Limyaael's Rants

Magic, Part 1

Written on 2003-12-20; Read the original post on LiveJournal

This will probably be a two-part rant, because otherwise it would be absurdly long. Besides, I'm sure that I'll think of more things I want to say tomorrow.

Swinburne poem part! From "The Triumph of Time," a poem about him losing the one love of his life and deciding not to tell her that he loved her.

Your lithe hands draw me, your face burns through me,
I am swift to follow you, keen to see;
But love lacks might to redeem or undo me;
As I have been, I know I shall surely be;
"What should such fellows as I do?" Nay,
My part were worse if I chose to play;
For the worst is this after all; if they knew me,
Not a soul upon earth would pity me.

And I play not for pity of these; but you,
If you saw with your soul what man am I,
You would praise me at least that my soul all through
Clove to you, loathing the lives that lie;
The souls and lips that are bought and sold,
The smiles of silver and kisses of gold,
The lapdog loves that whine as they chew,
The little lovers that curse and cry.

1) If you base your magic on physical strength, make sure it actually has consequences. One of the most common magical types- and it has the advantage of being pretty easy to use- is for magic to be dependent on the body, the way that stamina is. This is fine as long as it actually imposes limitations. In practice, a lot of magic like this turns out not to be limited, because the protagonist can always find more strength- and because a lot of fantasy tends to ignore things like when the characters last ate or slept in favor of concentrating on the "important stuff."

Imagine how hard it would be for a mage whose magical strength depends on his physical strength to function when he's dog-tired, hasn't eaten well in days, and is very thirsty. For that matter, imagine how hard it would be to think about anything but a full bladder while you have a full bladder. All of these conditions could reasonably apply during a chase by enemies, which most fantasy heroes go through at least once a book. Some fleeting mention is sometimes made of how the characters can't find anything but berries to eat, but there's the mage flinging firebolts as strongly as ever.

This could be generalized to a broad rule- make sure the rules of your magic system always apply- but here, if your mage is about to fall over, then his magic should be about to fall over, too.

2) Don't break your own rules without an excellent reason. The most groan-worthy example I've seen of this is in stories that allow only three wishes, where the main character ends up getting a fourth wish. Most of the time, this seems to be due to author forgetfulness, but a few times I've seen it justified as being "Well, Syrenna is the heroine, so of course she gets another wish!"

Either of those is not just laziness. It's lazy plotting, which is much harder to forgive.

You're perfectly free to make up arbitrary rules about magic in the way that you can't about, say, the law of physics. This kind of magic is only common in women? Great. Only children can create blue flames, and everyone else is limited to red? Fine.

Just don't change your mind in the middle of the story. The greatest creative freedom comes with the rough draft, the beginning. Later, if you change your mind, you should have to think about all the possible consequences- if there's a pair of magical rules that depend on each other, altering one will alter the other, or should- and keep in mind that you've condemned yourself to go all through the text and change all the places that rule's come into play as well.

3) Do not give the most powerful magic to the good guys. If it seems as though the evil enemies are incompetent and not at all powerful, what's the point of fighting them? The reader will most likely yawn and nod off while your suspense-free story plods on. It will also seem very strange that the good guys can't just take the magical shortcut and end the war, either. The author usually places truly ridiculous obstacles in the heroes' path to justify the equally ridiculous imbalance.

Bottom line: If your good guy can read people's minds, fling firebolts around, and resurrect the dead, the evil guy should at least be able to send a plague.

4) Don't leave your loopholes visible. A favorite trick of fantasy is to let the underdog win, and a favorite way to do this is to leave a hole in a magical spell or oath that the hero can get around. However, most amateur fantasy authors are not skilled in concealing their loopholes, in making it seem at the end as if this is a plausible way out but not showing their hand too early either. If your hero picks up a magical trinket that the wise old wizard tells him solemnly to keep, I can guarantee at least half your audience will call, "Plot device!"

There are several ways to avoid making your loopholes just plot devices. One is to infuse them with a real element of chance or risk; the hero uses the magical amulet several times and it betrays him a couple of those times, which means he can't know for sure it will work when going up against the bad guys. Another is to make it something that the evil guys could use as easily (this means that the risk is always there of them stealing it or finding it and wielding it against the hero). Or another character not entirely loyal to the hero can have charge of it, and because the hero can't control the other character's actions, he doesn't know if that person will help him.

If nothing else works, make the use of such an amulet a true sacrifice. If the hero uses it, then he saves the world but he destroys his true love. Something like this may come across as cheap melodrama, but can also end up forcing your characters into true moral decisions and make it seem as if the victory is Pyrrhic, which is far better than it being a walk up Big Rock Candy Mountain.

5) No innocence clichés. This is another one of those devices I am picking on specifically because I hate them. An innocence cliché is a case where the evil side can't use a particular piece of magic or a particular device because it can only be used by "a true innocent," "the side of good," or "the pure of heart." What a copout. It levels your characters into black-and-white cardboard cutouts, leaving no doubt who is Good and who is Evil, and takes all the suspense away. Besides, what smart evil guy worth his salt would just leave the magic or device there instead of trying to destroy it?

Far better, say I, to make a morally ambiguous character take up and use that magic or device, and throw the whole stupid mess into confusion. Or just don't have them at all.

6) Don't skimp on detail for your destructive magic just because the good side is using it. I can't tell you the number of fantasies I've read where the evil side's use of horrible magic is described in horrible detail- the intestines sliding out, people roasting alive, the screams as the good people die- and yet somehow when the good side uses magic just as powerful and just as destructive, there are no screams and nothing beyond a slight scent of burning flesh. Sometimes the good side's magic is even referred to as "cleansing" the place where the evil forces stood, with no reference to the fact that the good guys have just destroyed a whole host of living beings. If those living beings were good, though, you better believe the author would refer to it as terrible.

Don't do this. Burning people don't smell good, no matter whom they hold allegiance to. Powerful and destructive magic can be awe-inspiring, but it shouldn't be awe-inspiring in the hands of the "right" people and simply horrifying in the hands of the "wrong" people.

7) Keep a realistic eye on your magic's limitations. One of the nice things about the magic system in the Harry Potter books, though it sometimes seems overly simple, is how easy it would be to destroy the magic as well as use it. Take a wizard's wind away or break it, and he seems mostly helpless, unless he's one of the very few and specialized powerful people (like an Animagus). Similarly, if you have a magic system that depends on subtle gestures with the hands and arcane words, stopping a mage's mouth with a gag and binding- or breaking- his fingers would put him pretty much out of business.

Yet that doesn't seem to occur to a lot of enemies facing these kinds of mages. They just sit around and gape while the mage devastates their ranks.

Bottom line: Your mages should never be all-powerful, and they shouldn't miraculously figure a way out of every situation where they might be weak. Even if your magic depends on something outside the mage, like the arcane gestures or a source of power elsewhere in the world, rather than on what's in him, that shouldn't be an excuse to have him go around dropping mountains on anyone who opposes him. For example, what are the physical limitations on the power source? Wouldn't the mage be more powerful closer to it, and weaker further away? One would certainly hope so, but it doesn't really seem to affect most magic-workers (or they find ways to get around it, like in Mercedes Lackey's world where magic comes from nodes of power and people who have drained one often end up just reaching to a fresh one further away).

Magic should always have some weakness, whether it's a complicated arcane theory or something as simple as the old prohibition of cold iron and salt breaking fairy magic.

Yes, I'll definitely have some more tomorrow.

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