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How deep should "magic" be explained?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by DassaultMirage, Oct 25, 2013.

  1. DassaultMirage

    DassaultMirage Minstrel

    Title says it all. At what lengths have you all gone with regards to explaining how magic works in your world?

    Basically in my story, there was a plane of existence that served as a bridge between our world and unto "the next". This bridge is only known as "the rift". It was some sort of shadow dimension or other dimension or wuchamacall it, but plainly put, a dimension of raw powers. Right before the Erelims and Fallens were banned by Ein Sof's treaty to wage their war on our dimension, the former taught humans to call on the power of the rift into the mortal plane while the latter mated with humans and produced Nephilims, disfigured humanoids with innate abilities to call on the power of the rift as well. These moves served to continue their proxy war on earth.

    Here's where it got complicated. On "The Next", both Erelims and Fallens were desperate to return to earth (the former to eliminate the Nephilims themselves while the latter were to make sure their offsprings survive) so much that their raw powers seep out and made it as far as "The Rift". The Nephilim's biology were made that everytime they cast a spell, the power they call on the rift to form and fuel their spells were those that have directly seeped out of the Fallens. Not soon after, a group of practitioners (humans who practices the erelim arts) noticed that the spells of Nephilims further their madness and were of greater caliber than ever. After decades of research, these group eventually learned how to do power their spells but by reaching out the raw power that seeped out of the Erelims from "the next" as well. These group became known as the Order of Damocles. After hundreds of years of successfully bringing the Nephilims to the brink of extinction, the Order of Damocles saw how human practitioners have turned on themselves with their magics, hence, from being the slayer of demonborns, the Order of Damocles became the ones who check the power of kings.

    The Rift was kept open by twelve sorceresses known as the Sorceress of the Rift. They were not immortal, but exposure to great power somehow made them age really slow.

    This is basically how it works in my story: Humans/Nephilims ----> casts spell circle ----> raw power from the rift automatically seeks out that spell circle ----> the spell circle serves as a mold, hence, that raw power comes out depending on what the caster wanted it to be.

    The spell circle is basically our "chi" or "chakra" or "life force" (I have three nations in my story using those identical terms). Of course our human life force would be too weak to accomplish the greatest spells, but it could guide immense amounts of raw power when shaped correctly. That was what the Erelims left practitioners with. This is basically as deep as I got. The four major Erelims (Corona - fire, Zephyr - wind, Gaia - earth and Pacifica - water) taught humans how to use their willpower to determine the element that their spell circles would turn the raw powers into. Corona taught the Will of Fire, Zephyr the Will of the Wind, Gaia the Will of the Earth and Pacifica the Will of the Oceans. The same worked for the Nephilims, and from here, many other branches of magic have sprouted out.


    Should I go deeper? I know its not yet what one might call infallible science even in a fictional world, but the plot of this story is too demanding that I haven't really paid more attention to the mechanics of magic. I really will appreciate inputs on this.

    Oh and the names here are subject to changes. I know "The Next" is lame and those four Erelims. I will work on them as soon as I am able.
  2. DassaultMirage

    DassaultMirage Minstrel

    To further clarify things of vital importance xD

    The Fallens were not ensuring the Nephilims' survival out of love. Their evil. They don't do love, but they wanted the Nephilims to win the power struggle only to make the humans suffer.

    The Order of Damocles was a secret human order of no more than 100 members at any given time. By checking the power of kings I don't mean they police over the world, but rather work in covert operations made sure that no one human being hoards enough power to rule and oppress the world. The Order of Damocles were making sure that the progress of humans as a race went on, however, as with the constant theme in my story which is corruption, many Damocles gave in to the powerlust and returned to their respective nations and used their direct-from-erelims spells to help their nations wage war. A series of defections shattered the Order of Damocles, and the remaining dozen were scattered but would unite to stop what could facilitate the return of a Fallen. MY MC was a Damocles, but a noob one XD
  3. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    The question becomes how in depth does your explanation of how magic works need to be in order to make the story clear to your readers without confusing them or bogging them down in too much detail. A lot of what you're describing is necessary not so much for explaining magic in your world as it is (I assume) for explaining the plot. The only way to truly know if you've done enough is to give the completed work to someone else for comment.

    Cheers, Greg.
  4. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    The way I look at it, I go as far as I need too, to make it seem real.
    I have been bored and without time to work on a book.
    So I worked on magic rituals, I went alot further then I could ever include in a story. But I have worked out the specifics and if needed I could include all I feel needed to be written.

