, then by definition, anything the hero does must be just--and since the 'bad guys' are all dead, there's no one to refute this.

This kind of magic is nothing but a shortcut, a path to simplified writing: the author doesn't have to think of an actual solution for dealing with the army, or actually make the hero into a good person, and they don't have to give the character an internal motivation if they tell us that 'he has to get the ring, or the world will be destroyed'. The author can neatly avoid all the challenging parts of writing: instead of developing consistent characters, or coming up with solutions to plot conflicts, they can just use magic to patch up anything that's giving them trouble.

Arthur Rackham
An author who clings to convenience never has to rely on skill, which means that they aren't ever going to improve, as writers, nor are they going to develop any interesting ideas, because it's when we find ourselves challenged that we develop creative solutions. It's like driving to the store--even if it's only a block away--or always taking the elevator, even if the stairs are faster--the easy out always weakens us, in the end, making us ever more reliant on the shortcut.

Beyond that, it makes the magic less magical. Authors talk about their magic without a trace of wonder, without any sense of it being part of tone or mood. Instead, magic is 'a system'--as a set of known rules by which the characters defeat monsters or fly across the world--or as a 'plot coupon' which the character turns in at the end of the book in order to arbitrarily win (if you haven't yet read Nick Lowe's Well-Tempered Plot Device, you simply must--it is invaluable to anyone who is thinking of writing about magic).

To a devoted aficionado of fantasy and myth in every form, hearing that a book has received high praise for its 'magic system', is as telling as a book that is chiefly lauded for its 'world building'--you can bet that the author will have filled their book with inconsequential details to distract from dull characters, cliches, and a nonsensical, aimless plot. Real magic means wonder, it is unknown, uncontrollable--it is not convenient and predictable and useful, it is not something that can be explained. In real life, the only time people try to explain how magic works is when they are trying to convert you.

Look at them particles go!
Think of something like Quantum Physics: it's complex, unintuitive, and defies our attempts to understand it. Sure, we know some things about it, but even those little bits we do know just make the whole thing seem even weirder, and trying to explain it to a person who doesn't have a background in the subject is just going to end in confusion. That's how magic and wizards should feel: like even the people who are studying this stuff don't even really know how it works--they just have a half dozen tricks they can pull out, but they're not really sure what that means.

Of course, we cannot expect authors to come up with something as complex and unusual as Quantum Physics for their little fantasy book--which is the whole problem with magic systems in the first place: even the most complex setup ends up being so simplified and predictable that it's never going to feel wondrous and surprising, it's just going to feel like some arbitrary stuff the author stuck together in order to try to get his plot moving. Of course, you could always do as Michael Moorcock did, and just steal an idea like Quantum Mechanics, whole cloth for your magical story, but that takes a certain skill, in itself.

Too often, authors use magic as a simple replacement for technology, where modern concepts like industry and long-distance travel just get translated into magical effects, all so that the author doesn't actually have to contend with writing about a world that works differently than the modern one--they want to write fantasy because it's fun, but they don't actually want to study myth or history or acknowledge the fact that a fantasy culture would be really different from a modern culture.

'Zenobia' by Coleen Corradi Brannigan
To me, the idea of reducing magic, of simplifying it, is rejecting everything that magic has always been in our myth--magic is symbolic, it is all about ideas, about wonder and the unknown. Few authors seem to notice that there is absolutely no limit on what magic can symbolize, or what ideas we can explore through it. So many stories have swords of justice and goodness, and evil swords on the other side, staves of power--why tie ourselves to such basic, threadbare cliches? As authors like Calvino, Peake, and Dunsany show, there is magic in everything, there is no experience or concept that is beyond its scope.

Why not a sword of sadness, a staff of ignorance, a whole town suffused with the notion of artificiality? By looking to the more subtle and complex symbols of Realist authors, like Chekhov or Conrad, it is possible for us to construct fantasies not merely of glory and power or right and wrong, but of regret and loss, of stubbornness and wanderlust. We can reach deeper into our bag of tricks for the ideas, personae, and realities represented in our magic. Indeed, there are already authors who are exploring these directions--but not enough by far.

Since magic is an idea given form, then the fantasy genre is a Surrealist art: an attempt to take an entrenched idea that people take for granted and to place it into a new context, forcing them to reconsider it on its own merits--a process known as 'defamiliarization', which is one of the cornerstones of good writing, not just fantasy. If an author can make their readers look at the world in a new way, that is a sign of great skill. So, when writing your magic, make sure you know what ideas you are representing, and that you explore them to the fullest. If you have symbols in your story, actually use them: subvert them, set up conflicts, kill ideas off. Magic gives you a great deal of flexibility.

