Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Handling magic in your writing

by Nicolai Grunnet, fantasy author and psychologist.

Whether you write designated fantasy or a story involving strong elements of the fantastic, magic is one of those things most of us, as writers, have an opinion about. I might be so bold and say; it’s darn well one of those things you have to at least make an initial stand on, seeing as magic is something extremely associated with the fantastic universe.

Now, don’t confuse this making of an opinion with ‘forced to include’; a solid handful of authors have taken the stand that magic does indeed exist in their respective universes, only it’s so restricted that it’s barely worth mentioning. Or perhaps long dead and gone.

Others feature it in abundance, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Magic is colorful, impressive, immense; the epitome of freedom that allows us to break the boundaries of our ordinary lives. The thing so many readers of fantasy seek out, on a psychological level; an exodus away from the busy, grey day and into a world in which anything is possible. 

But in another aspect, magic can be dangerous; both in the story and for the author to work with. This dual edged arcane sword allows the writer to incorporate just about any mechanic in his or her story, have problems solved in the most fantastic ways. Yet it also presents the ever lurking threat of just being plain out ‘cheating’. Some of you, who’ve stalked the internet, might very well be aware with the term ‘A wizard did it’, whenever some solution to a given problem simply seems too incredible to be plausible.

What said sentence tells us is that magic often holds the absolute mandate; in its utmost extreme it doesn’t need to explain itself. Magic just does. If you’re like most fantasy authors out there, it probably had its influence on creating your world, whether said spells were of arcane or divine origin. That makes magic something we often need to define, whenever we sit down to create a new setting or place, and ask ourselves how much it is capable of doing, and how far we, as authors, will allow it to go before it becomes a wild horse underneath us, that runs wild into the landscape.

The first thing I’ve noticed when I started writing ‘Pandegnomium’ is that magic commits. It might seem contradictive how something as free as magic needs to be defined; yet what magic needs are rules, not necessarily hardcoded limits. When I wrote up Etnil, the main protagonist, I found it interesting to have magic be a very rare thing in an otherwise dull world. Making him a wild mage whose powers not only served to protect him from harm, but at the same time could annihilate the rest of society (only it didn’t bother) seemed like a classical idea with a lot of potential for improvement. In that way, magic wasn’t something everyone wallowed around and had access to; instead it became like this unhealthily involved parent that believes his/her son doesn’t need any other friends. Usually it succeeds, because it scares off everyone else and blasts those threatening the kid. That was the rule; magic was rare, yet powerful and came with a price. Somehow, the genie had it right in Aladdin. Phenominal cosmic power...

I’ve always thought that these rules should remain more or less coherent (after all, what would the point be otherwise?) perhaps with the occasional exception in certain great scenes and events in your world. I was amazed at how hard it can be to remain true to these rules as your story progresses, even when you have so few. In Etnil’s case, it meant his arcane power had an enormous potential to change the world around him, only he didn’t want it to happen all too often. His ‘go away, mum!’ effect had worked brilliantly for years, but whenever he was in mortal danger, spell casting would kick in like a reflex and save him, often with terrible consequences to his surroundings.

Around the third book, the inevitable question suddenly struck me; “How is this guy ever going to be able to die?”  If magic steps in to save him, albeit at the cost of a town or two whenever, what is it actually able to save him from? Is it omnipresent and can prevent, say, a backstab? Poisoned food? Or does it rely entirely on his perceptions? And the thing is, these rules should be there and shouldn’t really be broken unless I had a damn good reason to.
In a way, that sets up a very important question in dealing with magic in your story:

How much is magic, usually in the hands of mortals, able to do? Better yet; what CAN’T it do?

There is a huge difference in how much magic can do in, say, Harry Potter and in a Forgotten Realms novel. This is usually influenced by your particular genre with epic levels of magic being more prevalent in an epic fantasy tale (well, duh?). Urban fantasy or associated stories might prefer a more subtle approach, such as mind-dominating spells. Other universes, such as the Discworld, feature plenty of magical opportunity, only they deem it wise not to take too much advantage of it. Perhaps because it is dangerous, or because the practitioners are too old and fat. 

