This is part six of my ten-part world-building series. As always, I’d like to point out that what’s presented here isn’t absolute gospel. There are many ways to world-build, and many paths to get to the same destination. I’m not the all-knowing guru, but rather a geek who’s sharing how he goes about it. Ready? Let’s go.
Abracadabra, etc. You know what I’m on about. MAGIC! Magic is a bedrock of a lot of fictional worlds. Perhaps you’re taking a hard look at the mystic arts and whether or not you should apply them to your own creation.
Slow your roll, Gandalf. There are some things to consider, first. Let’s tuck in to this grimoire.
If Magic, why? The philosophy of Arcana
Magic by any stripe is, essentially, flipping the table on little things like physics, scientific laws, and reality, even at its most benign. So before you inject it into your world, you need to really think about your reasoning for doing so. This isn’t to put you off the idea, mind, but to get you thinking critically about what it can and can’t do for your world.
What magic does well is to introduce an element of radical change on the fly. When reality itself is subject to this kind of sculpting, it broadens the room you have to work in, so to speak. It opens a lot of doors for the imagination to have free rein. But, that’s also it’s greatest weakness. Magic solves one problem, and can saddle you with three new ones if you aren’t careful, or if you’ve not done your homework. For instance, magic can make your palace fly. Sweet! What about oxygen levels? How about inclement weather? I won’t even go into the issues of aerodynamics, because at some point you’re just going to have to effectively give the camera a sly wink.
But you can see how in that very direct simple instance how it might provoke some other things that either have to be solved with more magic—thus potentially creating more issues—or force you to revisit the overall design of the magic in the first place.
For that matter, what kind of magic are we talking here? What flavor? Incantation? Gesturing? Props? Spellbooks? Power derived from a deity, or some infernal pact? Is it something akin to nature worship or spiritualism? Thaumaturgy? Sorcery? Transmutation? Transmogrification? Transubstantiation? Is it innate, or do they have academies? Is it different by race/region/religion/age/sex? Is it based on words/music/art/etc? Is it all of the above? Is it none of the above?
Like I said. There’s a lot to consider before you start tapping that mana.
But, as always, the big hurdle to jump is “why”. Why have magic at all? Be honest with yourself. What will magic bring to your world, or the stories you want to tell of it? Sure, just settling on “it’s cool” is a fine reason to consider it, but it’s weak tea for implementing magic. Give your magic a solid reason to exist in the first place, and you’ll be halfway through the work already.
The Major Questions of Magic: A Conjured Survey
Let’s say you’ve already decided to go for magic in your world, and you’ve worked out the basics concerning what it is. Now comes the fun part. There are a fair few different versions of this online, but I like to employ something called the House of Five, for the phonetic play. The “How’s” of Five, or “Five How’s”. They are:
– How is this magic gained?
– How high is the price to use this magic?
– How does this magic have drawbacks?
– How is this magic accepted by the rest of the world?
– How is this magic kept in check?
The name of the game here is to be able to answer each one of those questions in a complete, thorough, and satisfactory way. Each of those questions serves multiple functions for things that have to be addressed. For example, “How is this magic gained?” covers whether or not it can be learned, whether or not it can be increased, and whether or not it can be lost.
The one I like drawing attention to most is the third How; “How does the magic have drawbacks?” Listen, having unlimited cosmic power without the itty-bitty living space is nice and all, but it’s also boring, and a surefire way to ruin your world-building. Any aspect of power and control has a downside. Don’t skirt that just because you want to make something cool. I promise you, something can be utterly rad BECAUSE of its drawbacks, and how they can be overcome, or even surrendered to.
I’ll do you one better. I’ll fill this questionnaire out simply using one of the magic systems from my last novel:
Magic: The power of the Yathir, “Arithnomancy”
How is this magic gained?
– It is a hereditary trait. It’s physical manifestation is a mutation resulting in Yathir having mismatched eye colors. It can be honed with use.
How high is the price to use this magic?
– Use is both physically and mentally draining upon the user. The greater the effect, or the longer it is held, the greater the drain, resulting in fatigue, and the potential for illness or the exhaustion of the body, resulting in the potential for coma or death.
How does this magic have drawbacks?
– Overuse can also warp the perceptions of the user, resulting in psychosis, delusions of grandeur, and mental deterioration of higher functions. Aside from the physical tolls, the magic can be overwhelming, and requires intense concentration that leaves the user otherwise vulnerable to anything they are not taking into account.
How is this magic accepted by the rest of the world?
– It is largely viewed as a necessary evil, or a potential weapon to be respected, not feared. Given the tight control over users, the Yathir are also considered to be a lower class, by and large.
