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How to Explain Magic Without a Detailed Magic System

Discussion in 'World Building' started by crash, Jan 23, 2014.

  1. crash

    crash Scribe

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    So I've got a WIP that will mainly be set in world at an early 20th century level of culture and technology. Now, I've kinda sorta got a magic system that's not really a magic system. The basics are that magic is a very rare phenomena, mostly because it hinges on the user having gone through a mental, emotional and/or physical breaking point (like a psychotic break, a near death experience, surviving torture, etc). Even then, how magic is used varies from culture to culture. A culture with shamanistic and animistic beliefs would appoint a person with magical powers as the shaman, but a culture that we would identify as "Western" and/or "European", might see magic as individual, isolated events and would be used as psychics, mediums, fortune tellers or (Audra-Kurona) within the espionage community. Magic itself is very individual in use and ability, so no two magic users are alike.

    My problem comes in how to explain this in story. I'm planing on more of a collection of interconnected stories that share a world instead of one linear one. There would be characters and locations who appear in multiple stories, but the main characters would be different in each story, primary settings would change, but events in one story would effect other stories. With that, I'd like some ideas on how to explain magic whenever it comes up.
     
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Since nothing has been written, it's hard to make specific suggestions. The first thing that comes to mind, though, is a little glib but meant sincerely: don't explain it. Show it.

    This will work in two respects, I think. One is the standard saw about show don't tell. That is, it will benefit your story and your reader not to launch into an explanation but simply to show the stuff in operation and how characters react to it.

    Two, it will benefit the author. That is, you yourself don't know how all this works yet. Start writing scenes and you will start making decisions about how magic works. You will have to live with these decisions in subsequent scenes. As you start finding yourself constrained and directed by earlier choices, you will start to create a "system".

    In general, I like having the characters do the explanation. For example, one character might never have encountered magic and react with shock, horror, awe, whatever. Another character might have encountered it before, but this encounter is quite different. That character might react with confusion, even disbelief. Whatever the reaction, other characters will respond. And there's the explanation. I try to keep it strictly to the matter at hand and not try to explain the entire system at a whack.

    FWIW, I have found that diving in and writing, inventing only what is needed for the scene or story, has been incredibly useful. I, too, have a span of stories--not interconnected but all in the same fantasy world--so I'm very aware that a decision I make in Story A is going to condition choices available in Story B. Now, I am also trying to construct backstory that has a magical system, but I have no plans of trying to introduce all that into any particular tale.
     
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I'll echo what skip wrote, as I'm also in a similar situation. Show magic from how it's done from the perspective of the character that uses it. I think this will give the reader a more intuitive feel for the magic rather than if you explain the theory behind it.
     
  4. crash

    crash Scribe

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    Sounds pretty good. I guess the WIP magic has more of a running theme than a system. The theme being how people gain magical powers.
     
  5. Hainted

    Hainted Sage

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    Define these 3 characteristics of your magic, and the rest will fall into place.(or at least make your depiction of magic consistent)

    a.Rarity: 1-8, 1 is everyone knows about magic, and is capable of doing it while 8 means 1 person might be able to do magic but no one else has even heard of this concept.

    b. Difficulty: 1-8, 1 is any feat is possible with no effort, while 8 requires massive amounts of prep, power, and skill to perform the simplest acts.

    c. Cost/Danger; 1-8, 1 means nothing bad happens when a spell or ritual goes wrong, while 8 means the world ends through a spelling error.

    For example Harry Potter would be:
    Rarity 5( People have heard of magic even if they don't believe in it, and Wizards are born not chosen for it.)

    Difficulty 4 (requires years of schooling, but even difficult spells can be mastered in short amount of time)

    Cost/Danger 2 (despite many many flubs and mis-casts nothing permanent ever seems to come about from faulty magic, nor does anyone die.)

    There. Good magical system without a lot of rule making.
     
  6. Noma Galway

    Noma Galway Archmage

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    Except the ones who were supposed to die.
     
  7. crash

    crash Scribe

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    And since there's espionage, folks will be killed
     
  8. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    While I like the idea of a great trauma causing magical abilities, like a supernatural defense mechanism, I think you need to work out what you mean by trauma. Looking at our own world, for instance, would Gitmo be full of magicians now? What about those coming home from Iraq after multiple tours, especially the huge number of soldiers missing limbs? How about all the people who've written memoirs about suffering horrible abuse, each having to out-horror the ones before it? What about the millions starving and enslaved around the world? Great trauma is, sadly, becoming the norm in America again as it remains in much of the world. Why does one trauma suffer get magic and most others don't?

    That said, a great example of magic stemming from trauma is in the movie "Lost Highway," when a man unjustly put on death row disappears from his cell and is replaced by a guy living nearby and who was magically woke up in the cell. I think Lynch's premise is that instead of the inmate suffering a psychotic break in which he thought he was another person, Lynch decided to make him literally another person, then asked himself, Then what person? Where did the guy come from? Which made the story that guy's from that point on.

    Also, does the magic use relieve the person of the trauma? Consider the Thomas Convenant series, in which the unbearable main character simply cannot believe he's not a leper in the alternate world.

    And who can experience the magic? While the magic in One Hundred Years of Solitude is more everyday and experienced by many, it's not perceived by everyone.