Of course there is no right or wrong answer in this regard. Brilliant displays of fireballs, while wizards soar through the skies and conjure up razor-sharp spikes of crystal down on the battlefield of necromantic undead make for great and impressive scenes. But they tend to always make me ask “What’s next?” If things eventually grow so much out of hand and over the top, I fall back to my impressions of the anime ‘Slayers’. It doesn’t matter, in the end, as the magnitude of spells get inflated to the point when you’re more concerned about ‘what CAN’T spells do?’ Some of the roleplayers might know this from, say Dungeons and Dragons.
Asking yourself what magic CAN’T solve in your story, is a great way of defining where your limit goes as an author. A lot of people I’ve met put a limit around ‘bringing back the dead’ (again, the genie had something important going, right there). Usually because it has a huge potential to wreck up a story, seeing how death is an important narrative element in much fantasy. And I haven’t read many good stories in which the protagonist repeatedly comes back from the dead. Planescape Torment comes to mind.
In an article from Pixar, storyboard artist Emma Coats makes a statement that I believe to be one of the truest when it comes to dealing with magic: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”

On more than one occasion I have been tempted to let incantations do the dirty work for me; after all, I have a bigger tale to tell. But it so easily gets across like lazy writing, and eventually I risk losing readers, because THEY will start asking, “What can’t this guy do?”. And suddenly, you find yourself tangled up in a confusing mess of magical rules and perhaps even ruining an otherwise really interesting challenge for your arcane protagonist.

Personally (and again; remember this is only my opinion), I’m a proponent of two approaches to this issue. The MacGyver-way and the Equilibrium-way. I frequently use both in my own books, and will do a quick rundown of both here. Besides being a rather awesome show, MacGyver is providing your protagonist with very limited magical powers and have them improvise. Make do with what they have, or have them be very specialized in their selection of powers, sort of like its portrayed in, say, X-Men. Having your characters improvise and think for themselves is never a bad thing, if you ask me. 

On the other hand, which can be a tough challenge to maintain consistently, is the equilibrium. The notion that great power not only comes with great responsibility, it’s also expensive as hell.  A series which I believe is truly underrated is ‘Pushing Daisies’, in which the pie-maker Ned has the ability to bring back the dead. Only, if he uses it too long, the laws of the universe will claim something of ‘equal value’ in return, often another life. Learning to work with these restrictions is not only another walk down the by now well-trodden road of “With great power comes…”. It also helps making the character interesting, as he’s forced to relate to said facts, and can’t spam his talent excessively.  Plus, as I’ve come to realize, perhaps you will connect better with your protagonist as an author, because neither of you are really interested in too many bad consequences of using the power. He doesn’t want to because he knows it will make his life difficult; you don’t want to because you’re the one who has to clean up after him/her. 

And when it happens; you know your story is in for a potentially interesting twist. Of course, this works all the better if you’re a pantser more than a plotter.

So that really answers the second big question in advance; at what price does power come?
I suppose I could go on with this article for a lot longer, but that’s not time either of us have. So I’d like to close off with a third, maybe not as central rather than interesting question; does magic have an antagonistic force or entity in your universe?

While we do like to believe that magic is omnipotent, especially in epic fantasy, I’d say it’s wrong to believe it isn’t flawed or vulnerable. In roleplaying games there are ways to temporarily or even permanently disable magic. Even some of the most extreme animes feature incidents in which spells are negated, and those who’ve read about the expanded universe of Star Wars, know that certain creatures can nullify The Force completely. Hell, let’s just return to the genie again (I REALLY LOVE MY ALADDIN, OKAY?), who downright feared the Mukhtar that threatened him in the later series. 

Designing a threatening antithesis to magic in your world can work great in two ways. First, we love villains in a psychological sense because they don’t play by the rules; having a force so great that it doesn’t even bother to play by the rules of magic can be a very interesting concept. Second, when your magic-wielding protagonist is robbed of his power, what is left? How will he or she cope? Making do without that which defines us has inspired a lot of great stories, I believe.

So, this has dragged on for long enough, and I wish to leave you with these ramblings for now. As always it has been a pleasure, and I look forward to talk to you again soon. I’d be thrilled to hear any thoughts or comments you might have about this article! You can find my contact information over at my author homepage: www.nicolaigrunnet.com
Best of wishes!
- Nicolai.

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