Friday, May 2, 2014

RavenCon Panel 2 - Creating Believable Magic Systems

Often, as a panelist, you learn things from your fellows up at the table.

Sometimes what you learn is that you don't want to be on panels with them again.

I don't mean that in a bad way in this case.  It's not like anybody on this panel was ugly, or mean.  It's just that there are some panels where everybody yields "the floor," so to speak, and then there are times when the forcefulness of someone's personality barrels right through.  This felt like one of those panels, and no, I'm not naming names. 

All that said, it was an interesting panel.  We opened by looking at the question of how an author should start in the process of creating a magical system for a work of fiction.  One suggestion was that the work should start with a close look at what kind of magic was to be used.  Would the magic use the (insert number) of basic elements?  Would it be based on color, or on sounds?  Would it be plant based? 

How much does the creation of the magic system impact the world-building, we were asked.  I took the question from the practical side; to me, world-building is a vast process, only part of which involves the specification of the magical system.  You're writing a story, I asserted, not a magical DM guide, and the magic system is neither the characters nor the conflict.  Others took a more cause and effect approach to the question, in which the type and availability of magic has a definite and visible impact upon the characters, the locations, and the cultures depicted. 

How do you reveal the magical system?  Slowly, we all agreed; nobody felt it was a good idea to info-dump on the reader at the beginning of the story.  I pointed out that many stories depict a character actually learning the magical system, and that often, as in my own Return of the Gods, she gets parts of it either incomplete or wrong at first. 

We discussed what we felt were some good magical systems.  Of course, there's the swish and flick mystery of Harry Potter's world.  There were more listed by panelists than I can possibly recall, really.  My favorite was that used by Piers Anthony in the Adept series, in which magic was based on colors and initiated by snippets of phrase (which could never be used again once uttered).  One of the other panelists pointed out how different that was from the Xanth system by the same author. 

What is it that makes a magical system believable?  Well, consistency, for one; we all nodded at that blinding flash of obviousness.  Cost was brought up also--the power has to have a price to use; else, why not just have the protagonist destroy everything against him and win the plot in the second chapter?

Somebody--I can't recall who--brought up Chekhov's Gun as an issue to be considered.  They kinda used it wrong--backwards, really.  Anton Chekhov once said that everything in a narrative should be used, and his example was that if you describe a rifle on the wall in the first chapter, then in the second or third chapter it must be used.  For magic systems, that means that if you describe a potion, or a spell, or an ingredient, then at some point later in the story the potion, spell, or ingredient must become important.  This is what I was getting at with my comment about the magic system not being the story.  People want to read a plot, not a lexicon.  In my own books, for example, I didn't bring up ka until it became important to the story arc. The entire spectrum of magic didn't even come out till the second book, because a) it wasn't something Crystal would have known about, and b) it wasn't something Ares/Mars/Matthew would care about, and c) most importantly, it wasn't important to the plot arc of the first book.

That said, the panel went at Chekhov's Gun from the opposite direction.  Specifically, the point was made that if you are going to fire off a spell later on in the book, it's useful to the believability issue to have put the spell "on the wall" beforehand.  That way the reader has time for the idea to sink in, and it doesn't seem like a deus ex machina ("and God reached down and swiped them from the edge of the cliff" kinda thing) issue.  I'm not as sure I agree with this stance, honestly; I think you can introduce magic at the same time it becomes useful, as long as it is consistent with what has already come before. 

How do you go about building a magical system, if you're a world-building virgin?  One of the attendees asked us that, sort of, and my answer was simple: you Google it.  There are tons of web sites out there on how to craft worlds and the magical systems within them, and years ago I found several of those sites to be pretty good.  Another panelist disagreed; at least, she started with words that indicated she disagreed, though her point really was more of a dovetail than a contradiction to my own.  She suggested that the writer research existing paranormal or magic systems, such as, say, Wicca, to see what you can take from how the lexicons that real people believe in are built.  Personally, I think that approach could be useful in addition to my own recommendation, but to each his/her own.

Overall, it was quite an informative panel, and I wish all y'all had been there. 

Till next time!


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