Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
April 2014

Magic Rules and the Secret History of Magic

If you are writing a fantasy novel, you undoubtedly have already spent some time considering what the rules of magic are. Many writers I know spend years working out the rules of their elaborate magic systems. You can base your magic on music, on gems, on chemistry, or on ghosts. It is important to think at least a little bit about the magic before you start writing, but if you don't do it to begin with, at least do it when you are working on a revision. I admit, I get frustrated sometimes when I read published novels that read as if no one sat down a single time to write a paragraph about how the rules work, or no one bothered to make sure that they work the same (or anywhere near the same) in chapter one as they do in the final chapter.

That said, I think that sometimes writers go overboard on the magic system planning. I suspect that this is because many writers are looking for an excuse not to actually get started with the writing. As long as they are pre-writing, they figure they can play around and make mistakes and no one will ever know. There's no pressure, no fear, no need to commit to a specific character with a specific growth arc, or specific events that will likely ruin that character's life and cause the author to feel angsty. After all, what kind of a person does that to someone else, even if that someone else is just pretend?

At some point (and my advice is to keep this point somewhere before two months have passed), you are going to actually have to start writing a book. Some people outline brilliantly and extensively. More power to them. This kind of outlining probably serves the same purpose as my first drafting does. I think it is more like real writing than simply playing with different magical systems. While you are still considering something that might be even "cooler" today than the magical system you were thinking about yesterday, you don't have to put words on a page that may someday be read by somebody.

There is nothing wrong with making the rules of your magic very simple, by the way. You can have the only magic in your world be a wishing well. Or dragons. Or an enchanted book that sucks you into the pages of its story. In fact, I think that changing only one rule about our world and then looking at all the implications of that change can be a better way of making fantasy than trying to make too many changes and not following all of them through. All you really have to do is decide what the rules are and stick with them. If you're going to say that ghosts exist, but can't touch humans, and then at a special climactic/romantic moment, you let ghosts touch humans, then I may be very upset with you. Unless you figure out a secret history of magic, which I will describe a little below.

I'd also like to say here that there is a subgenre of fantasy in which rules of magic aren't ever explicitly stated. This is intentional. The reasoning behind this is that life often "feels" as if the rules are never stated outright, that you just learn things as you go along. So this kind of fantasy has magic that works like that. It's tricky to do, but if it's what you are interested in, go for it. Just remember that you need to make sure that you have character growth, dilemmas, and a climactic moment all the same. You need to have sacrifices made and magic can't be used to simply make things easier for the main character, or to give us "cool" moments where lots of stuff happens, but it doesn't matter to the reader or the characters. There has to be a kind of truth that you are getting at with this magic, and in a sense, I suppose that is a kind of rule, as well.

But no matter how you build your rules of magic, don't forget to spend some of that time thinking about the history of that magic. Magic doesn't come to be in one sweep of the hand. Like any skill or knowledge, it develops over a long time period. Think about how our understanding of gravity has changed over the years, from before Newton to Einstein to today. Think about how our understanding of our own solar system has changed. People saw certain things, but not everything, and so they made up a rulebook based on what they used to see. Then when people learned more, the rules seemed to change, but really it was just an expansion of what was previously known being made into a more full system. Your magic should have a history like this.

In addition, you need to create an entire culture around the magic. Are there different kinds of magic in different parts of the world? Do certain countries have laws against what kinds of magic are used there? What happens to people who get caught doing forbidden magic there? Are there countries where there is no forbidden magic? What do people from those two countries think about each other? If the same kind of magic is used throughout the world, how do different countries make it feel different and specific to their culture? Don't make the mistake of imagining that magic will be the same everywhere, even if the underlying rules are actually the same. People are different. People identify with groups of people and have tribal behavior. Magic will surely be part of that.

Then think about what cultural stories about magic there are in the country of your character. What stories are told to children as moral pablum? There are warnings against magic. There are whispers among children about what they think magic is and what it can do. These should be equal amounts ridiculous and dangerous. But there must be truth in them, as well. Who doesn't want that truth to be told? How do adults feel about children with magic? Do children have more magic than adults? How would that change the way that adults and children interact?

Does everyone in your world have magic? If not, how do those who get it get it? Is it genetic? Is it learned? Is it some of each? Are there schools for different kinds of magic? Is it expensive? What do poor people do to get magic? Can rich people hoard it? Is the political system based on those with the most extensive magic?

Write your myths of the creation of magic. Is this the same as the creation of the universe? Or the world? Write what everyone knows about magic, and what they fear and love about it. What is the most feared kind of magic? It must be a rare kind. Does anyone talk about it or is this feared kind of magic never spoken of? What is the most common kind of magic? Do people even think of that as magic anymore? Is it taken for granted as much as gravity is to us? As much as starlight coming from far away suns?

What about the end of the world? Almost all cultures have stories they tell about how that will happen. Will the end of the world come as a result of magic? Its misuse or its overuse? Will magic end? Will it peter out slowly, day by day? Or will different kinds of magic come together like matter and anti-matter and explode dramatically? Will the end of your world create a new world or universe? Will magic be part of that world?

What about the magic itself? Is it possible that it has sentience? What would the magic say about its use? Is it like light? Like water? Is it a resource that can be used up? If it is regenerating, how does that happen? Is it part of living things? Or only people? Can you take magic from other people? From animals? From plants?

Then after all that, consider how much your characters know. Part of the story you should be telling is about magic, and it needs its own character arc. The magic should become more and more clear as your story goes along. That means that in the beginning, your characters should be absolutely wrong about certain parts of magic. They may be partly wrong because they are young and inexperienced, but I think they should also be partly wrong because their culture lies to them. Why is a reason that you must investigate for yourself as a writer, but any story about magic should include an unfolding of the truth or "secret history" of the magic. That means you need to have the official history, and the real history in your mind. You need to think about why they would be different.

To my mind, real magic should never be one hundred percent what is expected. Even those who think that they know the most about magic, even those who teach and work magic -- they should be surprised by it. This goes back to what I said about people who write fantasy without rules of magic. You as an author need to write a story that makes sense on two levels. It needs to make sense on a causal basis, so that this event causes this one, and leads to the next, and so on. But your story should also make sense on another level, the spiritual one. Ideally, the truths about your magic should be truths about our world, as well.

Above all, make sure that your magic has the capacity to change. Because if you are going to write more than one book, you need to keep surprising the reader. And even if it is only one book, the magic should be like anything in real history. It crumbles when you touch the remains of it, and seems to recede the closer you get to it. We can't know any real history. The only thing we know is that it isn't what we tell ourselves that it is. It isn't comforting. It isn't as simple as it seems. And it definitely isn't the story that people who want you to learn their rules tells you it is.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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