Tag Archives: science and magic

Superpowers, Super Weapons, and Magic #amwriting

I am a born skeptic. I gravitate to reading fantasy but find both superpowers and magic to be an area hack authors regularly make least believable.

Many of my own books feature characters who can use magic of one sort or another. In my worlds, all magic is limited by strict parameters and requires both governing and training.

My approach to designing magic and worlds was shaped by my love of early Final Fantasy style RPG games. Everything was logical and believable. The political and religious systems were concrete, as were the technology and magic systems. The enemies were powerful, but no one had unlimited power. If you worked to build your strength and abilities and acquired the best weapons and armor you could get, you grew strong enough to prevail in the ultimate battle.

Later, I used those principles in writing a storyline, world building, and designing magic for an anime-based RPG. The company folded before the game went into full production, but the experience taught me to look at these aspects of genre fiction with a “God’s Eye.”

Anyone who has raised children knows they are born with a sense of self and an instinct for self-preservation. We come into the world aware only of how we feel and what we want. Those two things are the primary drivers of infancy.

Awareness that others also have feelings, needs, and wants comes later. Each human develops compassion for others at a different stage of childhood.

Some children are bullies while still in diapers. They will push and take toys from the weaker member of a group if they aren’t guided in the right direction or severely limited in what they can do. They quickly learn who they can get away with bullying, and that child gets picked on mercilessly.

These little bullies are strong-willed and could become leaders, so guiding them to learn and understand compassion is crucial for the welfare of society.

Some people, even those raised in good families, never develop the ability to care about others.

Most insensitive people aren’t sociopaths. But if a self-centered person has a superpower or a gift for using magic, could you guarantee they won’t use it solely for selfish purposes?

Thus, laws and a school system that trains them in both the use of these powers and what constitutes abuse is essential. There should be consequences for abuse, especially if others are harmed.

In designing a story where superpowers, super weapons, or magic are key elements, you must understand several things.

  1. Super weapons are science based.

Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writer of true science fiction must know the difference, especially when creating possible weapons.

  1. Magic is not science.

However, it should be logical and rooted in solid theories. For me, as a reader, magic should only be possible if certain conditions have been met. This means the author has created a system that regulates what is possible. Magic works

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways in which it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every kind of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

Satisfying these conditions sets the stage for you to create the Science of Magic. This is an underlying, invisible layer of the world. By creating and following the arbitrary rules of this “science,” your story won’t contradict itself.

  1. Superpowers are both science and something that may seem like magic, but is not.

What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield their magic/superpower or super weapon?

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • If not, why?
  • How does their inability affect their companions?
  • How is their self-confidence affected by this inability?
  • Do the companions face learning curves too?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?

Magic and superpowers share common ground in one area–genesis, or how the ability occurs:

Is the character born with the ability to use the superpower or was it imposed on them by a scientific means?

Is your magic spell-based or imposed by artifacts and relics? Or is it a biological/empathic ability? Is it a trait children can inherit?

  • If magic is spell-based, can any reasonably intelligent person learn it if they find a teacher or are accepted into a school?

Personal Power and the desire for dominance is where the concepts of science and magic converge.

In all my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, the enemy has access to equal or better Science/Magic. How the characters overcome the limitations of their science/magic/superpower is the story.

“Struggle” forces the characters out of their comfortable environment. The roadblocks you put up force them to be creative, and through that creativity, your characters become more than they believe they are.

I do suggest that in regard to magic, you take the time to create the rules and write a document for yourself that clearly defines what limits characters face when using their magic.

This means that if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school” of magic or science, you might have written two systems into that story. You should take the time to write out what makes them different and why they don’t converge.

You must also clearly state the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

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

An important thing to consider whether using magic or technology: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when it affects the characters and their actions. Write it as a natural part of the environment rather than discussing it in an info dump.

Science and magic are two sides of the personal-power coin. We who write the two radically divergent sides of speculative fiction give this coin to our characters in varying amounts.

My favorite authors explore ambition, the drive to acquire more personal power, and the lengths characters will go to in their efforts to gain an edge over their opponents. They delve deeply into the societal consequences of their characters’ struggle.

How does the emotional toll of seeing that collateral damage affect your characters? Guilt might play a role.

The fundamental tropes of science, magic, or superpowers offer your characters opportunities for success. But to be believable, those opportunities must not be free and unlimited.

Every successful author teaching a seminar will tell you that when writing genre fiction, the struggle is the story. Make your characters work for their successes. Make them and the reader understand the personal cost of acquiring power and the dangers of unbridled ambition.

Use magic, science, or superpowers only as a means to tell a powerful story.

