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Writing Magical Systems

The first argument I ever had with a girl I cared deeply about involved the nature of magic. As I described back when I first released my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities , Lee Anne thought of magic as moody, ethereal, and completely impossible to predict. I thought of it as a sort of immaterial engineering. This disagreement turned out to be the least of our problems; she was 13 and I was 14, with all that that implies.

Fifty years later, I released an entire novel about magic. It has roots in that argument. I did try it her way: In 1974 I wrote a story (“Whale Meat”) containing Lee Anne-style magic, and although I’m happy with how it turned out, it was murder to write and isn’t one of my favorites among the things I’ve done. Ten Gentle Opportunities explored (among other things) how magic might be similar to software. The key is that magic should (ideally) be an internally consistent system, and not just Harry Potter-style abracadabra in which you can pull any damned rabbit out of any damned hat. I thought long (50 years!) and hard about what a magical system might be and how to create one. If you’re a writer, a distillation of my notes might be useful. Perforce:

There are three Big Questions you need to ask yourself as you take on a task of designing a magical system:

  • What is the source of magical power? Where does it come from and how do you obtain it? In Larry Niven’s Warlock stories, magic is an inherent property of the created world, an essence present everywhere but which may be depleted by use over time, like a seam of coal. Aleister Crowley (a real guy, if an unutterable nutcase) created a system of sex magick, which was powered (as best I can figure) by orgasms. In Ten Gentle Opportunities, magical power emerges from a fully-developed pineal eye, which is present in a small fraction of humanity and must be perfected by practice and study. The magical force itself is drawn from primordial chaos, and is inexhaustible. In some systems, magical force emerges from sacred or cursed artifacts, and in others from alchemical concoctions. Can magic be stored somehow for later use, or use by ordinary people? Stypek stores ten nuggets of magical force in stasis inside a wand made of “wereglass,” which is dense and scary and serves a plot point more than the magical system. (Sometimes you have to do that.)
  • Who is able to manipulate magical power? Magic is sometimes the purview of explicitlty magical beings like elves, fairies, pixies, etc. Sometimes it’s a skill that may be learned by anybody. In my system, it depends on a genetic talent that mundanes don’t have and can’t obtain. Spellbenders like Stypek, in fact, are incomplete magicians, in that they can examine and change magical spells but can neither draw magic from chaos nor send it back when no longer needed. (Unwanted or abandoned magic can cause all sorts of problems, like animating corpses into zombies.) Can one magician do things, or does it take some sort of cooperative effort? (One flashes on Crowley’s sex magic.) Can multiple magicians do bigger or more difficult things working together? (This was the case in the classic Witches of Karres.) Are magicians specialists? (Larry Correia’s are; see below.)
  • What are the limits of magical power? This is the big one, kids. Magic that can do anything is…boring. Stories engage us by pitting characters against challenges and their own limitations. A magician who controls magic without limits can’t lose and so isn’t especially interesting. One of the best modern magical systems is what Larry Correia built into his Dark Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. Magical persons are specialists, sorted into numerous categories by the nature and limits of their power. Some teleport. Some command electricity. Some influence weather. Some heal. Some control gravity, and so on. All of these powers draw on personal energy, which the body creates from food and rest, and when that energy is used up, the powers fail for a time until the body can restore its energy levels. All magical/super powers must have limitations. Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s lantern doesn’t work on anything colored yellow. (At least this was the case when I was reading my friends’ comics in the first half of the 1960s.) Sometimes magic is tied to the Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Aether. (Brian Niemeier’s magical system includes but is not limited to this.) You can be as clever as you like, but your magic must have quirks and limitations.

Answering these three questions in detail will get you well over halfway to a usable magical system. Create a notefile (what I call a mumblesheet, a marvelous term coined by the late and much missed George M. Ewing) and put your concept down in outline (or at least bullet list) form. If you have any kind of imagination at all, writing descriptions of your magicians and their skills will bring out further insights that will make the system interesting. In my system of magic, the difficulty of creating magical spells depends on the complexity of the spell–though perhaps not the way you would expect. Complicated spells are easy, but simple spells require enormous skill and are almost impossible to change. (Stypek is a spellbender, and changing spells–call it magic hacking–is his one big trick.) One of the novel’s conceits is that Stypek’s magic is literally object-oriented programming: Spells have properties and methods, which magicians and spellbenders can see and manipulate in the air in front of them. Others have drawn the parallel between magic and software before me, especially Rick Cook, in his Wiz series.

