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What is the role of magic in your world?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Greybeard, Mar 23, 2011.

  1. Greybeard

    Greybeard Minstrel

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    Have you defined how magic works in your fictional world? Is it something forbidden and feared? Or is it a part of daily life?

    Which approach is more appealing to the reader, and which is more satisfying for the author?
     
  2. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

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    Yes to the first question.
    I have two forms of magic. One is inborn in everyone who is a descendent of the Lerca, spirits of nature. It is not a part of daily life for most people because it doesn’t turn up too often. If it does, it’s really well-respected among most people. There’s not country where this form of magic is banned or its users persecuted, as long as they don’t abuse their powers.
    And then there’s elemental magic. It is not inborn but acquired, which is one of the reasons why it’s looked upon with a certain distrust. There’s no guarantee that it will only turn up in “worthy” people, which is believed of the first form of magic. It can also be extremely dangerous of course and is viewed by many as against nature or life or both. In one country its use is banned completely and the practitioners are hunted down, in others they have to follow strict rules. Often the people using different elements are viewed differently. This depends on the properties of the element and the actions of the most recent (in)famous user if it.

    That’s a difficult and interesting question. Most stories I know have only “evil” magic as something forbidden and feared and the readers are supposed to share that believe. This may or may not work depending on the story.
    Secret, hidden magical societies the main character is introduced into surely have a certain appeal. Outright persecution doesn’t really, at least not for me. Especially stories where the good, special and powerful magicians are hunted down by some ignorant others are rather annoying in my opinion.
    Absolutely “everyday” magic isn’t perfect either because it threatens to take away the specialness of magic, but this doesn’t have to be the case.
    The same goes for the rest of the above, by the way. If done well, all of it can make an appealing story, if done badly everything can get annoying.

    Which approach is more satisfying for the author? I think this really depends on the author’s personality, the issues important to him and the story he wants to tell. I don’t believe that there’s any general rule.
     
  3. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    In my current work in progress, there is no magic. Or rather, magic doesn't exist, though this doesn't stop people from believing it exists. It is something people are generally suspicious of, and some bad things that happen are blamed on people using magic, but the evilness of this is squarely on the person performing dark magic rather than the magic itself. Thus magic has a generally bad rep, but people who claim to use magic for say healing and whatnot aren't considered automatically evil.

    In the other universe I have written a few stories in, there is magic, but it's a background force - it's what enables my immortals to exist, but it cannot be manipulated. It is basically a force which under certain circumstances, and with certain criteria met, enables collective imagination to become reality. Thus in the prehistory of my universe, several different cultures imagining a personification of a river god, of Death, of shadows, coupled with certain individuals in some way being linked to these traits (someone living and working in a river, someone else being directly or indirectly responsible for several deaths, and someone else living her whole life in the darkness, respectively, resulting in these people becoming immortal personifications of these concepts and geographical concepts due to magic and collective imagination.
     
  4. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    In my world, magic is something of an abstract concept. The world is an ocean - pure water to the very core - and the life inside the ocean grew to be powerful beings of force. Magic, as they are called. They are magic themselves. These creatures are immortal and near invincible, yet they slumber for thousands of years at a time. They are oft unaware of the worlds around them, though some believe they are actively maleficent. From them, the lands and the world above formed. If one lost a limb (and they have many to spare), it would float to the surface and harden into stone, becoming an island. Some larger continents formed, but few are any larger than Texas or California. Some of the creatures of the sea migrated onto land, evolving vaguely as those creatures in our world did. Plants propped up, fueled by the magical soil, and perhaps most importantly, the remnants of magic became lifeforms themselves, Faeries.

    Faeries are parasites, and they seek to destroy the original magic. They created man. When the Magic saw man, they allowed him a chance at magic. They extended his ears as to create a large cavity, where faerie dust could be stored. You see, it needs to have constant contact with the flesh in order to be magical, yet must be kept somewhere where it won't fall before hardening to stone (which is used for earrings thereafter, and still has lingering magical effect). Those humans who accepted the gift became the elves, and those that did not were sent to Earth to live out their days on the odd planet.

