science fiction and fantasy writer

On The Definitive Rules For Writing Magic (Or, Some Shit My Writers’ Group Made Up One Night)

I led a discussion earlier this year with the CSFG Novel Writing Group on what are the characteristics of a good system of magic in fiction. We discussed a range of examples of what we thought were good magic systems, or systems that had good characteristics, ranging from Harry Potter to Warhammer to Star Wars and Dune (yes, magic) and encompassing a bunch of other stuff that makes us sound waaaay higher-brow than that.

We also realised that if you do LOTR to The Wheel Of Time you get TWOT, which probably tells you everything you need to know about the difference between Tolkien and Jordan.

Anyway, our rules are:

1. Limit Magic
2. Keep To The Rules

(These first two rules really come from Fiona McIntosh, so we thought we’d best make up some more of our own so that we’d seem clever too. Thus:)

3. Or, Do Whateverthefuck Is Cool
4. Give Magic a Cost
5. Magic Must Be Integrated Into Ecology and Society
6. Use Clever Handwaving To Disguise How Little You’re Really Explaining
7. Maintain Some Air Of Mystery (Or, For Crying Out Loud, George, He’s Strong With The Force, Who Gives A Shit About His Mango-Chlorine Count?!)
8. File Off The Serial Numbers
9. Steal From Life
10. Treat Magic As A Storytelling Tool

– – –

1. Limit Magic

Magic needs to have limitations, both to appear believable and also so that your stories don’t suck. An omnipotent wizard who’s read all the way to the end of the book and can turn a Balrog into a potted plant with a flicker of thought is kind of a dampener on the dramatic energy of your story. Magic without limitations is like Superman. Because Superman is too powerful, Superman comics and movies are lame. His opponents are either too overmatched or too overblown and there’s only so many times you can pull out the green kryptonite without it becoming repetitive. Batman stories are way more interesting because Batman’s only superpower is sociopathy. Batman’s stories are objectively better than Superman’s (mainly because Batman is crazy but also) because Batman has limitations.

There’s a number of ways to limit magic and most good systems of magic will use some combination of them:

How magic is enacted – In the world of Harry Potter, to perform magic you need either a magic wand or a vocalised spell, and usually both. You can’t just think in your mind that you want to set Malfoy’s undies on fire and expect it to happen. Other writers use similar devices: much of the magic in Tolkien’s Middle Earth is invested in magic items; the alchemists of Hiromu Arakawa’s manga, Fullmetal Alchemist, must use magical symbols to make their spells work.

The range of effects magic can have – A lot of writers are fairly loose with this, but some are quite strict. In Fullmetal Alchemist, magic is limited to transforming matter, it can’t do anything else. Similarly, in the Dune universe, magic (yes, magic; yes, science fiction) is limited to future telling and space navigation.

How much magic a person can have – In Dave Duncan’s series A Man of His Word, magic is acquired by knowing magic words. A person can learn up to four words. If they learn a fifth, they become a god, which in Duncan’s universe means not getting out much. You don’t turn into the second-coming of Thor, more like one of those demi-god children of Zeus who get smited (smote? smitten?) by Hera and they y’know turn into a constellation or an eternal peach tree or something. Waaaay less fun than being the new God of Thunder. Sometimes this principle is not so neatly cut and dried – in the Warhammer universe, too much magic will turn you into a kind of mad scientist-monstrous creation combo, so there’s a certain level of magic that it’s prudent not to exceed (which also makes for a nice dramatic device).

How magic is fuelled – In Dune, magic is fuelled by desiccated worm juice. Worm juice only comes from one planet, so the supply is intrinsically rare and vulnerable to disruption. Who controls the worm juice controls the galaxy. Similarly, in the world of Glen Cook’s Garrett, P.I. novels, magic is fuelled by silver. The world’s largest silver reserves happen to be located between the rival empires of Karenta and Venageta, resulting in a multi-generational war over the supply of silver, which provides much of the background architecture for the stories.

2. Keep To The Rules

This is as important as sticking to rules like oh I don’t know decapitation. The rules of decapitation are well-established and widely understood. You wouldn’t just have people in your story shake off decapitation and go on about their business – unless you’ve established rules in your world that provide for exceptions to that rule. If you’ve made rules around what magic can and can’t do in your world (and you should), then you can’t just go breaking them willynilly. Your readers are going to notice, and then your credibility is shot.