Strong, charismatic characters, powerful struggles, serious consequences for failure–these are the stories I want to read.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dommersen_Gothic_cathedral_in_a_medieval_city.jpg&oldid=319795786 (accessed May 29, 2019).

The Green Knight, by N.C,Wyeth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Boys King Arthur – N. C. Wyeth – p82.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p82.jpg&oldid=304597062  (accessed December 9, 2018).

 

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World Building – Where Magic and Science Converge #amwriting

Today we are examining the close relationship of two facets of world building in speculative fiction, science, and magic. Both are tools our characters employ.

Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writer of true science fiction must know the difference, and never “let the streams cross.”

Egon: Don’t cross the streams.

Peter: Why?

Egon: It would be bad.

Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean “bad”?

Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

~ Ghostbusters, Screenwriters: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, for Columbia Pictures, ©1984

Magic is not an accepted trope of hard science fiction so don’t even try to justify it. If you are writing a sci-fi fantasy mix, don’t try to pass it off as hard sci-fi. It is science-fantasy at that point, a subgenre of spec-fic.

Mushy science is just as offensive to fans of hard sci-fi as magic is, maybe more. Mushy science means the author didn’t research the possibilities thoroughly. When science fails the truth test, hard sci-fi fans will voice their opinions in bad reviews.

Those of us who are physics-geeks know what the cutting edge of propulsion technology is.  We read publications that tell us the new advances in laser tech. We know what is being discovered about exoplanets, how nothing truly earthlike has been discovered as of this writing.

We know all the ways currently being discussed regarding terraforming Mars. This planet is in our backyard and is within humanity’s grasp if we can work together and keep the greedy hotheads running our many different countries from screwing it up for the rest of us. So many possibilities, so many stories to imagine and write.

But what of Interstellar Propulsion? After all, we want to get to these newly found exoplanets and see if we can either adapt to them or make them fit us. My current favorite way to bring humans to another world is through the use of generation ships. Entire colonies living for generations on a moon-sized ship, traveling through the cosmos offers so many opportunities for drama. For some good research-reading and a plethora of ideas to investigate further, check out Futurism: Here is the Future of Interstellar Spacecraft.

When writing science fiction, the science is fundamental to the world:

Communications – This is the Future of Communication Thanks to Technology

Transportation – What’s the Future of Transportation?

Agriculture – High-rise Urban Farming

Waste management – The future of waste: five things to look for by 2025

Resource management – Resources for the Future: website  https://www.rff.org/

The environment of any spacefaring society must be created of technology, or they would not be able to leave the safety of this world. Earth is the only world known to harbor life as we know it.

Writers of science fiction must become futurists. They must take what is theoretically possible and think ahead. Your task is to take what science says is conceivable and make it feel true and solid.

Know the limits of whatever theoretical tech you are exploring in your work, write stories that stretch them, but don’t ignore them “for the sake of the story.” Limits are what keeps science from feeling like magic.

So, now we agree that science should never feel like magic. But shouldn’t magic feel like magic? Yes, but just like science, magic shouldn’t confer absolute power.

In both science and magic, forcing our characters to work around the limits is the key to good stories.

For me, as a reader, magic should only be possible if certain conditions have been met. This means the author has created a system that regulates what is possible. Magic works

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways in which it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every kind of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

These conditions set the stage for you to create the Science of Magic, an underlying, invisible layer of the world you have built, one that possibly won’t get mentioned. But if you create this “science” and follow the arbitrary rules you have designed, your story won’t contradict itself.

For example, if in chapter three you declare that lightning mages cannot sense their magic in the rain, then it stands to reason they cannot sense it if immersed in a river in chapter twenty-three.

What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield magic?

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • If that is so, what is the block?
  • How does that inability affect their companions, and how do they feel about it?
  • Are the companions hampered in any way themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their 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.

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

This is where science and magic converge. Magic and the ability to wield it confers power. Good technology does the same.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

That means the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic. So, if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school,” you now have two systems to design for that story. You must create the ‘rules of magic’ or ‘the limits of science’ for both the protagonist and antagonist. Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

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

An important thing to consider whether using magic or technology: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when it affects the characters and their actions. Dole information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

Science and magic are two sides of the personal-power coin we who write the two radically divergent sides of speculative fiction give our characters. In either sub-genre, these fundamental tropes offer your characters opportunities for success, but those opportunities must not be free and unlimited.

In both sci-fi and fantasy, the struggle is the story. How the characters overcome the limitations takes a person out of their comfortable environment. Roadblocks to success forces ordinary people to become more than they believe they are.

They become heroes.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from the movie, Ghostbusters, Screenwriters: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, for Columbia Pictures, ©1984, Fair Use.

Ghostbusters theatrical release poster, Columbia Pictures ©1984, Fair Use.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

 

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