Maundering on Magic

The tired hasn’t worn off any. The weekend was almost entirely without rest. The Wee Horde took the snowy lands by storm. They’ll likely not find any of the bodies until the spring thaw, which just means I’m teaching them well. Fiction didn’t happen, at all, really, sorta (more in a sec), between minding creatures, unfamiliar environs, socializing (darnit), and all the people that are outside my immediate circle. I did get ambushed by a gaming module, which got written down on my handbrain. It’s a fun thing, and the littles should enjoy it, once they understand a few of the rules. We’ll, ah, be playing a rules light version. But there wasn’t writing-writing. And that continues to eat at me. If I can’t relax, at least I can work. Except when I can’t.


The point is to sell books. That’s the thing to remember. That’s why we’re here, and why we keep nattering on about all this stuff. We’re working our collective tuchus off (we like big books, and we cannot, etc) to expose our, ah, creative efforts to potential readers. And … okay, there was a discussion that came up in an online watercooler group of which I’m a part. It all started with a meme, and a then a buddy called out Brandon Sanderson for his laws of magic.

Shenanigans ensued, divers alarums, and there was a chunk of good discussion in there. Basically, my friend objected to magic having laws, at all, and on an historical basis. His argument was that historically, magic is other. It’s ineffable, and those who wield it are, if creatures of unknowable power, then at least representatives of the gods. Wizards and sorceresses are rarely outright heroes, historically. They are advisers, mentors, and often adversaries or outright villains, but heroes? Not usually.

Now, heroes often use things that are magical, or tread the paths of the other. But understand how it works and manipulate it first-hand? Nah. Somewhere, that changed, and while I think it has to do with the Enlightenment in general, and the scientism of the 20th C. specifically, that’s a subject for another post. For our purposes today, it’s enough to know that American readers expect magic to be knowable.

Which is where Sanderson’s Laws come in. I … kind of agree with Brandon. He’s put a lot of thought into his laws, and they hold. As far as they go. The first one says “an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well a reader understands the magic.” Which is almost true. He’s making an assumption, though. Which is that your magical solutions need to be emotionally satisfying for the reader. And, really, that only applies to a specific type of reader. One who wants to know the rules, and wants his (usually a him) protagonists to understand how those solutions work. Which arguably turns the fantasy into science fiction with different physical laws.

Keep what I said earlier in mind: we’re in this gig to sell books and make money. And that requires satisfying our readers. You can write perfectly satisfying stories in which your readers don’t understand how the magic works. You can. It doesn’t have to be about how they manipulate the energies of your world. It must be about how much your characters struggle in overcoming the challenges you put in their way.

And therein lies the danger of magic as a narrative device, and why I tend to agree with Brandon Sanderson and his laws. Magic makes things easier (kinda-sorta: that’s yet another post, and I may have written on the costs involved), if only because it gives your characters another set of tools. And easier is just less satisfying, emotionally. Which is why magic always has a cost. Even if that cost is just that your antagonists can easily counter it with other magic.

Does magic have to have a system? It’s certainly easier to write if it does. It becomes downright difficult to keep track of when it’s a soft system, where the rules are more like loose guidelines. See Harry Potter, where magic does what’s needed to get Harry out of a bind.

Honestly, the guiding principle is to write stories people will want to read. I like stories with magic, sometimes even magic that radically shapes societies. Sometimes, on the other hand, it’s little magics, the kinds that help smooth the way to more interesting events. Regardless, you, as the author, need to know how the magic works. And also, even when you break those rules, especially when you break those rules, you have to remember to make the story satisfying to the reader. Because then they’ll give you money. Which is the point.


  1. Andre Norton’s Witch World series used mostly sympathetic magic; where like calls to like, and strength of will has impact on how effective it is. But she kept it as vague as possible which added to the mystery of the whole thing. And I think that element of mystery improved her stories.

  2. The supernatural and miraculous, like the fae, are capricious. Charms may or may not work. A ritual may or may not result in the “thing” happening. Luck, good or bad. Karma. Prayer.

    Magic, to my mind, is a different sort of creature. It’s defined and controllable. One can learn and master it. Order rather than chaos. There’s usually a power source and limits.

  3. I think it is in part the flip side of Clarke’s dictum, many readers expect magic to be indistinguishable for a sufficiently advanced technology.

  4. IMHO the story will be less fun if the Mage can solve any problem by pulling a Deus Ex Machina out of his back pocket.

