July 04, 2020, 06:02:46 AM

Author Topic: What magic can and can't do  (Read 2260 times)

Offline Yora

What magic can and can't do
« on: December 11, 2016, 03:40:46 PM »
I am currently revising my ideas for magic, which got me back to rethinking what kind of things I want magic to be able to do and which things it can't do.

What kind of effects and abilities do you like being put into the magic of a world, or do you like kept out? How can either decision make for more interesting stories?
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline ArhiX

Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #1 on: December 11, 2016, 04:27:53 PM »
I'm actually sick of "magic heals stuff". Someone just got his hand tore off, or even his head sliced in half?
BAM!
Healed.
No side effects.
Hand as good as new.

I like "magic auguments it's user - but for a price".
"The world is full of stories, and from time to time, they permit themselves to be told."

Offline Lanko

  • Sherlanko Holmes, Jiin Wei and Writing Contest Regular
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2901
  • Total likes: 1979
  • Gender: Male
    • View Profile
    • Lanko's Goodreads
Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #2 on: December 11, 2016, 05:35:46 PM »
Instead of clear limits (which is making magic a bit too scientific for my taste lately) I prefer consequences. The more powerful you get, the harder to control, mental instability, self-destructing, etc.
Beyond Redemption, by Michael R. Fletcher did this extremely well with some character's magic. Hm, since you are German you might have problems with some names, I guess, but could give it a try to see nevertheless.
Slow and steady wins the race.

Lanko's Year in Books 2019

Offline Yora

Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #3 on: December 11, 2016, 06:30:06 PM »
I found that i have become rather bored with shooting fire and lightning, and also ice rays, death beams, undead destroying holy light, and so on. When magic substitutes for laser guns it becomes an everyday tool and loses the aspect of being a mystical force.

I also, for reasons unknown to me, have come to dislike magical force fields. It somehow feels too specific and solid, and like something that a simple machine does in science fiction. Again, there is little magical wonder in creating an invisible shell from which arrows and lightning bolts bounce off.

As an extension of that, I am not a fan of spells that work basically like superhero powers. Stuff that a character could be using all day over and over because it's just such a convenient tool, or more commonly weapon. I like magic to be used to do things that are outside the scope of machines and guns.

One magical ability that I totally like is shapechanging. Limited by risks and drawbacks to not be a standard solution to all kinds of problems, but I think shapechanging is totally cool.

I also like divinations within the scope of them not telling the hero what to do or what will happen. A good divination should provide additional pieces of information that needs to be integrated into what is already known and planned and put the heroes in a situation where they have to decide whether that should make a difference for what they plan or if it should be ignored. A good divination should make things more complicated, not easier.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2979
  • Total likes: 2468
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #4 on: December 11, 2016, 06:54:31 PM »
I found that i have become rather bored with shooting fire and lightning, and also ice rays, death beams, undead destroying holy light, and so on. When magic substitutes for laser guns it becomes an everyday tool and loses the aspect of being a mystical force.

I also, for reasons unknown to me, have come to dislike magical force fields. It somehow feels too specific and solid, and like something that a simple machine does in science fiction. Again, there is little magical wonder in creating an invisible shell from which arrows and lightning bolts bounce off.

As an extension of that, I am not a fan of spells that work basically like superhero powers. Stuff that a character could be using all day over and over because it's just such a convenient tool, or more commonly weapon. I like magic to be used to do things that are outside the scope of machines and guns.

One magical ability that I totally like is shapechanging. Limited by risks and drawbacks to not be a standard solution to all kinds of problems, but I think shapechanging is totally cool.

I also like divinations within the scope of them not telling the hero what to do or what will happen. A good divination should provide additional pieces of information that needs to be integrated into what is already known and planned and put the heroes in a situation where they have to decide whether that should make a difference for what they plan or if it should be ignored. A good divination should make things more complicated, not easier.
Well said! Absolutely in agreement on many of these things.

