World Consistency – Magic


On a long drive recently I listened to the audio book of A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. It’s good so far, but it got me thinking about world consistency and certain choices that need to be made before beginning to write.

My reading preference is Fantasy/Sci-Fi or Horror fiction, and it’s what I tend towards in my writing.  The scope and freedom afforded a writer by a fantasy world come with the burden of creating a believable and consistent environment in which to set the story.

I have a great book called “How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy” by Orson Scott Card. He devotes around 21 pages to “Make rules for your world” in his chapter on World Creation. He perhaps goes a little over the top on his advice about space travel or language, but the point is valid and the information useful, and shockingly neither of the two other ‘Creative Writing’ books I pulled off my shelf talked about this at all.

I think I’ll write a few entries on this subject, as otherwise it’s going to be a long read and will probably never make it online! I do, however, think it will be useful for me to get my head around some of these issues and of course, feedback is always welcome!

So I’m going to start with “Magic

Mr Card says

“With magic, 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 up in the story.” (p47)

If magic can be used at any time, in any circumstance, in any way then I suspect the story would be severely limited or at least, the involvement of any non-magic-using characters would be minimal… (they’d all be hiding out in a bunker somewhere for sure!). So there needs to be a cost. Even if the scientific argument for a price wasn’t there, the creative argument certainly is.

There are many different costs we can impose and each of those has an array of implementations. Some off the top of my head:

  1. Loss of life force.
  2. Loss of sanity – As experienced by the men in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (or so I’m reliably informed)
  3. Loss of self control (Willow’s magic ‘addiction’ in Buffy for example)
  4. Risk of letting something dangerous into the ‘real’ world.
  5. Blood sacrifice – either from self or another.

Etc. The possibilities are really limitless.

Kim Harrison divides her witches into specialisations in the ‘Rachel Morgan’ series, their power increasing the ‘darker’ the source. This opens up opportunities for our ‘good guys’ to be tempted down a dark path for the ‘greater good’. Or to be challenged by powers that could be easily evaded if the price wasn’t too high. Whereas in The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss magical energy must be drawn from another source, so to light a candle, heat must be taken from elsewhere, perhaps from the caster’s body. They must be cautious not to draw too much or they may freeze to death. Kelley Armstrong’s ‘Women of the Otherworld‘ witches have to practice hard to learn increasingly powerful magic which may be beyond some.

Of course, it’s about balance. In my world, I want my magic users to be able to use magic often enough that it’s useful and I don’t like the idea of the ‘villains’ having all the power and all the fun. I do, however, want a cost and some conflict as I see the dramatic potential in that. I like the idea that some people have a raw ‘talent’ for magic, so yes it’s something you have to work at, but some may have more success than others, or at least find it easier. Why shouldn’t it work like any other skill? I think the cost should increase with the power, but I want the cost to be the same irrespective of one’s moral beliefs. I don’t want characters who are prepared to kill out-spelling those who believe life is sacred, so no blood magic for me! I am leaning towards the idea that magic comes from a general pool of life-force, like a branch of nature, another layer on the world that the majority of people cannot perceive, let alone manipulate.

So, what do you think? Does it need to be consistent? Do we need all these rules? Does it matter if there’s no cost to magic? Will the immoral ‘bad guys’ always find a way to abuse the system and have more power? Is that an essential part of the underlying battle, that ‘good’ is always fighting at a disadvantage, but will succeed anyway? Okay…that’s another post perhaps.


5 responses »

  1. I like the idea that the source of magic is morally neutral so it’s the impact on the individual of access to the force that carries the ethical weight and provides the story. It’s about what people do with power that ultimately takes its toll as all power corrupts, and all actions of principle impose costs and collateral damage.

  2. I think it’s definitely important to have consistent rules in any created world (although there may be specific reasons for breaking those rules from time to time). I can’t imagine a story world without any consisten rules…how would one generate conflict and raise stakes when there are no limits for anyone? Then again, it may be that my own thinking is limited. As for magic, I tend to favor the “great power comes with great responsibility” idea. I think that power (whether it’s real world power or created world magic) comes with temptations. Power over others can tempt a person into abusing that power and corrupt people will often be drawn to power. I think heightening that drama in a story can be very exciting.

  3. Bidski, I am definitely leaning towards a neutral source like you describe. I think that hooks into what Sonia says about power coming with temptations. So the power is ‘pure’ but how, and why and perhaps to what degree it’s used is influenced by the users, and we all know how flawed they can be 😉

    Ofc, this does still sidestep the ‘cost’ should it simply be about one’s moral standing? If it’s just power that corrupts, how, why, what if you’re extra clever and can avoid being corrupted by it, or is everyone, essentially, corruptable?

    Perhaps the whole ‘blood magic’ or ‘insanity’ etc ‘costs’ of magic use are more about finding tangible repurcussions for that corruption.

    What if we lived in a world where there was unlimited magic to be used, by those with the knowledge and skill, for whatever purpose they saw fit and there were no clear boundaries or downsides? Is it perhaps some sort of grand Standford prison experiment?

  4. I was kind thinking more of the ‘Executive monkey’ where two apes are secured side by side and given a task to learn. When the executive monkey gets it wrong, the innocent partner is punished right next to them so that they can see what happens. Same sort of issue as when crims are forced to confront their victim i.e. if you are forced to witness the harm your actions have on others – especially those you care about or have to engage with. So all magic costs someone – the question is who?

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