|Rossetti's 'Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber'|
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|
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'|
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.
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!|
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|
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|
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.