I have set magic squarely in the center of my WIPs, and I am operating within a series of constraints that allow me to dodge these bullets so to speak (pun intended). But the wonder that Jmack and others have raised as a key aspect of good fantasy does not ... flourish in the harsh light of "this is what is and isn't on the table", and I've chosen to incorporate that in as well, a third approach that is both more mysterious and more "impactful", raising as many questions and creating as many issues as it resolves.
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Lanko

  • Sherlanko Holmes, Jiin Wei and Writing Contest Regular
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2901
  • Total likes: 1979
  • Gender: Male
    • View Profile
    • Lanko's Goodreads
Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #5 on: December 11, 2016, 07:24:08 PM »
I found that i have become rather bored with shooting fire and lightning, and also ice rays, death beams, undead destroying holy light, and so on. When magic substitutes for laser guns it becomes an everyday tool and loses the aspect of being a mystical force.

About this part, I don't generally agree with it.

Anyone can have a laser pistol in SF, but definitely not everyone has magical ability or even can learn it in Fantasy.

In a way, you can say that technology is "egalitarian" and magic is "aristocratic".

Technology can be improved, bought, stolen, copied, manufactured. Engineering, chemistry, manual abilities... you can teach this to anyone that's interested (or not, like in our own educational system).
Magic, however... willingness to learn is not enough. You may buy some wizard's talents, but you can't steal his ability, copy it or manufacture it.

So even if magic is common in a society, it would still be extremely restricted and still mysterious. Even in Conan the populace knew about various necromantic cults and such. Sometimes they even had towers in a city. Kane had his own tower in Night Winds and everyone knew about it. And the mystery was still held in all the cases.

And if magic is that rare indeed (whether by mystery or character isolation), when it appears it's gonna call the attention of everyone and soon you may have the entire story revolving around it because of it, which is another risk.
Slow and steady wins the race.

Lanko's Year in Books 2019

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2979
  • Total likes: 2468
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #6 on: December 11, 2016, 07:33:14 PM »
Magic, however... willingness to learn is not enough. You may buy some wizard's talents, but you can't steal his ability, copy it or manufacture it.
One exception that perhaps proves the rule is the Prince of Nothing series, where secret knowledge is of huge importance to the Few who can use sorcery. Somewhat like Intellectual Property and proprietary formulas and techniques, the acquisition of HOW other sorcerers in other schools do what they do is a huge motivator (they are quite unscrupulous about seizing sorcerers and tearing that knowledge out by force), and an interesting wrinkle.

It allows one to craft a world somewhat like the world of martial arts, where practitioners are unequal, apples and oranges, and that makes things unpredictable. Sort of like that one show that compares Vikings to Roman Gladiators, Ninjas to Navajo Warriors, etc. And this is powerful because it allows the writer to access the realities of life - unequal and very different strengths and weaknesses produce all kinds of outcomes, and things get interesting quick, esp. from a character point of view. Take a chess player and make him play Backgammon, and see the frustration as (s)he deals with the intractable randomness of dice...
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Mehman

Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #7 on: December 11, 2016, 08:32:28 PM »
I like the idea of magic but I also grow tired of fireballs and what-not. I'm about to out myself but you guys seem like you won't try to lynch me so I guess that's good. Being a practitioner of ritual magic (I'll leave off the "k" at the end as I think it's pretentious), I want to see more of that angle presented in books. Well, maybe not exactly how it's done because that could get really boring very quickly. I'd just like to see the wizard in a book be less 'poof' and more 'do I have everything I need to do this bit'.

In the book I'm working on right now, and really for the books I foresee in the future, people know that magic exists but the common man has never seen it done and doesn't know what it entails. They may think they do from tales told in taverns but most of those are false. The closest this book comes to magic is that one of the main characters was cursed with lycanthropy by a witch. You don't see it happen, either. It's just a spoken line once or twice in the story.

That isn't to say there isn't a whole system in place about what magic can and can't do because there is. I just don't want it to be that common or easy to pull off correctly. Maybe that'll make it all the sweeter when we see it happen. I hope so.

An occultist character would be neat. He wouldn't be beholden to the various schools of magical thought that dot the landscape. I say 'landscape' when I should say 'cultures', I suppose. They work like Gem's example of martial arts. The practitioners of each school tap into the same thing when using magic but they all get there differently.

Offline Peat

Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #8 on: December 11, 2016, 10:53:10 PM »
Lanko's hit on one of the things that I do think is rare and worth exploring and that is magic where you don't need an inborn gift and anyone could learn it if they tried hard enough and had the right teachers.

