Monday, July 15, 2013

On Writing Magic Well - Part II: Adding Depth

'The Magic Circle' by Waterhouse
In my first installment, I discussed a few pitfalls we, as writers, must avoid in our quest to create magic that feels truly magical--but success is not the same as simply avoiding failure. So, the question becomes: what can we do to inject a sense of wonder into our magic? How can we give our magic a substance, a texture, an enveloping quality that alters our entire world from within?

Reading classic texts, we can see that for earlier cultures and traditions, magic really was everywhere--it permeated all aspects of life, and people took it very seriously. It could inspire fear and hatred, it could be a source of respect or suspicion, it could produce conflict between different cultures--it often did all of those things at once. Magic was not merely physically powerful, but powerful as a cultural idea.

All people were connected to magic in various ways. They all prayed, they all practiced rituals, went to holy days. They visited local witches and wizards to have curses put on others, or to defend themselves against being cursed, or to get a love potion made up. They had household gods who they needed to appease lest their lives fall apart--every home and family had its own little gods who oversaw everyday things.

Roman Household Gods
Then there were those who specialized in magic, the few who drew fear and respect from all who knew them, who could predict the weather and the moving of the stars in the skies, who knew when plants would die, who could drive off sickness and make you whole. It was a far cry from the mundane 'magic schools' of modern fantasy, where spellcasting is just another job--little different from coopers, millers, or knights.

So, what happened to turn magic into a mere physical representation of power, something small and predictable? Well, lately, the movement in literature has been to take cues from videogames and tabletop roleplaying games, where magic is balanced, structured, and known, facilitating easy play--but this also brought in many of the assumptions and prejudices of those games.

For example, in most fantasy, there is often now a strict delineation between the 'natural world' and the 'magical world'. Many fantasy writers seem to take this completely for granted. They create a world that is, on the whole, scientific and realistic according to modern conceptions and physical laws--while magic is anything that doesn't behave in a realistic fashion.

Sri Lankan Disease Demon Mask
This is not how old tales of magic work. In them, everything is magical. Everything happens for a reason, because of the forces of spirits and gods working around you all the time. So there is no storm unless the storm spirit makes it happen. A disease is not a germ, but a spiritual affliction, with a magical and moral force behind it. If a man dies in a swamp, it's because he was lured there and trapped by the local spirits. The forests, the seas, and the skies were alive with intent and power.

Yet, for many modern authors of fantasy, diseases occur under the modern notions of germ theory, storms occur due to weather systems, men die in swamps because mud is sticky. Their forests, seas, and skies are more or less like the ones we encounter in our everyday lives.

Magic in their worlds is not pervasive, it's uncommon, man-made, and separate from the rest of nature. To a man from myth, a lion and a dragon are equally magical, equally monstrous and powerful. In a modern fantasy story, a lion is 'just an animal', while a dragon is magic--but this is only because modern man no longer believes in dragons. And of course, even a dragon can cease to feel magical when it conforms so closely to cliche that we, as the reader, can predict everything about it.

It's the same problem many historical fiction authors make: they change the words they use, they change the way the world looks, the level of technology, the clothing, the food--but they keep modern psychology, the modern assumptions about how the world works. They make characters who act like modern, first world people of the middle class with a reasonable education, critical thinking skills, humanist philosophy, scientific rationalism, and a thoroughly modern sense of morality. Disconnecting magic from nature is just as thoughtless as writing a Medieval princess who spouts 3rd-wave feminist rhetoric.

In both cases, the author has changed nothing but the window dressing. Everything else is perfectly modern, perfectly familiar. So, in order to write magic well, you have to ensure that magic is not artificially bounded by notions of modern science, and that the people in that world possess an absolute belief in magic as a pervasive thing that affects every aspect of their lives--though, of course, there have always been skeptics and charlatans, so your characters don't have to believe in every myth, god, and hedge wizard.

Hecate: God of Moon and Magic
Another symptom of the way magic has become streamlined and modernized is the fact that it is often now represented as perfectly understood and repeatable. If a wizard can cast a spell once, he can cast it a hundred times--all he needs is to know the proper incantation, and he summons up the power and it's done. Sure, at first, we get the 'magic school' scene where they mess up the spell, but once they figure it out, they don't have any more problems with it.

In the old myths, magic was often unpredictable--it depended upon many different things going well for the caster: the phase of the moon, the incanter's current relationship to certain spirits or gods (including whether they were angry or pleased with him at the time), the sacrifices made, the place where the magic is undertaken, whether the caster had recently committed a moral indiscretion, or touched blood, or a menstruating woman--all these things could ruin a spell, or at least affect its outcome.

If our whole world is magical--if the forests and the weather are magic, and the air is full of spirits, then anyone doing magic is going to have to contend with the forest, and with the spirits. It's a messy world out there for a wizard, and there are many things that can go wrong.

