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.
Alandar: A Brief History of Sorcery, Part 1 (The Energies)
The Art – known as ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’ – is of utmost importance to life in Alandar. Indeed, one cannot separate the very stuff of sorcery from the very substance of the world itself – they are one in the same, and one who has power over the former has, by default, power over the latter.
Sorcery, it should be noted, describes the substance more than it does the act. If something is of a sorcerous nature, that means it is behaving in a particular way or made up of a particular substance. The practice of sorcery is known as the Art, and is divided into two parts: the High Arts and the Low Arts. The term ‘magic’ is a superstitious word, applied by those who do not understand the powers that shape their own world to explain what they witness as being miraculous or unknowable. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The most important fact about the Art (and the most violently guarded secret in history) is that anyone can master it. Anyone. So long as an individual possesses the proper discipline, work-ethic, intelligence, and wisdom, they can learn to become a wizard at the least and a full mage at the best. This is because sorcery is not some kind of moral reward or genetically transmitted power – it is simply another word for discussing the substance of the universe itself.
The Five Energies
The stuff of sorcery is understood by separating it into five different energies which, by their combination, comprise the physical and spiritual world that surrounds us. They are very broad, very complex concepts and should not be understood simplistically, nor should they be judged by moral concerns. The Ether is no more ‘evil’ than the Lumen can be, nor is the Fey more destructive than the Dweomer, per se. The world, as you should know by now, is a complicated and contradictory place. The energies are as follows:
The Lumen is the power of growth, life, and light. It has affinity with the number seven, the color white, and is commonly associated with ‘positive’ feelings and emotions, though this is a simplistic view. It is perhaps best understood as the power of connectivity and community – of how multiple parts work together to benefit a whole. This explains how it echoes with growth (the life force of our body growing by incorporating materials into itself to benefit the whole), kindness (being kind to one another enhances cooperation and benefits society), and so on. It is most strongly found in healthy soil or among plants and trees, and so has become associated with the Earth, even though it is hardly limited to that arena.
The Ether is the Lumen’s opposing force – the power of death, decay, and darkness. Its affinities are the number thirteen, the color black, and is commonly associated with ‘negative’ feelings and emotions like falsehood, deception, and cruelty. Like the Lumen, its true nature is rather more nuanced. The Ether is the power of solitude or self-interest – how individual members cease to operate in conjunction for the benefit of said individuals. In this way, it has connections with the Fey just as the Lumen has connections with the Dweomer, but it should be noted that other aspects of the Ether (lies, plots, binding) have much in common with the Dweomer, and so we must not simplify the world into a dualistic paradigm. The Ether is all about caring for the self, and hence decay and death (where things cease to operate in concert and, rather, dissociate themselves and break down into their constituent units). It is solitary, and therefore has affinity with lies and treachery and stealth – acts that benefit individuals who act outside social order. Due to its mysterious and oft-mercurial nature, the Ether has become associated with water – rivers, oceans, lakes, etc. – and is very powerful in those arenas.
The Dweomer is the power of order, stability, and reason. It has affinity with the number three, the color blue, and is considered the ‘rational’ power, though both the Ether and Lumen have their rational aspects. The Dweomer, however, is more pure – it is completely lacking in emotional content. At its most basic level, the Dweomer exists as the lack of motion – rigid, unchanging, sensible, and controlling. It is, for this reason, most easily channeled in cold environments – a lack of motion among most aspects of nature is common at lower temperatures, thanks to the increased dweomeric presence there. Though often considered a ‘good’ force when compared with its opposite, the Fey, this is easily found to be false by simply considering the behavior of tyrants and slavers – chains are dweomeric in nature more than they are anything else. The Dweomer is associated with the open sky and the wind, which seems contradictory at first blush, but must be understood in context: the sky, though in motion, is an orderly thing, as the passage of the stars and moon can attest, as can the rigid nature of the seasons. Even the winds are predictable, as sailors can attest, and often any variation is due to unusual spikes in temperature, which leads us to a discussion of the fourth energy.
