New Worlds Theory Post: Magic Is

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In over five years of writing about worldbuilding, I’ve said very little about one of the core questions fantasy writers tend to ask themselves: How do you design a magic system?

Partly this is simply because it takes me time (five years and counting!) to get around to everything. But there’s another, underlying reason for it, which is that I’m increasingly allergic to the term “magic system.”

Now, I should say at the outset that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the kind of structured, systematized type of magic most strongly associated with that phrase. A schematic approach to worldbuilding (not just on the magic front) can produce interesting results, and the ultimate test is whether you wind up with a story people want to read. So long as the answer to that is “yes,” rock on with whatever you please. (Or heck, even if it isn’t. Some people write for the pleasure of creation, not concerning themselves with the question of an audience.)

But the flip side — that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a less structured, less systematized approach — is also true, and this is what I sometimes see being lost in the shuffle. So often it’s taken as axiomatic that a magic system has to make sense; it must have rules, limitations, a defined source for its power and a cost for its use. Or if it does not have those things — and here I am citing actual advice I’ve heard — it cannot be used to solve plot problems, only to create them. According to this mentality, magic that helps the characters absolutely has to be bound in a clearly defined framework.

Several factors seem to feed into this bias toward systematized magic. One, I think, is the influence of gaming: Dungeons and Dragons and the whole multifaceted edifice of fantasy games tend, by their nature, to require those rules in order to function. If you look at D&D magic, you see limitations like the following:

  • Either you must spend time each day choosing and preparing the spells you will be ready to cast later in the day, or (if you do not need to prepare) then the list of spells you are capable of casting is much more limited.
  • Wizards must scribe spells into their spellbook to be able to cast them, which costs time and money. Clerics do not need this, but they must abide by the strictures of their deity or lose their spellcasting ability entirely.
  • Spells are divided into levels of power, and a magic-user can only cast a certain number of spells of each power level per day. You can use a higher level to cast a lower one, but you can’t sacrifice a bunch of low-level spells in exchange for one bigger one.
  • Most spells require some combination of words, gestures, and material components, and anything which restricts your ability to supply those means you may not be able to cast the spell. Some material components are very expensive, because the game wants to limit how readily you can cast those spells.
  • Every spell has a numerically specified casting time, range, area of effect, and duration, and some have a numerically defined effect (e.g. a certain number of hit points of damage or healing).
  • Casting spells under particular circumstances in combat may cause opponents to attack you, and if they hit, there are further rules to define whether your spell fails, using up that casting slot for the day.

(The specifics vary from edition to edition; take the above as illustrative, not a definitive list.)

It isn’t just gaming, though — or rather, the development of such games happened around the same time as another shift in fantasy publishing. When N.K. Jemisin pushed back against the systematization of magic, Terri Windling mentioned in the comments that in the late ’70s and early ’80s, editor Jim Baen advocated for “fantasy with rivets,” as written by authors largely known for SF; Ellen Kushner followed up to cite Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away (1978) as the start of that trend. While that was far from the only type of fantasy being published, it was not only prominent but associated with male authors and readers, while the more numinous approach was dismissed as “girly.”

Here’s the thing, though. Anyone who’s read even one essay of this Patreon will not be surprised in the slightest to hear that I tend to approach worldbuilding from an anthropological perspective . . . and quite a lot of real-world human belief in magic looks nothing whatsoever like the above style. There are some well-elaborated systems, sure — but they’re a minority, not the majority. In fact, a goodly percentage of real belief in magic might be differentiated from the genre version by saying:

Magic is not a thing you do; magic is a thing that is.

In Robin McKinley’s novel Spindle’s End, a loaf of bread is liable to turn into a flock of starlings if you forget to ask it not to. Why? Because that’s how the world works. Dragons breathe fire because dragons (of the classic European sort) breathe fire, not because they cast a spell. Looking through a stone with a hole in it lets you see faeries; the action you’re performing simply makes use of the inherent qualities of a holed stone. There’s no underlying energy source that explains the effect of such objects, no number of charges or pool of personal mana you’ll deplete every time you use them. I once got into an argument with a guy running an RPG I was playing in because he said the Divination skill could not be used to interpret omens; Divination had to be a set of actions your character performed, not simply noticing a thing in the world and understanding what it means. But in reality, that is precisely how many people have interacted with the supernatural world around them.