Often, wizards had to keep themselves pure--there were certain things they couldn't touch or ingest, places they couldn't go. In some cultures, a man stepping on your shadow can mess up your magic for days--or permanently, until you go and perform a ritual to specifically cleanse yourself. Which brings us to another point about most of modern fantasy: magic is no longer spiritual.

You say 'Taboo', he says 'Tapu'
It's a science, a system which can be tested and proven and reproduced. Very rarely is it looked at as a philosophy, a moral code, a system of rituals and taboos that must be carefully navigated. Usually, it's more like getting an engineering degree: you study for a while, you figure the math out, then you go out and do it.

If there is a moral code involved, it's usually just 'be a heroic dude under the modern conception of 'good'', which is not going to strike any readers as being particularly wondrous or magical--because it's nothing more than a plot convenience. There probably will be some little rules about what a magician can and cannot do, but again, they're usually pretty basic, modern, and predictable--and often, they'll only be brought up in order to conveniently deny magic to wizards when it could otherwise solve some plot conflict.

Lastly, I'll give the ironic piece of advice that, in order to make magic wondrous and strange, you have to make it commonplace and mundane. If magic is everywhere, if it touches everything, and every person, then it stands to reason that magic must be ubiquitous, and even expected. The average person is going to want to use magic as an explanation for why things unexpectedly go wrong or right--not just big things, but everything. Likewise, they will see magic in things that we would consider perfectly normal. The lion is just as magical as the dragon. The talking lion is magical, but only because all lions are magical, and all lions can talk, most just choose not to.

When Oliver Stone scripted the 1982 film version of Conan the Barbarian, he understood this, which is why the movie starts out with Conan's father talking about 'The Riddle of Steel'. He speaks in terms of myth and legend, of the secrets of the gods which were stolen by men, for their own purposes. Throughout the film, the idea is expanded upon and subverted in an exploration of military power versus political power.

But the truth is, the Riddle of Steel is just the process by which a high-quality steel weapon is made. Of course, as modern people, we know it's all to do with amounts of carbon and levels of heat and all of that, but to the characters in this story, it's magic--real magic. You follow a complex ritual, hoping to appease all the right spirits, doing everything properly, trying desperately not to commit any taboos that might ruin the magic, and at the end you get a magic sword--a sword that keeps a sharp edge, and which can cut right through lesser swords.

And the man who knows the secret of making magic swords? He's a wizard, just like the guy who can predict eclipses and the turning of the seasons and the coming of comets. Planting tiny pebbles that turn into full grown trees? That's magic. Eating a mushroom that makes you fly up into the sky and speak with your ancestors? Definitely magic.

Now, of course, we don't have to make every single thing magical in order for our story to work, but we definitely have to make sure that the magic parts are magical. In Dunsany, Poul Anderson, and Susanna Clarke, you have the 'normal world' which is contrasted with the 'magic world'. Of course, in the first two, the 'normal world' is actually magical, too--it's just that it's a friendly, low-key Christian magic versus the wild, shifting, fairy magic of the other realm. In Clarke's case, it's a very deliberate contrast between magic and science, between the decline of spiritual power and the scientific enlightenment of the Industrial Revolution.

Then there are stories like Howard's Conan or Leiber's Lankhmar, where the majority of people are rather pragmatic and bloody, living out their lives in the same ways each day, until they run up against the world of magic--a world that is vast and palpable and where every aspect is tinged with strange, unpredictable power.

So, it can often be useful to contrast the world of magic against the small man--but even that small man has his own idea of what magic is--or isn't. He has his own beliefs, rituals, and superstitions. Some of them might even be true.

For further exploration on some of these same concepts from the point of view of tabletop roleplaying games--but with many ideas equally applicable for writers, if you can get through the game-specific jargon--check out this article, which I found particularly inspirational.


  1. I enjoy your analysis of literary magic in terms of modern thought vs. mythic thought, but I must say I've always enjoyed works that looked at magic and the magical world through a scientific lens, treating the magic as if it were, in fact, a sort of bizarre science. To me it's just another interesting mode of fantasy.

    1. Yeah, and I can appreciate that, too, which is why in Part I, I talk a bit about how, in his Elric stories, Moorcock takes Quantum Physics and turns it into a kind of magic. After all, there's nothing about the edge of scientific knowledge that isn't mysterious, incomprehensible, powerful, and utterly pervasive, as good magic should be.

      My problem is when an author's treatment of magic as scientific makes the whole thing small, predictable, and wholly comprehensible--which makes it neither very magical nor very scientific.

    2. Just like science, a magic system that has a set of known rules that make it - to an extent - predictable is not necessarily without debth, or wholy comprehensible because of that.
      Personally, I can enjoy more reliable magic in fantasy, that basically becomes a tool for characters to solve problems intelligently. Such a "scientific" magic system does't exclude the possibility of mystery and wonder. It is even possible two have several magic systems in the same world, some being basically alternate physics, and others more wondrous.
      Of course that way it is difficult or even impossible to implement an all encompassing, utterly pervasive mysticism (mystic thought, mystic psychology) into the setting, but I don't see such a mindset as a necessary prerequesite for good fantasy.