    Of course that doesn’t mean the reader needs to be told the rules of the magic. Just that there should be rules that the author knows about. Eg. you can’t perform a Grand Summoning in a building where somebody barfed, that’s why they always build a new building.

    1. And then there’s the Grandma’s Roast reason where the reason doesn’t exist anymore. Was real and valid, but isn’t any more (say couldn’t work in a building where a demon barfed, so several new buildings were built, but people forgot why). Which is why the Desparate Improvisation ™ works.

    2. The reader needs to be convinced that there are rules enough to explain why the wizard can crisp a dozen goblins with a fireball but not a few thousand.

  5. I remember reading that the “wizard” (likewise the sorcerer) was more modern than ancient.

    In ancient times, the wizard or sorcerer was strongly connect with a god/goddess (or multiple gods/goddesses) or was himself/herself was a god/goddess.

    Circe in the Odyssey was in some sources a goddess herself. Not a major one but was one.

    1. In what sense more modern? I’ve read up on magic / witchcraft / sorcery in ancient Greece and Rome. The source of certain tropes in fantasy became clearer, in no particular order:

      ~ “voces magicae” where the magic user chants strange words, plus chanting in and of itself. Singing was a type of magic (or some spells were sung), and “enchanter” comes from this.

      ~ the idea that demons were standing behind the door when the vowels were handed out (to quote Nanny Ogg). It was one of the first things I noticed in a translation of a Greek spellbook.

      ~ that herb woman = witch comes from a type of magic user who used herbs to accomplish feats. Medea and Circe were both cited as examples as this type of magic user, particularly in the versions where Hecate is their mother. Like Athena, Circe also uses a wand (I don’t recall if Medea does). Interestingly, the idea of werewolves come from this era, too, and they’re tied to witches and sorcerers. I don’t think I ever saw that connection mentioned in modern fantasies.

      ~ the idea that sorcerers derived powers from demons or ghosts. Also, the “high end” sorcerers were thought to come from Egypt, where people were descended from gods and invented magic (in some sources). The other option for high-end magic were the Babylonians.

      ~ the Greeks had their own voodoo dolls, which they called “kolossoi,” or “kolossos” if singular.

      ~ some sorcerers claimed to exorcise ghosts, and it’s thought that the word for sorcerer in Greek was related to the moaning sound that ghosts make (they do look similar). But a lot of people suspected that a sorcerer who could put ghosts to rest might have raised up the ghost to begin with (evocation magic).

      ~ they could also split off from their bodies and be in two places at once, and teleport. They could leave the world without dying, and live an unusually long time while here. Modern fantasies always have long-lived wizards, and I think the idea comes from this time.

      There’s a scene in one of the first two Witch World books where a witch creates paper boats to simulate real boats, to deal with an enemy at sea. An Egyptian pharaoh / priest, Nectanabeo, was thought to do the same thing, but with wax models in a bowl of water. He also uses a wand, of course. Perhaps he inspired Andre Norton?

      But a lot of Greeks and Romans, like Plato and Pliny, didn’t buy the idea that the magic might be theurgy (derived from the gods). They thought only charlatans made that claim. Amusingly, Plato classes *prayer* as coercive magic, the act of atheists and other impious degenerates as far as he was concerned.

      All that said, I like theurgy as a fantasy magic “system,” even if the ancients apparently dismissed the idea as a scam. A Perseus receiving from Zeus a sword, armor and a flying horse has more sense of wonder than “Tab A goes with Slot B.” Homer and the Greek myths are part of the canon of fantasy as far as I’m concerned.

  6. Magic is like FTL, it does whatever the writer needs to carry the story. Now as to having rules, that again depends on what the writer wants for that particular story. A divine source that answers anyone’s prayers? Only special people’s prayers? Reliably or capriciously? Or cookbook magic? Get the right ingredients and get started. “Modern” ESP, teleportation?

    What does the story need?

    The main problem, IMO, is keeping it to a level or physical cost where the magic user can credibly be defeated, whether good, bad, or both.

    1. I heard a story about Randall Garrett where somebody said to him that there couldn’t be a mystery story in a world where Magic was real.

      Basically, the idea was where there was a murder, a magician would “just cast a spell” and the murderer would be revealed.

      Randall Garrett decided to write a murder mystery in a world where Magic was real and thus Lord Darcy was born.

      The fun part for me was that many of the murders appeared to be “done by Magic” and/or the murderer used Magic to assist in the murder but while magic assisted Lord Darcy (by providing information) in solving the crimes, the murderers very often didn’t use Magic. 😀

      1. One of the very first things Garrett established is that people had “privacy spells” on pretty much every building. In fact, he had his character say that generally if a murder happened out in the country away from habitation, they COULD just cast a spell and find who did it.

