Friday, June 1, 2012

Tricks of the Trade - Magical Thinking

If you want to make magic seem real, try making it seem other.

When it comes to creating a universe, magic is a pain. It suffers from a reality gap that doesn't afflict geography, economics, or any of the other world-building disciplines. If your alternate world cries out for verisimilitude in politics, weather patterns, or zoology, you can fall back on thousands of real-world examples; not so in magic.

Some authors take their inspiration from game systems that shall remain nameless, not realizing that the games themselves lifted their systems from even earlier works of literature. You can imagine how pallid that twice-copied material can be. Other authors look to real-world mythologies for help. And some desperately create ever wider and more mechanistic supernatural systems, until all the mystery and thrill of magic has been leached out of their world, even as wizards are fruitful and multiply.

For magic to grip a reader, it should reflect something else. Maybe it's a metaphor: When Larry Niven wrote The Magic Goes Away, he made magic a non-renewable resource...oil. (No surprise that he wrote those stories after the '70s oil crisis.) For Jack Vance in The Dying Earth, magic was two things: To magicians, magic was an object of research, like physics; to thieves, spells were items of value, like gemstones or gold coins, to be stolen and traded at will. In LOTR, magic was primarily an expression of the force of will: The Ring bent others to its will, and when it was destroyed, Sauron's armies lost the will to fight.

Even if magic isn't a metaphor for something else, the best magic represents a way of thinking, a point of view. It's not just "some people can do spells"; there should be a reason that magic works the way it does. Once you tease out the implications of that reason, you'll know what your magic can do, what it can't, and why.

The Earthsea trilogy is great at this. All magic springs from the "law" that the name of a thing and the thing itself are the same. This naturally leads to the notion of an entire magical language made up of true names, and to the idea that magicians can't tell a flat-out lie, and to the kinds of dangers associated with different kinds of spells. What makes it even more juicy is the fact that the rule of names is an example of "sympathetic magic" - a kind of thinking that's common to cultures throughout history.

Gregory Keyes did another bang-up job with his Age of Unreason series, in which Newton discovers the alchemical philosopher's stone instead of the laws of gravitation. Everything that happens, including the catastrophe that ends the first book in the series, is a direct consequence of the way of thinking that Keyes puts in place. More important than any one result of the system was the way Keyes thought about the system as a whole.

So if your magic feels bland and flavorless, as filling as oatmeal and just as exciting, think about what you're trying to do with magic. Forget about the mechanics, the how, and focus on the why and the what if. Why do you need it at all? What makes your magic cool? What if magic is really sex? What if magic is really mathematics? What if it's real estate deals?

What if?


  1. Thank you, Eleni. Your cover looks great, by the way.