Saturday, February 22, 2014

Writing Magic (Sorcery pt. 3)

(Please note: This is the third installment of a series of posts I am writing on the subject of magic and its incorporation into fiction. Links to the first and second installments can be found here.)

Writing magic can be a difficult thing for a beginning writer, and speaking from personal experience, it took me a very long time to be able to create exactly what I wanted on the page. Even now I work on it almost daily, trying to transfer something that seems so simple in my head but is in fact very difficult to execute. What I have discovered along the way is that the best way to tackle the intricacy of writing magic isn't to over-complicate for the sake of being "edgy" or "cool" or "gross, or whatever "adjective" you want to impress upon the reader. Clarity and active demonstration are the greatest indications of design.

Now without question magic is a tricky thing to write, mostly because you have to have rules, and once you break one rule, what is the worth of any of them?

What I suggest for writing magic aren't rules, but guidelines. Guidelines allow you to remain fluid and varied, all the while keeping you restrained enough so that you don't throw a gigantic plot hole into the story because of the magic, which often happens in fantasy fiction. Holes created by magic are often hard to fix without either taking out whatever action created them, or by having to redesign various aspects of your system on the fly.

I struggled with this problem in Paper Demons, a Sword & Sorcery short that was published within Thunder on the Battlefield by Seventh Star Press. At the time I was reading a lot of Taoist scripture and literature, and I wanted to incorporate paper amulets into a story where a small team of mercenaries face off against a wizard and her demons. I had seen paper amulets used before in Manga and Anime, but truth be told, I find the use of magic in those genres a little too convoluted. I also wanted to make their effects palpable in terms of texture. While I can't republish sections of the story here because of contractual obligations, I can give you a little in to how I solved it.

So here is what a paper amulet looks like:

This is a Taoist amulet like the ones used by priests and mystics in rural and urban China. The glyphs on them provide specific protections for a household (protection from fire, theft, sickness, etc.) and most people glue them to the walls of their homes, usually over a door frame. What I wanted with my villain character, the rebel wizard Wei-Tzu, was to have her own type of magic that was unique to the culture I was trying to lovingly portray. Wei-Tzu isn't inherently evil, she is just an impassioned rebel with a definite crazy streak. Amulets were going to be her way to suppress the mercenaries and summon her demons. If the amulets are destroyed, no more demons.

See how easy that was for me to explain it? That is how easy it should be for the reader to understand it. Let's recap:

1. Writing magic should be written in a way where it is not complicated for the reader OR the writer to understand.
2. Guidelines work better than rules. Guidelines allow for openness and flexibility while rules restrict and can lead to a rigidness that might create plot holes.
3. Write everything down in an easy place in an easy way so you can refer to it later.
4. Magic is a plot device, never independent of the story being told.
5. If you can explain it to a person easily and they can understand it, you *should* be able to write magic in a way a reader understands it just as well.

Looking at, everything save Rule #2 can be applied to writing science fiction as well. But that is a post for another blog in another time. If I missed anything or you want to add a comment, by all means, speak up and I will add it in here.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope to see you again soon!