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The Curse of the Magic System

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Yves Meynard

I heard a story once about two 12-year old boys who were discussing a certain fantasy book I shall not name, and pronounced it way better than The Lord of the Rings—because its magic system was more consistent.

Ridiculous, yes—but I can’t quite dismiss the criticism. Fantasy depends on magic more closely than SF depends on science. It gets embarrassing when the very core of a book disintegrates upon closer examination. Science offers us an extensive vocabulary, an army of concepts we can twist and skew behind our backs, to produce stories that seem to hang together, as long as you ignore a stray wire or two.

Magic is a different matter. It makes sense within the field of symbols, or when it evokes well-worn concepts we have been brought up to believe. But that won’t suffice for what I want to do, as a writer. I’ve got a hypertrophied, over-dramatic imagination: I need powerful wizards casting spectacular spells… And a way to explain why everyone else isn’t doing the same thing, why you can’t just belch out fireballs like a machine-gun, or why you’d spend your energies doing subtle work instead of just nuking the bad guy’s castle.

So I cheat, of course. Mages have to be both born and bred, rare by virtue of innate talent. I decree that magic is inherently arbitrary, a field forever beyond its practicioners’ comprehension. I postulate that spellbooks dissolve at the death of their owners that wizardly lines thin out and die over the centuries that some spells are forgotten and lost for eternity.

On Thursdays it feels right; on Fridays it seems like a total cop-out.

Fantasy role-playing games have given us the Curse of the Magic System: over every attempt to articulate a rationale for magic hangs the specter of Fizban the magic-user casting a fireball for 10d6 of damage. To make magic coherent and logical destroys its essence. Gandalf cannot be reduced to an eighth-level cleric with the ability to use edged weapons.

And yet, if we let magic be too mysterious, it sublimates into a plot device, a convenient excuse to make things work out the way you want. That won’t do. So we risk coming full circle, shying away from mystery only to plunge back into mundanity.

As a possible way to ground magic in reality without having to rationalize it as such, I have been wanting to deal with what it feels like for its practitioners. Not the mystical thrill of power, but the more concrete aspects of a demanding discipline. And so one of the aspects of Chrysanthe I like best is the details of Melogian’s mastery of her art. I’ve used magic profusely in the book, going to extremes when the plot demanded it; as a way to atone for these sins against believability, I’ve tried to give a glimpse into the professional life of an adept. The rituals, the gestures and words, the mind-twisting wielding of the power itself, the way it resonates across Melogian’s existence, as she finds herself enmeshed in the inner workings of the world, an unwilling fulcrum of fate when all she ever wanted to do was shape flowers out of dreams.

Melogian would believe Chrysanthe is in truth her story rather than Christine’s. She may well be right.

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From the Tor/Forge February newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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  1. WHM
    February 6, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Excellent thoughts, Yves. One of the advantages of writing and reading fantasy in our current era is that diverse approaches to solving the problem you aptly describe are acceptable and available.

    One thing that I’d mention is that the mundane isn’t always really all that mundane. For example, Brandon Sanderson’s allomancy is one of the more scientistic magic systems around. And yet the Mistborn trilogy is about breaking through mundane practice of it and digging into the mysteries of its origin and the deep, dangerous, chaotic power the minor practice of it grew out of it (or are adjunct to).

  2. February 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Speaking of Sanderson, go on his website and look up his essay on Sanderson’s First Law where he talks about magic systems (or you could go to the Writing Excuses website and look up the podcast they did on Magic Systems and their Rules, which is fairly early in season one, I want to say #14 or #15).

    Basically, the gist of Sanderson’s First Law comes down to this: “the ability of the protagonist to solve problems with magic depends upon how well the reader understands the rules of the magic.”

    Translation, if you don’t know how the magic works, you can’t use it to solve problems. In they podcast they specifically bring up Gandalf and the fact that he isn’t a perspective character in the novels, he has magic, but he isn’t using it to solve the problems that the main perspective characters are running into.

    One of the best examples of this that I can bring up is from something Sanderson wrote (albeit it wasn’t originally his work). In The Gathering Storm (book 12 of The Wheel of Time, and this will be a very slight spoiler) Rand is literally powerful enough to destroy the entire universe with his magic and by using the Choedan Kal Sa’angreal. By the standards of the kids who complained about LotR, this would be boring. The reason it’s not is simple, Rand’s primary conflict at that time is not one that he can overcome with power, he’s afraid that he is going insane and that no matter what he does he will not be able to defeat the Dark One.

    • Dimu
      February 7, 2012 at 9:48 am

      +1 on Brandon Sanderson’s First Law. A must read for any fantasy writer.

  3. Larry Niven
    February 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Try THE MAGIC GOES AWAY for a different take on magic and magicians. Larry Niven

  4. February 6, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I think a good example of a magic system that is vague, mysterious, inconsistent, and still WONDERFUL, is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Warren’s are both dimensons, and wellsprings of power. How mages use the power of their warrens, is a mystery. And even by the sixth book, literally thousands of pages, into the plot, it is just barely explained.

    But the inconsistencies don’t seem to matter. I like to think of the play “Copenhagen” where Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, argue about the fundamental nature of matter. Is it a particle? Is it a wave? It has properties of both? But the second you measure one, it changes.

    I think magical consistency is a hobgoblin of no great importance. But I like Adam’s comment, citing Sanderson’s First Law, because I think it illustrates a great lesson. Problems aren’t solved with magic. They are solved with heart, intelligence, self-sacrifice and mercy. Magic makes the scenery and situation, but it is characters who drive the plot forward, who seek resolution and change. In that context, magic is a wondrous and mysterious coloring, not a lever to lift the world.

    Interesting conversation…

  5. February 6, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    It’s not called magic, it’s called ground-working, but that system is extremely well worked out in Bujold’s Sharing Knife books. How to get the bone for a knife (hint: someone needs to contribute it, and it usually has to be willing), how to prime the knife (see earlier note about volunteers, though I expect Dag is ready to draft one of the characters) and how to get close enough to a Malice to use it without getting killed. And the technology of ‘shaping ground’ and dealing with ‘beguilement’ with non-magic users is also quite developed. The tin hats are optional .

  6. February 7, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Nice post, and good comments. I’m working on my second book, but first Epic Fantasy. The biggest problem I have is a non-stupid magic system.

  7. February 7, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Ed, I am no authority, as many here are, but as a reader, I am a believer that you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Cliche is important in fantasy, and sometimes using a system established by someone, or an industry norm, means you can focus on what’s actually important. I’m betting that the genesis of your book wasn’t asking a philosophical question about magic. In Sanderson’s case, that very often is the initial question of the work (thinking Mistborn). In my work, bringing economics to life is my start point. I believe that it is your starting point that should determine the role of magic. Best of luck in your work!

  8. Lisa Padol
    February 9, 2012 at 12:26 am

    Fantasy magic, as opposed to, I guess, science fantasy magic, tends to have an emotional or moral consistency, a fairytale logic. You can’t just pull anything out of the air, but the rules aren’t the rules of science. Or at least, that’s how I think of it.

  1. February 6, 2012 at 9:47 am
  2. February 6, 2012 at 9:47 am
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