Friday, January 24, 2014

How I Built my Magical System (Sorcery Pt. 2)

So last time we discussed general ideas behind constructing magic in fiction and how to simplify it so you can do it as well. This round I will introduce the magic system I created for my Sword & Sorcery stories. Magic is a common feature in my writing, and it falls somewhere between High Magic and Low Magic, another concept that I also mentioned last time and we will explore here.

From my view, High Magic has always been connected to High and Epic Fantasy, and usually revolves itself around currents of energy. Notice how I didn't compare it to Low Magic yet, because I want to just talk about High Magic first so the differences will be much clearer when we get to Low Magic.

High Magic, traditionally, has always been connected to either the evocative or the ceremonial, usually with the assumption that there will be a explicit manifestation of power. A great example of this in the real world is John Dee's texts on Enochian Magic, where in the 1580s he began to conduct rituals with Edward Kelly where they communed with angels and apparently learned the their language (hence the term "Enochian".) I used Harry Potter as an example last time as well, and many of the spells in Harry Potter are of themselves High Magic. Merlin in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, which everyone should read, features the wizard turning Wart (Arthur) into animals, which is another form of high magic. Basically, there is a boom and something happens. Finally, and I think it is the finest book showing the form, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea is basically a book where most of the wizarding characters practice High Magic. From the moment the main character Ged opens the spell book and accidentally summons his shadow, it is a tour de force on what High Magic is and what it can be.

Worth every penny!

Low Magic, on the other hand, is much more difficult to pin down with a solid definition. One might say that High Magic creates things that could be considered Low Magic, a key example being something like an amulet or charm. Going back to Ged in Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea, in the beginning of the story he has an aunt who concerns who is a witch that concerns herself mainly with root work and using natural plants and materials to create charms. None of them are depicted as actual magic, but the idea behind them is that they are, and that idea causes the manifestation of power. Another example can be Excalibur, or better yet, the sword's scabbard in the King Arthur mythos. In the myth, it is the sword that makes Arthur king of all Britain, but it is the scabbard that grants him invulnerability in battle, which is lamented later on when he foolishly throws it away in battle. Funny how that works. There is a belief there that has power.

Another good example of this comes from one of my favorite stories, The People of the Black Circle by Robert E Howard. Sword & Sorcery by Howard's flavor was often a low magic affair, and this is seen clearly in the story where Conan wears a magic girdle to protect himself from the malevolent spells of the evil sorcerers. We never see it actually happen, as Conan shows up and just lays waste to the wizards, but the belief is there.

But the problem with Low Magic and High Magic, in my opinion, is much the like problem with the Chicken-And-The-Egg issue: which came first? Honestly, I think it is one of those conversations that doesn't merit huge debate, because at the end of the day what will matter is how you use either form to advance the characters on their way through the plot.

When I decided to construct my general magic system, I decided early on that I wanted to have a system that was both simple while at the same time allowing room and flexibility to grow without the strings of a story written beforehand affecting any that came after it. I was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and actual Occultism. What Tolkien did very well was utilize Low Magic through the use of objects, be it Anduril or The One Ring of Power, though those were products of High Magic and have definite manifestations. These simple objects didn't necessarily the flash and the bang, but they themselves allowed for powerful plot developments. Rowling, on the other hand, masterfully used to aspects of actual occulta and High Magic to create a system of spells which seemed easily accessible to the characters early on until the later books. It wasn't until the use of The Patronus Charm and Horcruxes that there were really limits on what a witch or wizard could do with their abilities, and any difficulty early on had more to do with the ability to learn, focus, and apply, much like learning in general.

What I really wanted to bring in was my own study of the occult and magick (with a 'k'), and provide a framework that was somewhat reminiscent of The Golden Dawn and O.T.O, which required not only mental clarity and focus, but a bodily component. Whether it is in the East or the West, the body plays a key component in magickal practice.

So taking the mental, physical, and the spirituality of Eastern and Western esoteric philosophies, I also wanted to have my magic users be different from other magic-systems other writers were using, but not too different. I borrowed a little bit from Glen Cook's The Black Company and one of his best characters, The Lady. Besides being the biggest and most under-appreciated badass in fantasy, she was also a great warrior that was in killer shape that could focus in and do devastating things with her power. In many ways, this reflects things that you notice about all real-world magicians: Aleister Crowley was a famed and highly-skilled mountaineer, WB Yeats was a man often seen in peak physical condition with a strict diet, and the lifestyle of Indian rishis, sadhus, and ascetics create individuals who often exposed themselves to the elements, hunger, and rigorous physical exercise through Yoga. People that practice magick are tough inside and out.


Like Cook's The Lady, none of my magic-users weren't going to be out of shape. No fat wizards or wheezy witches--the body in my system is the container for a person's energy, and the strength and quality of that container is going to play an impact. What is inside the container is the mind, and the mind when properly sharpened can manipulate the spirit, and that spirit is a key that unlocks the power.