    That's the history of magic, and the basics of how it works. In practice, not everyone uses magic. It is an option for everyone, provided you can buy or catch (good luck) yourself a faery. There are professional faerie hunters who will sell you a bottled faery for a hefty price, but every now and then you'll get someone lucky enough to catch one themselves. The lower class is far less likely to have a faerie, but people in the middle class can still afford them, and often do. The upper class, if anything, is less likely to use magic, as they benefit more from knowledge than power. Some study magic in certain disciplines, though. Mind reading is a good one. That helps a lot in the business world. It should be noted, though, that before magic can ever become powerful, it must specialize. One cannot learn to read every mind without first giving up the ability to only read one. One woman in my story can move water, but as she ages, her magic can only move pure water, and in the wake of a wave she creates, a pile of sea salt and fish lies behind.

    Everything is magical, as well. The world itself is magic, after all. Bonds are created through blood, sex, and time. One can falsify bonds, too. This one is perhaps a somewhat significant role of magic. Rulers, called Royal Fathers here, cannot have magic. It is a safety precaution. But they must be ensured safety from assassination. It became law that the Royal Father must have bound himself to a dragon triumvirate (dragons mate in threes), three dragons who protect him and care for him, yet he cannot order about. There is no telepathic link, no dragon riding, nothing like that. If someone pulls a gun on him, they will be eaten, but he cannot simply order a person on the street to be burned and expect results. That is perhaps the most significant law about magic in existence.

    Mostly, the people use magic for their jobs. A cook learns magic to heat food, beat eggs, or whatever it is most beneficial to them. One could theoretically learn magic specifically designed to 'create food', too. My main character at one point learned magic to speak telepathically, because he is a mute (he loses his magic when he becomes Royal Father). But a lot of people just don't learn magic, either out of lack of a faerie or simply because they don't see the point. It is a part of the world, it is integral to how many things run, but at the same time, day to day life is often only impacted minimally by the use of magic. It is useful, but their civilization would not be dramatically different if magic only existed in the background (save for one key historical event).
     
  5. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

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    Hmmm. You know, that's actually not a bad question. In my current work, there is no magic. But in my last completed one, this is something that isn't easy to answer - I've never really asked myself the question, to be honest.

    I suppose magic in that book is a shortcut for the 'unfairness' of imbalance in relations. Magic-users in that world are naturally longer-lived and obviously more powerful than their mundane brethren. The whole world takes it in stride because it's the way things have been forever. Of course, the same imbalance can be found when you weight some other magical beings against human magic-users (weighing these other magical beings against NORMAL humans is just useless). Finally, one wizard wonder why some creatures were given such ridiculous power and others weren't, basically just reflecting on the unfairness of the universe. Magic often drives that imbalance.
     
  6. ooOooo nice question Greybeard! The role of magic in my novels... It's nothing more then another fighting style. There's no "cost" cause it's magic the characters have had since they were embryos x.x Not everyone can use it, those that can't have other ways to fight. It's typically only supposed to be used in life and death situations to make the duels more even, though in full out war they're legal. o_O
     
  7. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    While the extent to which I make it a part of daily life varies from story to story, I never make it "forbidden and feared"–for the simple reason that I nearly always hate stories of that sort. (That, plus it's a dreadful cliché.) The extent to which I define it varies as well… though in most cases, it isn't defined within the story at all, due to space considerations. I prefer to know for myself how it works in my settings: as I've mentioned elsewhere, it gives me a much stronger sense of control over its use, of what it can be expected to be able to do and not do. The details are unlikely to be confided to my readers, however, unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

    As you can probably guess, I therefore find a "well-defined" system to be more satisfying from an auctorial standpoint. From the viewpoint of the reader, it probably varies widely with individual predilection.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  8. Dr.Dorkness

    Dr.Dorkness Minstrel

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    I believe magic is all around us. Take a look at various musical plays. Or Various written texts made by illustrious writers. Now i take those kinds of magics that I believe are already in the world and take them and exagerate them. Dwarven magic for example is rune magic (aka. magic of the written word). For example they write the runes on a piece of paper, fold it up and give it to someone else. this person will have incredible strength for as long as he is in posession of this piece of paper, or burn to death, depending on the rune or combination of runes.