    Work out the restrictions, limitations, what keeps the magic from overthrowing the world?

    If you write a story where a character is learning, you might need to go more indepth.

    I did a Q&A with my main char. In it someone asked how she summoned her companion, which she learned in the story.
    As it says, I shared in her words, what I thought the reader would be interested in and the parts that fit in the story from her perspective. I had alot more that I could have written, but any more probably would have been boring.

    Treat magic as another character, you want to know more about that character then any reader would ever want to know, just to be sure.
  5. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    I generally see magic in fiction on a continuum. It can run the gamut between being entirely mysterious or being, basically, just another form of technology - reliable, predictable, and understood (any sufficiently reliable magic is indistinguishable from technology...)

    Tolkien and Martin are a couple of authors who tend more towards mysteriousness in their magic. Sanderson is infamous for explaining it in detail - his magic is really just technology peculiar to the worlds he builds. Robert Jordan did a bit of one and a bit of the other, but tended towards rigorous explanation.

    Which one will suit you better all depends on the mood of your story. Is it high fantastical, or is it more down-to-earth? Will magic or magically-provoked events play a large role in forwarding the plots? I forget who it was that said it, but there's a quote that goes something like: The degree to which magic can believably affect the plot corresponds to how much the reader understands it.

    Magic should not be used as author fiat - doing things because your plot is on a strict track that you set it. George Martin's magic, for instance, has barely affected the larger plot of his books. It plays a smaller role, adding mystery here and there.
  6. Addison

    Addison Auror

    In my experience there's only a few key things to remember and think out when you're writing magic into the story.

    First is consistency. If you write a scene near the beginning where a wizard summons a meteor shower to obliterate an army and the same wizard finds himself against another army but doesn't cast the same spell, the reader needs to understand why. Or if a character can only use magic if he's in moon light or bleeding but casts a spell without either, then you'll break that illusion and lose the reader.

    Second is knowing how rare or common the magic is. The next time you're in a public place, school, starbucks, the bus whatever, look around and imagine you're in your fantasy world. How many people in that room, if representing the world's average, would have magic? One out of ten people? Three out of seven?

    As has been made very clear in Once Upon a Time, "All magic comes with a price." The cost can be whatever you cook up. The wizard might have to serve a higher diety in some errand or chore for every spell. They could get tired as they use more magic. The magic could have a life of its own, only coming when it wants to. They may pay in blood, cookies, sports tickets. Or each spell could change them in some way. Either to the dark side or making them tall, short, fair or dark skinned, freckled etc. I actually like that last one.

    Difficulty, how hard is it to learn and master? Is it easy like Cinderella's grandmother? Waves her wand, sings a silly song and anything can happen? Is it difficult and requires precise words or ingredients?

    Answering and greatly considering those questions will give the magic enough depth for it to become as dimensional as the characters for you and the reader.

    So how rare or common is the magic? Where does it come from? Given my gods or a strange energy from the earth itself? Can it be taken away and how can it be lost? What are the consequences to the user? How difficult or how long will it take to master it?
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  7. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    So much of it is in conveying its limitations, whether you spell them out or not.

    The more the reader goes into a scene thinking "he can just zap that problem (completely) away," the harder it is to have any drama. And, some people point out that the more Tolkienian you are in favoring mystery over Sanderson's precision, the more you still have to use even that intangible tone to convey what magic won't be doing. Gandalf never said "I can't enchant that", but we trusted that if he had a spell that would help he'd already be using it, plus half the time he wasn't around.

    (One other thing: I wouldn't suggest using "chakra" as a name for power. To most of the world it means points of the body that energy flows through, not the energy itself, and I believe Naruto is the only major story to change that. Which is fine for that story itself, but if you're the second author a reader sees using the term you look like you borrowed a word blindly.)
  8. Sam Evren

    Sam Evren Troubadour

    Though the examples I'm going to give are from movies, I think they apply to the question of "how much to explain."

    The first, and more recent, of course, would be Lucas' Star Wars. From 1977 until Episode I, most folks were pretty happy with Obi-Wan's explanation that "the Force" is that which "...surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together..."

    It was a phenomenon beyond the ken of mortals, and mortals were simply happy that it was and that it worked. In a way, much like most folks feel about electricity today. They may not understand the very heart and core of why electricity does what it does, they just know that it does it.

