What’s so great about magic?

These drafts are going fast, and that’s the way I like it. Here’s a fairly recent one about a constant fascination and frustration for me as a writer: how to get a handle on a magic system within a story without going completely insane.

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A year or two ago, I realised that I actually couldn’t stand Fantasy as a genre, not in the traditional High/Epic sense of the term anyway. This came as a surprise to me, because up until that point I had believed that Fantasy was my favourite genre. Apparently I was mistaken.

I think I speak for most people who also like Fantasy when I say that magic is a pretty huge part of the appeal of the genre, but really, what is “magic”? Is it actually magic? Or is it a word used as a self-explanatory justification for the main characters, heroes and villains alike, to toss fireballs at each other and basically treat the plot like silly putty?

I think it’s rather telling that my first serious novel concept was science fiction – I won’t say it’s particularly thorough science fiction, but even if it’s only the watered-down, uninformed plebeian variety it’s still science fiction. It’s also one of the most coherent stories I have ever created; it’s about 15 years old. Compare that to my second serious novel concept, which was a sort of cyberpunk/high fantasy/references to every single childhood influence I’ve ever had fusion but, for the purposes of this argument, most definitely fantasy – well, that one has been trying to get off the ground for almost 15 years. While the sci-fi still hasn’t been and may never be written (which I do think would be a shame), it is at least solid. The fantasy remains elusive, frustrating, argumentative and just plain difficult to deal with.

And it’s all because of magic.

Which begs the question: what is it about magic that I find simultaneously appealing and infuriating?

  • Kamehameha

Look, I’m not going to defend my choice in childhood influences, but on the other hand there is only so ever much choice in that equation. Kids don’t watch  … whatever the fuck kids watch nowadays … and go: “Yep, that; that’s going to fuel my imagination from this point onward, lock it in”. Something just clicks and the rest is autopilot.

Dragon Ball Z is perhaps the worst creative influence a person can have, because it’s so fucking dull. Some of the characters are cool, but most of the cool ones are utterly superfluous to the main action, which is repetitive, drawn-out and repetitive fight scenes with the most dreadful combat technique this side of Captain Kirk. Unlearning the lessons of DBZ is something I’m still not quite finished with; one of these days I’m going to have to actually make a start with an official “DBZtox” if you will and get this shit out of my goddamn system, because until then it is going to be clogging up my creative arteries and filling them with flaring auras accompanied by howls of constipation and throat-shredding cries of “Kamehameha!”, “I have yet to show you my true power!” and, of course, “next time on Dragon Ball Z!!!

I hate that it’s had such an impact on me, but goddammit it totally has; and part of that impact has been how it’s shaped the intention of magic in my stories – namely, a word that excuses all the fireballs people shoot at each other.

Because that’s cool, apparently. I dunno.

really don’t know actually, because “fireballs” – sometimes they’re cool, but other times they’re very generic. Vanilla. Tame. Predictable.

Boring.

And magic of all fucking things should never be boring.

  • The good spell

Apparently “gospel” means “good spell”. I learnt that during a lecture on C.S. Lewis and the Narnia books.

I’ve said it before (I hope) and I’ll say it again: magic has to be part of the story, not a game-mechanic.

The other half of the DBZ bastardisation of my imagination is the Final Fantasy/Warcraft indoctrination, wherein magic is still all about combat, but this time instead of DBZ’s “because it looks cool/the writer can’t be fucked thinking” logic, this combat-purposed magic comes with rigid mechanics and, perhaps most importantly, mana. It comes with MP, Energy, Cooldowns, Buffs, Debuffs, Elements, Colour-Coordinated Magi; it comes with one of my favourite things in the whole wide world: categories, and when it comes to organising things into categories, that shit is like crack to me.

I assume. I’ve never had crack.

This means I think in terms of mechanics before story when it comes to magic. I think of how much mana/energy/power/whatever spells “cost” as opposed to which ones provide the most narrative tension or opportunities for character-development; the optimal strategy for dueling with other magi instead of which fights need to happen and which don’t and how they need to unfold; what are the spells that everyone would use because they’re the best and what are the ones nobody would bother with rather than how the rules of magic embody the core theme/s of the story.

And because it’s all just “magic” to me and therefore has no limits it all seems really arbitrary anyway because it’s not science everybody ends up just using I Can’t Believe It’s Not Avada Kedavra because why the fuck would you use anything else, except no okay you would use Imperio to make the other person use Avada Kedavra on themselves, or use Transfiguration to turn them into a truffle so that they can’t even use magic to begin with. Oh and also everybody would have at least one fucking Horcrux.