    Finally, if trauma causes magic, wouldn't it behoove a state to torture people into Stockholm-like compliance while creating an army of wizards?
     
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2014
  9. crash

    crash Scribe

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    I've been thinking about why not everyone who's experienced trauma can't use magic, and because I am dealing with different cultures, I've been toying with the idea of different explanations from culture to culture. One would chalk it up to the ancestors or spirits choosing them for one reason or another. Another culture would say that there's a very specific breaking point that's unique to each person that when breached, magic happens and it still needs research. Another culture would treat it like how we treat earthquakes: we can't predict when they'll happen, but we could prepare for when it does happen. As for interaction, again it depends where you go and who you talk to.

    And I want to emphasize that each magic user is unique. Two of my planned main characters are magic users and each have very different lives, world views and upbringings. One has been raised since she was an infant to be a spy, she wasn't abused, fairly we'll adjusted, but her powers manifest when she's 21 in a fight or flight situation. The other, who was a teen when the former character was a child, comes from a nomadic, matrilineal culture that was subjugated for 70 years prior to the setting. In the latter character's case, she nearly died of TB when she was 11 (most people figured that she should have died, she was so sick), and her dreams and visions manifested in physical powers and she became the clan shaman.

    I feel like in this world, magic is sort of like background radiation that pools in a few areas, giving Bermuda Triangle affect. Furthermore, magic my even have something of a mind of its own. It's alive, active, maybe has an agenda, and it seems to act randomly in areas where magic pools. At least that's the idea I kind of have.
     
  10. Hainted

    Hainted Sage

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    In terms of torture, most Shamans go through ordeals to awaken their abilities, or commune with spirits. Maybe it's not the torture so much as pursuit of a goal or belief in something beyond themselves that causes the magic to manifest.
     
  11. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    It may be that it's not general stress but having to struggle against magical forces, or else certain drugs (common for most shamans) that create the same specific strain. Richard Gleaves wrote about surviving a spirit's attack "strengthening the spiritual muscles."
     
  12. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    I think you're getting at something interesting: "magic is sort of like background radiation." What if some people are better receptors than others like the guys at Bell Labs or, via some experience, learn how to tune in to it (see Jesus, as it were). To take it back further, was there a magical big bang that caused the radiation? If magic is intelligent, is it a manifestation of deity? To combine the two, what if the big bang was a god exploding? I would suggest you decide on the source of the magic and the physics of it, even if you never mention this in the story, and let that guide you. Otherwise, the magic grant could seem arbitrary (like the rules in too many of Gaiman books) or, worse, for narrative expediency (like Star Trek when a ship-saving ability is used in one episode and forgotten thereafter because it would solve problems before the first commercial). Besides, explaining the magical system can be half the fun of a world, from Rialto being able to hold only so many spells in his head to Kelsier telling Vin how to burn metals; and part of the book could be discovering the source of the magic.
     
    BloodyNine and wordwalker like this.
  13. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    A-men to that. That "50% of the world's fun" might even be literal; it might be the most memorable, most distinct thing for your readers to hold onto when they go on to the next author. And, it only works if you succeed with the other half of the world, and the non-world foundations of plot and character and all. It's the best kind of trim.
     
  14. KLMcKinley

    KLMcKinley New Member

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    I really appreciate everyone's input on this. It's made me think about how I explain situations in my own story (i.e., an alien culture) without having to go into a ton of detail, especially all at once (Nature abhors info dump.).
    I'm echoing a couple of beautiful points.
    Part of the fun (maybe it's the masochist in me) is having a basic idea of a concept and then writing and seeing what my brain fills in and spills onto the page (I get poetic before I have my coffee.)
    I'm reminded that maybe an outline for something so detailed (as magic, or an alien culture) isn't my enemy. At least it's a good way to keep track of everything, especially if you're writing a series.
    Dialog and action will do much of the explaining of your magic system/theme and give your reader something to process subconsciously.
    Forgive me if I missed this, Crash, but who is your target? Young Adults? Us old Adults? I think target audience plays a factor in how detailed you start out and if you expect your audience to "grow" with you, as with the Harry Potter series (Thank you, Hainted, for bringing Harry Potter to mind.).
     
  15. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Time for a practical example. :D

    On my wiki I've got magic explained in quite some detail. I have a handful or two of articles that explains the various intricacies and limitations and other things. It's probably a few thousand words at least. You can have a look at it here: Magic - Odd Lands Wiki - don't bother reading it all, it's old and not that well written, but a look will give you an idea about the amount of detail that's gone into it.

    In my recent short story I show my MC using magic to light a cigarette in the following two paragraphs:
    These few lines show the basics of magic usage; channeling and weaving. It also introduces the fact that your current altitude will have an impact on how hard/easy the channeling is.

    Later on, this happens:
    This shows a slightly different approach to doing magic. It's still about channeling and weaving, and the character is still the same, but now that she's drunk and panicked she does it a bit differently and gets a very different result.

    I think that from these two versions the reader gets the idea that magic is something delicate and potentially dangerous. You may also have something of an idea of how it works, even though you probably wouldn't be able to explain it in detail.
     
    BloodyNine likes this.
  16. Shakantea

    Shakantea Acolyte

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    What if someone intentionally made themselves have a mental break? Would they be able to get magic that way?
     
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