    In Episode I, Lucas introduced the idea of midi-chlorians as microscopic symbiotes that gave one person or another a stronger connection to the Force. In so doing, I think, he demystified the concept. No longer was "the Force" a mysterious, well, force, but a symbiotic relationship akin to a bacterial infection.

    My second example is from the Highlander series of movies.

    The first Highlander was a cult classic. It was fun. I remember seeing it when it first came out and I was blown away. Immortals you say, living throughout history. Decapitating each other in a long, drawn out game---the rules for which are passed down orally. From where you ask? We don't know.

    How's it all work? "Who knows," answers Ramirez, "why is the sky blue or are the stars just pinholes in the curtain of night?" And that was an acceptable answer. Not only was it acceptable, that mystery added weight, it added gravitas to the plight of the Immortals.

    Then Highlander 2 rolls around and they're all just aliens who've been placed on Earth as a sort of prison. And that makes them immortal. And, for some inconceivable reason, if they get their heads cut off, they get to go home---as if decapitation is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

    I give these examples not to bring up movie lore, but to simply say that you can explain too much. You can demystify your most mysterious features if you try too hard to explain your logic.

    The unknown is powerful. What we don't know scares us. What we don't know forces us to learn, to adapt, to improvise.

    If you see a street magician, the magic is in your desire to understand, to know what's happened. If the trick is actually revealed, you're more than likely to feel let down, disappointed.

    Understanding your world is key for you. Understanding, for yourself, how magic works keeps you consistent. Giving away your tricks can undermine your intent.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2013
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  9. TrustMeImRudy

    TrustMeImRudy Troubadour

    While Sam Evren made several excellent points, I just want to say it does depend on your intent. If you want your magic to unfold in a quasi-scientific way, with rules and laws that govern it and show it to be a force of nature that can be harnessed, you can still retain pacing and mystery by unfolding it over time. Brandon Sanderson's Elantris does this very well. By the end the magic is explained quite well but never while slowing anything down. If you are going to explain it, I say the best way is to work it into dialogue, progressively, over the course of the novel or series.

    If its mystery you are going for though, Sam got it all covered quite well!
  10. DassaultMirage

    DassaultMirage Minstrel

    Thank you all for the responses. I'm working in it now. I'm inclined to leave parts of it revealed and parts of it a mystery, leaving the rest to the readers' imagination. I will post what I will come up with once I'm done. Muchas Gracias Amigos y Amigas xD
  11. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Hey, I just skimmed the thread so sorry if I end up repeating points people already made.

    The way I see it, you want to explain just enough about magic to make the reader think that there IS a system in place, but not too much that you end up painting yourself into a corner. Look at Harry Potter. What are the rules of magic there? Only certain people can use magic, You need a wand to use magic, and You need a specific combination of movements and enunciation to use the spell correctly. There's also potions which are just as specific as spells and there's certain exceptions to the wand + incantation magic rules, but they're always portrayed as extremely advanced techniques. There might be rules I'm forgetting, but those are the major ones. It is enough to tell us that there ARE rules, but it never explains the principles behind those rules.

    Personally, I would suggest you as an author decide on what is or is not possible with your magic. Basically you should set hard rules for yourself so that your magic doesn't grow into some ridiculous deus ex machina, but you don't necessarily have to explain that to the readers.

    With my magic setting I have mana, but instead of being the energy for spells they're basically low level spirits. They're to spirits what bacteria are to the animal world. Normally the mana just floats about passively feeding off thoughts and producing magic, but mages can communicate with the mana symbiotically feeding off of them and give them orders to create and move around magic in the form of spells. Magical diseases like Lycanthropy, Vampirism, and Curses are the result of certain altered strains of mana. What spells you are best at and can specialize in depend on the strain of your mana. If your mana is damaged, your ability to use magic is damaged. Making contracts with higher orders of spirits than Mana can potentially allow you to use stronger magic at the cost of your magic being further restricted by the spirit's nature.
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  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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  13. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    I think "hard magic" is best, imho.
    I hate when the wizard just does something and fixes it all with a wave of a wand. If there isn't support for the action, then it is too comvienent.

    Main questions for magic:
    1.What keeps magic from conquering the world?
    2.What keeps magic from changing the world?
    3.What keeps magic from changing what has already come to pass? (Timetravel, communicating with someone from the past to change the future?)
    4.What keeps magic from endlessly bringing people back to life?

