Writing Problems #2

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Welcome back to “WritingProblemsSomewhat-Weekly”! This time, I’ll address the fantasy writer’s favourite tool: magic! Yep, I know this is all fantasy-heavy here. But since this is my primary genre, that won’t change any time soon; but most of this can be useful when writing in any genre, really…

 

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“It’s magic, it can do anything! or Why you shouldn’t say that. Ever.

 

The problem:
So you have your characters, your setting, and a vague plot outline at the ready. Yet suddenly, you realise that this outline isn’t enough. Something is still missing. And after a few minutes, hours or days of thinking, re-thinking and freaking out, you decided that your story needs something to spice it up a little. One natural solution is: magic. You add a little spell here, send some summoned spirits to the rescue fifty pages later, and then, at the very peak of suspense – well, that’s the point when you realise that you could just scratch the last twenty-seven chapters because, with one snap of his fingers, the Big Baddie could have blown away your heroes and established his Evil Empire of Doom right at the beginning of the story. Shit happens.

 

The solution:
To prevent yourself from becoming increasingly frustrated with your story, your apparently brainless Big Bad, and magic itself, you shouldn’t dive headlong into the realm of sorcery and devil worship, as our friends from certain catholic movements like to put it. If you are writing a story that involves magic, you should include a magic system in your planning. Yes, planning is a good thing. Some of us might be able to just run along with the flow of the story, but at some point, we all wish we could refer to notes and background info of some kind…
Anyway, back to topic! Apart from some character sheets (if you have more that one or two MCs), a story outline and a world map (one made with paint or your little brother’s crayons is totally sufficient, by the way), when writing Sword&Sorcery, add a basic outline of your magic system. It doesn’t need to be a fancy Excel document describing every possible spell, its effects and counter-spells. You just need to know the basics of how your magic works.

 

Some questions you should/could answer are:
-Does it lean more towards “spell-casting” or “mind-magic”?
-If you answered “spell-casting”, how do magicians do that? Do they need words, hand movements, certain ingredients (think hex bags, Supernatural style), or a combination thereof?
-Where does your “magic energy” come from? Does your magician fuel his spells all by himself, or can he pull the energy from an outside source?
-Can everyone learn magic, or do you have to be born a witch or wizard?
-Speaking of that, how do you learn it? Can you teach yourself, or do you need a teacher or go to a school?
-What exactly does your magic affect? Elements, nature, your magician’s environment in general? Or the living cell, your magician’s body, anything that is somehow alive? Or both? And what’s the difference?
-Some examples of use occur frequently in fantasy stories: environment manipulation, illusions, healing. It can’t hurt to know how these basic branches of magic work. When healing: Does your magician actively mend the body, or does he just speed up the healing process (meaning that if the injured person is too weak or the wound too bad, even magic doesn’t help)? Do illusions affect the conscious mind (read: the brain), or does that mean your magician creates the image of whatever he wants his opponent to see? Just write down the relevant branch of magic and what it does basically do. And of course, refer to this info every now and then as to not screw up your system, forcing you to start over again.

 

You might not need to answer all of the above questions. If magic only plays a minor role in your world and isn’t crucial to the plot, you can skip some of them. But if magic is a major plot point in your story, you might want to set up a firm system. If you know for yourself what is possible and what is not, you can implement the magic aspect much more easily into your plot and make its use a lot more plausible.
And always remember: If your MCs can do it, your Big Bad can probably do it, too! If Gandalf had been able to torch Sauron’s ring with a snap of his fingers, would Sauron (also a former wizard) himself have bothered hanging out at Barad Dûr as a giant eyeball? Probably not. If Harry Potter had been able to turn Voldemort to dust the first time he’d met him, Voldemort would have succeeded with killing infant Harry in the first place. I encountered this problem the first time I attempted to write a novel. Eighty pages in, I had no choice but let the Big Bad’s henchmen kill off my whole group of MCs. Doing anything else would have resulted in an utterly ridiculous plot-hole. Learn from my fail.
So set up some rules and stick to them. Of course these are your rules,and thus are not set in stone. If you feel the need to change them to improve your plot, do it. Just be consistent. No-one likes willy-nilly magic systems…

 

 

-Ricarda

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One response »

  1. Good stuff. Brandon Sanderson’s lectures that are posted on YouTube have some great ideas on this that I found really helpful, too. The idea of having consequences for magic really stuck with me- what’s the price they pay for using it? Is it physically draining, does it age them, do they run out of magic, what? Really inspired me and made a difference to my little world.

    I also think that a lot of us become so infatuated with our own brilliance in creating these magic systems that we want our readers to understand EVERYTHING about them, and it can get to a point where it really drags the story down. A lot of the time it’s probably enough that we understand it and can keep it consistent, and share the rest on an as-needed basis.

    (^I may or may not be guilty of this at times…)

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