Your magicians should be quirky too. In my system, a fully developed pineal eye opens in the foreheads of magicians once they hit puberty. The eyes begin as red, and then with practice and study progress through the spectrum toward violet and then adamant (diamond-clear.) Expertise classes are named after gems that show the color of the class.The further toward adamant the eye is, the more powerful the magician. Adamant magicians are the baddest-assed; ruby-classers are poseurs, or dabblers of little power who can force mice to dance and that’s about it. In spellbenders, the pineal eye never erupts at all, and at best looks like a birthmark in the middle of the forehead.

Magical systems need quirks and limitations, but be careful not to make the system so complicated that readers have a hard time grasping it. I got a couple of emailed complaints about Stypek’s magic being hard to follow, but my beta readers had no trouble with it. (One did advise me to quit tinkering with it, and he was right: My first impulse is to throw new ideas into a story every time I go over it.) Some of your readers will just roll with it, especially if the plot and characters are compelling. Others will complain. That’s how writing fiction works. Roll with the criticism, and learn what you can from it.

It helps to ask yourself what sensory impressions accompany the generation and/or use of magic. Does magic make noise? Stink? Cause migraines? Shake the floor? Radiate colored light? Probably the best way to get a handle on this is to write a couple of scenes of your magic system in use. Not everything will work, but the stuff that does work, add to the description of the system. With some luck, the scenes may later find homes as short stories or scenes from a novel.

Finally, the three words that ought to be on every writer’s wall: Just write it. Trust your subconscious. If you’ve laid enough groundwork, you’ll get a story out of any reasonable system of magic. Be diligent and you’ll get several. Throw your back into it, and you’ll get as many as you want. Skills, challenges, discoveries, and interaction with other people are the building blocks of all fiction, especially genre fiction, and double-especially SFF. Magic embraces all of these.

Go for it.

Odd Lots

Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

I just finished walking to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,which is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. I have some grumbles: The damned thing came to 181 minutes long; did we really need atolkienic rock giants starting a rumble with dwarves clinging to their pants legs? On the other hand, it was visually startling and lots of fun, and I give Jackson points for working in some of the appendices’ material, especially Radagast and Dol Guldur. Sure, Goblin Town was over the top, as was the Goblin King (“That’ll do it”) and the whole Goblin Town episode reminded me of a side-scroller video game.

All that said, what I really like about the film is its depiction of the dwarves. We didn’t see much of them in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, beyond Gimli and stacks of decayed corpses in Moria. From his own text, Tolkien clearly didn’t like the dwarves much, both explicitly and implicitly. I figured that out over 40 years ago, once the Silmarillion was published. Unlike elves and men, the dwarves were tinkered together after work hours by Aulë, the Valar demigod of tinkering. Aulë was out of his depth there, so Eru (God) fixed their bugs and archived them until the elves got out of beta and were RTMed.

That’s a pattern in Tolkien’s universe: Aulë’s guys were always digging stuff up and doing stuff with it, causing lots of trouble in the process. Fëanor made the Silmarils, and before you know it, we’d lost half a continent and the rest of the First Age. The dwarves in Moria dug too deep and struck Balrog; the dwarves in Erebor unearthed the Arkenstone, which made Thrain go nuts and hoard so much gold that Smaug sniffed it half a world away.

Oh–and Sauron (disguised as as a sort of evil Santa Claus) gave the clueless dwarf kings Seven Rings of Power. Worst. Idea. Evah.

Ok. They were nerds. You got a problem with that? By contrast, the Elves just sort of sat around inside their own collective auras, eating salad and nostalgia-tripping. The elven makers like Fëanor and Celebrimbor all came to bad ends, leaving behind the elven New Agers, who made a three-Age career of doing nothing in particular while feeling like on the whole, they’d rather be in Philadel…er, Valinor.