*pause* Maybe they'd lie and say otherwise... Hmm *wanders off scribbling*

Offline Yora

Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #9 on: December 12, 2016, 04:09:29 PM »
Something I really like in Hellboy is magic that isn't exactly spells cast by someone. Most magic in the series is events involving magical creatures.Quite often Hellboy is talking to dead people and it's always very unclear whether the corpses came alive, were a hallucination, or some kind of vision.

Talking with the dead is cool, but can also be somewhat problematic. A lot of problems could easily be solved by being able to talk with dead people and there would need to be some strong limitations on when and how often the hero can use it. As with devinations (necromancy actually means divination through the dead), information gained from the dead should be additional details but not answers to problems. If magic can talk with the dead, there have to be good reasons why it isn't used all the time.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2979
  • Total likes: 2468
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #10 on: December 12, 2016, 05:30:18 PM »
One major control I can imagine needing would be the whole dead-talking-to-other-dead thing. So if I can talk to the dead, which is OP anyway, and my dead uncle Norton can talk to Napolean, ancient Chinese emperors, and the guy who designed my water heater, tooooooo many doors are opened ;)
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Peat

Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #11 on: December 12, 2016, 11:33:40 PM »
Magic where its not something one can do, but is something one is, is fun and possibly underdone. I think its more common as a old school thing - Tolkien's elves are an obvious example - and oddly enough, I see it sometimes in Urban Fantasy. I guess that's because Urban Fantasy tends to draw more directly from the myths and fairy tales where this is a thing. There's some awesome examples in RPGs too.

Something I do like - and it can be done with any sort of magic - is magic that twists who you are. That can be done on two levels. The first is the quite practical. If magic is stressful, you develop the personas seen in those who experience a lot of stress. If it involves a lot of isolation, likewise. If your magic means you never ever forget where you left your house keys, you probably stop being quite so neat. If you can move everything via magic, you probably get a bit flabby, if you can use magic to cheat on your workouts, you probably get buff.

The second is the mystical, the idea that reshaping your mind and soul to perceive and break the rules of reality changes who you are. There's not too many great examples of that.

In the general sense of things though, I'm happy to go with whatever an author says magic can and can't do as long as they don't get carried away with it. Speaking to the dead? Why not. Its one of the classics. You might want to put some serious stipulations on it to avoid it overshadowing the plot... or maybe you don't and that is the plot. How do you stop a Necromancer who knows every secret? Do you start deliberately destroying the memories of the dying? Or do you build your society around the ever lasting guardianship and knowledge of the dead?

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2979
  • Total likes: 2468
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #12 on: December 13, 2016, 12:16:19 AM »
I've probably harped on this before too many times, but I am enthralled by the ideas of influencing the natural and mystical worlds through gentle stimulation and evocation, rather than forcing them through power. I see brutal and artful approaches to everything, and I suppose this started with Star Wars and the two aspects of the Force.

One of the things I've liked about fantasy was magic that was artfully "built into things", woven and combined into the sword or whatever, sometimes with simple-seeming results:

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,  While hammers fell like ringing bells
 In places deep, where dark things sleep,  In hollow halls beneath the fells.
 For ancient king and elvish lord, There many a gloaming golden hoard
 They shaped and wrought, and light they caught, To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

This last phrase is one I intend to explore literally, and this stanza was the seed of my bigger ideas.

I bring this up because I have found in the real world, the way one goes about getting things done, everything we do, how we do it becomes a cyclical thing that shapes us as we improve at them, and in a story, as you mention Peat, it can be a very intriguing thing to see that happen. Dune shows us Paul as his experiences and capabilities begin to change him, and in later books this becomes a literal metamorphosis.
« Last Edit: December 13, 2016, 12:18:39 AM by The Gem Cutter »
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline LightRunner

Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #13 on: December 13, 2016, 02:28:46 AM »
I'm sure this has come up elsewhere on the forum, but have you read Brandon Sanderson's Laws of Magic?

Here's a link to the first law (and you can find the rest from there): http://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/

I think he does a great job explaining what magic should be able to do and what it should not be able to do within the context of a particular story. He also explains how that depends on how much knowledge the reader has of how the magic works.

Personally, I generally like to understand how the magic works and what its limitations are, especially if humans or sentient creatures are using it. I am less frustrated with magic that is supposed to be beyond human comprehension remaining unexplained.

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2979
  • Total likes: 2468
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: What magic can and can't do
« Reply #14 on: December 13, 2016, 02:39:27 AM »
Terrific article - thanks!
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell