Casting your Book’s Magical Spells — Part 1

Kerr-SorcerersLuck133x200One of the things that makes a fantasy story fantasy is the presence of magic. I’m often asked how I “created” the magical system in the Deverry books. At times writers just turning to fantasy have asked me how to go about this arcane process. The truth: I didn’t create anything. I adapted one of the many systems of “real” magic, that is, the beliefs that real people have held about magic in various cultures and in various historical periods, including our own. Unfortunately, I’ve only studied Western types of magic, and so this blog and others in the sequence will have to use those as examples. I apologize for my ignorance of Asian and Native American magical practices.

I personally am of the opinion that fantasy magic systems are stronger and more emotionally moving when they have one foot in reality, as it were.  Historical magics, whether the disconnected spells and charms of folk magic or the elaborate systems of the elite, address deep human longings and concerns. Wanting to have someone love you, the fear of being harmed, the desire for revenge on an enemy, fear of what the future might bring, desire for riches, and above all, the fear of death — most folk magic revolves around emotions like these. The elaborate systems of Natural Philosophy, the late medieval/early Renaissance magic of the learned, center around the desire to understand the entire universe, to converse with beings other than ourselves, and to use this knowledge for . . . drum roll . . . most of the same reasons as ordinary folk had. Well, the natural philosophers did worry less about love charms. 🙂

What magic has never really been in the West, and I suspect in the East as well, is a substitute for technology, especially not military tech. The big boom in fantasy writing back in the 1980s developed out of two things, Tolkien’s works and fantasy role-playing gaming. Tolkien deliberately left the magic in his works unsystematized — he stated in print that he thought magic should be mysterious and rare in fiction — but the games were of course something else again. Since the early paper and pencil games like Dungeons and Dragons™ centered around looting and combat, their systems of spells did the same. Magic existed to attack enemies, defend against them, and heal the inevitable results of hard fighting. Game-style magic doesn’t translate well to fiction. It’s sterile, limited, and pushes most of the human concerns that motivate real magic to one side. I’m sure that exceptions exist — I’m giving you my personal opinion only.

Though it’s undoubtedly deeply moving when properly done, Tolkien’s style of magic presents other problems for the fantasy writer. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series would be another example of this way of incorporating magic into a fantasy series. At root, their magic is supernatural in the root meaning of that word. Its power lies beyond the natural world in the realm of the gods and God — divine immortals who grant a few humans powers as gifts, not accomplishments. Both writers and their characters are deeply suspicious, in fact, of any magic that doesn’t have the divine Seal of Approval stamped upon it. Some would say they’ve been blinded by their religion, whose priests and preachers have always disliked competition. Be that as it may, magicians in this sort of world will always be few and far between. They tend, like Gandalf and Galadriel, to be of another order of being than human, static personalities, fully formed, capable of temptations and fears, but incapable of the dramatic growth and conflicts that sustain a novel.

The other problem such magic presents to the writer is its capriciousness. Without some sort of system, the reader has no idea what the magicians may do or, more to the point, what they may not do. It’s too easy to have such a character pull just the right spell out of the air to solve a problem, save the hero, or change the course of a plot. It’s hard to build suspense when the reader’s waiting for someone powerful to just set everything right. Thus any magical system that’s useful to the writer needs limits.

How does one use real magic to solve these problems? In future blogs, I’ll take this subject up in some detail.


About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.


Casting your Book’s Magical Spells — Part 1 — 7 Comments

  1. Again Kerr demonstrates that part of what makes her such a good writer is that her fiction is grounded by foundational historical information, her impressive analytical abilities.

  2. I have a weakness for magic systems that are analogous to the systems we already use. Phyllis Eisenstein wrote some books about weaver magic — I loved the idea.

  3. Oops. I should have pointed out that I don’t know anything about sub-Saharah magical systems in Africa, either. There’s a whole book waiting for someone to compare real African magics with the stuff white novelists wrote/write about them.

    • Have you read Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? I have it in my TBR pile. Might be of interest to you when it comes to sub-Saharan systems. She got in some trouble over it, I think.

      • The trouble she got into was no trouble at all. It was an sf novel and the male reviewers were upset that it did not fit their parameters for what a fantasy novel was supposed to be — because it wasn’t a fantasy novel. But hey — an African female narrator — in their heads defaulted to Fantasy not Science Fiction.

  4. The reason why magic has never been a substitute for technology is that by the time you understand it well enough to make it work reliably, you call it Science.

    I took two doses of extract of willow bark this morning.

  5. The big difference between Tolkien and D&D is that in D&D, you, the main character, used magic to solve your problems. This required rule-based stuff (so you know what hard limits of magic are) and cuts down on the mystery.

    Brandon Sanderson has a good essay on the trade-offs