So in simple English:

1. In my magical system, the practitioner must be able to align the mind, the body, and the spirit to summon High or Low Magic. This starts with an accumulation of energy (Genesis), manipulated by using their mind and the spirit (Will), and released in whatever form required (Manifestation.)
2. This places strain on the body, so if they force themselves into a spell that is more than their ability they can end up damaging themselves in a physical manner.
3. At the same time, they must be able to remained focused to complete their working.

Whether it is changing the weather (which is a form of High Magic that places a lot of stress on the body,) or creating an amulet for protection (Low magic that takes very little in the way of physical stress but much in the way of focus,) the world is theirs to manipulate. They can channel their being into creating great weapons, summoning entities from beyond through ritual, or battle using the forces of nature around them.

What matters, and this is something I spent a lot of time considering, is that they must sacrifice something. In the Vedic novel, my hero is turned into an Avatar against his will, and every time he turns back into his original form he loses all of his hair. As I mentioned before, if a magic-user overexerts themselves, they can lost body parts or even die! The act of magic takes something out of the practitioner, and while that something can come back like stamina does, overuse always leads to dire consequences. Even the act of learning magic, developing ability, and growing one's power requires a sacrifice of time (the body,) energy (the mind), and life spent in more pleasurable things (the soul.)

One of the best things I can tell you about writing a magical system: Put a price on it, and MAKE the characters PAY FOR IT.

I am going to go a bit further into this next, using one of my stories as a example of where I think it did it correctly. Until then, stay safe! 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Understanding "Sorcery" in Sword & Sorcery

Last time we talked about ideas on how to research combat, warfare, and the effects of battle in hopes of creating realistic violence in fiction. This post will be very different that one, as we will discuss the use and construction of magic, hopefully to fill in the other half as the title suggests. There won't be a book-list, but if you want some suggestions, leave a comment and I will be happy to assist in a direction.

Growing up with martial arts instilled me with a sense and interest in spirituality that led to me going out and finding out more about other world beliefs. One of the things I found interesting about all religions and spiritual paths is that there are so many different systems of magic inherently built into them. It doesn't matter if you are talking about mantra and tantra within Hinduism, Kabbalah in Judaism, or the entire offshoot of Islam known as Sufism--there are even intense systems of esoteric practice within Christianity. Have you ever really talked about communion with a Catholic?

Now, one thing that I want to get out of the way is the question "what do you think about this author's magic system or that author's magic system?"

The truth is there has never been a magical system I have ever read about where I can't point back to another magical system that hasn't already been created and used in the real world with the exception of the magical abilities and spells seen in Dungeon & Dragons, and even much of that was taken from Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Remember, nothing is original but the way it is executed. But it doesn't matter if you are Faith Hunter, who masterfully uses skin-walker lore and shamanism from Native American magic in her Jane Yellowrock novels, or Brandon Sanderson, who uses what he calls "hard magic", a system that has rules written around manifestation.

But for me magic is simple to construct if you think of it this way: Genesis, Will, and Manifestation.

Let's define these:

Genesis: This is the origin and mode of creation or alteration, which magic definitely is. It can be as simple as someone saying a spell in Harry Potter or starting to chant a mantra, this is a place where magic begins. This genesis can be both within and outside the characters you use in your story. For example, in my Vedic Sword & Sorcery novel, there is a scene where The Hero is given a piece of Soma or hallucinogenic mushroom by The Teacher, which I drew from the Rig Veda and Terence McKenna's theory on what the botanical plant the Ancient Vedic kingdoms may have used for ritual use, though later on I use other plants since we know that there are many types of flora that create similar effects.

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The Genesis in is The Hero being given the mushroom cap, just like there is Genesis taking place when Harry Potter decides to use the Patronus Charm to fight of the Dementors. The magic is drawn from some place either within or without. So what happens when the spark is lit? You have to do something with it, which leads us to...

Will: this something that gets stressed in magical systems both real and fantastical, whether it is Aleister Crowley's system of ceremonial magic or rolling for a magic missile in D&D. In all magical systems the user has to make a decision and "will" their expectation to manifest. Let's use Harry Potter and the Patronus Charm again, because I think the scenes written around the teaching of the spell to Harry really help exhibit this idea.

When Lupin instructs Harry that to conjure a Patronus, he has to summon all of his happiest memory and turn their wand into a circle while incanting "Expecto Pantronum!" The happiest memory-portion of the spell is the will. Harry has to draw this memory as he uses the spell, and the power of that summoned memory can make the manifestation as weak or as powerful as the effort he puts into it.

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So I've covered Genesis and Will, both of which lead to...

Manifestation: This is the ultimate result of a magical working. So Harry has seen the Dementors coming for him, he has summoned his happiest memory, and now there is a white deer scaring the crap out of them. This is the same as your D&D character laying waste with his Cloudkill spell or Thoth-Amon summoning a fanged demon to slay one of his masters that is attacking Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword. What this is, plain and simple, is the result.

