Monday, August 11, 2014

Magic: Part Two

Last week I looked at the cost and limits involved when an author uses magic in their story. There are some other questions to consider.

As I mentioned last week, magic makes anything possible, and there is no right and wrong to incorporate magic, it's just good to be aware of what choices you're making.

1. The Role of Magic

I have never encountered a story about magic. There might be one, but it's likely written as a nonfiction-style book, describing how magic works. Fiction stories incorporate magic to varying degrees, but it's the stories and characters that make the world interesting. The amount of magic used in your world is like deciding what seasoning to use in a recipe. Too much spice might not be the flavor your going for, or perhaps that's exactly what you want.

In some stories, magic is everywhere. In JK Rowling's Harry Potter books, it's impossible to read more than a couple pages without encountering magic. The world is magic, the characters are magicians, and magic is the primary flavor in her world.

However, even at Hogwarts, there's a lot more going on besides magic. The series is ultimately about revenge. Orphan with murdered parents grows up and kills his his parents' murderer in cold blood - sounds grisly, but that's the basic storyline of the Potter series. It a classic revenge tale, mixed with a traditional coming-of-age scenario. It's these familiar elements we latch on to, and neither has anything to do with magic!  

It's important to know how much magic you plan to use in your world. George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones begins with a hint of magic, when the zombie-like White Walkers attack a group of Rangers. No mention of magic then occurs until nearly the end of the novel. He's added a bit of color to remind us it's a magical world, but magic plays a minor role in Westeros. The magic is often pivotal, but chapters can come and go with no mention of magic at all.

In some stories, there might be no usable magic at all, but a magical creature such as a dragon or phoenix might still give your story a sense of magic or wonder. Perhaps only a setting is magical, such in the Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky, which features a castle able to hover above the earth because of a magic stone. Again, there's no right or wrong way, but as a reader, I tend to enjoy stories where the role of magic is consistent. If there's no magic for an entire book, and then at the end a magic spell suddenly solves everyone problems, it feels contrived. 

2. Visibility

Tying directly into the role of magic in your story is the visibility of magic. At Hogwarts, we see magic everywhere.  Because it's such a large element in the environment we expect in on every page. However, this also diminishes our surprise at what magic can do. For example, if Harry walks into a room, pulls out his wand and causes a piece of paper to float around, we don't even blink. But in a different story, where the protagonist is given magical gifts that develop slowly, and only in the climax can perform an act of telekinesis (such as in Roald Dahl's Matilda), the act of levitation can take on an entirely different and stunning meaning. 

One of my personal favorite wizards is Gandalf, pictured above in the film adaptation of Fellowship of the Ring. I think of him as an extremely powerful wizard, yet what magic does he actually perform? In Lord of the Rings his biggest magical moment is breaking a bridge with a glowing staff. It sounds like beginner's magic by Harry Potter standards, but in Tolkien's world, magic is hidden. We know magic exists in Middle Earth. The Ring is a symbol of unused magical potential. Other than making people vanish (and we somehow know that's not what the Ring really does) the Ring is never used, but is brought across page after page. By hiding the magic in the subtext, it makes instances of magic much more potent and memorable.  

It's also interesting to note characters' reactions to magic. Is magic dark and forbidden, or is it wonderful and desired. In a world that's entirely fantasy, such as Paolini's Alagaesia, the characters know about and recognize magic. In Pratchett's Discworld, it's how the entire world is run, but is also distrusted. In the Star Wars universe, where technology and planets fill everyone's mind, the magic of the Jedi is strange and hard to understand. Hans Solo claims he'll never believe in any type of Force, or anything other than his blaster. Like Middle Earth, Star Wars is a world where magic is present but hidden. When it's used, such as in fight scenes, it then becomes even more memorable. 

What type of magic will you use in you stories, or do you like to encounter in fiction?  Leave a comment below and share!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting!
    I am a great fan of soft magic, or the "hidden" magic, as you say. I like it when magic, in the rarity of when it does happen, blows your socks off. But when "magicians" are just crapping out fairy sprinkles, magic spells, and firebolts, I believe it depreciates and lessens the very idea of magic as a fine and exquisite seasoning. But hey, Rowling did something right.
    The first several books of my series are all lightly (and seldom) gilded with an odd, deep magic that cannot be understood. In a later book, it is about a magic-user and describes how magic is more of a science, but nevertheless still "magic."
    And really, it depends how it's written. Hard magic written well can be great. Soft magic written poorly can be deleterious.