Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Magic Systems: a Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

Last week's hangout was a discussion of magic systems. I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, and Harry Markov. Not all the computer cameras were working, but we had a great audio chat.

Since Harry was the one who had initially proposed the topic of Magic Systems, he got us started with the terrific point that the core of any magic system is the source of the magic in question. Knowing where magic comes from is critical to understanding its properties. The most common model is to treat magic like a (somewhat unusual) resource, almost a material in and of itself, that comes in finite quantities and can be manipulated in various ways. If a deity is the source of magic in your world, then the use of magic will very likely be faith-related. If magic use is hereditary, then bloodlines and social structure will very likely be critical to its use.

Harry explained the example of one of his own works, in which blood sorcerers had powers that came from splintered pieces of the soul of a single magical creature who had come to Earth. Which piece you were in possession of (heart, eye, etc.) completely dictated what kinds of magic you were able to work, such as when the person with the eye soul-piece was able to do seeing magic. In his system, objects were able to be affected magically if they had a particular "frequency" of magical vibration.

It's a good idea to avoid all-powerful characters. They may be tempting, but they're far less interesting. Magic use generally has a cost, whether that be in blood, in simple fatigue, in loss of soul or sanity, etc. Readers find it helpful to be able to anticipate what might be possible in the magic system, but if anything is potentially possible, then it's hard to tell why the conflict would even occur without someone waving a hand and ending it all "by magic."

A successful magic system typically has a method of control or limitation. Harry Potter's magic system flirts along the border of being out of control, at least as I see it, because it's hard to anticipate when some new power or potion will come along and completely change what's possible. This has some advantages because few things in the world are totally uniform in their character, and it does keep us on our toes. It's also consistent with the real-world history of magical practice and the various methods that have been used for it. Needless to say, it works.

We talked about various different types of systems that we were familiar with. Jaleh talked about her work, where there is a transformed person and a mage - and how she'd thought about who had what kind of magic and how the two interacted with one another. I mentioned that there are many location-based magic systems that use specific places or lay-lines in order to govern the use of magic. Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars trilogy uses a bit of a different system: tired of seeing magicians always being weakling scholars, Janice came up with a system where enchanters have to work magical metal, and therefore are basically huge intelligent blacksmiths. Parallel to that is the natural genetic ability to heal (and move pain) by touch. Laura Anne Gilman apparently has a system where magic comes from the growing of grapes and the making of wine, where mages grow their own grapes, and drinking different wines will allow you to work different magics. My Varin world is an example of a case where I was so dissatisfied with the uncontrolled qualities of magic that I decided not to make it magic at all - the characters think it's magic because they don't understand it, but actually there are natural (if highly unusual) creatures involved in the phenomena that appear to be magical. Jaleh mentioned a system where magic came from shapes and colors around you in the environment, and each magic user had a specific shape that was their favorite - octagons, for example.

Objects and creatures can be magical, or may not be. Often the magic of objects and creatures is distinct from the magic used by people, and does not operate in the same way.

Harry remarked that magic is a vehicle to propel the story, and should be about more than just battles between wizards. He mentioned telekinesis, which can be used for all kinds of purposes. He also brought up the great point that the presence of magic in a society would have enormous cultural implications.

All the distinctions we recognize between haves and have-nots would exist in a world where magic is used. If magic is a resource, then of course some people will have more of it than others. People often portray magic as an elite power possessed by only a few. Glenda pointed out that there are some authors (like Piers Anthony in the Xanth books) who create a situation where everyone does magic but with varying levels of ability. Most people in such situations will have a tiny bit of power, and a few will have a lot. People entirely without power will be outcasts or seen as strange. Harry compared magic to nuclear power, in that it provides power, has practical applications, but can be highly dangerous and toxic.

The idea of a non-magic-using society where magic exists but is hidden in a secret world, a neighbor-world where magic users only really have dealings with other magic users, is pretty common. We see it in Harry Potter certainly, but in a lot of other contexts as well. That's actually a convenient way to minimize the effect of magic on the larger society.