    Often music inspires people. So it does in my stories. But have you everheard of bards strikeing up a particular tune and shooting an fireball from his/her lute? this kind of magic is of course only accesable for master bard. since one needs to play a certain tune and state of mind.

    Shamanism/divine magic. Or as I Like to call it "Believe and it is", this magic is the magic of the mind so to say. These powers come from the self persuasion. most of the time helped by meditation or some deity or the believe that a leaf can heal a wound. Everything can be as long as you can persuade yourself.

    Now this brings me to the next form of magic. Magic from items. Most of the time magic items are created by one of the above magics. rune magic being the most common. But perhaps a legedary bard has played so many "Spells" that his/her instrument has become an magic item.

    There are also some mysterious natural magics in my world. For example a culture of people give blood to a certain tree. then the tree chooses one of these people and gives them seeds. the people of this culture then keep al but one of the seeds. and the one they plant near the sea. the seed then grows, and becomes a ship. a living ship. the person who was chosen becomes the captain of this ship and will have a bond with it due to his/her blood sacrifice. in exchange for the ship this person will bring the seeds to distant lands so that the tree will have "offspring".

    These are the magics in my world. Perhaps I will add some more in the future.
     
  9. Zahantian

    Zahantian Acolyte

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    In my world, magic is quite a central part to the story. I think that it's one of those things that most of us love as children and can't resist as we get older- it's wondrous and dramatic (and who doesn't love a little drama).
     
  10. myrddin173

    myrddin173 Maester

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    In my world there are seven tribes with their own distinct magic, named for the attributes of the magic and for how it manifests.
    Dwarves-Stone, ability to remain the same
    Elves-Wood, ability to change
    Northern Dragons-Darkness, ability to conceal
    Southern Dragons-Light, ability to reveal
    Northern Humans-Water, ability to nourish/replenish
    Southern Humans-Fire, ability to consume/destroy

    The magics come in pairs to balance themselves. The seventh/dominant tribe's magic is focused on maintaining balance, it's the fulcrum in each of the pairs.

    I have a series planned for this world, each of the books will focus on one of the magics and the title will reflect that (ie. Enduring Stone, Revealing Light, Concealing Darkness, Consuming Fire.)

    Also everyone has the ability to learn magic to varying degrees of proficiency, its basically a trade like any other. Magic is not feared because its a natural birthright everyone shares.

    Originally the magical tribes coexisted with non-magic folk but a significant number of magical people were giving the tribes a bad reputation by using their magic to control/subjugate the non-magic folk and as a result the non-magic folk began to fear them. Finally the "bad" tribes-people caused a great plague to occur so the Leader of the Seventh Tribe called the leaders of the other tribes to work a spell to seal the "bad" guys away. By the very nature of the seventh tribe's magic it was necessary for the good guys to be removed from the world also. So they manufactured a world to live in. Basically they form a lock on the bad guys prison, which is a crucial plot point in the series.
     
  11. The Realm Wanderer

    The Realm Wanderer Troubadour

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    In my novel's world, magic users are quite uncommon but not a rarity. They are also not considered human though they look alike. The magic users are frustrated because their gifts only let them defend, not attack. The non magic users despise those who are because they have been forced to rely on them for protection against otherworldly beasts.
    The novel's protagonist is the first born with the ability to use his magic for offence, making him extremely important in the war against the beasts.
    I believe that having magic considered inhumane, dangerous and something to be feared is better for both author and reader. Especially for more adult fantasy because the drama of it and the feelings of those who can use magic is a lot more interesting than an everyday, common occurence. For me a lot more fun writing it this way and I know I'd prefer to read something that was portrayed this way.
     
