Magic Systems: The Rules About the Rules
One of the central hallmarks of any fantasy series is how the author sets up the magic system. This includes a lot of things, obviously. You need to know how common magic is, how easy is it to access, how powerful it is, who has it, how is it used, and so on. All of those topics there are probably blog posts waiting to happen, but today I want to focus on one thing: how magic is supposed to work.
The common misconception about fantasy (and scifi, for that matter, which occasionally strays into the use of ‘magic,’ as well, though in different guises) is that you can “do whatever you want.” You want flying dragon balloons that spit orangutans? Done! You want it to rain fire every Tuesday afternoon? Go for it! You want people to have nipples on their back while being able to spit acid from their nostrils? That’s a-ok! The thing is, though, that there’s more to it that simply that.
Of course you can do any of those things, but you can’t just do them for the hell of it and expect it to work. You need to build the underlying rationale for these things so that we, the audience, accept them as plausible or at least believable. This goes for any aspect of a fantasy setting, but it applies to the magic system in particular. It is especially true when the magic system plays a crucial part in the lives of the characters. So, for instance, Jim Butcher’s magic system for the Dresden Files (which is probably the best one I know of, by the way) is painstakingly laid out because his main character (and only POV character) is an actual wizard. George RR Martin, on the other hand, has magic only existing on the fringes of his world and only barely hinted at, so at present it is rather vague and mysterious (which suits his setting just fine). That said, I am fairly certain GRRM has a pretty solid grasp of how sorcery works in his world – his world-building is deep and robust in every direction – so even in his case, what I’m about to say probably holds true.
In order for magic to make sense and work in your fantasy setting, it needs rules. Magic that can do anything at any time is problematic for a number of plot and conflict reasons, not the least of them being the constant and obvious temptation to allow your characters to escape any danger with the wave of a wand. That’s too easy and too easy is boring. It becomes “why don’t the eagles just fly Sam and Frodo to Mordor” over and over again.
Good rules are clear enough to lay out the potential and guidelines of the powers available to those gifted with them. They should be set up to be exciting and also potentially dangerous. A good magic system, like a good superpower, is something that your readers might actively think would be fun and cool and interesting. Everybody wants to have the Force; everybody would love to have access to the Bene Gesserit’s Voice. Furthermore, a good magic system needs to be understandable enough to allow that kind of fantasizing to take place. We love the fact that Harry Potter can wave his wand and say “Accio Broom!” and his broom will shoot out from wherever it is and arrive in his hand. We love it in part because the power seems fun and interesting, but also because it seems understandable and logical: “If I, too, were a wizard and I, too, had a magic wand then I, too, would be able to reach my coffee without having to get up.”
There is, however, a balance to be struck. A system can be too vague, obviously, and this is problematic in the sense that the magic system soon becomes ignored or unimportant. Naturally, if this is your intention (e.g. Tolkien), then that’s all well and good. Nobody, though, goes walking around trying to imitate the magic of the Elves. It isn’t super clear that they have magic or, if they do, how it works. Like, in the movies did Arwen summon those white-water horses? What the hell did Elrond do to heal Frodo? If Gandalf can make flaming projectiles out of pine cones, why doesn’t he keep a bunch of pine cones in his backpack? No, magic, in the case of Tolkien anyway (and those like him), isn’t so much a system as it is a basic dramatic effect. It lacks detail and, therefore, while it gains mystery, it also loses a sense of concrete fascination for the audience. If that’s your intention, as I said, this is fine (there’s a lot of good low-magic fantasy out there), but if your intent is to create a world where the practice of magic is central to the plot somehow, you’re going to need detail.
Conversely (and perhaps paradoxically), magic systems can become too detailed and too concrete. You need rules, yes, but the rules (in my opinion) should remain sufficiently complex to prevent the audience from completely grasping them. Magic, in other words, shouldn’t seem easy. A system, even an interesting system, laid out with too much specificity starts to feel less like an eldritch code by which to manipulate the universe and more like a series of button-patterns to hit in a video game.