Loki and Sigyn by Gebhardt
In Harry Potter, there is a spell that causes physical pain, which then must represent the idea of pain--and of torture. Yet, Rowling doesn't use this opportunity to explore the meaning of pain, she doesn't set up a new context that forces us to look at pain, itself--pain stripped bare. Instead, she uses it when characters need to get information, or to show that the character using it is 'bad', or to take some character out of a scene--a shortcut to make her writing easier. People often quibble over whether a magic system is 'consistent' in its rules, but the same readers rarely ask if the ideas represented by that magic are consistent or not.

This means that magic already has a system, built right in: the system of ideas. Ideas can be cogent or nonsensical, well-supported or incomplete, fully-explored or one-sided. This is the real system to which your magic must adhere, the system of themes and motifs that it represents in your work--the things which your magic symbolizes. As examples like Lewis show: if this system is not well-developed and constructed, if your ideas aren't solid to begin with, then it doesn't matter what set of arbitrary and artificial rules you try to cover that up with.

Magic should be the warp and weft of a book, deep in its very fabric--the tone, the setting, the characters--everything should demonstrate that magical feel, as is the case in Dunsany (except of course for characters that are meant to be deliberately outside of the book's 'magical world'). If the magic is merely tacked on to the surface of the story, then it isn't going to feel very magical. Of course, it is possible to include only light and occasional references to magic, as in R.E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian stories, or much of Supernatural Horror--so it is important for the author to decide whether they are writing a story of high, grand magics, or occasional, esoteric ones.

Either way, it's important for us to recognize, as the Arthurian balladeers did, that just because Lancelot is always talking about justice and honor, just because he always wins out against those who oppose him, that doesn't mean he isn't sleeping with his best friend's wife, and  likewise, just because we structure our magic such that it excuses and obfuscates our characters' actions, that isn't the same as actually justifying what they do, or actually writing an active, motivated character.

'Chained Conan' by Frank Frazetta

So, whenever I am writing magic, there are a few simple rules I try to follow, to ensure that I'm not just using magic as a convenient shortcut, and I'd like to finish by sharing those rules:

I. One of our basic writing rules is that any time two characters are sitting around talking about a third character, that's a dead scene. Same thing if they are talking about the plot, or explaining how something works (such as magic). Not only is it a dull way to tell a story, but you run the risk of contradicting yourself--of presenting authorial intentions that do not match the story as it appears on the page--like the author who tells us a female character is strong, but never actually shows her doing anything strong. Just as with your characters and your world, you have to design scenes that will actively demonstrate your magic instead of revealing it through exposition. After all, if you've already demonstrated it, then explaining it is just a waste of space--and if you can't demonstrate it, then explaining it isn't going to help anything. One workaround for this is to turn the exposition into a flashback, so that instead of just being given the information outright, that information is delivered in the context of a story that is interesting in its own right. This can be a standard character flashback, or a myth, or a story someone has heard from somewhere else. One of the nice things about books over movies or TV is that, when a character is telling a story, it just becomes a new scene for the reader to visualize. They very quickly cease to think of it as watching that character talking.

II. Think about what ideas your magic represents, what concepts you are trying to explore through your use of magic. Is your story about vengeance, betrayal, nostalgia, thoughtlessness, the painful change that comes about when we learn something new? Make sure your magic represents that, and that you use your magical symbols to explore that concept from many sides. Magic is another tool for the author to present those ideas, just as you do through the structure of your story and the personality of your characters. All of those things should work in concert. Also, remember that this doesn't have to be overt: you don't have to explicitly tell your readers what your sword represents, the mere fact that you know will give your magic flavor and consistency. However, it's important not to turn the magic into an allegory, where each aspect of magic always represents one concrete idea--these ideas should shift and have depth, they should explore both sides of whatever issue you're dealing with--though the style and tone of the your magic should remain consistent throughout.

III. Don't use magic as a convenient plot device to streamline your story (the 'Plot Coupons' and 'Plot Vouchers' of Lowe's essay). Make sure that your characters have strong internal motivations for everything they do: the goals, desires, fears, and insecurities which drive them. Make sure that they act and think in ways that will move the plot forwards naturally instead of just having them eliminate threats by waving a glowing rock around. There must be some kind of genuine hardship which the character is up against throughout the book--not merely a few pages of conflict every time some new threat crops up, only to be quickly dispatched by spell or sword. If you're writing a novel-length story, you need a novel-length conflict. Magic should never be the sole cause of (or solution to) plot conflicts--magic is there to make the story more complex, interesting, and to allow you to play with concepts and ideas in ways that are not available in non-fantastical stories.

If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out Part II: Adding Depth.