This also means that things that should be cool, like turning into animals, actually becomes pretty useless, because it’s a sub-optimal strategy.

Optimisation is what happens to my brain when I think about magic: I see mechanics and stats and the metagame – or rather, that’s what I want to see. I don’t actually see it though, and that leads to the final problem that I have with magic: I can’t set limits.

Why?

BECAUSE IT’S FUCKING MAGIC

  • Spoilt for choice

See, I could make it so that turning into animals is actually fucking rad, just because I think turning into animals is cool even if, in a world where everybody can conjure soul-siphoning lightning out of thin air, it provides sub-optimal DPS.

But then does that mean other spells just aren’t that great, that they have to be “de-powered” in order for animal transformations to be “relevant:? Or is there something inherent about non-human animals that gives them resistance to magic? Or something about shape-shifting into an animal through magical means that bestows some kind of magical properties onto you other than your physiology and thus places you on an even footing with non-shape-shifted combatants?

You could look at that example and ask: “Well, that’s because when you’re coming up with a magic system you kind of have to come up with a magic system” – which is true. It’s just that I get stuck on this whole thing of “magic” being, essentially, without limits, or it’s just a trick, and my mind is so literal that it’s difficult for me to look outside the box. It’s a box I’m very accustomed to, and more and more lately I just resent the fuck out of it. If you want me to come up with sci-fi shit that may as well be magic, I think we can have a good time. But “actual” magic is a whole other kettle of fish.

So if nothing else, I think I’ve pinpointed that this is a matter of perception on my part, rather than because “magic” is in and of itself a bad narrative device. But at the same time, no, it kind of is. Take away my own specific examples of DBZ, Warcraft, Final Fantasy and Harry Potter and you’re still left with this word that basically means “any phenomenon you can’t explain that is typically on the level of a miracle, natural disaster, incurable disease or deus ex machina”. It comes with connotations: it implies witches and/or wizards, arcane tomes of magical knowledge and learning, masters and apprentices, billowing robes, animal familiars, spells and magic words (not the same thing), enchanted objects, shape-shifting, curses, trickery, runes … it is an awkward catch-all where the Fantasy genre is concerned, because it has been co-opted into meaning “cool shit for our characters to do without us writers having to know fuck all about science”.

That is what I think about when I think of “magic”, and I want it to stop.

An example of magic that I really adore is something like The Neverending Story, with the sword Sikanda. It is a sword that will come alive and fight of its own accord when its master is in danger, but if drawn to be used like a normal sword its power is gone forever. Simple, right? Self-contained, relates to nothing else in the story or the world-building in terms of how or why it works, because that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is allegory and metaphor – and it works great for that story.

However, this comes with a downside that is you poke at it too much or ask too many questions about the “how” of this magic system, it all crumbles away, because it’s not about causality: it’s about narrative. Now I don’t mind that when I’m a reader, so long as the tone of the story suits that kind of deployment of magic as an element of the setting. But when I’m writing, I want the causal logic of magic (or any system, such as the “system” of a story’s plot, which I am currently and since day one have been wrestling with in my own WIP) to hold up so that I can believe in the story.

To that end, there’s Earthsea’s magic system, which is cool thematically because it’s about words and names and shit, but also because it helps to tell the story. Not in terms of the plot per se (though with A Wizard of Earthsea it does just that), but in terms of acting as a morality tale in and of itself, to a point: having power is about having responsibility and being vested with trust in using that power, and it doesn’t always go well – but it can, depending on what you choose to do with it. A very good lesson to learn, and it’s right there in how the magic operates.

And what I’ve learnt through writing this is that, actually, maybe my problem has nothing to do with magic not having “limits”. Maybe it’s just in the way that I write. Leaning more towards the “pantser” side of things when it comes to how I approach my creative writing projects, my magic can end up being limitless because I don’t want to know what happens before I find out by writing the story. Which … well, that would explain a lot.

  • Spelling it out

So maybe magic systems work better for storytellers who are good with planning, who don’t mind so much having the entire story laid-out before them and then going through the grunt-work of writing it all down in prose form. Maybe that’s why I create magic systems as though they’re videogame mechanics: because the way I write is kind of similar to playing a videogame, finding out what happens as it happens and responding accordingly. Perhaps the rules I fuss over are important to me because they limit the extent to which I can wander and give me some direction while writing a zero draft.

And I guess there’s really nothing wrong with that – it just means that I’m finding out about the magic system as I “use” it, which means I could end up in an endless process of revision.

Which is what’s close to happening with Tallulah right now, and I’m not happy with that prospect. So I need to do some serious … something. Whatever it is, I need to do it seriously.

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