2019/06/28

How Does Your Magic Work?

A loyal reader writes:
Slowly developing world, characters, etc., but in Reddit's /r/worldbuilding, someone came up with this prompt: How does your magic work?
https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/comments/c6csar/how_does_your_magic_work/
I (/u/Alkalannar) make the comment that goes with your old-school Actual Magic definition from How to Design Magic Systems. It has twice the number of upvotes as the next-most-popular. I am astonished, to be honest.
It's just a small thing, but finding this in Reddit of all places...are people finally admitting that they crave stories of good and evil, where magic is dangerous to the soul?
That encourages me to keep writing and listening to the muse.

Magic System

Magic System 2

Congratulations, dear reader. You're off to an excellent start.

People are tired of pink slime generic fantasy.

Sandersonian nuts 'n' bolts magic systems are wearing out their welcome.

The soul can't subsist on a steady diet of Gray and Grey or Gray and Black morality.

I used to think the key to creating a standout magic system was putting all the parts together like a Swiss watch.

Years of experience have taught me that magic's moral dimension and how it affects character is the most important consideration.

To see the culmination of multiple magic systems in apocalyptic conflict with moral stakes most modern novelists won't touch, read the epic conclusion to my award-winning Soul Cycle.

The Ophian Rising

30 comments:

  1. Magic Systems is the equivalent of Hard Science Fiction for Tolkien nerds.

    The more I read the pulps and see how magic was treated the more I understand how it has been degraded and uprooted from its original context as a deadly, poisonous force that no man can comprehend.

    In fact I have written stories with magic and superpowers as two opposing forces specifically because that contrast interests me.

    You can have systems for superhuman abilities or tech, but making one for magic just misses the point of what that force is supposed to be.

    The "Sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic" credo is a canard.

    Science and magic are not even close to the same thing, and can never be, since neither come from the same source.

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    1. To emphasize:

      Science is about manipulating the world through natural means. Magic is about manipulating the world through unnatural means.

      That distinction is everything.

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  2. I’m also tired of gray morality systems. There is not gray morality. A decision is either evil/wrong or holy/good. Yes, stealing and murder are not equally wrong, but they are both wrong. And moral dilemmas are not gray, they are choices between two or more equally bad choices or two or more equally good choices. It’s not that difficult and yet modern fiction and games are riddled with lame greyness and hokey Star Wars ethics.

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    1. If you don't have a creator to establish absolute right and wrong, there is no good or evil. Only power remains.

      So any system without a creator to firmly establish good and evil can only be Grey vs Gray. And therefore utterly hollow and unsatisfying.

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    2. Morally neutral decisions do exist, but they're inherently uninteresting.

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    3. In the choice between eating the green banana, the yellow banana and the yellow-green banana, clearly the morally good choice is the yellow-green.

      Anyway, a certain Burrito Avenger would probably argue that a vegetarian burrito is a sin and abomination.

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    4. As someone who lives in the Free and Armed Republic of Texas, meatless chili is similarly anathema. Pure meat is the way to go. Possibly with onion, but no beans.

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    5. Restaurants added beans to chili as cheap filler to make up for wartime meat rationing. They spread the error across the country.

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    6. Being from southern Oklahoma, I have always wondered where the idea that chili needs beans came from. Meat (beef, pork, lamb, I'm not picky), spices. No beans. No onions for me.

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    7. Thank you for mentioning the chili meat trifecta!

      Most people outside the Southwest are equally surprised to learn that beans don't go in chili and that pork and lamb do.

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    8. I had never gone with pork and lamb in chili, so I'll have to try that some time. I knew beef, pork, and lamb as meatloaf mix. OTOH, I'd never lived in the Southwest until 2008.

      Now the chili that I miss is Cincinnati-style. If I had the extra money, I'd try to get a Skyline franchise, but protesters might try burning it to the ground as heresy.

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  3. This is good stuff. Having read your other post on magic systems, I now have a lot of food for thought when it comes to the magic in my fantasy world.

    Magic as a dark gift from dubious entities is under used in fantasy. There's something menacing about that kind of magic that scientific spellcasting simply can't compete with. We definitely more of that.

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    1. Magic as shadowy force best left alone was commonplace in the pulps. The Campbellian revolt in science fiction and the post-Tolkien fantasy boom completely buried it.

