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Thursday, October 16, 2014

GUEST POST: Magic That Feels Like Magic by Jamie Schultz

One evening I was talking with a friend of mine who also happens to be a writing buddy, a man whose every manuscript I read, and who has likewise read virtually every terrible thing I’ve ever written, and we started comparing notes on our respective talents as writers (such as they are). He’s got an amazing capability to bring setting to life, for example, and he makes it look effortless in a way I am frankly envious of. As for me, he said that I have a knack for writing what he called “magic that feels like magic.”

I took that as a pretty high compliment, since that’s something I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about. There are a million ways magic can be treated in fantastic fiction, and I find some of those to be much more evocative than others. So I’m gonna ramble about that for a bit.

One way I tend to approach magic in fantasy is by essentially inverting Clarke’s famous dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—and then getting as far away from the result as practicable. That is to say, magic that conforms to a tidy set of rules and explicit formulae is essentially indistinguishable from technology, and that doesn’t feel like magic to me. Don’t get me wrong—that approach is just the thing for certain types of stories, and it can work amazingly well. Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence books are an incredible example of magic that is basically structured as a rigidly-ordered legal system, resulting in it providing the technological foundation for entire societies, and it works brilliantly, both on its own and as fertile ground for satire. Less effective authors operating within rigid rules systems tend to create things that feel exactly like that—rigid rules systems—generally, I believe, to the detriment of their settings.

At the other extreme is what I’ll call the “pull it out of your ass” magic system. That is, magic that does whatever the plot needs it to do at any given moment. Exhausted characters suddenly find inside them the strength to perform one last feat of wizardry, or the talisman they were given in Scene 24 suddenly comes to life and saves their bacon or points them toward whatever it is they need next. In effect, magic spends most of the story acting as a gee-whiz form of armament for the magic-using characters, and then occasionally becomes the unsubtle hand of the author, writing his or her way out of a pickle. (Here is a classic—if brutally snarky—discussion of Plot Tokens that I can’t improve upon in any way, so for more on the same concept, click away.)

Good magic systems have a framework, a set of limitations that is fairly clear to the reader, such that magic doesn’t run the risk of blowing the internal logic of the story to Hell. That is, magic is part of the internal logic, not an excuse to kick that logic in the gutter. Within those limitations, I feel that magic should have an element of unpredictability. It’s not a straight transfer function, wherein the characters put [x] into the input and get [y] out the other side, reliably and as directed. I like my magic a little squirrely, a little slippery. Willful, perhaps, and certainly with an element of randomness.

And, of course, it has a price. “Making a character very tired for a bit” is a pretty common one, but in my mind it hardly counts. That effect is easily brushed off and forgotten. A much better example of the price of at least one kind of literary magic is in The Lord of the Rings, where the One Ring’s awesome powers of corruption were well-known, to the point where neither Gandalf nor Galadriel wanted to touch the thing. A couple of great examples of magic systems that incorporate all these elements (they have a framework but perhaps not rigid rules, and they come with a price) and really feel like magic to me leap immediately to mind.

K.J. Parker, in the Fencer Trilogy, posits magic as a set of counterbalancing forces. A wise practitioner can use it to get what she wants, but the rebound—the counterbalance for any spell cast—is usually dangerous and wholly unpredictable. In the first book of the trilogy, a powerful wizard casts a spell to hurt somebody and spends the whole rest of the book watching the echoes from that act, in terrible fear of the day the backlash catches up to him. The magic in Charles Stross’s Laundry books has a much different flavor, but some of the same elements. There’s a nice framework, but Stross really goes the extra mile on the price of magic. Magic is computation, but the books are explicit that:
 1.) doing these types of computations in your head eventually results in Krantzberg syndrome, where tiny Lovecraftian horrors from beyond spacetime eat tiny Lovecraftian holes in your brain, and
 2.) if enough magical computations are performed in aggregate, across the world, that will attract the attention of colours out of space (or the like), resulting in the end of the world. Even though the system is hung on technological-seeming coat rack, it has a very distinct, magical feel to it—a neat trick, if you can do it.

My own novel, Premonitions, is predicated on a particularly nasty form of magic. Any given magical act is essentially a deal with a demon, which may have a mind of its own and, perhaps, the latitude to exercise it. Worse, do enough magic for long enough, and eventually you’ll lay out the welcome mat for the demons to come in and run the place (the place in this case being your mind). I like to think that the magic in the book has a distinctive feel that reinforces the on-the-edge feel of the book’s criminal underworld.

So, what about you? What makes magic in a book feel like magic?

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jamie Schultz has worked as a rocket test engineer, an environmental consultant, a technical writer, and a construction worker, among other things. He lives in Dallas, Texas. His first novel, Premonitions, received a starred review from Library Journal, who called it “a sterling urban fantasy debut with a great cast of characters.”


Anonymous said...

In my stories, there are two types of magic. The magic of Oz is powered by human dreams. In this situation, a dreamer like Oscar Diggs is going to have a dramatic (unintended) effect on Oz by his uncontrollable (normal) unfiltered dreams. The second type of magic is that which is used by the Witches. For every bit of magic they use, they bind themselves to the land. This manifests itself as magical lines and runes on their bodies. Each bit of magic takes a bit of their "soul" or blood to bind. The more powerful Witches have bound themselves so fully to their respective lands that they are essentially powered by magic, not blood. Then there is sorcery, which is experimentation and building things, even if those things are magical in nature.
Magic has always played a part in Oz stories, but in the Hidden History of Oz, magic is given a basic framework, with unpredictability and costs for using it. Dreams are the most powerful form of magic in Oz, and they are the least predictable. These rules make for some fascinating character explorations.


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