  12. Fnord

    Fnord Troubadour

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    This is not unlike my approach either. And there are reasons for it making the most sense really:

    Magic allows you to do otherworldly things outside the regular boundaries of physical reality. It can create something from nothing, it can heal wounds or bring the dead back to life, it control others without them even realizing it. Unless magic is utterly a pedestrian pursuit that nearly anyone can practice to some extent (and thus protect themselves from others with it), it's hard to reconcile the fact that people would view others with such abilities with suspicion if not outright fear.

    And if magic is exceptionally common, then there completely different sets of incentives in the world that people would respond to. My background is in economics and my first thoughts were always "how would introducing this element change the decisions of people that existed in such a world?" If magic is common, then scarcity becomes less common. A high-magic world will thus have much greater abundance in all things such as food, water, and other resources as well as protections against injury, disease, and even death itself. This would most certainly affect the ways people behave; there would be much greater moral hazard, for example, as risks are greatly reduced for those who practice magic, let alone magic being widely available. Artisans would seem woefully outdated when magic effectively recreates effects that our modern world of machinery and technology affords us. A highly magical world would indeed be a fantastic place; people would want for little and leisure would be greatly maximized. While that sounds like a great world to live in, for me it doesn't create as many elements of conflict which are key to a good story.

    Now all of that goes out the door if magic has more serious constraints (or costs, as us economics geeks think of them), which means that magic itself has to be scarce or limited in some way. And as with any scarce or limited resource (especially one as powerful as magic), the people with access to it will be at odds with people who do not.

    As I'm starting to brainstorm on how to create a "magic system", I've been keeping this in mind. I experimented with a lot of different systems over the years as I refined the table-top RPG world I had created and recreated. One thing I tried was simply requiring the use of some living force to be able to work magic, which meant the magic-user had to draw life out of himself (or the more nefarious magicians drew it out of others) which entails an enormous cost (such as aging oneself prematurely) if one became too flippant about its use. Another system I tried was requiring access to some sort of magical substance in order to properly be used, which means magic is restricted by the scarcity of an actual element, much like other things in the physical world are and control over the sources of that element was central to the conflict (like oil is today, for instance). And, of course, there is the old standby of requiring pacts with otherworldly beings for access to such things--or at the very least being a "shortcut" around the other constraints. I still haven't figured out a good way to go about it that doesn't seem overdone or "forced" (like the spellbook memorization constraint that was such a clumsy part of old D&D systems).
     
  13. The Realm Wanderer

    The Realm Wanderer Troubadour

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    Well said Fnord. If i'd had the patience, that is pretty much how I'd have said it :)
     
  14. Fnord

    Fnord Troubadour

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    If I'm good at anything, it's being ridiculously wordy. :D
     
  15. The Realm Wanderer

    The Realm Wanderer Troubadour

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    Indeed, it would appear so ;)
     
  16. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

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    Interesting post indeed, Fnord.
    Trying to "think yourself" into the opinions held by the people in your world is very important during world-building. In my own world, everyone's child or younger sibling or cousin might get elemental magic and need help from the trained ones, therefore most cultures tolerate or respect it. There's one nation where many people would kill their own child in this case, however.

    I'm not a great fan of the approach where magic costs lifetime, body parts or whatever even though it seems quite popular. At least, I've seen it in many forums and have read at least one book using this. I don't really know why I dislike this concept myself, maybe just because I don't want the characters I read or write about to have such strict restrictions placed upon themselves.

