Searching for inspiration 2: the parameters of magic

In Searching for inspiration 1 – I got some great feedback on the issue of creating great battle scenes in novels. I’ve not yet had time to read the books you all suggested, but I will –  after that and a bit more thinking time I’m going to tackle the re-write of my own battle scenes. The second major issue – which I need to solve before I can tackle my battle scenes, is getting the magical elements of my book just right.

For a fantasy writer the use of magic is a major issue.

I’m currently mid-way through an old fantasy novel written sometime in the 1980’s. Let’s just say it’s probably ‘of its time’. In many ways the book is well written, but the novel’s hero has the ability to summon and command powerful gods. So, whenever he’s in a bit of a tight spot he utters some spell and conjures a god who sorts it out. I’m going to plough through to the end because I hate to leave a book unfinished and am hoping its all grist to the mill, but there’s very little tension for me in seeing him facing any enemy.

If magic can conquer all, then it would, end of story. So, without trying to put fetters on our imaginations, I think fantasy writers need to come up with some ‘rules’.

Now I’ve read some blogs which firmly disagree with this. I can see where they are coming from too – after all, this is fantasy it is supposed to be fantastical.  There are some great books where magic is an unknowable force, even for the most knowledgable characters in the novel; where magic can be conjured but its effects never be accurately predicted. But this is a ‘rule’ in itself – this creates the tension. You don’t know what will happen when someone casts a spell, it could depend on their mood, their ingredients, the words they use etc.

One pitfall (I don’t think I’ve fallen into), is to use magic to get myself out of a writing dead-end. As with the novel I’m reading right now, using magic to solve every problem is just boring after a while. It smacks of lazy writing, even if the manifestations of the magic are amazing and awesome (I hate that word) it’s still a cop out.

Despite knowing what I like and dislike about other fantasy novels, I have found myself needing to take a step back from my own writing to make sure I’m on the right track. I’m not going to go away and draft some intricate magical system, I think it’s a fools errand. I’ve written some random notes about vaguely where I think the magic comes from and how it manifests in my world and what it can and cannot do. My major issue is the use of magic in combat. I want to have a lot of proper medieval style battles – just ‘cos that’s what I like 😛  – so there’s no way I want my magic making such battles irrelevant. I’m still undecided, however as to whether magic should have some place in it.

For me the magic isn’t the key to holding the novel together. It runs through it, helps to create the texture of the world but is only one element weaving through the story.

Once again any recommendations for books with subtle or well-crafted magical elements would be great. Also I’d love to hear about how other fantasy writers tackle this issue.


10 thoughts on “Searching for inspiration 2: the parameters of magic

  1. Magic has to have rules, the same way Superman has to have Kryptonite, without either the story can become a bit pointless because you know there is a mystic reset button hoovering around somewhere.

    For subtle magic then I’d recommend Abercrombie (again) and his First Law trilogy. There the Magi are governed by rules (hence the title of the series) but also whenever one of the Magi uses magic it takes something from them. In the FL universe all magic comes from “below” and to use it you have to master it so it doesn’t destroy you when you do use it.

    Also in the FL and the following books there is a mashup of magic and science. In The Heroes for instance Bayez (a Magi) is experimenting with weapons that cause explosions from a distance, essentially cannons, but it is put across in such a way that to the characters its magic. It set up intriguing crossovers between what is and is not seen as magic.

    • plantageneta says:

      Hi Phil, good to hear from you 🙂 Abercrombie is on the list – sounds like a very interesting read, especially as I am still umming and ahhing about whether to include magic in battle scenes or not. Thanks for commenting. x

  2. jakiedwards says:

    I am a fantasy writer and have had to had this committee meeting with myselves some time back.
    To me magic has to have its drawbacks, like any skill it should be limited. Afterall you can only punch someone as hard as you can bear the pain of hitting someone. If you do it too hard you break your fingers and can’t hit anyone with that hand for a while. Now that’s a drawback. So first does your magic come from within or without? If it’s an internal power then over use will wipe out it’s user. If it’s external – something you tap into – then what happens to the conduit? Does the user need special gear to prevent burns like electricity? Or maybe the opening up of the universe can send the user mad… Personally I like the Wiccan rule of three – if you do something for self gain or vaguely negative then it will rebound on you threefold. That would put you off death curses… Mwah haha
    To me if magic was all powerful then it could create one overwhelming regime controlled by the biggest baddest magi… insert whatever term you prefer there… And that’s not really very realistic or much fun

    • plantageneta says:

      Hi jackie, yes I definitely agree. Magic has to have its limits and consequences. I’ve got some hefty drawbacks going for meddling with magic – at first they were haphazard and I wrote whatever popped into my head. Now they are morphing into something tangible – I still need to ensure they run through the book coherently and without contradiction though.
      Still changing my mind every 5 seconds as to whether to use magic in battles or leave that to the physical weapons and use magic to infiltrate in a more subtle way. hmmm.
      Thanks for your comments.