How is this magic kept in check?
– Rigid control and oversight of the Yathir is a global law. As their physical mutation (eyes) is easy to spot, they are nominally taken charge of from a young age. A Guild has been established to keep tabs on them, including a code of conduct they must adhere to. Any who violate this code, or refuse the oversight of this Guild, are considered rogue and treated as enemy combatants by all sovereign nations.
Now, that’s leaving out a LOT of background information as to why things are the way they are in this world, but at the simplest level this gives me what I need to get on with when it comes to how this particular magic operates and interacts with the world I’ve created. So, trust me when I say that though it may seem like a chore you’ll want to be able to fill out your own survey when it comes to magic, or it’ll bite you in the ass later on.
What is Magic’s Purpose in Your World? The right tool for the job
In my experience, magic sits comfortably in three slots, or combinations thereof: as a tool, as an aspect of faith, or as a part of a culture. Using my novel example again, the Yathir variety of magic is a tool, and an integral part of how society is able to function. For things like Gandalf, one could make the argument for all three. Harry Potter? Tool and culture. Fantasy Paladins? Faith, or even tool and faith depending on the setting. You get the idea. That triumvirate covers a lot of ground.
So, in that particular triforce, where does your magic lie? If you’ve already given your brand of power a reason to exist, you can fill this in pretty easily. But it’s still good to know to keep it under control when you’re crafting your world. Going outside its protocol is a lot harder when you’ve established said boundaries.
Let’s go more in-depth. If your magic fits in the “tool” section, that means it’s utilized as a means to solve everyday problems. Mind, this doesn’t mean it holds the monopoly on solving problems—or, it really shouldn’t—but it does mean that it can be applied to simple tasks on up to more complex tasks. Like any tool, however, there are just going to be certain situations where it’s not the best approach. It’s up to you to decide where its limits lie.
If your magic settles in with “faith”, that means it’s power derived from belief, whether that magic is directly bestowed or not. You can have faith in the power of a patron deity, a spirit, or just faith in the fine print of a blood bargain. But this also means that this magic has a built-in self destruct of sorts, insofar as once faith is broken, or belief fails, then the catalyst for that power is at risk. It also means there is an element of upkeep. Prayers, rituals, offerings, sacrifices, rules set by higher powers or what have you.
Now, if your magic falls into the culture cubby, that means that the society itself is either built around, or dependent upon the magic in question. Something about how your magic works or who is using it is now a piece of masonry that makes up the structural makeup of this culture. It follow then, that if it were removed, altered, or destroyed entirely that it would necessitate a noticeable—if not catastrophic—effect on said culture, or at the very least the current for your culture takes.
So, ask yourself: what role, or roles, does my magic play? Having a reason to exist at all is crucial, but you also have to be ready to see how magic fits into the larger puzzle.
Magic, or ability? To learn it, or to live it
Even in fantasy that bends the walls of existence, not everything is absolutely magic, or has magical origins. Sometimes, it really is just what they are. I bring this up because, believe it or not, this minor little detail is essentially a blank check for you to overcome certain issues when you’re implementing powers and abilities in your world.
Example: Marvel’s breed of Mutants aren’t magical, but man do some of them do some pretty magical things.
Running with that, it also carries a caveat: even if it ain’t magic, it still carries its own questions that need to be answered. There are no free rides with power. And though it may not require the scrutiny on the level of things like the House of Five, it does brook similar oversight in its own right. It can still be approached with those same strict prerequisites in mind to keep things from flying completely off the handle. Or, it really should be given equal consideration.
This brings up the ugly point of classism that’s inherent with magic, or magic-like abilities. It can’t be ignored here. Be it by dint of limited use, or relative strength in ability, you are creating a scenario where these individuals will be treated differently, and regarded to a degree proportional to their power. That’s just how things play out, for good and for ill.
That of course is a measure of the “How is this magic accepted by the rest of the world?” part of the House of Five, but it goes one step further. You have to decide how that interaction is going to play out between Person A, who has magic or is pretty strong in it, and Person B, who either lacks it or is weaker by comparison. What’s more, you’re going to have to entertain the idea that those interactions are not always going to be a groovy time. Throw societal pressures or religious strictures into the mix, and you better believe that tribalism is going to rear its ugly head.
Don’t ignore the capacity for sentient beings to put a pecking order in place. That’s a disservice to variety, conflict, and, well, interesting stories. Wealth, technology, magic—the positive and negative aspects all follow. How we deal with those is a story in and of itself.
Speaking of technology, in the next issue I’ll be tackling just that. Let’s get inventing, shall we? I’ll see you then.
Until next time, Horns Up.
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)