Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rules of Magic

It's pretty accepted wisdom these days that if you're going to write a book with magic in, you need to put constraints on what that magic can do or the story won't be interesting. Magic wielders can make problems disappear with a wave of their hand or a well-placed word. You'll get deus ex machinas cropping up on every page. The villain of the piece will be so powerful your heroes don't stand a chance. Readers will expect rules and get frustrated when they can't find any. The story will end on page 10. And so on.

The topic came up briefly in #scifichat on Twitter a couple weeks ago. I might even have raised it myself, I don't remember. I do remember having to clarify what I meant, though, and the act of clarifying go me thinking. For me, magic rules exist on a gradient like so much else in the world of the Writing Process. I also apparently define "constraints" pretty loosely. For me, it's not just about who can do magic or how magic happens or where magic's found. It's kind of a mix of all of that, and a little more. Bear in mind this is from a reader's perspective. I have no doubt that even the looser types of constraints are pretty rigorous from the writer's end.

The loosest constraints on magic are found in books where magic is in the background or where the reader doesn't need a detailed description of how magic works to understand the story. The castle flies, but we don't need to know why or how. The elves in the forest just kind of are. The heroine steps through a doorway and finds herself on another continent. People can cast spells in multiple ways and magic rarely if ever has negative consequences for the caster. Ambient natural magic, the sort that humans don't control, also fits here. It's hard to tell if the writer's created rules or is just working from what feels right, but there's no question the story works.

The next level up from that are magic systems that are nearly identical to the ones listed above, except there are a handful of things magic can't do, or can't do well, or people can't do magic until they're trained. Maybe magic doesn't allow time travel or maybe it doesn't work well on animals. Maybe you get magical training on your parents' knees, or maybe you go to school for it. Magic's still pretty much in the background and the story can almost but not quite be told without it.

Then we start seeing systems where magic can do just about anything, but only certain people can make it work. Maybe they've got fairy blood. Maybe they're wizards. Maybe it's anyone with blue eyes or red hair. I'd rank systems where magic can do anything but involves intricate spellwork or specific conditions at this level too, along with magic that does anything but is hard to control. And systems that involve magical backlash are probably here too—where casting a spell diminishes personal energy or causes pain, and magicians can do anything as long as they can handle the kickback. Making it harder for the characters to do magic makes it harder for them to achieve their goals and I think, though I'm not sure, that this is about where most of the action-oriented fantasies come in.

After the broad application levels, the potential of magic starts narrowing. Maybe different people do different sorts of magic, so the guy's who good with fire is going to suck at or be unable to read the future, and the guy who reads the future can't make a potion to save his life. Maybe magic can only apply to living things, or inorganics, or the elements. Maybe spells end after thirteen hours.

From there, magic systems narrow further by imposing more and more limitations, to the point where blue-eyed, red-headed daughters of seventh sons can only control earth magic under the full moon at midnight if they've had twenty years of training and eaten special herbs beforehand. I think when you get that complicated and make magic almost impossible to do that the fantasy becomes less fun, but maybe that's me. I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.

I think a similar series of gradients probably applies to science fiction. We've got hard science fiction, after all, and various "soft" sci-fis until we hit space operas like Star Wars which can sometimes be classed as fantasy. It's probably even possible to sync the two gradients up and create one that encompasses all of speculative fiction. I am, however, too lazy to do that, but maybe I've inspired you?

Oh, and if anyone has thoughts on this, positive, negative, or simply thoughts, let me know. I like discussions. :)


Reece said...

I think you're analysis is right on. The funny thing is that most people didn't think about the limitations of magic until the last few decades. I remember Brandon Sanderson saying people thought he was nuts the first time I stated that rules and limitations are what make magic work for readers.

I find I like magic best when it is based on some pseudo-logical/realistic principle...much like how I like my sci-fi just a few steps beyond the real world! I like "Newtonian magic" (for lack of a better phrase); it's not enough to have a list of rules or limitations, I want rules and limitations that make sense. I think relatively few authors do really well.

Harold Rhenisch said...

Very well said. It made me think of this question: does the power of magic to change the world increase with its increasing difficulty? If the world is all easy magic, then it doesn't do much, but if the magic is hard, well, what then? Does it change everything? However, I can imagine both scenarios being jumbled, so perhaps it's that magic has a third component: will. Does the magician think he or she is doing the magic, or that the magic is doing it? Does that make the difference? It does in Wicca, so maybe? And, Reece, Newtonian magic, that's great. Newton the magician. Very nice.

Rafael said...

I've defined them in three broad categories:

1. The Everything But... where you can do just about anything with magic except for a few key exceptions. Think Harry Potter and the rule about death.

2. Salient Points: Key points of the system are explained and explored but the edges are left deliberately vague, enough wiggle room to expand or change as necessary.

3. The Rules Lawyer/RPG Approach: Authors like Brandon Sanderson love this approach where the rules are written to cover almost every circumstance imaginable just like a Roleplaying rulebook.

But that's my take.

Anassa said...

Reece - Thanks for the comment! I think you're right about the "logic" of magic only showing up in the last couple decades. Maybe it's a factor of being tired with unlimited magic stories, or better science education? And good point on the logic as well. I think you're definitely on to something.

Harold - I think the power of magic to change the world entirely depends on the story. I can imagine background magic stories where magic does absolutely nothing important, and background magic stories where it does. Ditto with any of the other categories. It's what the story calls for, right?

Rafael - Huh, I like your categories too. :) Definitely another way to do it—though I think our systems could work well together. Thanks for sharing!