When I was a child I loved watching Illusionists. One in particular came to the National Date Festival near my home. Every year he put on a show and never failed to amaze me with his tricks. One year (more specifically when I was 16) I gained the courage to talk to him. I told him I spent years watching his tricks and they never grew old. He smiled and thanked me for my patronage, to which I asked:
“How do you make your tricks seem so real?”
To which he responded
“True magic makes you believe it’s real, instead of tricking you into not seeing how it works.”
Back to the plot,
Magic is a narrative tool. On the basest level it allows a protagonist to kill an enemy with a fireball instead of cutting them in half. On a grander scale it can be deeply ingrained in your world’s machinations. In the hands of a master, magic can be narrative device that gives your story a flavor unique to your writing. However, when used poorly, it becomes a Deus Ex Machina.
For those who worry about becoming the latter, I’d look no further than Brandon Sanderson’s “Laws of Magic,” which can be found for free here on wikipedia.
In essence, his Two Laws talk about the practicality of magic in a story. With these guidelines, Sanderson hopes to present magic in a way that is both believable and exciting. The First Law says that magic comes in two flavors:
The First is called “Hard Magic,” which has rules and restrictions that the audience understands. This turns magic into a science which can be fascinating in how the character’s apply it to their daily lives. It assures the audience and author that there are no unwelcome surprises but at the same time means the author has to truly understand their magic before presenting it. Examples of Hard Magic in stories include Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, or Alchemy in the series Fullmetal Alchemist.
The Second is called “Soft Magic,” or magic that has vague and undefined rules. This allows for a greater sense of wonder to be attained for the reader, but the ability to solve problems without resorting to Deus Ex Machina decreases. Examples of “Soft Magic” in stories includes Harry Potter or “Bending” in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
I’m not here to say that either one is better than the other, but rather the trick is to find what works for you. If you’re still having trouble with making a good system of magic then look no further than Sanderson’s Second Law.
In essence, the Second Law can be summed up as: Limits > Power. One of my favorite examples of this is in Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story The Alchemist. In that world magic can do anything, from healing the terminally ill to causing the sun to set early. However, everytime magic is used, thorny bristles rise up and grow in proportional size to the magic being used. This doesn’t seem like such a trade off until it overtakes farmland, eats away at houses, and releases pollen in the air that causes diseases not even magic can cure. The catharsis of the story begins when the protagonist want’s to find a way to use magic without causing these Spike Weeds to grow. It’s a good example to me because, like the various methods of fuel in the real world, magic in this world causes environmental problems when overused.
I hope this has helped you all with your magic making. Keep in mind, these are merely guidelines, not rules that make or break stories completely. When working on my short stories I find i’m a fan of writing Soft Magic, even though I know exactly how it works. Next time i’ll post an excerpt from a project I’ve been bandying about, but for now i’ll leave it be
So what kind of magic rules do you like most? Do you think all magic should come with limitations? Any particular examples you like?