Thursday, March 4, 2010

Magical Me (Sorry Mr. Lockhart)

As you might have heard, I've been closing in on the end of my book for about two weeks now. So far, this has been the Book that Won't End. I'm 10,000 words over my expected length so far, and I still have several chapters to go. I'm actually having a hard time letting it go ... I don't want to say goodbye to this story yet, and since it's part of an intended series (fingers crossed), the story won't be completed even after I write The End.

Before I started writing this book, I spent a lot of time thinking about magic. The book is paranormal, so there is magic ... and as I thought about it, I realized that I have strong feelings about magic in books. So keeping in mind this is just my opinion, here are the "rules" I unofficially developed for using magic in a fantasy:

1. It must have a cost. This is a BIG ONE. Strong magic shouldn't be effortless, without any strain or cost. If I wanted to get all literary, I'd say that magic is actually a metaphor in literature for strength, and strength of any kind often requires development. Monks aren't born meditating; body builders aren't born bench-pressing twice their weight; and Olympic sprinters aren't running a 100 yard dash in a blink when they're ten. In each case, the potential is there, but it requires work and sweat. So it goes with magic. I think it should require something of the users.

2. It must have limits. I read that JK Rowling's greatest challenge with magic was deciding what WASN'T possible. Three cheers for that. Impossibly powerful magic is either boring to read about because it's impossibly powerful, or the author is cheating by not using the magic to its full potential. If the hero can lift 100 million tons in one hand, why pretend he struggles with 10 tons at a crucial scene?

3. It must have a system. This is harder to explain, but I'll try. I generally dislike magic that simply IS. I like magic that has a system of rules. Again, this mirrors real life. Ultimately, the magic has to come from somewhere and there should be discrete steps that are used to make it happen. If these steps aren't followed precisely, the magic fails. In a way, this relates to #2, because the system imposes limitations. If a spell takes 10 minutes to cast, that 10 minutes is a limitation (and huge potential plot point).

4. It should escalate. Again, just my opinion, but in a paranormal book, it's important to first establish the world and set up the story. Magic should make a slow entrance, because you first need to convince the reader of the authenticity of your world. If you drop magic into a normal setting, all at once, then obvious questions abound: "Why isn't someone calling the news?" "Why is this the first time that's ever happened?" etc., etc., etc.

5. The reader learns about magic at the same pace as the characters. Many books with magic are actually, subtly about a magical EDUCATION, in which the character slowly learns the cost, the system and the limitations of magic, gradually moving from simple spells to more complex spells. Again, like real life. Mastery is only possible once the reader and the character have learned all their lessons the hard way and earned the right to use magic.

6. Finally, magic is only a tool, not a value. Magic isn't necessarily inherently good or evil. It's like electricity. The same power that we use to fire up our computers and brew our coffee is also used to electrocute prisoners to death and deliver shocks to the genitals in Third World dungeons. So the point of the story isn't the magic itself, but how it is USED, which is actually a reflection of character.

The thing I ultimately realized was that magic is cool, but it's also a literary tool that reflects the acquisition of any knowledge (and growing up). Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So when I'm writing about magic, in a way it's the same as writing about the construction of a nuclear reactor or space ship—it's about discipline, ambition, study, sacrifice, and finally mastery. But more important than all this, in the end it's about the choices the character makes with his or her power, which is really the same dilemma we all face every day.


13 comments:

Mark Terry said...

I've often thought much of this is why the Harry Potter books work so well. There's a sense that there are rules and technique involved in magic. And that it's not just known, but people like Dumbledore and Fred and George and, interestingly enough, Snape and Harry's father and friends, were quite creative and developed their own magic. (Interesting to me, because Harry, Ron and Hermione don't spend any time in the books being magically creative). There are rules.

LurkerMonkey said...

I totally agree ... I spent a lot of time basically studying how Rowling handled magic. I can only imagine the thought and care that went into her system ...

That's a good point about Harry, et al, not really being creative. Food for thought.

Natasha Fondren said...

Great post. Yeah. Love it. And perfect timing!

Natasha Fondren said...

I just realized maybe why Lightning Thief (the movie) underwhelmed me. There was no cost. Not even any training. Oh, sure, they were at a camp and they had to train, but right off the bat Percy was perfect and won. Oh, right, he fell down once. But still.

Erica Orloff said...

Love this. In MKII, readers see so much more of the price [there is incredible physical and emotional anguish related to the magic in this book . . .}. It has a cost. And the CHOICE of for-good or for-evil is still there always. Free will.

LurkerMonkey said...

Natasha,

Movies have a way of dumbing down stuff like this, I think, in favor of special effects. I've never read the books, but I wonder if they're better.

LurkerMonkey said...

Erica,

In a way, I think all MG/YA books (except the romances) hit on that theme. Because growing up is universal.

magolla said...

The Percy Jackson books are TONS better than the movie. The movie had zero character developement and was just the bells and whistles--totally underwhelmed me. I wondered how Rick Riordan felt about the way they hashed up his book.

This is an wonderfully insightful blog post, LM. About six years ago, I wrote my first 'low' fantasy and when I went to my niece's wedding I had an opportunity to bounce ideas off a gang of hardcore WOW players. I learned so much about magic that it changed my whole perspective. It was a wonderful eye-opening experience.
I plan to print your list as a reminder about the cost of magic--sometimes I forget that important piece of the puzzle.

LurkerMonkey said...

Magolla,

I was a heavy D&D player as a kid, and it's the same kind of thing. As a player, I was always frustrated by the rules they wanted us to follow for magic ... time to cast spells, components, limitations, etc. But when I started writing this stuff, I realized it was all so necessary.

And it's awesome if the list helps you! Good luck with the MG fantasies -- that's where I'm at, too.

Melanie Avila said...

This is a wonderful post and very timely for me. I'm thinking A LOT about my new YA (that I'm not actually writing yet) and trying to figure out the rules of her condition. It's not magic, but it definitely needs limits and I need to know ahead of time how certain things function.

Good timing.

Melody said...

Your rules of magic reminded me of Orson Scott Card's book "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy." He has a section on the rules of magic that I found very helpful when I was writing my fantasy novel (which I've since shelved). It says "you must be very clear about the rules. First, you don't want your readers to think that anything can happen. Second, the more carefully you work out the rules, the more you know about the limitations on magic, the more possibilities you open in the story." And then he goes on to give expamples of those possibilities opening up based on some simple rules of magic he created. Anyway, the whole book was very insightful, so I recommend it if you get the chance to read it.

LurkerMonkey said...

Melody,

Thanks for the recommendation ... it sounds right up my alley. I totally agree—before I started on my current book, I actually spent a few months working out a system of magic. It's kind of complicated and it has tons of limitations built into it in terms of material and time. Then I was surprised to find that I skipped over almost all that in the book itself and I just go ahead and use the magic with only a bare explanation of how it all works or why--you saw a piece of it with the green-glove hand. But anyway, I don't think I would attempt magic without this kind of approach ...

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