      • jakiedwards says:

        if magic was to be used within a battle then I would think that the other side would either have their own magicians to counteract the first or they would need a weapon that would defend them against it. A bit like everyone having their rows of archers at the front I suppose. Hmm interesting…

  3. My, you do work hard to get things right. And it will get you there in the end, I’m sure. I agree that magic can be a cop out (as to my mind it was in Harry Potter and the Merlin series on TV). Wave a wand, utter a few daft words, and you’re out of trouble. Nothing very helpful to offer, I’m afraid on this. In Tribes I avoided magic completely while in Immortali the magic is more to do with the sex. And I confess I’m not a reader of fantasy generally although I can read Lord of the Rings over and over. Maybe there’s something there for you – some characters have got magic, most haven’t and are therefore are vulnerable to being knocked off at any time – perhaps that’s what keeps the tension going.

    • plantageneta says:

      Hi Anne, yes I guess I am trying hard to get things right. I’ve written a lot of words, but up to this point skipped the stuff I found difficult to get my head around, or simply didn’t automatically flow from my pen/keyboard. Now having reached a point where I have the book 70@% there I really need to tighten things up.
      I have a confession to make *whispers* I haven’t been a fantasy reader since I was about 14.
      I’ve read Lord of the rings about 3 times (well the 1st time it was read to me by my dad when I was 8), but for years I’ve not looked at any fantasy books. I’ve read a lot of other stuff including historical fiction – which to be honest is where most of my ideas come from.
      No idea why I started writing fantasy – mid life crisis probably, trying to get back to my childhood and escape! LOL
      Tribes is still on my to-read list – I will get there!!
      I agree Tolkien handles magic in a way that would probably get slated these days – some characters have very powerful magic but its not really explain how or why they have it, and sometimes when you think it would be useful they don’t use it. He’s never too specific – doesn’t detract from it (I love it so much), but I do think readers these days would question more.
      I watch Merlin (mainly cos there’s very little else on telly I can be bothered with) but it does frustrate me – instead of just walking in & say, stabbing someone, Morgana, every week, cooks up some rubbish, indirect plan to try and harm Arthur and you know Merlin will save the day. It’s still fun tho.
      I loved Harry Potter, mainly for Professor Snape, (say no more), but agree with the magic side of things – I can identify with what she’s done though, its easy to write yourself into a magic corner. 🙂
      Thanks for commenting (god but do I go on sorry bout that!!!)

      • Hi. You can go on as long as you like. Nothing more satisfying than talking about writing. I belong to a great writers’ group but haven’t been able to attend as I look after my 3 yr old grandson full-time at the moment and live in a place where babysitters can’t get to (both of which will change in the future). So I love hearing people’s thoughts on their work and that of others.
        Who wouldn’t love Professor Snape (I fell for Alan a long time ago) in Madly, Something or Other, Deeply. I knew Anthony Minghella and his death was the greatest tragedy for the IOW. He was a wonderful man as well as a great film-maker.
        I imagine all fantasy has sprung from Lord of the Rings (unless some buff can enlighten me otherwise) and perhaps the reason most is now male dominated with war, magic and weaponry to the fore is down to the mostly male readership. The human part of LofTR’s has largely disappeared and that’s why it might seem old hat now but, for me, the fear that the most vulnerable characters in the book might be snuffed out so easily is what keeps me reading (even though I know the end).

  4. Story Addict says:

    Awesome post! I’m a firm believer of logic, so for me, fantasy stories should have rules and abide by them. It’s okay to break them now and then…if you have a reason. Otherwise, it just becomes a mess with lots of deus ex machinas, magic wands, and faeries that make the struggle go away. And, like you said, where’s the fun in that? Sometimes I worry that my need for logic will overpower the magical and mysterious side of a story, but I’d rather have all the answers than unanswered questions.

    • plantageneta says:

      Hi Story Addict, thanks for your comments. I agree fantasy does need rules, otherwise I think you risk losing the readers trust. I think i’ve got mine sorted now… though I’m still wavering about the extend of its use in battles.

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