I am going to cut it off here for now, but next time I am going to discuss the different between High Magic and Low Magic, which are two very distinct forms you often see in fantasy. I will introduce the magical system I use, the origins of how I built it, and the "rules" I wrote around it and why I picked those "rules" to form the backbone of the system.

Until then, stay safe!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Understanding The "Sword" in Sword & Sorcery

One of the things that drew me to the genre of Sword & Sorcery early in my writing career was the gritty realism often exhibited in the stories I loved, something that was wholly different from the other genres of fantasy I was reading at the time. Now I love a good spell battle, fantastical creatures being used on the field, and wizards galore, but at the end of the day I truly think nothing beats two individuals (man or beast) meeting in some exotic and mysterious location to hammer it out to the bitter end.

There is an air of drama in combat shown with Sword & Sorcery that I think is desperately needs to be learned by writers if they are able to excite, in some cases disgust, and most importantly, depict action-oriented battle scenes and the reality of their effects. Currently I am working on a small pamphlet for some friends of mine in Charlotte Writers, a group I work for as the Head Organizer, which looks at writing combat from both my experiences as a martial artist in various disciplines (though I am always quick to mention that I am a master of none of them--not yet, at least, and even then...) It is still a few weeks away from being done, but I will publish it here when it is complete. Still, I believe there are things writers can do to get better acquainted with writing combat beyond joining the service or going out and participating in martial arts, and that is research!

I am going to include here a list of a few of my favorite books, placed in categories of Fighting, Combat, Effects and Outcomes:

Fighting: The Art of Moving

IAI: The Art of Drawing The Sword by Darrell Max Craig
Samurai Swordsmanship by Carl Long and Masayaki Shimabukro
Highland Broadsword by Christopher Scott Thompson
Highland Knife Fighting by Christopher Scott Thompson
Fighting with the German Longsword by Christian Tobler
Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Arts Of Combat: Sword and Buckler Fighting, Wrestling, and Fighting in Armor by David Lindholm
The Way of the Warrior by Chris Crudelli
Pencak Silat Pertempuran: Vol. 1 by Sean Shark
Winning Wrestling Moves by Mark Mysnk
Mastering Jiu-Jitsu by Renzo Gracie

Combat: The Way of Fighting

On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace by Dave Grossman - I should note that this selection might have appeared in the group below, but due to including another of this author's selections below, I placed it here.
Soldiers and Ghosts by J.E. Lendon - Truly one of my favorite books, especially since I focus on The middle to late Iron Ages in my settings.
Strategy: Second Revised Edition by B.H. Liddell Hart - This is truly awesome.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Sawyer Translation)

Effects and Outcomes: The Cost of Both

Battlefield Angels: Saving Lives Under Enemy Fire by Scott McGaugh
Ancient Medicine by Vivian Nutton
Ditch Medicine: Advanced Field Procedures For Emergencies by Hugh Coffee
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

These books are only a few of the sources I have used over the years, and I keep gathering new and reputable books over time as technology avails itself as a new window where martial artists, teachers, and researchers are gathering and presenting information into the digital age. One of the best sources for this is Youtube, where I found videos on Shastar Vidya and Pehlwani, which are the martial arts I used for The Vedic Sword & Sorcery novel that is nearing completion. You can find almost anything there to help you get a visual idea of martial arts and combatives you may want to use in your work.

I hope this has been helpful, and if you have any questions, criticisms, or concerns, by all means leave comment!

Thanks and stay safe!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Dreams, Ambitions, and Corey Taylor

So recently I had a freak-out where I almost quit writing. Yes, I was willing to go that far. It took a pair of friends who are near and dear to me to walk me back from the ledge, but it got me to really think about whether or not this dream I have of making it as an author is even worthwhile. And then I fell upon these two videos featuring one of my favorite singers, Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour fame, talking about the difference between doing what you "love" and doing what you are "good" at. If you would indulge me, take some time to watch them, as they are applicable to any form of creative expression, and then join me at the bottom.

So why, might you ask, am I posting these videos?

I often forget how I came into writing and how long I really tried fighting wanting to do it, and I really believe if I remembered this more often, I wouldn't have the mini-breakdowns I often do about what I am writing. It is somewhat like the lesson in the Gita: we must love what we are doing, not love what we want to be good at. Want leads to suffering, but for all the writers out there that are going "but...but...but... I'M CREATIVE! SCREW YOU, MR. REQUARD!"

Yes, creativity is good, but creativity by itself won't make you good. If you want to be good at it, then you have to work at writing for the *sake* of writing. It may take longer for some than others, but if you work for the sake of it, you will go from being creative to being good, and from being good to one day being great.

It's about work.

Happy 2014

Stay safe, and remember, if you liked what you read here please take the time to press the +1 button to the left or at the bottom of this post. Doing so gets me higher on Google searches, and I promise you it is the last bit of promotion I will do for this blog. Unless, you know.... book or something.