    If magic is all powerful, then someone will gather all the powerful mages together and taking over. If a mage can wipe out armys, then who can stand against the mage, except another mage?
    The fantasy problem. All powerful wizard stands against vast armies, but is always killed by one or a small number of otherwise normal people. Someone doesn't gain such power without knowing how to prevent the individual from harming them.
    If its gods will, then why doesn't god just teleport the good guy to kill the bad guy, and be done with it?
    If its destiny, lore tells of a commoner rising from the fields that will kill the evil overlord mage. Still feels like God could just step in and fix it without the commoner.

    In my system, there is a low mana problem. If you cast a high enough level spell, you could die from draining yourself. There is ways to link people to draw on mana from a group, voluntarily and by force. Most major spells require some mana storage system or alot of mana lives to draw from.
    Mana is pretty much set after puberty, it is slightly different from person to person. Experience and skill changes the amount of mana it takes to cast. But the old wise mage doesn't have alot more mana then the new apprentice.
    Some magical creatures are mana banks, and can be used to cast stronger magic. Dragons and Unicorns are two upper mana beasts. (Unicorn mana is not only for good. Evil that kills a unicorn using blood magic can call upon their massive mana supply.)
    I did create a soceity much like Avatar, where a society linked together to allow the shaman to use great magic in times of need.
    Mostly defensive in nature, because you can't drag the whole town to attack to many other towns, and also getting so many to concentrate and focus to allow the tapping of mana, would allow armies to sweep in and kill them. The town has a mana storage device that can't be moved, so the shaman can cast within a certain range without the people being prepared.

    Knowing the limits of magic will help prevent the reader from feeling like the mage is god like and can fix the situation no matter how bad, with a simple spell. (Who needs the rest of the party if the mage can wipe it out with a spell?)

    "How deep is your...magic, how deep is your magic, I really neeeeed to learn...Cause I'm living in a world of magic, bringing us down..."
    Thanks, I just paraphrased the BEE GEES.
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2013
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  14. C Hollis

    C Hollis Troubadour

    Unless you're composing a training manual on how to use magic, I don't think the explanation needs to be in depth at all. You know how it works. You know its limitations. You know the rules. As long as you stick to it, and don't break any of your rules, it's all good. The strange thing; if you drift from your rules, the readers will know.

    As with most other aspects of a story, you only need to tell the reader what the reader needs to know. If a wizard can't torch a ship because it's made from wargwood, then slip the reader a note, but if there's no ship made of wargwood, the reader won't care.

    Look to Moby Dick. Melville knew boats and what drives away most modern readers is the he spent countless pages showing off his knowledge of boats and whaling when most of it had zero bearing on the story.

    Don't waste your time telling me about this wonderful magic system you put together. If I need to know something, show it to me when it is necessary.
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  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Moby Dick is a good book. Melville wasn't just showing off, that was part of his purpose. They didn't have the media and wide spread of information we have now. The whaling information is separated into chapters and was intentionally put there to give readers information on real worldbsailing and whaling. Not to show off.
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  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I think it is true, the writer needs to know more than they necessarily divulge. Depending on how you use magic, you can get away with fewer rules or may need more.
  17. C Hollis

    C Hollis Troubadour

    Maybe showing off was not a good term to use, but I respectfully disagree.
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2013
  18. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    I think the magic rules should apply more to the writer and less to the reader.

    Knowing your limits will keep you from abusing magic to some turn of events that nothing else would create.

    Explaining why things work is optional to the story.
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    From what I understand, it is essentially a matter of fact. When Moby Dick was first published, the detail of the chapters on whales and whaling were one aspect that the critics seemed very much to appreciate (it was only later that the books gained stature as a novel). Doesn't make sense to me to divorce the text from the time period and from what the author set out to do.

    But even the whaling chapters are interesting apart from the subject matter, but just from a literary standpoint. Melville makes some nice use of language and metaphor in these chapters.
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I think it was Sanderson who said that the more undefined your magic is, the less you can use it to resolve plot points. That seems like a sensible way of looking at it in general terms, though I think you can operate successfully outside of it. Having firmly established rules sets the reader's expectations (even if they don't necessarily know what they rules are) and they are less likely to feel cheated when magic saves the day, as opposed to the situation where magic is a deus ex machina that inexplicably arrives to rescue the plot.

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