Monday, February 17, 2014

Using Magic in Fiction

Part three of the course I taught in on use of Magic, Rituals, and Religion in popular fiction.  This one, of course, is magic.  Magic, by definition, is the ability to influence a course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.  Magic includes sorcery, wands, swords, or a thousand other little tricks.  But too often, we see stories in which magic is used as a catch-all.  Characters stuck in a jam?  Magic!  Need a bit of the old flimflam?  Magic!  No way to have it rain exactly when you need to have it rain?  Magic!

But that makes for boring and lazy storytelling.  While this blog post will not go as in-depth as I do during my classes, I'd like to put forth, for your consideration, my rules of using magic in popular fiction.  Really, there are only three rules that I employ (with a few sub sets), which I hope you'll find useful.

  • Magic, by definition, cannot be commonplace.  If everyone in your world has some type of "magic" that they use to perform everyday tasks, then it's not magic.  It becomes more science or biology than magic.  Magic must be special to a few people or objects.  To that end, there are several types of magic.  
    • Natural Magic - Magic that exists in nature.
    • Talismanic Magic - Magic that is confined to a specific object.
    • Ceremonial Magic - Magic that comes from a set of performed tasks with an intended result.
    • Invocative Magic - Magic that is used to compel or entreat other entities.
    • Sympathetic Magic - Magic in which one thing symbolizes another (think voodoo doll or Lord's Supper)
    • Illusionary Magic - The art of seeing what isn't there.
    • Divinatory Magic - Knowing by mystical means. 
  • Magic must have consequence.  Magic is the expulsion of energy.  When you break it down to its smallest components, that's what it is.  So, since we are bound by the laws of physics, we must ask where that energy comes from.  There are two categories of magic:  Internal and External.  Internal, the energy comes from within the practitioner.  External, it comes from an outside source.  If the character is using energy from within his or her own body, well, where does that energy come from?  For my characters, I go with strict biology in that, if a person wants energy, that person has to eat.  If it comes from an outside source, which one?  A god?  What does he or she want in return (you didn't really think they'd just help out of the goodness of their hearts, did you?)?  If it comes from other sources, what's the effect of having that energy pulled out and used?  And what effect does this energy manipulation have on the conductor (your character, the wand, etc)?  Think of a wire that only can push nine volts through it.  What happens when you hook it up to a car battery?  
  • Magic cannot be a catch-all.  Your characters are only as interesting as their manipulations.  If they can solve everything using magic, then what's the point of reading the story?  There's no risk, no chance the character can lose.  Which makes the story pointless.  Years ago, when Superman first came to be, sales of his comics slumped because there was no chance anyone could beat him.  But then…KRYPTONITE!  Suddenly there was risk, there was drama!  And the sales picked up.  Same holds true with your characters.  If they can solve any problem with magic, there's no reason to read about them.  

So those are they, my three rules of using magic in popular fiction.  Of course, I go into much greater detail when I teach the class, but when you break it all down, this is what it boils down to.  Three rules.  They work for me.  Find what method works for you and stick to it.  Above all, remember my golden rule of writing:  If it is right for the character and right for the story, it is good.  

Like it?  Dislike it?  Agree or disagree?  Leave me a comment.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Scott: Great post! It always irritates me when an author uses magic as a catch-all to get characters out of every scrape. I like your logical approach to magic. Also, the list of different types of magic.