The Fey is the power of chaos, madness, and complete freedom. It has affinity with the number one, the color red, and is considered to be the power of destruction, though that isn’t strictly fair. The Fey is pure emotion and chaos – absolute freedom of motion. This has the side effect of often being destructive – the Fey knocks down what the Deweomer builds – but it is worth noting that the Fey’s behavior often leads to growth and needed change (in other words, its destruction leads to the Lumen’s growth or the Ether’s decay, and often both), and in this sense is both essential and very positive. The Fey, unsurprisingly, is associated with fire – the destroyer, but also the giver of warmth and life.
The Astral is the fifth energy and requires special mention. For long ages, the existence of the Astral was unknown or misunderstood, because it does not, in and of itself, do much of anything. The Astral provides the medium through which all of the rest of the powers move and operate. The Astral is present everywhere, and is rarely more or less present in any one location (the ley lines excepted, but in those places there is more of everything, so that stands to reason). Were it not for the Astral, the world would cease to exist as the four opposing powers would cancel one another out in a colossal explosion. In practical terms, the Astral seems to be the chief governor of Time and Space and (arguably) fate and causality. Though technically colorless, gray has become its associated color and it has a demonstrated affinity with the number five. The Astral, though probably the most important energy, is the least visible and hardest to manipulate. Only the great magi of the Arcanostrum have had much luck with it and, indeed, this is probably why they are the current rulers of the sorcerous world.
The High Arts Vs the Low Arts
As already alluded to, the work of the magician (put crudely, but for the sake of clarity), is separated into practitioners of the High Arts and Low Arts. The High Arts are the great works of sorcery itself. It is the direct manipulation of the five energies through incantation, focus, and ritual. It is very powerful and very flexible and is the source of everything we commonly understand as sorcery. Indeed, it is these acts that only a ‘sorcerer’ (in the technical sense) can perform.
The Low Arts, conversely, are those arts that manipulate the five energies indirectly, through materials and mediums that shape the ley of the universe. The ley, by the by, is a generic term referring to the general disposition of sorcerous energy in an area. So, for instance, if someone were to say a place has a ‘dweomeric’ ley, it would mean there is a preponderance of dweomeric energy present and, therefore, proportionally less Fey energy. In any event, practicioners of the Low Arts include alchemists (who work together chemicals and materials to create sorcerous concoctions), thaumaturges (who distill purer sorcerous energies from the universe through careful scientific processes), warlocks (who construct items that channel sorcerous energy into machine-work), and so on. Though they may go by a variety of professional titles (witch, talismancer, etc.), the vast majority of Low Arts practitioners fall broadly into the preceeding three categories. While certainly important and powerful in their own way, there is little that the Low Arts can accomplish that the High Arts cannot do also, but more powerfully and more quickly (though at much greater risk to the sorcerer). The Low Arts, however, require somewhat less schooling and are far less risky. Accordingly, practitioners of the Low Arts are much more common in society, especially here in the West.
To Be Continued…
Back to (Magic) School
Is it just me, or are there a lot of magical educational institutions in the fantasy genre? I mean, it makes sense – if you have a world where there’s a wizard in every town, they all have to learn their trade somewhere, right? What I find odd, though, is the extent to which we, the readers, always find ourselves there, going to classes, worrying about tests, and the rest of it. Now, while I do enjoy a well-rendered magic school scene as much as the next guy, I feel like this particular trope of the genre is getting worn out. I mean, consider all the magic schools out there:
- Hogwarts (naturally)
- The Jedi Academy
- The University (Kingkiller Chronicles)
- Brakebills (The Magicians)
- The White Tower of Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)
- Roke (Earthsea Trilogy)
There are more than this, too, and there are also those other fantastic schools we see that, while they don’t teach magic, they do teach rather off-beat things like mutant powers (Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) or high-tech strategy (the Battle School in Ender’s Game) and so on and so forth. My own world, Alandar, has a magical school, too (the Arcanostrum of Saldor), and I’d bet there are at least a thousand other first novels out there all brandishing their own version of how to learn to throw fire from your hands and tell the future with a dish of water. And, while I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to figure that stuff out in their fantasy world, I am getting a little tired of having to take the curriculum myself.