Screw that. I’m with the dwarves. They had an angular sort of art design that I envy (see any footage set within Erebor) and a capella groups long before the invention of barbershops. (See this for a bone-chilling cover.) We haven’t seen them in the films yet, but Weta concepts indicate that dwarf women are hot, irrespective of their long sideburns. And only a celebrity dwarf could tell you why mattocks rock.

Metal is fun, and craftiness is next to demigodliness, especially with Aulë as your demigod. The dwarves are basically Tolkien’s steampunkers, and if they didn’t have airships it was solely because they didn’t like heights. Sure, they were maybe a little slow on the uptake at times. Playing with minerals requires an intuitive grip on chemistry, and out of chemistry (given metal plating for motivation) comes electricity, as the Babylonians showed us. After three Ages, the dwarves still didn’t have AA batteries? Sheesh.

Still, they did real damned fine with iron, bronze, gold, and mithril. Makes you wonder what they could have done with ytterbium. Eä, the Final Frontier? Fifth Age, fersure!

The Zombie Bandwagon

On this fine Halloween Sunday morning, I have to ask: W(h)ither zombies? I’ve read about why pirates like parrots, but the undying love steampunkers hold for death-in-self-denial has always puzzled me. I guess it’s part of the punk rather than the steam, and I’ve always been better at steam than punk. A recent blog post by Charles Stross has created enough noise in the blogosphere to wake the dead: Charlie is annoyed at the fact that steampunk has become a bandwagon, and he doesn’t do bandwagons. (My overall reaction to the post is that Charlie protesteth too much, and by the end sounds like he’s annoyed because he didn’t jump on the bandwagon when it rolled past his house.)

One place where Charlie and I agree: zombies. They’ve been done to, well, you know. He’s locked horns with Cherie Priest, a gung-ho Seattle steampunk writer who’s had a lot to do with populating the steampunk universe with shambling horrors, which she very aptly calls “rotters.”

The problem may be that steampunk as a subgenre is shattering, and parts of it are slithering across the floor and merging with paranormal costume fantasy. (I’ll know when I grab and read one of Cherie’s books.) Perhaps it’s time to claim a subsubgenre as “hard steampunk,” where we get to keep the pipe fittings but bury the dead. I could do that. I may already have. (See “Drumlin Boiler,” which I’d rather see considered steampunk than weird western.)

Zombies are not a new thing. I was given a zombie story called “Impulse” to read aloud at a Boy Scout summer camp campfire gathering in 1964, and it was decent. (I wish I could find it again, but I don’t remember the author. I think it goes back to the Fifties.) Unless I misrecall–and that was 46 years ago–it was about some sort of telepathic alien goo that tries to use a dead body as a disguise and finds it doesn’t work well. Surprise! I saw plenty of zombie movies as a much younger man, and have read more than my share of zombie fiction. (The best? George R.R. Martin’s “Override.”) To my hard SF mind it’s a difficult business. Biological systems are more resilient than mechanical ones, but after all, we call them “dead” when they don’t work anymore. If they get up and start working again, I find it hard to still think of them as dead.

In truth, what I mostly think of them as these days is funny. I have a whimsical novel called Ten Gentle Opportunities on ice right now that turns De Camp’s Harold Shea concept on its ear, and posits a sort of magic hacker from a universe where magic works as a consistent alternate physics (with spells a sort of immaterial software) who jumps universes to escape from an enraged magician and lands here on Earth. To escape pursuit while still in his own magical world, he makes his way into a zombie trap, where the zombies check in but can’t check out. Alas, physics is a bitch, whether magical or not.

Getting the dead to stay dead was an increasingly serious problem. Formerly living material was powerfully endomagical: Once the Great Magic of life drained out of it, a corpse would soak up any uncommitted Third Eye magic in its immediate surroundings, and if enough were available would get up and start shambling around again, breaking things and getting into fights.

For most of history, magic had been rare and valuable, and the few magicians in the world tended to be well-bred and tidy. Unnecessary or broken spells were always frotted back to the primordial chaos from which they had been drawn. Alas, as the archipelago grew crowded, younger magicians lacking an inheritance increasingly turned to drink and careless spellmaking to obtain what they wanted. Few landless magicians studied hard enough to advance to Adamant Class. The spells blikked up by drunken Ruby-classers were complicated and fragile, and rapidly broke down into increasingly tiny fragments that nonetheless had to be individually frotted to be rid of them. No one would bother, especially the Amethyst and Adamant classes, who thought of spellfrotting as something one did only to one’s own magic. So little by little, invisible grains of useless magic blew around the world on the very winds, ready to be absorbed by a corpse’s hungry substance.