    I like to explore themes of free will and prejudice, that's why everyone can do good or evil with any element but people distrust the users of some of them. Magicians can be driven insane by their gifts if they aren't careful but there's no action that necessarily triggers this.
    The formula "do X and you will fall to the dark side" doesn't apply in my stories. Magcially, there is no difference between killing bacteria or people for example, the difference that it does make lies in the person. Sometimes there isn't any though and every being thought of as "vermin" is treated with the same contempt. Therefore insulting someone as such is a very severe issue in my world.

    My magic isn't limited by it's cost but by the things it can do. It wouldn't be able to lead the fantasy world's inhabitants to more prosperity than our technology does, even for reaching a similar level they need plenty of "ordinary" technology as well.
    I like the idea with the special substance needed for magic, though. If done well this could lead to interesting stories with not blatantly-obvious links to real world problems.

    Real "high magic"-worlds where magic replaces technology and has led to a society more advanced than ours in some aspects and less so in others can be very interesting as well though. I haven't stumbled over anything like that yet, however, people cling to their "classical" medieval worlds too strongly. Harry Potter went into this direction but because it was set in our own world, it doesn't really count for me.
    I don't think high magic does have to keep conflicts out of a world or make them less threatening. High technology definitly didn't.
    In Harry Potter, to return to this example, most ordinay injuries such as broken bones can be healed with magic extremely easily but this doesn't apply to many magical means of injury. JKR didn't go very deeply into the consequences of this and it hasn't always been consistant.
    I tried to think this through during my Harry Potter-mania and wondered if this would lead Muggleborns and Purebloods to react differently to different means of torture. A Muggleborn would be more threatend by beatings, breaking bones and so on because they've been taught to fear such injuries most, while the pureblood would fear the Cruciatus curse which causes no visible damage more. While ordinary injuries can be healed with a simple spell, the Cruciatus curse may cause a permanent comatose state and there's no cure.
    Yes, that's the kind of thing I've spend my time on while reading Harry Potter, don't ask. ;)
    I'd still like to have my own high-magic world, but up to now all my attempts have failed in the beginning state. But this might be because I just can't let go of my chemical elemental magical world and high magic just wouldn't fit there at all.
     
  17. Fnord

    Fnord Troubadour

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    I suppose my main point is that of scarcity and cost. And that's very much because I spent so much time in academia and the real world researching and thinking about how macro-level changes in resources affect "aggregate" behavior. Without some limitation on extra-physical forces, it's hard for me to suspend my disbelief in how such a system would not have completely different outcomes in how people interact and behave. If I can "magic up" food, I certainly wouldn't bother pursuing a career in agriculture because it would seem far more cost-effective to spend all my time learning the intricacies of magic so that I could create whatever I wanted. If I could magically heal people, I certainly wouldn't expend personal time and resources learning medicine. In a world where there is no restriction, everyone would essentially pursue (and hone and perfect) magic as opposed to more pedestrian pursuits. Essentially everyone would be a magician in a post-scarcity world!

    Having an "elemental" system of magic is a natural roadblock to this, obviously--especially if the element is consumed when used for magic. This introduces the scarcity and cost required to do fantastic things and with scarcity comes conflict (hence why in our current world of technology we still have plenty of conflict). I think that's why we all think so deeply about "magic systems" in the first place because it's kind of an ingrained notion even if it's not a conscious one.
     
  18. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    Sounds awesome to me. I'd like to see how a world of all magicians works.
     
  19. Fnord

    Fnord Troubadour

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    It's definitely a very alien concept when you think about it, and in the hands of the right writer could have a lot of interesting possibilities. That might be a little beyond my ken, however. But if anyone else wants to take a crack at it, be my guest! :D
     
  20. The Realm Wanderer

    The Realm Wanderer Troubadour

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    I don't think that idea could work. A world composed entirely of magicians is just a tad too farfetched...even for fantasy. You'd have to write some major barriers into the magic system or the world simply could not survive. They'd tear each other apart in lust of more power. I reckon if someone managaed to complete a novel like this, it would flop. But hey, that's just me.
     
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