Tag Archives: creating magic systems

#amwriting: magic and creating the rules of engagement

magicEvery now and then, new authors look at me with an awestruck expression, and say something like. “I was just  writing along, and all of a sudden my characters gained the ability to use magic. I wasn’t writing a fantasy, but now I am.” (It could be any ability or thing, but we are discussing magic today.)

It is a fact that sometimes books that were outlined to a certain storyline sometimes go off in their own directions, and the story is better for it. I haven’t experienced the sudden influx of magic into story, but I have had other random events throw a curve ball at me.

The fact is, when I sit down to write a fantasy story, there will be magic, and I will have planned carefully for it. I have three worlds with three radically different systems of magic.

In my serial, Bleakbourne on Heath, sorcerers use incantations sung to certain melodies.

In Huw the Bard people can purchase magic (majik) amulets and potions.

In the Tower of Bones Series, magic and religion are intertwined. Aeos, the goddess, has decreed that all children who begin to show healing-empathy, or the ability to use the magic of the elements must be brought to the Temple and trained, for the protection of society in general. There are rules, certain things which can and can’t be done. As in real life, there are certain exceptions, but they too have limitations. No one is all-powerful.

Once magic enters your story, you must do some foot work, or your premise won’t be believable. It’s critical that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works. If your magic rules are too elastic, or you imbue too many amazing abilities into your main character, you will make them too good to be true. Readers won’t be able to relate to their story.

Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Remember, in fantasy, conflict drives the plot.

Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for the hero to struggle, and no story to tell.

First you must consider who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:

  1. if the number of people who can use it is limited
  2. if the ways in which it can be used are limited
  3. if not every mage can use every kind of magic
  4. if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  5. if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
  6. if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal

What challenge does your character have to overcome in regard to his magic?

  • Is he unable to fully use his own abilities?
  • If that is so, why is he hampered in that way?
  • How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it?
  • Are they hampered in anyway themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize his abilities?

Even if this aspect does not come into the story, for your own information you should decide who is in charge of teaching the magic, how that wisdom is dispensed, and who will be allowed to gain that knowledge.

  1. is the prospective mage born with the ability to use magic or
  2. is it spell-based, and any reasonably intelligent person can learn it if they can find a teacher?

Magic and the ability to wield it usually denotes power. That means the enemy must be their equal or perhaps their better. So if they are not from the same school, you now have two systems to design. You must create the ‘rules of magic.’  Take the time to write them out.

In creating both social and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within your magic system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there has to be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

Another important point to take note of is this: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when they affect the characters and their actions. Dole this information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under writing

#amwriting: World building: Society, and Magic

Today we will examine society and magic, two disparate concepts with one thing in common: both require a solid framework to imagine the story around. In other words, you have to understand them well.

Luca Giordano, Frescoes in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence, Scene - Justizia ca 1584

Luca Giordano, Frescoes in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

First let’s discuss religion and society: Who are the movers and shakers?

In all societies, there is a hierarchy of power. Someone is at the top and someone else is at the bottom.

As I create the political power-structure, I find that the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

When you are building a world that only exists on paper, you have a microcosm of space in which you can convey the social, religious, and political climate of your story.  You show this in small ways, with casual mentions in conversation when it becomes pertinent, and not through info dumps.

However, in order to convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work.

  • Who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • Who wants power, and what lengths are they willing to go to gain it?
  • What place does religion have in this society? Is it central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder and how is it viewed? Remember, you only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws what are the consequences?

This creates atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have but the reader does not. There is no need to have an introductory chapter describing the laws and moral codes of the religious order of Grok, or the political climate of West Berlin in 1961. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

Consider this story: a woman is separated from her husband by the Berlin Wall.  Every day, on her way to her job, she rides her bicycle past the wall, knowing that on the other side, less than a block away, is her husband. Yet the couple is divided by an impassable barrier. How the wall affects her is shown in her everyday life. In this story, the history of how the wall came into existence isn’t as important as how its presence destroys her family. The wall represents the ideology of those who rule in her divided city, so the reader comes to know the politics of both East and West Berlin by her experiences in trying to cross that barrier.

And now for the magic:

If magic is central to your story, it is critical that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works. If you make your characters too clever, readers won’t be able to relate to their story. 

Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverWhen magic is part and parcel of a story, rules and limitations create the tension that moves the plot forward. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this. No one character has all the power. The two most powerful wizards, Dumbledore and Voldemort, are evenly matched, but neither one is all-powerful. Both wizards want something from Harry. Harry has to work hard to gain his the full use of his abilities.

Harry’s struggle is the story.

  • Who has the magic, and what social power does this give them?
  • What are the limitations of his/her powers?

Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Conflict is what drives the plot.

What challenge does your character have to overcome in regard to his magic?

  • Is he unable to fully use his own abilities?
  • If that is so, why is he hampered in that way?
  • How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it?
  • Are they hampered in anyway themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize his abilities?

Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for the hero to struggle, and no story to tell.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

I have three worlds with three radically different systems of magic. My serial, Bleakbourne on Heath, is set in a parallel earth that is one shadow away from this one. Bleakbourne, situated on the Heath River, is where the fey and the mortal worlds meet. Leryn, my main character, has many adventures with people who have certain parallels with our history and who are drawn from Arthurian legend, but who are given my own particular twist.

I had to sit down and write out the rules for Merlin’s magic. In Bleakbourne’s world, wizards are born with the latent ability to wield magic, but it is considered a science, and craftsmanship is valued above all else. Skill is what gives a sorcerer power. Certain rituals must be observed.

  • Spells work two ways, and the second way always reverses the first way—this is called symmetry.
  • The words used in spells are of the old, dead, Romani language. Unwords are syllables that have a null meaning and are often inserted for symmetry.
  • All the Romani words with more than one meaning must be chosen carefully because they can be either too short or too long for symmetry. Too long a word will not work at all as you can lengthen, but not shorten them. The sorcerer must choose a shorter word, which requires him/her to insert an extra, closing unword, or the two spells wouldn’t be symmetrical. There are four unwords to choose from, but only three chances to get the spell right

In the Bleakbourne series, the use (and abuse) of magic is the underlying theme.

In creating both social and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within your magic system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there has to be a damned good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when these institutions affect the characters and their actions. Dole this information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

1 Comment

Filed under Fantasy, Publishing, writing

Elements of the story: Crafting magic systems

Green_Angel_Tower_P1I am thrilled that Tad Williams is writing another series of books set in Osten Ard. Tad is an author who  absolutely understands the craft of writing fantasy. He knows what makes epic fantasy EPIC. There is just the slightest hint of the rebellious indie in his work, which makes it a little wild. But more than that, Tad understand how important it is to make the limitations and roadblocks forced on the protagonists power the narrative.

If you love epic fantasy and have not read his powerful trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn–you should.

In Tad’s work, magic systems feel natural, organic and are not all powerful. I love epic fantasy books where the magic systems have been as well thought out as the political systems, and the characters are limited in what they can do with them.

I despise books where the hero/heroine can do anything, and be as awesome as she/he needs to be, all because he/she has a special power. No need to worry about planning that mission, because our hero can read minds and predict the future–he knows exactly how to thwart Evil Badguy. Several boring scenes later, an opportunity for something interesting turns up, but no! The author has blessed his favorite supercharacter with (cue the fanfare) amazing magic powers that have no explanation, and apparently no limits.

If you are writing fantasy, consider this–Infinite abilities instills infinite boredom in me as a reader.

Let’s talk about magic. Who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:

  1. if the number of people who can use it is limited
  2. if the ways in which it can be used are limited
  3. if not every mage can use every kind of magic
  4. if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  5. if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
  6. if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal

Even if it does not come into the story, you should decide who is in charge of teaching the magic, how that wisdom is dispensed, and who will be allowed to gain that knowledge.

  1. is the prospective mage born with the ability to use magic or
  2. is it spell-based, and any reasonably intelligent person can learn it if they can find a teacher?

Mists_of_Avalon-1st_edMagic and the ability to wield it usually denotes power. That means the enemy must be their equal or perhaps their better. So if they are not from the same school, you now have two systems to design. You must create the ‘rules of magic.’  Take the time to write them out, and don’t break the laws, without having a damned good explanation for why that particular breaking of the rules is possible.

Limits make for better, more creative characters. In the Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley made the magic a natural outcome of religion, something only a few characters had access to, and they paid a great price each time they used it.

Lets pretend we have a mage, Gerald—we’ll make him a lowly journeyman mage, just allowed out of magic school on his own. Events beyond his control occur, and only he can rid the world of Stinky Sam. Sam is a very powerful, very naughty wizard, who will crush young, untried Gerald with no effort whatsoever.

Let’s say Gerald has a few skills at the beginning: he can draw water out of the air for drinking, and maybe he can use the elements of fire and lightning as weapons. Can he also use magic to heal people?  Can he heal himself?  What are the rules governing these abilities and how do these rules affect the progress of the story?  When it comes to magic, limitations open up many possibilities for plot development.

For this to be a good story, our bad guy, Stinky Sam, must be a master in whatever area Gerald has chosen–and he should have a few skills and abilities Gerald might never learn.

the night circus by erin morgensternThis means Gerald must work hard to overcome the obstacles set in his path by Stinky Sam.  With the successful completion of difficult tasks, and overcoming great hardships, Gerald will learn what he needs to know about his magic/gifts, and acquire the ability to counter Stinky Sam’s best efforts in the final showdown, although it will be difficult.

In great fantasy, evil is very strong, and has great magic–but there are rules.  The evil one might be a bully and he may have some awesome skills, but he’s not omnipotent, or there would be no story. All magic systems have limits, which means he has a weakness. With the discovery of the antagonist’s limitations, your character has the opportunity to grow and develop to his fullest potential in process of finding and exploiting it.

2 Comments

Filed under Fantasy, Publishing, writer, writing