If you have a society where magic is common, the effects will be much more widespread. Ask yourself what inventions we have that might have been replaced by the use of magic. Any single innovation that did not occur in your world as a result of magic would have large ongoing effects on the development of technology and society as a whole. When I was helping Janice think through some of the effects of the magic system she'd designed, we had to figure out why people wouldn't use normal medicines as an alternative to going to the magical healers - and we realized that people who used herbs and powders etc. would be seen as dangerously unreliable, possibly dirty, and definitely undesirable. On the other hand, these people do exist, and if they didn't, it would really feel like some major world piece was missing.

We talked about a few more models of magic that have been used in different contexts. Blake Charleton's Spellwright uses words in different languages for magical purposes, and confines particular magical effects to the use of any specific language. My own novel, Through This Gate, uses writing as a force of creation and each character's magic is influenced by the cultural imagination of the era from which he/she came (one character teleports like blinking, one like stepping through a curtain, one by appearing in a cloud of smoke, and another like falling through a circus trapdoor and being vaulted up into the new location). Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books put a lot of significance on the knowledge of true names as a means of working magic. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books rely on the magic of the Greek gods and the intervention or non-intervention of the deities themselves (it's interesting to note that the gods have sworn a non-intervention pact; this is a form of magic control and makes the stories much more interesting!). While Percy's powers are heredity-based, some miracle-working can be based on belief (where a crisis of faith can lead to a loss of powers); either way, the identity of the sponsor god or goddess is critical in determining what kind of magic can be accomplished.

Thanks so much to Harry, Glenda, and Jaleh for coming. I had a great time chatting with you. Today's hangout will be discussing Gender in Worldbuilding, so I hope to see you at 11am today!


  1. He also brought up the great point that the presence of magic in a society would have enormous cultural implications.

    This is in fact one of the things that makes writing stories in my current world so interesting to me: the fact that everybody reacts to the abnormal differently, and societies will find different ways to contain it.

    While technically not magic, extraordinary powers in the Peninsula behave very much like magic. Only certain people with the correct genetic markers have it. What makes it extra fun is that there are TWO markers: one for having a "clomen system" in the body that allows use of powers and one for whether or not the body will actually implement it. Because of this, there are latents, carriers, and Gifteds.

    And then you have the different countries. In one, they have banned all Gifteds and only have baselines. In another, they mix together indiscriminately. In another, the Gifteds are revered. In another, they have killed off all their baselines, considering them inferior.

    And then in my favorite, Vardin, they have created a strict system of a baseline royal family that is bound to serve the baseline council and to whom all Gifted familes are bound to serve. This makes the baseline folk feel safe because the royal family is of them and looks out for their interest. The Gifteds become Guardians and hold most of the power, but can be stopped physically from hurting anyone by the Queen.

    Even when you're working with "science," sufficiently advanced, it always behaves like magic.

  2. Liana, I find it cool that you have used different cultural models reacting to the same underlying biological magic system. It's true that the unknown is often interpreted as magic, even when it is technological or explicable by some other means. I often take advantage of this myself.

  3. I have a magic system idea I'm working on. There are some not-very-nice people from the high mountains who have magic related to the ice and snow of their homeland. There is our heroine, who for reasons that will become obvious once you read the story (once I WRITE the story), has her own fire-based magic.
    There is also a disgraced priest who lost his magic (details of said magic yet to be worked out) when he lost his faith. But he has discovered a very nasty substitute for his lost magic...
    Oh, and another race of people who lost a war and fled to this world with their strange magic they call "science".

  4. So David, what's the fundamental "resource" here? The system seems very diverse.

  5. Sounds like a great conversation! I wish I could make these, but I enjoy reading these summaries. Thanks for posting them.

  6. No problem, MK. I like being able to include a wider audience by writing the reports. Perhaps you'll make it by to chat some other time.