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When Does Magic Stop Being Magical?

Many years ago, I did a bit of role-playing. I played various characters in that time, but my favourite one – and the one I advanced to the highest level – was a mage. I remember a particular game when my party was planning to go treasure hunting in a trap-infested dungeon. As you do. It was decided that the Foresight spell would come in handy, because it gives you warnings of impending danger. There was only one problem: the spell required a material component in order to cast it, namely a hummingbird’s feather.

hummingbirdMy Dungeon Master (DM) at the time (that’s the guy who runs the game) was a stickler for material components. Couldn’t we just assume that I, as an experienced mage, would have a few hummingbird feathers in my stores? Certainly not! Nor was there a handy branch of Wizards R Us from which I could buy supplies. You might think that’s fair enough. Magic, after all, should always come at a cost, because the game would be spoiled if there was a bunch of overpowered characters running around shouting “Oblitaratus everythingus”. The practical effect for me, though, was that I was forced to go on a quest in order to find and trap a hummingbird.

Of course, when I reached the next village after doing so, I just happened to bump into a peddler who was doing a special on hummingbird feathers. Yes, my DM friend was hilarious. So hilarious, in fact, that he went on to have a successful career in comedy.

No, not really.

MagicsIn fantasy novels, you can encounter many different types of magic systems. At one extreme, you have heavily rule-based systems akin to those found in my AD&D Player’s Handbook. At the other end, you find systems that don’t appear to have any rules at all. I have to say I prefer the former to the latter. The risk with indeterminate magic systems is that they can become plot-convenient. A mage can do – or not do – whatever the story requires of him at any given time.

When this happens in a book that I am reading, I can’t help but feel cheated. Magic shouldn’t be used as a filler for plugging plot holes. So our hero can fly, can he? Then why didn’t he do so three chapters ago when that band of orcs attacked? Any time a character uses an ability, I think it should be consistent with the abilities he has shown previously in the book.

Is there a danger, though, in introducing too many rules? Arguably, one of the great attractions of magic is its mystery. Explain it in too much detail, and it can begin to lose its drama, its threat. Consider, for example, the Star Wars films. In A New Hope, we learn that a Jedi draws his power from an energy field – the Force – created by all living things. Sounds intriguing. Then, in the prequel films, we are introduced to the concept of midi-chlorians – microscopic lifeforms that reside within living cells. Thehigher the concentration of midi-chlorians, the greater a Jedi’s power. Did this information add anything to your appreciation of the Force? For me, it just robbed it of some of its . . . magic.

When the Heavens Fall (books)In my epic fantasy series, The Chronicles of the Exile, I have a number of different forms of power. Most use the same starting point: a sorcerer draws in energy and releases it as magic. Usually, that energy is elemental in nature – fire, water etc. And usually a person is only able to channel one type of magic. That means that you won’t see a sorcerer summoning a gale one moment, then starting a fire the next. It also means that a mage is in trouble if she is separated from her source of power. In one instance in my debut, When the Heavens Fall, a fire-mage wanders into a demon world with no sun. Unsurprisingly, things do not end well for her.

Beyond those basic rules, things become more complex. Some mages – and some races – can channel more than one element. Some sorcerers – such as necromancers and blood-mages – can draw energy from alternative sources. Is it a problem that a magic system should have exceptions and “blind spots”? I don’t think so. Whilst I think an author should have an understanding of his magic system, that doesn’t mean he has to reveal everything about it to his readers. When I’m reading a fantasy book, I like to feel the author is working to a scheme, but I don’t need to be given an encyclopaedia of the arcane at the outset.

In my novels, I use a limited third person point of view. The story is told from the perspective of the viewpoint characters, meaning that you see the world through their eyes, and know only what they know. As a result, if a POV character doesn’t understand something about a magic system, then neither will you. And there are many reasons why a character might not understand. Where, after all, would such knowledge come from, in the absence of a magic school such as the one in The Earthsea Quartet? From an elder mentor? Why should that person know any better than the POV characters? Why should their understanding of magic necessarily extend beyond the instinctive?

DragonHunters-compThere are other reasons, too, why the ins and outs of a magic system might remain unknown. For instance, The Chronicles of the Exile features a group of warrior-sorcerers called Guardians who are seemingly able to summon power from mere thought. But thought as a source of energy? How does that work? You won’t find many Guardians willing to share the secret, in part because their power gives them a privileged position in society, but also because there are holes in the Guardians’ own understanding of their abilities. Centuries ago, their civilisation was almost wiped out by an invader, and much of their lore was lost with the fallen. In addition, it’s possible that the leaders of the Guardians might have reason to withhold information from their juniors.

In conclusion, I think that every magic system should include a balance between mystery and certainty. It is arguably in the gaps to that system that the real magic resides.

Dragon Hunters cover-2The author of this post is Marc Turner, the author of epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile.

Book two, Dragon Hunters, features Chameleon priests, dimension-hopping assassins, and sea dragons being hunted for sport.

It is available now in the UK from Titan (over to your right) and in the US from Tor Books (cover above-left), and can be read even if you haven’t already read book one (shame on you).

You can find Marc at his website and on Twitter (@MarcJTurner).

For more information about Dragon Hunters and details on how and where to buy it check out Marc’s website: here.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Yora says:

    I think magic stops being magical when you start getting the impression that it can be quantized and that you can make calculations with it. Instead of having hard rules and laws, I like to have consistend patterns on how magic works and how it is used. Magic should appear as something that you feel and shape and not something you calculate and construct. There are many forms of magic in fiction that are of the later type, but they never feel magical to me. They are just mechanical.

  2. Avatar shawn bright says:

    very cool topic. I have never sat down to ponder magic needing a source or cost, but it makes sense. I have read novels where the hero gets out of trouble by an easy spell or somesuch that just made me think the author did not have a clever way for the hero to escape. Well done.

  3. Avatar Keaton Jahn says:

    I agree with pretty much everything said in the article. The rules of magic are an important part of a good fantasy novel, even if the focus is not directly on magic-using characters. I think readers often overlook the amount of thought that goes into creating a unique, reasonable, yet still-magical system.

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