I put on my robe and wizard hat

Right.  I’d planned to have a thoughtful, serious post for my first regular Wednesday post, maybe start a monthly look at source material and where to find new inspiration, possibly even pull down my copy of On Fairy-Stories and talk a little about the “cauldron of story” in an age where we’re bombarded with input from all sides.  

But then I spent half of Monday sleeping and the other half plowing through edits, and thus the tasks meant for Monday got moved, and . . . well, for a number of reasons, I’m now writing this Tuesday night and trying to think of something that’s relevant to The Magic District.  I suspect this will not be the last time I do this.

So let’s talk about magic. Specifically, magicians and how they use their power.

There are a lot of ways of showing magic in fantasy, ranging from the point-and-zap thaumaturgy that seems to be the general procedure for Harry Potter to the uncanny, archetypal forces at work of Last Call.  I’ve just finished reading Territory, and the magic there is different still, much more subtle and evident mainly in the intersections of what’s done and said.  

I think that showing magic in these different ways automatically makes a statement about the story itself, changing the mood of the story to match the magic.  A setting in which magic is carried out by careful ritual is going to be a little different from one in which it can be triggered solely by the hero’s exertion of will — and if both exist in the same setting, then there’s bound to be some tension between them.  (One of the things that really struck me about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was how English magic was on the one hand this dry, text-bound, academic matter and on the other a chaos of ravens and storms — and how neither side ever canceled the other out.)  In Spiral Hunt, while I show a few “magic spells” in action, I wanted to give the impression that they were as much a matter of craft as of knowledge.  I’m not yet sure that I succeeded with this, but I hope that the ways I show magic work within the context of the novel.

 There seems to be some possible distinction to be made between the different kinds of magic — hereditary, gnostic, elemental, etc.  But every time I try to sort them out, I keep running up against examples that don’t want to stay in one category, as well as the question of whether I’m sorting them by source of magic or how it’s applied.  So, of course, I turn to the Internet and ask for knowledge.

What kinds of magic work for you when you’re reading a story?  What kinds seem better suited to certain subgenres — hereditary magic in a high fantasy setting, for example, or gnostic magic in a secret history?  What kinds are we even talking about to begin with?

9 Responses to “I put on my robe and wizard hat”

  1. 1 rachelaaron
    February 18, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Yes! A post on magic!!

    Whenever a new world pops into my head (with or without story attached), magic is always where it starts. My magic is always a fundamental force, like gravity or entropy, something that effects everything around it. And of course, there are people in the book, and people will always find ways to use what’s around them. Just as we use something as profound as pressure differences to drink coke through straws or pick dirt out of our carpets, so would citizens of a magical world use magic to make their lives easier in silly and mundane ways.

    Hmmm… I think I just got my next post. Thanks Margaret!

  2. 2 mlronald
    February 19, 2009 at 12:51 am

    Welcome! (Wow, this type is tiny. The previous commenters weren’t kidding.)

    So magic is integral to your worlds, and usable in the same ways the people use the laws of physics to their advantage. I like the idea of people always finding ways to use what’s at hand — and now I’m curious to see what “silly and mundane” uses for magic your citizens have come up with.

  3. 3 evord
    February 19, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    I prefer to approach magic on the grounds of its purpose in a setting, rather than its deployment or origins. Some people like magic that adds creepiness and unsolved mysteries. Others like to have magic just so they can break the common rules we’re normally bound by. Others assign a high price to using magic, enabling a bit of sacrifice or tragedy to come with every wizard. Then there are all the darker and more twisted variants of those 3. Like magic that involves abusive sexual acts, or blood magic that is creepy, evil, and shrouded in secrecy.

    Me personally, I like low-cost rules-breaking magic. Mainly because I prefer to use magic as flash and fun.

  4. February 19, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    OK, I’m curious now — what the heck is gnostic magic? I’ve probably seen it, just never thought of it as such. Give me an example?

  5. 5 Terri
    February 20, 2009 at 2:00 am

    As long as it’s consistent, magic can happen any way and I’ll love it. In the book I just finished writing, magic belonged to fae creatures. There were levels of beings/powers. Some were more talented, others less so. But magic was, like someone else said, just another part of life. Like it is everywhere, some beings are more talented than others. In the one I’m working on now, magic is more chants and spells that emanate from places rather than people, who tend to manipulate what is already there. There are fewer ‘magical creatures’ even if they do exist. Again, they tend to be manipulated by those without any particular power other than knowing how to use what is available.

    And, yeah–gnostic magic?? I’d like to hear more about that. Maybe I’ll go google it…

  6. 6 mlronald
    February 20, 2009 at 4:01 am

    Evord, that’s a good point. But I think there’s some relation between how the purpose of magic in a setting and how it’s put into action. Low-cost, rules-breaking magic is often shown in different ways than the creepier, underlying magic you first refer to.

    Nora, what I mean by gnostic magic is magic that’s based solely on knowledge, rather than innate characteristics or magic bestowed by an external source. Think of a magician studying long-lost books and using them to invoke something, rather than a sorcerer using the power of his will or a water-witch using her affinity for that element. The reason I call it “gnostic” is because it tends to be a kind of secret knowledge rather than any kind of generally known or available knowledge. Does that make anything clearer? It’s very likely I’m confusing my topics, as above.

    Terri, I like the idea of magic bound up within certain creatures — embodiments of it, in a way. Are the places in the piece you’re working on now similar to, say, local shrines or places of power? Do they have limits on how far their influence stretches?

    I suspect that a lot of my confusion comes from mixing up my categories: how magic is shown, how it’s put into action, where its source is, etc. Maybe I’ll sort these out in time for the next post.

  7. 7 evord
    February 20, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    “I think there’s some relation between how the purpose of magic in a setting and how it’s put into action”

    I agree with this. I feel that the deployment of magic best uses purpose as its roots. For example, the price of magic comes in so many varieties. A character might be able to whip spells off their cuffs all the time, but there might be a high social price for doing so. Look at the opposite, a spell that requires elaborate ceremonies, expensive reagents, and the loss of 1 precious memory. Such could still be considered ‘low-price’ if the story does not enforce/explore the impact of those things on the characters using the magic. Same is true if the characters involved are able to mitigate or not care about the price(s).

  8. 8 adam
    May 2, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    … Bloodninja?

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