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.

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