This doesn’t mean your rules have to be super tight. In fact, having really strict, comprehensive rules – or, more to the point, telling your readers what they are – can end up being more trouble than it’s worth. If you’re going to go down that path, have a narrative reason for doing so. In Richard Garfinkle’s novel Celestial Matters, he tells the tale of a fictional war between ancient Greek and Chinese civilisations. Everything in the Greeks’ cosmology is true for them, everything the Chinese believe about how the universe functions is true for them. Consequently, each group is operating under different laws of physics, which Garfinkle then brings into conflict.

Even when your rules are simple, you need to think through the implications. In Le Guin’s Earthsea novels magic comes from the secret language of creation. Things said in the secret language must be true. If they’re not true at the time they are spoken, the world will rearrange itself to make them true. The potential for unforseen consequences is endless – which is the whole point of it as a narrative device for Le Guin. What you don’t want is for your readers to see consequences of your rules that you haven’t.

Sometimes, you’ll find that you need to weasel out of the rules you’ve created. In TWOT, Jordan created a world where the male half of magic has been corrupted and inevitably sends male magicians mad and evil. This is a fine narrative device, until you’re six books into your story and you still need your male magician protagonist to not be mad and evil. Duncan had a similar problem in A Man of His Word. At a certain point in the story, Duncan’s protagonist, Rap, needs to divest himself of his magic but magic words are almost impossible to forget, so he shouts the four words he knows out to the assembled citizens of an entire city, diluting the magic to such an extent that it becomes worthless. In a later book, Rap needs his magic back. Duncan has to perform a spot of semantic gymnastics so that the dilution of Rap’s magic words makes them easier to forget and as more people who heard the words forget them, the power starts to return to Rap.

(Which raises another important principle of storytelling, politics and lying in general: people will believe your bullshit if you say it fast enough. This is why it’s easier to get away with bullshit in movies than it is in books. A filmmaker can just MichaelBay their way past the logic gaps.)

3. Or, Do Whateverthefuck Is Cool

A.k.a. the Glen Cook Method, or “Fuck Rule #2”

This probably doesn’t need a lot of explaining. This is the alternate path to having rules and sticking to them. Just do whateverthefuck is the coolest thing you can think of for your magician to do at any given moment, provided it doesn’t mess up your story. So, in the Black Company novels, one evil magician can have her head lopped off and, without any prior indication that what follows is possible, she can shake it off and spend much of the next book carrying her head around in a box until she can get the guy who decapitated her to sew it back on again. It works because it’s cool.

Success in this approach has two parts: first, still adhere to Rule #1 and limit magic, as Cook does in his novels. Second, speed alone will not be enough to sell this bullshit. You need to swagger like Tyler Durden while you’re doing it. Your bullshit needs to be awesome enough that your readers will swallow it and enjoy the experience. Like telling a joke, it’s all in the delivery. Or, in the more elegant words of Oscar Wilde, “In matters of grave importance, style… is the vital thing.”

4. Give Magic a Cost

This is basic physics (or economics, take your pick). To do anything in the world has a cost. The simplest equations of cost are the direct costs to the actor: running away from zombies uses energy, ditto a magic beanstalk growing or matter changing state from wicked witch to puddle. Downloading music from iTunes costs you money. Smoking has a fifty-fifty chance of costing you half your lifespan and a painful death. Other costs are external: the musician bears the cost of you ripping their whole back catalogue for free. Driving costs you fuel but also is, like, smelly or something for other people. Your predilection for pork ribs costs the pig the structural integrity it requires to hold its insides in.

The magic systems that, dramatically speaking, offer the most to their stories tend to work the same. In Fullmetal Alchemist, when working magic you have to give something to get something. In the Warhammer universe, the source of magic is inherently destructive and using magic eventually causes madness and mutation. In A Man of His Word, the magic words are the true names of fairies and it costs the fairies their lives to tell them.

5. Magic Must Be Integrated Into Ecology and Society

Imagine if you added dragons to existing global ecosystems as an apex predator. Those ecosystems wouldn’t just continue on as they are with dragons tacked on the top. What would happen to the populations of large animals that dragons would prey on? What would happen to the existing predator populations? Not sure? Imagine adding humans to an ecosystem as an apex predator. No, wait – we all know how well that tends to work out. Adding magic and magical beasties to the world is the same. It would result in a fundamentally different world.

Same goes for economic and belief systems. Wizards would have a social niche, just like any other profession. Where would your wizards fit among priests, physicians, judges, blacksmiths and monarchs? Would they displace any real world professions? How would the existence of magic affect belief in gods? In TWOT, the continent-wide social structure is warped by the status of female magicians as magical protectors and male magicians as walking hand grenades. In Dune and the Garret P.I. novels, the economies are shaped by the supply and price of magical fuel (spice and silver, respectively). In A Man of His Word, gods are like the evolved Pokemon forms of wizards.

Writers sometimes get around these issues by creating a “parallel” magical world – a fairy realm or an underworld. Harry Potter is a notable example. Even here though, the most prominent narrative device is a school for magic that reflects real childhood experiences of school but integrates magic into what the kids actually learn.

6. Use Clever Handwaving To Disguise How Little You’re Really Explaining

In the Potterverse, the lack of explanation around the workings of magic is disguised by the focus of the children’s lessons on the correct pronunciation of spells, ingredients for their potions and the right wrist action for their wand-waving. It works because (a) it’s often funny or exciting and (b) it’s very much like children’s real experience of school in that it drums information into their brains but doesn’t explain a damned thing. Rowling literally tells you about the waving of her characters’ hands to distract you from the fact that you have no idea how handwaving makes the spells work.

The child’s point-of-view is also an important device for Rowling. Harry, raised as a Muggle, doesn’t understand how a lot of the stuff around him works, and has a child’s sense of wonder when magic things do happen. The reader, having the story filtered through Harry’s point-of-view, shares both his ignorance and his amazement. Tolkien used his hobbit characters in a similar way.

An alternative to the child’s point-of-view is to have your characters be so matter-of-fact about magic that explaining it would be like explaining taking a dump. The mercenaries of Cook’s Black Company are a case in point. Likewise, when confronted by the varied eccentricities of magicians, the hardboiled, hairy-backed alpha males of Joe Abercrombie’s novels tend to just scratch their pendulous testicles, grunt “Fucking weirdos” and get on with the important manly business of chopping each other to bits.

7. Maintain Some Air Of Mystery (Or, For Crying Out Loud, George, He’s Strong With The Force, Who Gives A Shit About His Mango-Chlorine Count?!)

This goes hand-in-waving-hand with Rule #6. No fan of Star Wars needed to know that the Force was apparently some kind of blood disease. “He’s strong with the Force” was all we ever needed. It wasn’t us that woke up one day and thought “Holyfuck, this is supposed to be science-fiction and the Force is, like, magic, I’d better give it some kind of genetic explanation or maybe make it a blood disease or something” and forgot that we were telling fairy tales in space-drag.

Fairy tales in space-drag is awesome. We were sold on the Force from the moment the big guy in the gimp suit strangled someone from across the room. Watching Kermit the Frog wearing elf ears lift a spaceship out of a swamp with the power of his mind was like rock’n’roll-flavoured icecream. Handwaving completed. No further explanation required.

Over explaining it kills the magic. This known as having a Midi-Chlorian Moment. (Actually, I just made that up, but feel free to use it and credit it to me).

There used to be a hilarious Star Wars-Pulp Fiction mashup comic online that I sadly am now unable to find. In it, Yoda addressed the young Anakin Skywalker, “Take me for a bitch do you, young Jedi?” Over explaining can prompt your readers into thinking the same of you, and maybe adding, “Reckless is he. Put a cap in his ass we should.”

8. File Off The Serial Numbers

This is some of the best writing advice I’ve ever had. It doesn’t mean plagiarise. It means recognise that everything you produce stands on the shoulders of everything that’s come before it (or drops its strides and moons everything that’s come before, if you’re of a more post-modern bent) and don’t be afraid of that. Tolkien is the godfather of high fantasy, but Terry Brooks kickstarted the modern genre. Brook’s filed off the serial numbers from LOTR (not very thoroughly, many would argue) and wrote The Sword of Shannara. Hey presto, whole new genre.

Filing off the serial numbers isn’t necessarily the same as being derivative. George Lucas filed off the serial numbers from a fairy tale where the humble hero rescues the princess from the evil wizard’s fortress, dressed it up like Buffalo Bill in the skin of Star Trek, dusted off Asimov’s “force blades” and threw in the ideology of the Knights Templar. Stick all that in a blender and you get awesome.