For my own part, in Alandar I’ve created a complex system laid out as the complex interactions of five naturally occurring energies of creation. They interact in a kind of pseudoscientific fashion and can (and have) been harnessed to create all manner of complex “technologies” based upon them. The system I hope is deep and interesting, and being a mage in this world should seem cool. In end, though, it should seem like the kind of thing you’d need to study years to master and the depths of which have yet to be fathomed by the reader and by the characters alike.
What’s a Hero?
I just finished the fifth book of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I don’t remember the precise title (Death Masks?), but that hardly matters since the titles are the least interesting or memorable parts of the series. They are wonderful fun, each and every one of them, and while they lack in some areas (Butcher’s a bit predictable at times), I recommend them to anyone looking for some light reading in the Urban/Contemporary Fantasy genre.
Anyway, the reason I bring Butcher up is that his main character, Harry Dresden, is confronted by an otherworldly
spirit who, as payment for services rendered, asks him for an honest answer to a question: “Why do you do what you do?” In other words, why does Harry, powerful wizard, bother living his life as a protector of the mortal world, which puts him in harm’s way, hurts his finances, and ruins his personal relationships. In essence, the spirit asks Harry why he is a hero. The best part?
Harry doesn’t know the answer.
As most stories – and fantasy/scifi stories in particular – have a hero of some kind, this is a question that really needs to be pondered by any writer in the genre. We too often, I feel, simply accept the actions of the hero at face value. We shrug our shoulders and give the ol’ Uncle Ben speech about ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Does it? Does it have to? I don’t think so. There’s no reason why Superman has to do the stuff he does – there are literally infinite excuses to be used to get out of helping strangers. The vast majority of humanity uses them every day, all the time; I’m no exception and neither, probably, are you. Even if we do help, it is in contained and focused ways – we give to this charity, but not to the poor directly; we’ll help people move, but we won’t care for their pets; we’ll make sure a drunk friend gets home okay, but we won’t confront him or her about their drinking problem.
I mean, ask yourself: if you could fly and stop bullets with your chest and do all the stuff superman does, would you spend all your time flying around stopping crime? If not, how much time would you spend? How long would you keep it up? Be honest with yourself.
A hero – by which I mean a real hero and not somebody we dub a hero due to some fluke of fortune – is something rare and special. I see no reason we should consider such people less rare and less special simply because they exist in another world. One of the reasons I like Harry Dresden as a character is that, for all the corniness to his person, he is a true hero but, at the same time, not an inhuman one or one that we simply accept at face value. Harry does what he does because, on some level, he can’t quite figure out what else he would do with himself. It’s a vocation, not something he shouldered because he figured he ought to. He doesn’t have a responsibility to help the helpless – this is constantly pointed out to him – yet he does it anyway. Why? He doesn’t know. He thinks he’s an idiot half the time.
I think folks with the ‘hero complex’ are people who don’t stop to think too hard about why they do what they do. They do it because they can’t imagine the alternative. That guy who runs into his neighbor’s burning house to save their dog is a hero not because he’s smart, but because he has to do that in order to feel normal. Most people wouldn’t. Nobody would blame him if he didn’t. He’s not showing off, he’s not doing it for the glory, he’s doing it because, dammit, if he let the dog die in the house it would bother him, like, forever. Yeah, it’s just a dog, but c’mon – you can hear it yelping, for Christ’s sake! You’re just going to stand there?
And another thing: you know what isn’t heroism? Revenge. Revenge is giving into your base impulses, demeaning yourself to a level of animal. We needn’t even talk of morals here or how it doesn’t solve anything – Revenge is allowing another to dictate your behavior; it is reactive, not proactive. It isn’t heroic, it’s animalistic. Frank Castle is not a hero when he kills the bad guys. If he is a hero, it is for other reasons entirely. Revenge makes for good stories and good drama, but it doesn’t make good heroes. I don’t admire such people, anyway – I understand them, yes, I even sympathize with them, but I don’t admire them.
The guy who jumps into the freezing river to save someone else’s kid? That guy is a hero. I admire him. Maybe he’s stupid, maybe he’s crazy, maybe he isn’t thinking things through, but he had to do it. He couldn’t stand there and watch. It isn’t his responsibility, true, but heroes don’t do heroic things because they’re supposed to. They do them because they can’t help themselves.