I don’t want to go to class with these kids. I don’t want to meet their teachers. I don’t want to see their tests or worry with them over their tuition or any of that. It’s becoming exhausting for me – I feel like I never get the chance to graduate from these places. Once I’m out of one, I’m enrolled in another. It’s starting to drive me crazy. I have now forsworn ever writing any further magic school scenes that deal with the troubles of students learning the mystical arts (I have done it in the past, but no more). Why? It’s done now. Beat to death.
Now, there are some very good reasons why this trope has infiltrated so much of the genre and, honestly, one of the reasons it bothers me is that I, myself, am a teacher and reading this stuff just makes me feel like I’m at work to some extent. Most simply, though, the primary reason we keep seeing magical schools is that so much of this genre is targeted at kids who are still in high school or college. Hell, the Young Adult Fantasy genre is almost exclusively concerned with an audience for whom a major (if not the major) source of conflict in their lives is their experiences in school. I would bet that adults like these things because they, themselves, enjoy the nostalgia that comes with being obsessed with the troubles that come with school (which, kids, if I may pull my Old Man Card here, are wonderfully simple problems compared to the Real World). Even beyond audience appeal, they also serve as excellent ways to introduce a reader to the magical scheme of the fantasy world in question – as they learn, so do you.
In all those senses, I get it; I understand why we keep going back to these places. Can we shake it up, though? Can we tell the story of a teacher instead of a student? Can we follow a student who finds school easy but their personal life hard (though I suppose Grossman does this in The Magicians to some extent)? Can we follow a student who is so terrible at school that he isn’t any good and he drops out and then finds something else to do with his life? What about not having a school, but just a master and apprentice? This has been done, yes, but hardly as often and not with as much detail. What about somebody who’s just plain old self-taught? What about somebody founding a school? What about a school that gets dissolved?
There’s a lot of stuff to be done here, but I feel like we keep running in the same circles. We got the same talented kid who has some trouble in school but overall does impressive stuff who has a teacher s/he likes, a teacher s/he hates, a group of plucky friends, and a headmaster who makes a good mentor. They go through their adventures, get their degree, and there the story stops. This I find deeply ironic to some extent since, as all adults know, that’s the point where the story really starts.
The Koldun in the Wood
The air was hot and thick with ash; the shetl had burned easily, even without gasoline. Obersturmfuhrer Werner Stolik was pleased with this – the army was moving quickly through the wide open steppes of Russia, and gasoline was becoming increasingly difficult to replace. Bullets, too; he’d ordered the villagers to be bayoneted, to avoid further wastage.
All in all, things would be going smoothly and this little errand for his superiors would be resounding success, save for one small hiccup. It was a ridiculous thing, honestly, but the SS didn’t deal in loose ends and somebody somewhere down the line has screwed up. That person’s name was Untersharfuhrer Marcus Dantrich, and presently Stolik was off to fix whatever mess the idiot sergeant had gotten himself into.
It was amazing to Stolik how easy it was to lose men in the steppe. He didn’t mean casualties – he’d barely had any of those – but rather the literal meaning of “lose”. The broad, flat, open plains could somehow swallow you and, if you wandered too far and didn’t keep a keen eye on your compass, you’d be as lost as any sailor at sea. Stolik had sent Dantrich off on patrol with three men to try and round up any of the villagers who had tried to slip off. They hadn’t come back.
They were stormtroopers – SS – the Fuhrer’s finest. Stolik had every confidence they were fine, but they were almost certainly lost, and they needed to be found. Losing men in Russia reflected poorly upon one’s service record, and Stolik had every intention of keeping his record spotless.
Five paces in front of him, their local guide stopped walking. Stolik drew his Luger. “What? Why have you stopped?”