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  4. Brian, Mr Brian sir, I am trying to find your "dracula-ish" short story and the accompanying notes on spirits and exorcism, after hearing an account that may be nothing, yet set off my correlation-sense.... something to do with the location of an angel or demon being wherever they are thinking about? I cannot seem to readily find the tale you wrote, in order to relate the broad theory of spirits summarised there.

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    1. I have restored the link to the cross-column blow the header.

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    2. The cross-column once again takes up only one row, and has a wide variety of your things. I must approve.

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  5. I haven't yet read Oathbringer, but so far as I can tell there's nothing wrong with Sanderson's magic system, and as for his morality I would characterize it as Marsh-Wiggle Extremism. The flaws in no way outweigh the various times and ways he has made me scream and sob for Kaladin's soul.

    There is also nothing wrong with George MacDonald's pure dream-logic magic. Like Stephen King terseness versus Mark Helprin rhapsody, it's just a silly thing to fight about.

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    1. Sanderson's magic system works for him because "WHAT EVEN IS THIS WORLD" is a huge part of the allure that keeps you frantically flipping backward for reference, and, man, is it ever difficult to make an "ancient sealed evil is coming back" story a thing through which you frantically flip.

      Like, is the Stormfather who they say he is? Series prologue points to yes, but given what we now know about his nature, how is that possible? And what now - is Dalinar going to rub off on him? And where did Dalinar get these ideas that might rub off? Anyone behind Tanavast? (Maybe traditional publishing won't allow Sanderson to answer that last, but there certainly is a strong flirtation.)

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    2. Oh, and the matter of the Champion. My current theory is that Taravangian intends to be it. Which is just... thematic worldbuilding out the EARS.

      Don't knock Sanderson.

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    3. "Don't knock Sanderson."

      I will and I shall.

      With the exception of his Wheel of Time books, I have never been able to finish a Sanderson book.

      I had someone rave about the Stormlight Archives a few years back, then I saw it at the library and gave it a shot. Holy cow. Its like he learned all the wrong lessons from Jordan and none of the right ones.

      We don't even have to talk about his magic system. I mean, why write ten words when you can write thirty or more? Why not just keep adding boring, hardly related POV-interludes?

      Sorry. Sanderson has no clothes, as the old tale says.

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    4. I think I did a post referring to a video where Sanderson lectured about fantasy.

      It's this one: https://wastelandandsky.blogspot.com/2018/11/the-end-of-wonder.html

      I have nothing against the man, but his type of fantasy has never been for me.

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    5. Emmett would be speaking as a member of the aforementioned Stephen King tribe in their silly stylistic battle. (I guess Bradbury is more the self-appointed champion of the loquacious school than Helprin... which is pretty ironic when you put Bradbury's books next to King's.)

      Then again, if he's talking about interludes, then he definitely got to the end of Act One of the first book, so I daresay he gave it an honest shot all the same before deciding it wasn't for him.

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    6. Nah. Not a fan of King either. But I can’t stop you from making dumb assumptions.

      I just like a good story told well. King can’t end a story to save his life, terse or not.

      I don’t mind good prose when it’s in service to the story. And Bradbury is a good example of that. His prose is almost poetry and quite pleasurable to read. And even then, Bradbury could still actually move the story and not require 600, 800, 1000+ pages. Sanderson’s is just needlessly verbose. And it’s the addition of his unnecessary diversions (especially in Stormlight) that really killed the story for me. Every time I started to become interested in the plot, he derailed my interest with a useless, boring interlude.

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    7. In those interludes, Sanderson is definitely indulging his pursuit of shiny worldbuilding in the Non-Veden Lands. But he never does it without also taking the opportunity to establish a key plot point without making the main characters wonder unduly. I also dig the former aspect, myself; I like shiny worldbuilding; but when you compare the sheer power of Eshonai's and Taravangian's interludes to the rest of them, I guess I do see your point.

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    8. Certainly, the extensive and varied world is one of Jordan's weak spots as well. But the main difference between Sanderson and Jordan is in their characterization: Sanderson understands and illuminates the human condition. Jordan is more about putting them through the wringer in a manner that would be hard on anyone; no particular internal wrinkles to it. And that's before we start comparing villains...

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Hi Mr. Niemeier, would you be interested in joining me again for another poetry talk?

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