  1. Hmm ... after reading the three rules you've shared, there's barely any story that comes to my mind.

    Except, probably, for the manga such as "Mushishi" and "Ran to Haiiro no Sekai/Ran and the Gray World", in which whereupon magical things happens, it left the reader full of wonders and questions about what is really happening, but can somehow related to them (perhaps through the emotional quality that the character's shows).

    Perhaps you could help us by providing some title (be it movies, books, comics, or even some actual events) that has these three rules? Or maybe only one part of them.

    Beforehand, thanks a lot :)

    (And it's good to see you coming back writing to this blog.)

    1. I'd say most of the books on my suggested fantasy list follow the rules fairly well--which makes sense, because they are part of the reason I was able to come up with those 'rules' to begin with. The works of Dunsany, Susanna Clarke, Mieville, Moorcock, Howard, and Leiber do a pretty good job of writing interesting, wondrous magic.

  2. I've just finished Dunsanny's The King of Elfland's daughter and know what are you talking about. The wondrous and unpredictable nature of the magic employed by Elflands make me wonder though, that magic in Dunsanny work is a symbol of something unnatural? Because the magical creature of Elfland found the thing in the fields we know is as much as magical we see things in Elflands.

    1. Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by 'unnatural'--in many ways, I think the magic in King of Elfland's Daughter is very representative of the natural world, but of the unpredictable, unknown parts, parts which may be 'unnatural' to the rational human mind, but which are perfectly natural in the context of the wonder and caprice of nature, animals, and weather.

      I also think that the magic, and Elfland itself, is representative of the dark, unsatisfied part of the human mind, of the dissatisfaction that drives the writer and the artist to express themselves in new way. I see Alveric's search as a fruitless search for himself, looking back on his experience with Elfland in a nostalgic way, but never quite able to recapture the power of his youthful memories.

      When I talk about representation in magic, I don't mean that it should be an allegory--that each instance of magic should only represent one idea. Indeed, the meaning of magic in a book can change, as long as there is a consistency in the style and tone that the author uses to represent magic.

  3. Totally agree on all three ideas about magic,especially the one about characters sitting around talking about it -- so dull and artificial!
    Disagree on Sir Lancelot being a "might is right" kind of hero. He is a flawed hero, and he doesn't claim that the affair was "right." In fact according to some legends he later retreats from the world, and he feels guilty about the whole thing.

    1. "Disagree on Sir Lancelot being a "might is right" kind of hero."

      Think you might have a hard case to make to prove that, considering that in the tales, through Trial of Arms, his might literally did make him right--or at least made it impossible for anyone to take him to task over his moral indiscretions, which amounts to the same thing. Of course, being a character with almost a thousand years of history, he has been portrayed in many different ways.

      So, whether or not he ends up feeling guilty--or even regretted it at the time--he still decides to do it, and then decides to cover it up for a while by fighting anyone who accuses him. However, I do agree that the Arthurian take on this attempt to make might equal right is more subtle, and there are subversions. I mean, in a lot of fantasy tales, there's never any question that the guy who won is morally right by the fact of his victory.

  4. I got into a thread where people argue for a 'magic system'. They that if the magic system has rules, then the author can use it to solve problems while a 'mysterious' magic like you talk about just makes it easier to create Deus Ex Machine.

    They sent me this link:

    Something to write a response to when you need a warm-up. I'm interested in your thoughts. I didn't care much for fantasy until I saw it could be more than people with swords occasionally swinging while the author describes the armor and the breasts.

    1. Yeah, I actually recall reading that article some years ago. The main rule he describes for 'soft magic' is similar to my Rule III above, except that I extend it further to include not only deus ex machina, but also 'plot coupons', 'fetch quests', and that sort of thing--all the arbitrary magic setups that an author can substitute for having to come up with actual character motivations and conflicts.

      However, the general problem I have with magic systems is that they are just arbitrary games between the author and reader--not unlike the worldbuilding game of memorizing names and then having a word-search with the text. I mean, the rules of magic are just whatever the author says they are, so what's meaningful about that?

      In thoughtful, wondrous magic, there is already an underlying structure--the structure of themes and ideas which the author is exploring through their magical symbols. These create a basis for how your magic works, and what it represents--there is already an internal logic there.

      If an author has put this much consideration into their book, then it seems to me that there is simply no need to overlay an explicit structure of rules over that magic--of course, many authors don't put that much thought into it.

      Indeed, in many examples of fantasy that Sanderson might put under the 'soft magic' rule, there is indeed a very precisely constructed thematic structure there, based on the author's philosophical viewpoint (for example, Tolkien's Catholic theology), which does in fact constrain and provide rules for how their magic works, and how they present that magic--which becomes quite obvious to any knowledgeable reader who traces those themes through the work.