We are now in the final six days of NaNoWriMo. My region is small, only 174 active writers, but we’re moving along well. As a whole, we just crested the four million word mark. That’s not as much as some regions, but wow!
In our forums on Discord and Facebook, the conversation sometimes turns to the use of magic or science in a narrative. Many of these authors are new at this and need a place to safely discuss their work, so I make it my business to not impose my opinions in either forum.
Besides, I have this platform for ranting about writing. So, how do I feel about science and magic?
In the words of Egon in Ghostbusters, “Don’t cross the streams.”
I have said this before, but I feel the need to repeat it. Science is not magic, and it should not feel to a reader as if it were.
Science is logical, rooted in the realm of real and theoretical physics. The scientific method objectively explains nature and the world around us in a reproducible way. Skepticism and peer review are fundamental parts of the process.
Those who read and write hard science fiction are often employed in the field of science in some capacity. They know the difference between reality and fantasy. The same goes for those who read fantasy—they are often employed in fields that require critical thinking.
Often, readers of both genres are avid gamers. Gamers learn to develop skillsets within strict parameters to advance in the game. Thus, logic and limitations define how much enjoyment they get from a gaming or reading experience.
I read a great many books in all genres. If I have one complaint, it is that many authors indulge in mushy science or magic. They make it up as they go, which is what we all do.
But when they get to the editing stage, they don’t go back and look for the contradictions in their magic or science, the places where a reader can no longer suspend their disbelief.
Having magic conveys power in the same way that having superior technology does. It should be held to the same standards.
If magic is a tool that your characters rely on, it should be believable. The science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my world-building process.
- The number of people who can use either magic or technology should be limited.
- The ways that magic or technology can be used should be limited.
- The majority of people are limited to one or two kinds of magic/technology. Only specific mages/technicians have the ability to make use of all forms of magic/technology.
- There must be strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic/technology can do.
- The conditions under which this magic/technology will work must be clearly defined.
- There must be some conditions under which the magic/technology will not work.
- There must be limits to the damage magic/technology can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform.
- Does the wielder of this magic/technology pay a physical/emotional price for the use?
- Does the wielder of this magic/technology pay a physical/emotional price for abusing it?
- Is the learning curve steep and sometimes lethal?
Personal power and how we confer it is the layer of world-building where writers of science and writers of magic come together.
- Magic and the ability to wield it confers power.
- Science and superior technology do the same.
For the narrative to have any real conflict, the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic.
Often in the case of magic, the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school.” This means that the author has two systems and sets of rules to design for that story.
The same goes for technology. One group may have found a way to exploit physics that places the other group at a disadvantage. This is where the tension comes into the story.
WE authors must create the rules of magic or the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. We must do it in the first stages of the writing process.
It will only require a small bit of time and maybe fifteen minutes of writing to create a system that satisfies the above ten requirements. This way, you will be sure the logic of your magic/technology has no hidden flaws.
When you take the time to research science technologies or create magic systems, you create a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Limits force us to be creative, to find alternative ways to resolve problems.
There must be an obvious, rational explanation for that exception.
This is an underpinning of the plot and is a foundational component of the backstory. The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions.
The best background information comes out at the moment that knowledge affects the story. It emerges naturally in conversations or in other subtle ways.
By not baldly dropping it on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.