      In any case, I've found your views on magic in fantasy very inspiring, thanks.

    3. "Just like science, a magic system that has a set of known rules that make it - to an extent - predictable is not necessarily without debth, or wholy comprehensible because of that."

      I think that's a good idea in concept, but I don't think it's actually workable in practice. In science things are often mysterious and surprising, but not randomly so. The same inexplicable results come up again and again, so that it's clear that there is some kind of structure behind it all, only the scientist can't figure out what the pattern is, or how to predict it.

      It's taken some of the most creative minds in history mankind to suss out these patterns and make sense of them--the kind of mind that comes along perhaps once in a generation. Now, scientists have the benefit of there actually being a pattern out there for them to discover. A writer trying to develop a magic system does not have this benefit, they have to create it from whole cloth.

      Creating a magic system that possesses both the strange unpredictability and the sense of an underlying pattern that science has would require a level of creativity and mastery that only a handful of thinkers in the history of mankind have ever possessed. So, while it's an interesting idea, I don't think it's a realistic goal for a writer to take on. I've certainly never read a fantasy novel that even came near to succeeding.

      Now of course, as I mentioned, an author can simply take science and reskin it, as Moorcock does with quantum physics, which produces an interesting effect, but is quite a different thing.

      "I can enjoy more reliable magic in fantasy, that basically becomes a tool for characters to solve problems intelligently"

      At the point at which magic becomes a predictable tool to solve plot conflict, it is no longer magical, which rather defeats the point. I know there are many others who write in the fantasy genre, but write books that are not fantastical, that have no sense of wonder, but are instead staid and predictable, full of clich├ęs and symbolism that supports the author's moral opinions. Such books are simply not fantasy, but are more akin to fables, allegories, and morality plays.

      At that point, the question we must ask is "why does the author use magic at all?"--what is the purpose of magic in the author's book? Are they using it to evoke wonder, or familiarity? Is it the fundamental driver of tone for the book, or merely a tool facilitating the plot? Too often I see magic used as a patch for plot holes, as a way for an author to try to cover their lack of writing skill. They write fantasy not because it allows them to explore the furthest reaches of the human mind, but because it's easier than honing their minds and perfecting their craft.

      Hopefully that helps to better explain where I'm coming from. Thanks for the comment.

  2. That's a good point. Science is, after all, as mysterious as it is measurable, and even more dangerous.
    ... I need to write that line down for later.
    I wonder if you could find enough material for a list/analysis of the best unusual takes or riffs on on familiar concepts in fantasy (i.e. inventive and relatively original incarnations of the Fair Folk, dragons, shapeshifters, etc.) It would make for an interesting read.
    P.S. On a wholly unrelated note, I was happy to find American Gods and The Sandman in your Recommended Fantasy list; Neil Gaiman is probably my favorite author.

    1. Yeah that is an interesting idea--I suppose I could start writing individual articles on different tropes, like the Fair Folk, and how different authors use them. Could be interesting.

  3. Are you familiar with the anime Mushishi? It approaches magic in a way I imagine you'd find fresh and appealing-the protagonist is a traveling "mushi doctor" who helps people deal with various troubles (from disease to natural disaster to strange cultural phenomena) caused by the titular whimsical creatures, which only a few people can see. There is a pervasive sense of mysticism throughout, which is enriched (in my reading) by tie-ins to interesting ecological phenomena.

    Your writing is inspiring me to step up my game as a reviewer and thinker. Keep up the good work, and thanks!

    1. I'm not familiar with it, no. Perhaps I'll check out the manga. Glad my work has inspired you, it's very humbling to hear that. Thanks for the comment.


    It's funny when this type of thing become the contemporary advice on creating magic in your fiction. I've read Sanderson's work, and I could said that I can't called his "magic" as magic. Not when I've read too much shounen manga where there many powers that worked in similar fashion (which is why I called his "magic" as "power" for the rest of my review on his books), that is being the tool for human, not existing as itself, not being the force of nature that moves on its own.

    I indeed found a pattern where mainstream contemporary writers tend to separate magic from natural world (even though Abercrombie's magic is rare and rather unpredictable, it's still separated in "otherworld" sense like any other magic I've found), while more "obscure" and classic writers write magic as they are force of nature, like they are breathing on its own.

    Also Keely, you should write an article about psychology of characters in fantasy, where contemporaries writer more often than not, inserting "modern" character so to speak in their supposed to be pseudo-medieval/pseudo-enlightenment era setting. This I found very troubling when I read the work of Sanderson (beside his magic) and Abercrombie (beside his terrible prose and choose of words).

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    Magic Pervasive