We call those things superstitions or folklore, not magic — but they’re a key part of what magic has meant to people for thousands of years, and they’re vastly more common than the sort where a wizard shoots a fireball out of his hand. Now, I loves me a good fireball; there’s nothing wrong with fictional magic going places real-world belief has never touched. (It would be a poor sort of speculative fiction that was limited to pre-existing speculation.) But it saddens me when this other type gets trampled and cast aside.

Not least because these inherent, “magic is” types of beliefs tend to be the province of people who don’t have access to the more elite systems which require extensive education. A lot of fantasy worlds seem to be built on the premise that Real Magic means people won’t bother with this sort . . . but if anything, I suspect the reverse would be true. The existence of conceptual frameworks like European hermetic magic or the complex elaborations of the Chinese wuxing didn’t eliminate non-systematized folk belief, and people who feel threatened by those fireball-throwing wizards would lean on any defense they could.

This is only the thin end of the wedge, though, when thinking about designing magic for fantasy. Upcoming theory essays will dig deeper — in ways both systematic and not!

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12 thoughts on “New Worlds Theory Post: Magic Is”

  1. There’s a manifestation of the anthropic pirnrciple (and more than a degree of hubristic publishing/literary/narrative imperatives) involved in this. The histories of particle physics and of chemistry present a great parallel: It is BOTH “is” and “does”; the question is who understands which aspect, and how, and what they can do with it. That medieval alchemists did not understand that water is composed of an agglomeration of far-smaller-than-visible molecules, each of which was in turn composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, each of which in turn is composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons, each of which… didn’t change either the nature of water or their ability to (ineptly and inefficiently, but necessary for later theorizing by Watt and Carnot and so on) test how steam could be made to do work driving a water wheel-like- thing. More starkly, eppur si muove (and it’s worth remembering that Galileo’s conjectures about why that was so were mostly wrong; let’s not get into the difference between elliptical and circular paths, let alone how they interact, because Galileo and Kepler were not BFFs…).

    It’s not so much about the nature of magic, but about the understanding and depiction of its nature… and the differing understandings and descriptions of that nature among the author, the reader, and the characters’ internalized perspective upon which they act. That is, there IS a system; its “actual” nature may not be equally apparent to all three perspectives (there’s nothing wrong with some characters understanding more than others — the difference between a “wizard/shaman/etc” and a “warrior,” let alone among individual “wizard/shaman/etc”s). Some of them may be wrong, or that knowledge may evolve over time (whether visibly or otherwise). That can include the author being wrong, and/or the author’s own understanding evolving! Both are distinct from changes in the “actual, objective IS of magic”… unless part of the nature of magic is that its nature changes with perceptions of it.

  2. I was ranting about exactly this with a friend the other day. I’m very tired of the type of systematized “magic system” that turns it into a rule-bound branch of engineering and completely drains it of anything numinous.And the insistence that magic needs to have a calculable cost and clearly-defined limitations in order to be usable in a story is just… limiting. And kind of stale. “Magic with rivets” was innovative in the 60s & 70s, sure. But it’s a very narrow approach. It’s certainly not a prescriptive commandment!

    1. In China Mieville’s novel The Scar, the society is industrially mining for thaumaturgical ore and refining it to produce energy. I submit that at that point, you might as well just call it “crude oil,” because there’s no meaningful difference.

        1. Marie Brennan

          With the caveat that I read the book many many years ago . . . I don’t remember it really doing so, no? I think the thaumaturgical material they mined for was used to run the Armada, etc. And while the Armada was spec-fic levels of huge, that’s not enough to make it feel like magic instead of fossil fuel by another name.

  3. Jennifer Stevenson

    I have ranted in my day about the old saw, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Beth Nachison above seems to be talking about the reciprocal assumption, seldom stated but implicit in many iterations of this discussion, about which I have also ranted: “Any sufficiently predictable system of magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

    If you have a background in the history of magic, both as practiced by Medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian thinkers and as practiced less formally (there, I sidestepped race and gender, see?), you may write about it in fiction differently. Some European Medieval systems of magic, for example, listed among the parts of the body heart, liver, lungs, bile, yellow bile, and prudence. (Prudence? Where exactly is that located?) They knew exactly what they were talking about, though.

