While thinking of a subject for December, I tried to come up with an idea that could reflect one of the happiest, most magical times of the year. Then it hit me, why not cover one of the most controversial ideas when writing fiction: Magic. If you do not understand how magic can be controversial, then try sitting through a heated debate during a Pen and Paper game like Dungeons and Dragons.
Is this your card?
Magic (also referred to as sorcery, witchcraft, wizardry and many other terms) can be defined as the manipulation of perception, beings, environments, events or objects through the use of supernatural forces. It can be performed in various ways, such as special gestures, specific words, archaic rituals or symbolic writings.
In fiction, sorcery has been used in many different genres, most notable of which are fantasy, superhero fiction and some variations of horror. Magic can be a great storytelling tool, giving writers options not normally found in fiction that is deeply rooted in reality. What makes it such a debatable topic, however, is it’s unpredictable nature. When used properly, magic can unquestioningly suspend disbelief, enhancing the narrative by bringing a sense of mystery, awe and wonderment. If used improperly, it can be seen as a lazy way out of a difficult situation (see Deus Ex Machina) or might create inconsistencies in the story, which will frustrate the audience.
In order to work well in fiction, magic doesn’t need to be plausible, but it does need to be regulated. If the powers of magic were left unchecked, then a protagonist could simply snap their fingers to resolve the conflict, negating any need to have a story in the first place. Writers also need to pay close attention to their characters use of magic, or they might risk creating inconsistencies. For example, in Lord of the Rings, if Gandalf could summon giant birds to escape captivity, then why not get those birds to fly all the way to their destination and save themselves a lot of grief?
Since I plan on using magic in my own story, I did a lot of research on the subject and gathered a lot of interesting information. Here are some important points that would be important to keep in mind.
1. Establish rules.
Before creating a setting that includes the supernatural, be sure to establish what magic can and can’t do. This doesn’t mean that the rules must make sense; if you want to create a world with spell casting slugs, undead accountants, or devil worshipping cat girls, be my guest. The important part is that whatever rule is decided on must be respected, play out their full consequences. Breaking those boundaries later will create inconsistencies and destroy the writer's credibility in the eyes of the reader.
It is also a good idea to keep the rules clear, simple and to have a narrative reason for whatever requirement you put into place. Creating rules that are overly complicated can end up being more trouble than they're worth and may cause issues later in the story. It will also make things easier in case the laws of magic need to be explained to the audience.
2. Create limitations.
Having sorcery in a story is pointless if it is powerful enough to resolve the conflict with a single spell. The goal is to find balance; to make magic interesting enough to captivate the reader, but limited enough as to not make the plotline seem trivial.
Setting restrictions to magic will insure it is both interesting and believable. Here is a short list of commonly seen limitations to sorcery in narrative fiction:
- Source: Where magic originates from. It can from a wand, talisman, ley lines or some other source. The point is the spell caster cannot use magic without it.
- Quantity: The casters access to magic is linked to a finite amount of a resource, such as a substance (like a potion) or a power source (solar energy). Once the quantity has been depleted, the caster must acquire new resources in order to access magic again.
- Casting: In order to use magic, the caster must perform certain actions in a specific manner. Popular examples are reciting a spell vocally, in writing with runes, or with hand gestures. If the caster is interrupted during the performance, the spell is cancelled and the magic will either not work or backfire.
- Range: For the sorcerer to be able to magically affect a target, said target must be within the range of their powers. A popular example of this is line of sight; a caster cannot affect something they do not see. It is important to note that in this instance, range could be on any scale: distance, time, weight, matter, etc.
- Time: This could relate to either the time needed to perform magic (example: spell must be performed under X amount of time to be successful) or a specific time frame (can only be done on a certain date, during the night, etc).
3. Have consequences.
Nothing comes from nothing. Everything in life has a cost; this is true for physics, art, economics, biology, sociology and so on. The same principle can be applied to the mystic arts. By giving the arcane consequences, it gains depth and credibility, whereas actions that seem effortless or without repercussions will lose value. So when characters use magic, be sure to have them experience the consequences of their actions.
The consequences to using magic can vary depending on the needs of the storyline. For tales where magic needs to be accessible to a large portion of the population, consequences must be kept low. If the story requires magic to be a rare commodity, then a higher price should be established.
A good example would be vampires; they have immortality and eternal youth, but to maintain those luxuries they need to feed off the lifeforce of others. Or how many times have we seen a movie where a cultist offers a human sacrifice in order to gain the favor of their dark deity.
4. Make a connection.
If magic is present in a story, then it needs to be an integral part of the setting. How the existence of the supernatural will affect the environment is another important aspect which needs to be taken into consideration and be clearly defined. Ask how magic would transform people, society, economy, religion and so on.
If magic is viewed as a mainstream occurrence, then it should logically have an impact on everything and everyone within the setting. The inhabitants of the world should be using magic to make their everyday lives easier; from making toast in the morning to creating large scale buildings. The consequences of this widespread use of magic would be disastrous, as it would mean magic would also be present in criminal activity or even war.
If magic is a known yet infrequent occurrence, then it should be confined to certain people or elements. Spell casting would be accessible to a small percentage of individuals, who would use magic for specific reasons. Depending on the setting, the inhabitants of the world could see sorcerers/witches as anything from outcasts to prophets. This situation will require explaining why the population either hates or adores those who use magic and why their numbers are limited.
If magic is considered to be a rare occurrence, then it should be seen as superstition or make-believe by the general population. The supernatural would be accessible by an even smaller amount of people as the example stated above, and most likely in a secretive manner. The setting in this scenario will have the least changes, as magic would have little to no known influence. However, people within this setting who witness sorcery should be awed, shocked, react dramatically or attempt to explain it scientifically.
5. Offer an explanation.
Explaining a phenomenon that does not exist in real life can be quite a challenging. In such circumstances, writers must be creative in describing how their magic feels, manifests itself or how one acquires it.
A good way to do so is by comparison. One can create a fictional image or sensation by comparing it to tangible life experiences. Visual manifestations of magic in fiction have often been compared to electricity or oddly colored flames. Many have also described the physical sensation of magic has burning or freezing. In terms of studying the arcane, fiction has seen every approach; from spiritual journeys through martial arts, science experiments through alchemy, even schools for the gifted. The point is; there is no wrong answer. Magic can be as colorful or plain as you want it to be. Come up with something new, or build on one of the classics, the options are limitless (just be sure to apply all the points listed above).
Keep in mind that in order for magic to keep its sense of surrealism, it should be shrouded in mystery. Attempting to overly explain the arcane will destroy the sense of disbelief and its appeal. In this situation, writers use hand-waving to disguise just how little is actually being revealed.
In closing, always remember that the characters should be the main focus of the story, not the magic. Despite being impressed by the supernatural and the mysterious, it is the underlying human element which will captivate the interest of the readers.
I hope this lesson has proven to be useful to you, I know I had fun researching it. Magic can be a complicated thing if you lose control of it, so be sure to keep it simple and think things through.
Until next time,