If some (non-copyrighted) thing exists that you can develop your own version of, or if something is so widely accepted that it’s become a genre trope, don’t be afraid to use it. Sometimes a particular storyteller can so completely own something that it’s hard for anyone else to use it – JK Rowling and wizard school, George Lucas and laser swords, Stephenie Meyer and emo vampires. But if you need your character to be able to turn invisible, give them a magic ring or an invisibility cloak, don’t invent something new that you have to disrupt your story to explain to the reader – unless it’s awesome. If you need your character to be granted a wish by a magical being, make it a fairy or a genie or a dragon and put your own stamp on it to the extent that it improves your story. If you happen across an amazing Samurai movie, file off the serial numbers and re-tell it as a Western, or a gothic fairy tale.

If you love China Mieville’s weird humanoids, werewolves, Stargate, the shield technology from Dune and the sentient ocean from Solaris, blend them up and pour them into the still-warm skin of a fantasy quest and see if it…

No, wait.

Dibs! I call dibs!

9. Steal From Life

Like Rule #8, but you don’t have to worry about copyright infringement. In Raymond E. Feist’s Magician, the titular character, Pug, is shown filling and refilling water troughs in a pointlessly repetitive task as part of his magician training. It’s so Zen that you half expect some monk to leap out from behind the wall, whack him on the head with a stick and tell him nonsense riddles. Other writers have used martial arts, music, dance, chemistry, calligraphy and high school rote learning as skeletons for their methods of training and discipline in magic.

Steal whatever is cool from real world practices of witchcraft and alchemy. Hell, steal whatever’s cool from cupcake making and competitive knitting if it works for your story.

10. Treat Magic As A Storytelling Tool

This is a simple question to ask yourself: is magic a tool that’s helping me tell my story? If not, why is it in my story?

Simple question, but I think a lot of people get too finicky about the answer. You’ll often hear people say that the fantastical (or SF-nal) elements must be integral to the plot, otherwise it’s not really a fantasy (or SF) story.

Bullshit.

The magic can be integral to the plot, and it’s no bad thing if it is. But sometimes the plot is just an easily recognisable skeleton to hang your amazing fantasy world on (girl meets boy, girl gets a pony, lone gunslinger rides into town, princess rescues her damn self from the evil wizard thank you very much, etc). Something simple that the reader can follow while most of their attention is occupied with going “Holyshitwow” at the astounding originality of your fevered imaginings. If holyshitwow is your purpose in telling your magical tale, and your readers are satisfied that holyshitwow is what you’ve achieved, then magic is a tool that has helped you tell your story.

Or sometimes a story just works better in getting its theme across to the reader if it’s a step removed from the real world. Sometimes a sprinkle of magic helps to enhance the emotional journey.

Sometimes it matters whether the plot needs the pony to have a horn or the boy to be a sparkly bloodsucker in order to function. Sometimes it doesn’t.

So, is magic a tool that is helping you tell your story?

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  1. Great article, Ian. Loads of good points. Extra gold stars for including Fullmetal Alchemist references. It’s a incredible manga/anime series with very well-established rules and magic-limitations.

  2. Pithy, funny and extremely useful. Love the Dune references as the series relies heavily on that particular magic for everything. The tool so to speak.

  3. […] out the Difinitive Rules of Magic which were ‘created’ at the Novel Writing Group, in which Ian plays a huge part, or […]

  4. Also useful to this discussion is Brandon Sanderson’s take on magic systems:wherein his first rule states that ‘An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic’. So, in many ways you establish the boundaries of what’s possible and don’t get carried away with inventing new things on the fly to resolve a situation (Not sure what his take would be on lost or dormant magic though..). 🙂

    Anyway, here’s the link if anyone’s interested:
    http://brandonsanderson.com/article/40/Sandersons-First-Law

  5. freakin love this!
    currently working out the kinks of a magic system in a rough draft right now.

    this has made me feel so much better about what i’ve got, as well as much more guided on where to go from here.

    subscribing!

    r

  6. Really useful article and had me in stitches all the way through, nice on for that.

  7. This is one of the best (and most hilarious) articles I’ve read on incorporating and giving rules to magic in my story. Thank you!

    — taren / wildfolkco.com

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