The man was a skinny, stoop shouldered Jew, shirtless, sweating, stinking of fear. He pointed ahead of them, where a small wood could be seen looming in the orange haze of the smoke-filled air; the trees were bare, straight and black, like charred bones. “Your men are in there.” He mumbled in imperfect Russian.
Stolik straightened his jacket and looked at the two men he had with him, grinning. “So this is where the fearsome wizard lives, is it?”
The guide nodded, clutching a pouch to his chest. “The koldun, yes. If your men did not come back, this is why.” He turned to the three soldiers. “Please, I have shown you – let me go now?”
Stolik chuckled; his men followed suit. Typical Jew behavior, he thought – trying to dodge out of a tough situation. “And be robbed of your fine introduction of this no-doubt powerful and respectable old man?”
The man’s shoulders somehow managed to sag even lower. When Stolik motioned with his Luger, the man turned and kept walking.
Stolik glanced at his two men and gave orders in German. “Expect some kind of trick.” They nodded, and readied their MP40 submachine guns. The sound of them working the slides made their guide stiffen, but he kept walking, never looking back.
The forest swallowed them. In a matter of moments there was no sign of where it had begun or where it ended; just the silent, black trunks of the pines on all sides. It was so quiet that Stolik found himself clearing his throat just to confirm he could still hear. Their footsteps were engulfed by the loose soil at their feet, leaving only vague depressions behind them. There was something dreamlike about it all; it was as though they were only partially there.
The guide stopped again, shuddering visibly.
“What is it now, filth?” Stolik barked. He came up behind the man, figuring the feeling of a pistol pressed against his bony spine might motivate him.
At the guide’s feet was a thin, white line, perhaps two inches wide, that was comprised of some kind of granular powder. It stretched off in either direction, curving away into the fiery haze of the silent, dead wood. “Is that salt?” Stolik asked, nudging it with his toe.
The jew convulsed, as though Stolik had touched a live electrical wire. He quickly stuffed his hand in the crude pouch he carried and sprinkled more salt atop the part Stolik has smudged. When he finished, he hung his head. “Please…please, do not touch the seal. For your own sakes. For all our sakes.”
Stolik scowled. He seized the man by the chin and pulled his face upwards until they locked eyes. “I am not the one in danger here, Jew.” Pointedly, and without looking away from the thin face of his prisoner, Stolik brushed his foot back and forth across the salt line until he’d made a substantial gap. “Your weakling superstitions do not concern me. Lead on or die here.”
The guide was corpse pale, but also too broken and cowardly to show any defiance. He stepped gingerly over the salt and kept going. His feet dragged, though – perhaps from terror, perhaps from emotional and physical exhaustion. He’d been digging graves most of the morning. Stolik imagined it would be easiest to shoot him here when their business was concluded. Whatever that business was.
The two soldiers with Stolik followed along, but he could tell they were getting nervous. “Herr Oberst,” one mumbled behind him, “This is supposed to just be a single old man, right?”
Stolik grunted. “Yes, yes, but so what if it’s half a dozen? Unless this rat is leading us to some idiotically placed Soviet tank or machine gun nest, I’m not concerned. Show a little backbone, soldier.”
They walked on a short way further before the little hut emerged, squat and black in the weird half-light. The guide stopped as soon as he saw it, frozen with some provincial, superstitious dread that made Stolik’s lip curl. He ignored the guide – it was clear enough they were where they were supposed to be. “Don’t go anywhere.” He growled at the man as he passed him by.
The first thing Stolik’s eyes resolved out of the haze were the bodies – four of them. Three German soldiers, their bodies bent and warped into unnatural positions before the darkened doorway of the shack. Stolik didn’t need to check to see that they were dead; how he couldn’t guess, but now was not the time. His nostrils flared at the scent of blood. He was glad his pistol was already drawn.
The fourth body was that of an old man, naked. It looked as though it had been dead for some time or, possibly, embalmed at some point in the recent past. It was small, pale, skeletally thin, its mouth fixed into a rictus grin beneath milky white eyeballs. For reasons Stolik couldn’t quite justify to himself, this body was riddled with bulletholes. It was missing a leg beneath the knee, an arm above the elbow, and its chest was perforated with at least seven or eight other direct hits. There was no blood that he could see.