Most folk lacking the Third Eye grumbled that Global Enlivening was a conspiracy by magicians, who were the only ones who could unbreakably bind a corpse to its own etheric shell such that both would comfortably and permanently disintegrate. Within Styppkk’s own lifetime, mean-time-to-shamble had fallen from a comfortable fortnight to only three days, and if a magician could not be found (and paid) to conduct a proper funeral and shellstaking by then, one’s deceased relatives would wander off, though walls as easily as through doors.

The problem had grown acute enough two centuries earlier that the world’s Adamant magicians had collaborated on the creation of the great lychfields, which were zombie traps: The bait was earth magic, which though powerful was not absorbed by dead flesh. The simple spell at the heart of every lychfield made earth magic smell like Third Eye magic, attracting zombies that were already ambulant. Once inside, they could not get out, and eventually exhausted the ambient magic they had absorbed and crumbled to bones and dust.

Styppkk had read it all in Wiccapedia, and as he got to his feet he felt around in his many pockets for the requisite spells. He knew how to command zombies and had done it a time or two, usually as a way of getting cheap if not especially skilled labor. This time what he wanted was a diversion. In only seconds, the shambling horrors in the lychfield would smell the magic he had in his pockets, and would turn in his direction. Then the real fun would begin.

Seconds passed, then minutes. Nothing. Styppkk looked around in the gloom. He saw no movement. There was no sound but the unnerving trickle of water down the granite walls enclosing the lychfield. He took a step forward, and crunched on ancient bones–then tripped over a motionless body that shuddered only slightly at the indignity.

Something was wrong, and Styppkk knew that in relatively short order, Jrikkjroggmugg would be over the wall and on his case again. He fished a clamshell phial from an inside pocket, snapped it open, and dipped his left pinkie in the dust it contained. Seconds later, his pinkie burst into brilliant but cold flame, and Styppkk could now see clearly to the far wall of the lychfield. There were plenty of zombies, but none were moving. In many places, they were stacked like cordwood or leaning against one another like tottering monoliths in a henge. Styppkk counted hundreds by eye.

On a hunch, Styppkk flipped down his helmet’s crystal daggers again, so to see how strongly the magically animated zombies were glowing. Nothing was glowing very strongly…but every zombie in sight was glowing identically. Of course! Like water, uncommitted Third Eye magic sought its own level, and newly-arrived zombies confined in close proximity to older zombies lost some of their magic to the lychfield’s older denizens, until at some point there was so little magic to go around that nothing was even twitching, much less shambling.

Styppkk fixes that, of course, and I get to make fun of the zombie fad on a large scale, while putting forth my own vision of magic-as-alternate-physics. (Want me to finish it? Then find me an agent. I’m not having much luck on my own.)

That’s my take on zombies. They’re kind of like reuben sandwiches or Drambuie: Not my thing on the consumption side, but as a bartender or deli owner I’d serve them up without a twitch to paying customers. (Hey, I sold lots of C++ books from Coriolis, right?) As for bandwagons, well, let’s consider that bandwagons don’t roll without customer demand to pull them. Sorry, Charlie. Zombies taste good, whether or not they’re in good taste. People are buying Cherie Priest’s books and those of many others who are plowing that same field, which means that zombies are now firmly planted in the fantasy landscape. I’m a starships guy by birth and I’ve been waiting for the elves’n’gnomes’n’dragons thing to die out for fifteen years or so, but by this time, them having taken over 80% of the SFF shelf space at Border’s, I’d say it ain’t gonna happen.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to start writing zombie stories, apart from (perhaps) Ten Gentle Opportunities, which treats zombies only in passing. I will only raise for my fellow writers the possibility that unless you’re big enough to have your own wagon (as Charlie Stross certainly is) it probably makes sense to grab the first one past that you know you can ride–and if the other passengers’ arms come off as they pull you aboard, so be it.