    I like Marie’s statement above, “Magic is,” and her comparison of ideas about magic with ideas about physics.

    I think it’s really all about where you’re standing. Are you naturally bent toward ceremonial magic, or toward shamanic magic, or toward hedge-witchery? (These on a continuum from structured to unstructured.) What drives you becomes the engine for what drives the magic you practice, and further, the magic you make up for your fiction.

    I’ve published 20 novels at this point, 16 of them with some kind of magic. In those stories sex is, some would say, ridiculously over-emphasized. In the East however sex is considered simply a specific behavioral expression of the life force, and the life force has infinite potential power. We shape that power based on where we are standing. So in my stories, *who the character is* determines how they will use magical power when it becomes available to them. Their age, gender, class, and the events that have shaped their lives and emotions, the stories they have eaten, every imaginable influence, all shape how their magic expresses itself.

    I point specifically at emotion, which is the mainspring of character, which is the mainspring of fiction.

    The D&D approach to writing fantasy likes to write emotion out of the system. But historically, even ceremonial magicians have emphasized the importance of being aware of your emotions, and if necessary of refraining from magical workings in which your emotions are likely to become engaged. (This is what ritual purification before a magical working is for.) As Eddie Murphy says in Bowfinger, when asked if he would be willing to cut his hair, “Yes, but it’s usually better if someone else does it.” The smart magician doesn’t work his own love spell; he gets someone else to do it for him, because his emotions are engaged. But fiction wouldn’t be fun if every magician was smart.

    In other words, magic in my stories is so bound up in the user’s identity and motivations that it can’t help working differently for everyone.

    So that’s how I slither out of having to have a “system” and yet … have a system. How about you?

    1. Yes, the question of personal focus/purity/balance and how it affects the results is one that tends to vanish completely from the systematized magics. It’s especially ill-suited to deployment in a game; if the game is a programmed one, then it has no real ability to judge the inner state of a character (the best it could do is to have a tickybox for “have you done X ritual beforehand?” or meters measuring something like elemental harmony), and if it’s a non-digital RPG, then you’re asking the player and GM to constantly negotiate whether the character is on the correct internal footing. Much easier to explore that in a book, where you can make plot out of characters trying to work magic at the wrong time or under the wrong circumstances.

  4. Victoria Goddards books have both types of magic – the magic of the Empire and wild magic – and the Empire is gone. The most powerful mages (even in the empire) used wild magic so in her worlds the wild type magic has the potential to be more powerful.

  5. The problem with unsystemized magic is that it either does or does not fix your problem in the end, and convincing the reader that either way is right is difficult.

    A series of arbitrary rules can work as long as they are set up in advance. (By looking through the stone, I can see that the dragon’s hoard has a sword that is hidden, and it has already been shown that fairy metals are the only ones that don’t melt when you wound the dragon with them.)

    1. Marie Brennan

      (I understand why in a game you’d want to have levels and rules and limits. But that’s a game.)

      I also understand why in fiction of all stripes, we want magic to do more exciting things than just protecting the health of our crops, our livestock, and our families, or helping people find love. And I’d actually agree with the usual sentiment if it were phrased more as “magic needs some kind of underlying logic” — it’s just that I think the logic can be symbolic in nature instead of numerical.

  6. Jennifer Stevenson

    I’m thinking suddenly of the history of the study of genetics. The Crick and Watson theory of the genome was that the genome is like an arrow – it is an unstoppable, inarguable projectile penetrating (okay I can hardly keep a straight face) that commands the matrix (must … not … invoke … etymology) to make something according to its plan. A slightly older theorist, also working in the field at the same time, Barbara McClintock proposed that the genome is affected by its environment at least as much as it affects that environment. Her suggestion was utterly buried, of course. Fifty years later, it was resurrected. Now we think of genes being turned off or turned on by their squishy, messy, incompletely understood environment.

    Our studies of the world are almost always studies of ourselves, first. There was a time when magic was science; the terms were interchangeable: scientia and magica. The split between them is lodged deep in human history, like the difference between the arrow theory and the environmental theory of genetics. We have to wait for somebody to die before their tenure is no longer endangered by a better theory, and we can now entertain it.

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