Stolik pointed at the dead old man and shouted at the guide. “Is that the sorcerer? Is that your koldun?”
The Jew was trembling uncontrollably now, crouched upon the ground, his fingers awkwardly pawing at the bag of salt he’d stubbornly clung to all this time. Beneath his breath, he kept muttering the words ‘eretnik’ and ‘nechistaia sila’ as well as a variety of things in Yiddish. Stolik’s Russian wasn’t good enough to translate.
He turned back to the hut. “Dantrich! Are you in there? Dantrich, it’s Stolik! Come out!”
“Dantrich isn’t here, Herr Oberst.” A man stepped out of the darkened doorway, clad in a heavy holocaust cloak with a deep hood. His voice was heavy, cold, and flat, like a piece of slate. He spoke perfect German.
Stolik pointed his luger at the stranger. “Are you the wizard?”
“I am the koldun. My name is Vitaly Khostov. You are tresspassing.”
Stolik opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by the piercing sob of the guide, who was now hurriedly pouring salt all around himself. He kept muttering ‘eretnik, eretnik.’ What did that mean? Heretic? Was this some kind of religious nonsense among Jews?
“You have burned the shetl.” Khostov announced.
“What happened to my men?” Stolik barked.
Khostov shrugged. “I killed them.”
Stolik glanced at the bodies. “How?”
Khostov’s laugh was mirthless. “Does it really matter?”
The wretch had a point. Stolik shot him in the chest; the pistol’s sharp report didn’t echo.
Khostov jerked with the impact, but he did not fall or cry out. He instead took a step closer to Stolik. “Your fellows did the same thing, you know. You Germans – utterly lacking in creativity.”
This time Stolik’s shots were joined with those of both soldiers, their MP40s rattling off rounds into the koldun’s chest, legs, and arms. Now, however, Khostov didn’t move slowly. In the blink of an eye, he was standing before one soldier, his body bending awkwardly from the ruin the bullets were making of his torso. He – it – seemed to convulse, and a gout of gore vomited from beneath the hood and covered the Nazi stormtrooper. The soldier fell to the ground, screaming and clawing at his face as though being burned.
The other soldier charged, swinging his weapon like a club. Khostov caught the gun by the barrel, wrenched it from his hands, and then struck the stormtrooper hard enough that Stolik heard his neck break from the impact. He fell to the ground like a sack of flour.
The clearing was suddenly quiet; Stolik realized that he was pulling the trigger on an empty pistol. Click…click…click.
The Russian wizard paused a moment to…straighten his broken body into something somewhat more upright. There was a couple visceral pops and a squelching noise.
Stolik couldn’t move. Somewhere behind him he could hear the jew, moaning some prayer in Yiddish. All he could manage was, “You…black… black sorcery!”
Khostov came closer, moving with slow, fluid steps. It seemed as though he were floating above the ground. “All sorcery is black sorcery, Herr Oberst. It is a power we inherit from God, but that we use without His consent.”
Stolik sank to his knees. “You can kill me, but we will crush you anyway. One panzer will crush your miserable hut; you will die screaming.”
“Do you know why you Nazis will fail?” Khostov stopped in front of Stolik’s paralyzed, kneeling body and crouched down. “You think that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person.”
One blood-soaked hand emerged from the holocaust cloak and pulled back the hood. Stolik found himself, eye-to-eye, with the smiling face of Marcus Dantrich. Stolik tried to scream, but something was choking off his speech. He clawed his throat, but there was nothing there. He was suffocating, but his body refused to breathe. The world began to dim.
“Do not worry, Herr Oberst, Mother Russia will teach your people about what is worst of all things.” Khostov/Dantrich smiled, his teeth a broken ruin of blood and gore. “And it will be a long, long lesson.”
The world narrowed to a tunnel around the koldun’s face. The last thing Stolik saw were the corpses of his fallen men, rising up from the earth.