Arthur C. Clarke posited long ago that any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I’d like to turn that aphorism on its head and suggest that any significantly advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.
Simply put, the magic of a world is part of its technology. It’s important to remember that as you craft your world. Consider, for example, what technologies we might not have developed if we had magical ways of achieving the same end. If most members of a society can start a fire just by saying, “Wood, burn,” why invent a technology to do it? That pretty much does away with such things as cigarette lighters, matches, and maybe interior lighting.
In the Mer Cycle trilogy (The Meri, Taminy, and The Crystal Rose), I intentionally used magic as technology. The folk magic in these books, like folk medicine, derived from the aphorism: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” If monk-mages need to make copious copies of important manuscripts, someone will invent the magical equivalent of a photocopier.
The Implications of Incantations
Writers who deal with military ordnance are aware of something called “collateral damage.” Writers who deal with magic need to cultivate the same awareness. The magic we use in our stories has repercussions that can take any number of forms.
First, it usually costs the user something. Maybe it’s the normal wear and tear of extreme effort, the way a baseball pitcher pays for every slider or curveball he throws with strain on muscle and bone. When a starting pitcher throws seven innings of baseball, he requires four or five days to recuperate. What about your mage or shaman? What does it cost him to pull off a potent spell?
The toll magic takes on the user can be intriguing, dire, even humorous. Does Marvin the Magnificent become ravenously hungry whenever he pops off a nifty enchantment? Does every spell he casts lose him the ability to cast a similar spell for an hour?
What effect does the magic have on the people around the user, or anything else in his environment? In MAGIC TIME: ANGELFIRE (Book two of the MAGIC TIME series), one of the characters wields magic with particularly nasty “feedback.” The character is a Blues musician whose songs draw refugees to safety.
Unfortunately, they also cause innocent bystanders to change in unpleasant and unnatural ways. An additional twist is that his music is the only means of protecting someone very dear to the musician from a horrific predator. He finds himself choosing between her life and the lives of innocent strangers.
What’s a writer to do?
Set limits. There are a number of ways you can set natural limits to your characters’ abilities. If the character was born with magical abilities then his magic will reflect who he is. If he has to learn the magic, how well he learns and uses it is also a reflection of his personality.
J.K. Rowling does a great job of this with her Harry Potter characters. The way Ron Weasley’s magic is likely to go awry amounts to a personality trait. Harry’s magic is spotty and prone to succeed or fail brilliantly as an outgrowth of his adolescent insecurities and natural abilities.
Didn’t I say a character’s magic should be reliable? No. I said it should be consistent. A character who’s established as a consummate wizard shouldn’t have his magic become conveniently flaky so the writer can put his hometown in dire straits. But if a character is confident or insecure, his magic should reflect that.
A logical factor in the limitation of magical prowess, of course, is simple skill level. In the Mer Cycle, different types of magic take different levels of skill. After all, not everyone can throw 97 mph fastballs, write a story, or cook a gourmet meal. The simple folk magic in these books functions at a different level than the more complex magic of the Osraed, a cadre of especially talented and trained individuals.
Avoid seemingly omnipotent characters. Whenever I create a character who possesses more knowledge, more raw power, or more training than his adversary, I’m careful to reveal to the reader, as early as possible, any weaknesses that may provide the seeds of his destruction.
In the second and third novels of the Mer Cycle series (TAMINY and THE CRYSTAL ROSE), I take pains to show the overweening vanity of the antagonist, Daimhin Feich. He thinks he is irresistible to women, a better strategist than his general, and a more powerful mage than any Osraed. Yet Daimhin Feich, as powerful he seems, is wearing a bull’s-eye on his back–one he begins painting from the first page on which he appears. The reader who sees this is rewarded with an “aha!” moment in the final paragraphs of THE CRYSTAL ROSE.
Use logic. The limitations you place on magic must be as natural and logical as you can make them–a reasonable outgrowth of the environment.
Let’s say our protagonist–we’ll call him Owl–can levitate. But we’ve put Owl into a situation in which his ability to levitate makes it too easy to escape. So we invent a reason why Owl cannot use an ability that has never before failed him. Owl can’t levitate here because…er, um, there’s a colony of squirrels nearby and Owl’s magic can’t function in the presence of squirrel dander. (Flashback to childhood squirrel trauma.)
This (pardon the pun) won’t fly. Owl’s reason for not being able to levitate must be built into the world before he encounters this dire situation.
Let’s say that we reveal in early chapters that Owl’s name is “Owl” because the owl is his family totem. He can only levitate in the presence of his totem. He goes into a cavern in pursuit of his nemesis knowing he will be cut off from his ability to levitate and faces his nemesis wishing his name were “Bat.” This creates mounting tension in the story as the reader realizes what Owl is going to have to do.
Some story lines can make achieving this balance especially challenging. In writing the second book of Marc Scott Zicree’s MAGIC TIME series (2003, Harper-EOS), I was working with a world in which the wheels of physics had literally come off. In their place was a primal, almost ungovernable magical power, newly released and largely unexplored. In close collaboration with Marc, I had to determine how this power would manifest itself in the characters.
We made one of the protagonists, Goldie, bi-polar, which meant his mood disorder became a factor in the way the blossoming magic affected him. While he had built-in moral constraints against abusing the raw power growing in him, Goldie’s emotional unpredictability made him a wildcard. Because he was naturally secretive, the other characters (and the reader as well) were often off-balance around him.
I had to work hard to keep Goldie from becoming too much of a wildcard–acting conveniently out-of-character because I needed something wild and crazy to happen at a given moment.
A question I get asked fairly often is: Do you just make up the magic you use in your stories?
The answer is: I never make it up—at least, not out of whole cloth. Every form of magic I’ve used has been suggested by the real world and further informed by the world the characters live in.
The magic of my fourth novel, THE SPIRIT GATE (Baen, 1996), had its roots in the glassmaker’s craft; it echoed the way glaziers combine different elements to achieve particular colors. In the MAGIC TIME series, the peculiar ways in which magic is manifested are suggested by simply turning perfectly mundane things inside out. In the case of the Blues musician, Enid, the magic arises out of a twist in an entertainment contract.
The mundane world offers much raw material for the writer to mold into the fantastic. Obscure religious beliefs, and beliefs we’ve come to take for granted, provide a rich diet for the imagination. So do the inner workings of the stock market, the nuances of baseball, or the mysteries of neurology. Magic is literally everywhere: in the pages of science texts, history books, and how-to manuals on everything from glassblowing to gardening. It’s up to the observant writer to ferret it out, mold it, and bring it to life in fantasy fiction.
I can say from experience that when you’ve done that, dabbling in magic is rewarding indeed.