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Friday, February 7, 2014

GUESTPOST: Cost And Consequence In The Creation Of A Magic System by Karina Sumner-Smith


As a reader, I've always been intrigued by magic. Yet, as a writer, creating a magic system that feels interesting and real is a challenge – and a fun one, at that. Back when I first started writing, I read articles that said that a good magic system requires three things: rules, a limit, and a price. For myself, I tend to think of these three elements as the three C’s: consistency, costs, and consequences. Yet while these elements are great guidelines for what a magic system should include, they say nothing for the actual process of creating that system – and I would hazard a guess that, as with writing processes themselves, no two fantasy writers will approach these tasks the same way.

At its best, a magic system should be an integral part of the overall worldbuilding – and, ideally, the character story. For some writers, this means that the magic system grows out of what they know about a world: the cultures, the land, the politics, even the weather. For others, the workings of the world’s magic – or the life of a character who uses that magic – is the source from which all other aspects of the world are created.

I’m one of the latter, using what I know of the characters and their magic as the seed from which the story grows. My process, such as it is, stems from repeatedly asking two questions:

 1) Why does that happen?

 2) What are the effects?

It’s one thing to say that magic works within a story; its far more telling to understand why. In some ways, the act of magic itself is the evidence from which a writer such as myself might work – clues that hint at greater workings. The key is digging and questioning until a pattern emerges. To start: What is the source of the magic? Can it be renewed, or is it a finite resource – used once, and then gone? Who can access the power, and when, and how often? Is there a physical component to using power, such as spells or objects, a particular location, or a certain time of day? Is magic learned or innate or something entirely inhuman? If I have no answer for why magic works in the story except, “Because … magic!” I have a long road of thinking and worldbuilding ahead.

As for effects of those choices, well, that’s where things really get interesting. The costs and consequences of magic can be a rich source of tension and conflict for the narrative, the characters, and the world as a whole.


To start, magic generally needs some sort of cost for its use. When I started writing, most of my magic-users tended to get terrible magic-induced headaches, nausea, and tiredness, as if the price of calling down a firestorm was little worse than a mid-winter cold. (“Why?” would have been an excellent question to ask here, too; one that my younger self neglected entirely. Why headaches: is it dehydration, brain swelling, the beasts from beyond prying their claws into the character’s mind from the great void? And if that’s true, what might be other effects: fainting, seizures, impaired motor control, a wee baby beast from beyond nesting in the character’s brainpan? Questions beget questions beget rich and interesting answers.)

But beyond the physical costs of the act of working magic, whatever that may be, there are other effects as well: mental and emotional costs for individual characters, as well as wider societal effects. Consider: how does the presence (or absence) of magic shape a society or a culture? How does it affect the lives of the people within that society, from beggars to kings, drug addicts to drug lords, baristas to overpaid CEOs? How has it shaped the world’s history?

Take one example that I debated recently over dinner: magical healing. At times, it seems writers use magical healing (or the high-tech SF equivalent) as a “get out of jail free” card that allows their characters to face deadly situations without long-term consequences. (At this, I make an expression of displeasure.) But if magical healing exists within the novel’s world, evidence of it should be present throughout the story in the culture, the language, the character’s attitudes, and more. If the ability to heal one’s self or another from the brink of death is widespread, think about how it might change people’s thoughts on violence, high-risk jobs, the value of life, even the act of dying itself. Or if the ability to heal is rare, it might be prized, the magic-workers becoming rich and influential; or it might be hoarded, magic-workers controlled by kings or corporations or governments, even enslaved.

Every choice cascades. Over and over, I use the same two questions, asking “Why?” and “What are the effects?” for each element of the magic system until the result is something that feels consistent, complex, and real. When writing my futuristic fantasy novel, Radiant, my story-seed was the idea of a world where magic is used as currency. Why would that happen? Well, magic can only be currency if it’s ubiquitous rather than a rare or precious gift, and useful for a very wide variety of tasks. Magic, then, might be used for everything. As for effects, it seemed that if magic is money and some are born with more than others, there are distinct and serious consequences for what “poverty” means in this world, and for the lives and health of those born with less. So too did the flip side hold intriguing potential – was it possible to have too much magic, too much money? If such a thing existed, how would it look – and what would be the consequences?

From there came all the tantalizing “what if’s” from which stories are born; for with magic, complexity is the ground in which interesting ideas grow...


Official Author Website
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Pre-order RADIANT here (US) and here (Canada)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Karina Sumner-Smith is a Nebula-nominated short fiction writer whose debut novel, Radiant, will be released from Skyhorse Publishing’s new SF/F imprint, Talos, in October 2014. A native of Toronto, she now lives near the shores of Lake Huron in rural Ontario, Canada, with her husband and a very loud cat. Visit her online, or say hi on Twitter.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of author herslef. After The Breaking Of The World art courtesy of Jesse Van Dijk. Magical battle art courtesy of 1Zoom.

3 comments:

Victoria Van Vlear said...

Great post! The magic system is one of my favorite parts of reading a fantasy book, and it's fascinating to hear your method of coming up with one.

justindockins said...

This is great! A very thought-provoking subject indeed. In my first novel, "Tales of the Bodhisattva: the Khurran", I blended eastern religions with some straight up magic. Some of it was inherited by or taught to the characters from various gods and goddesses, and some was handed down from character to character like a runner passing the baton. World building is one of my favorite aspects of writing fantasy, and your post has inspired me once again to explore where those various magical feats came from. Thanks!

Malcolm Campbell said...

This advice will also work well for writers outside the fantasy genre. All characters need limits or they'd solve the problem at hand on page one. Yawn.

Thanks for sharing these ideas.

Malcolm

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