        1. Nod.

          I enjoyed the discussion in “Too Many Magicians” about why teleportation couldn’t be involved in the Locked Door Murder.

          IE Teleportation (even of a small object like a key) was possible in theory, but if anybody managed to make it work, they’d be the toast of the Empire and won’t have used it “just to move a key from one side of a door to another side of the door”. 😀

          Of course, there were other reasons mentioned to rule out “magical means of leaving the room”. 😀

    2. If you have a star ship take one month, FTL, to reach one system from another, and then two hours going back, you’d better have some rules, there, too.

    3. I like the Vancian / D&D idea of sorcerers only being able to memorize a certain number of spells at a time. A sorcerer would have to think carefully about what he’s up against, and if he guesses wrong, he’s screwed. And if he uses a spell too early, e.g., using a paralysis spell on a security guard when it turns out there’s a manticore around, he’s screwed.

      There has to be a limiter to up the stakes and increase suspense.

      1. Yes, but it’s hard to avoid having the hand of the author show. Particularly if you go D&D not Vance. (In Vance, any wizard could (possibly) master any spell.)

        1. Or you can play a variant where your magic-user can cast the spells higher than their level; but with a seriously high rate of failure that goes up even faster the greater the difference between the caster’s level and the spell level. Failure then always being something particularly nasty from the critical failure table. For instance, your character is following a party and watches their 3rd level magic user cast chain lightning at a group of charging ogres, fails, and electrocutes his entire party. Pretty drastic. On the other hand, you character could be a newly minted druid trying to cast a summon treant spell to chase off a pack of orcs, and when it fails, everyone in the party has their laces come untied and buttons pop off of everything. It’s not fatal, and makes a nice way to drop them into an underdog situation.

          Magic doesn’t have to make characters into Mary Sues, it can be used to turn them into minor Marty Clutzes who then has to grow to overcome that problem. I seem to recall Robert Jordan’s Myth series revolving around that concept, although it’s been a decade since I read them.

  7. Magic as technology has a long tradition in SF, especially going back to John Campbell’s Unknown magazine. So you had stories like DeCamp/Pratt’s “Mathematics of Magic”, or Heinlein’s “Magic, Incorporated” (which is a hard-boiled detective story, just to really cross genres).

    1. Unknown, fantasy written by engineers for engineers. 🙂 There is a lot here that feeds directly from the super-science stories of the previous decade. Try reading Smith’s Skylark of Space and its three sequels and decide where Smith’s science crosses over into magic. (Yes, I know that some readers consider FTL to be magic, but even if you disregard that a change will occur for most readers somewhere before the end of the fourth book.)

      1. The middle of Skylark DuQuesne has a giant shark swimming into the foreground. Because Smith broke his universe’s rules, and it meant that the book made no sense.

        (And yes — the FTL in the Skylark universe was particularly arm-waving, but authors get a small number, ideally one, known science violation to make a plot work.)

        He’d used strange powers before — Galaxy Primes was entirely based on them. But he didn’t have that cross into the Skylark universe until the middle of a book he wrote after an interruption of three decades (counting by the magazine publication dates, not the book versions).

        (I don’t count the Arisians bringing Kinnison back at the end of Children of the Lens as breaking the rules he’d established. Even in the magazine versions, he’d established the powers that the Arisians had, which made it plausible, even if a bit of a stretch. And, if you include all the extra material added to produce the book, Triplanetary, then it’s certainly established as possible.)

  8. Sanderson can make magical systems as rigorous as Hard SF and it works for his stories. But if you plopped one of those systems down in in the middle of, say, Robert E. Howard’s Conan, it would wreck the story. Go with what fits.

    1. exactly. not everyone cares about the magic systems, just like some SF writers just call their hand-held energy weapons ‘burners’ (or ‘blasters’ ) and are done with it.

      1. Yes, but if you suddenly reveal that while your character is helplessly swinging back and forth as a pendulum, that the “blaster” if shot in the right way can speed him up enough to reach the balcony, people will give you dirty looks.

        The system can be as vague as it likes as long as your magical fix for something doesn’t read as a deus ex machina.

  9. One of the neatest essays I recall reading about magic and fiction was by Larry Dixon. He described how he and Mercedes Lackey came up with the “rules” for magic vs. psychic powers in the Velgarth (Valdemar et al) world, and the limits and conditions they worked into it.

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