Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Rules of Magic

While it may come as a great surprise to many people, magic in fiction isn't an 'anything goes' territory. It's not a subject where logic gets left at the door, whimsy reigns supreme, and a writer can just do whatever she pleases if it's convenient for the plot at the time. No no, there are rules to these things. It takes great study, intuition, and instinct to learn such things. That's what Hogwarts is for, after all.

But wait, what on earth does this have to do with romance? Well, technically nothing. The better question is what does this have to do with fiction, because elements of magic, like romantic themes, don't stick to one specific genre. Does your paranormal romance have unique powers? Do you need to figure out the healing factor for your vampires? Does your story, like Therese Walsh's The Last Will of Moira Leahy, weave a thread of magic realism into a women's fiction story via a unique object that may or may not be somehow influencing the protagonist? Or maybe you're just throwing your protagonist through some standing stones and into 18th century Scotland.

Either way, you'd better know what the heck you're doing with your magic, because you just can't go throwing this stuff around like finger paints. It just makes a mess, and no one wants to read a mess.

Rule of Limits: Magic can't just do anything it pleases. If you're going to develop a system of magic, you need to know how it works. Do your characters work with psionics? What about channeling water, or blood magic? How do your vampires heal so quickly? It could take time, or food, or concentration for your undead protagonist to recover from his injuries, but whatever you choose, you have to stick with it. There will be times when there's no access to fresh blood, or things are too chaotic to concentrate, and then your protag will just have to deal. Likewise there may be things simply beyond that character's skill or ability. Either way, the presence of magic can't become a limitless deus ex machina, or you'll suck all the tension right out of your story.

Rule of Costs: Hand in hand with limitations, magic needs costs, which I already touched on above. An action may sap strength, or even memories, and potentially leave the character prone. Each use may bring the character closer and closer to a premature death. You could look at this as basic science, not creating something from nothing. Sure, the express purpose of some magics is to create something from nothing, but if magic isn't your focus (we're a romance blog, after all) that's probably not the route you're going to take. Magic needs limits, and it needs repercussions, reasons not to go using it as a quick fix for every situation. When you're making it all up yourself, you've got to make sure you build in all facets, not just the good ones.

Other costs can emerge in terms of character, such as being reviled by other characters, emotional trepidation to use an ability, or moral debate over whether your magical object's influence is benevolent or malevolent.

Rule of Tone: Less quantifiable but equally important is the tone of your magical element. This is kissing cousin to the voice of your book and the atmosphere of your story. Are you writing a dark, intense paranormal? You probably won't want bright, sparkly magic. Are you writing something light and realistic, save for your spirit-summoning protag? You'll want light, realistic elements of magic rather than blood-filled consequences or divine manifestations in the final act. It's all part of creating the tone of a book, equivalent to the mise en scene of cinema. It all combines together to create a specific mood, and if something jars with that mood, it won't feel believable.

Tone also creates another aspect of limitation. In JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, for example, magic can do well nigh anything a wizard pleases, but the magic matches the voice of the series. Aside from a several key scenes of gripping flash and dazzle, the majority of magic is just as often hazardous as convenient, and quite often is more banal than efficient. Clean dishes? Sure. Remove pimples? Or possibly your whole face.

Rule of Character: By now you may have noticed a parallel among these points. They all apply to characters. In the end, that's what magic boils down to -- another character to explore and develop, to show strengths and flaws for, and to enrich the story. If a character is all strengths and no flaws, they're less believable. So too for magic. A character's actions need to match the tone of the book, they need to have limits in knowledge, compassion, ability, and they need flaws and consequences. You wouldn't give your protagonist an easy fix for a dire situation, so why assume magic can do the same? Treat the magic elements of your story the same as you treat your characters and they will serve you well. Treat them poorly, and they will drag your story down as fast as any poor character.

Likewise, don't forget your characters. They're the ones who have to deal with the presence of magic in your story, and it's through them that we will learn of it. If magic is a known element, and they believe it, we will believe it too (barring anything that jars us out of the world you've created). If magic is unknown, your character's process of discovery and dealing with this new knowledge will help the reader toward the same. Think things through, underpin them with believable limits and consequences, and the rest comes naturally. We're imagining the private thoughts and heartaches of words on a page, after all. We're already in a willing state to suspend disbelief. If the little details ring true, the big things don't matter.

A few final notes on magic in fiction. Once you know the costs, use them. If you have the possibility for your protagonist to be drained, unable to draw more energy -- use it! If your magic object could make the heroine lose her mind, make her doubt everything! Don't let the prospect of peril be enough, when you can make the low moments that much worse by bringing your magic to its cost and limits as well. It's far more fun that way.

Likewise please, for the love of pete, don't break your rules once you build them. Great stories and series have been ruined when a once-hard Fact was suddenly changed to accommodate a new plot development. If your summoner needs water to focus her abilities, she can't suddenly use sand instead. Not unless you've been hinting at it all along and always knew you were going to do that.

Magic in fiction is no different than the magic of writing fiction in the first place. Ostensibly it seems a person can do anything, say anything, and get away with anything. In time, though, we learn what works and doesn't work, what makes the craft stronger and more effective, and what is just going to get our work thrown against a wall in frustration. Like every other aspect of fiction, magic needs your unique flare for execution and storytelling.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

My internet connection (and furniture, and floor, and ...) is in a state of upheaval right now, so I'll probably be replying in lumps off and on throughout the day. If you don't hear from me, check back later!

Karyn Good said...

Very insightful post, Hayley. It makes me miss my vampire story, which is on hold at the moment. I will use this post as a reference when I get back to it though, to make it stronger, richer and a better story.

We've talked about the rules a couple of times over at BB and it helped me realized even though I was writing a story of 15,000 words max, I had a LOT of thinking, planning and research to do first. Like actions, consequences, powers, weaknesses - fortunately it's great fun to figure them out! It's a time to let your imagination fly (while following the 'rules').

Janet said...

Great post, Hayley. Although I don't write paranormal and there is no real magic in my stories, a lot of your advice can be applied directly to my writing. A world, whether fantastical or historical, needs to be authentic and sincere. Readers aren't going to tag along if the world changes every other chapter - or a historical element is fudged in order for a plot thread to work.

Thanks :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks for the interesting post, Hayley. I haven't included any magical elements in my stories yet but I do know know there are rules. Probably because of:
- Cinderella - only until midnight
- Sleeping Beauty - only until kissed
- Lord of the Rings - only until the ring was thrown in (I think that can count, eh?)
- Even in the old Bewitched TV show where Andora or someone would show up if Samantha broke the rules.

This could also pertain to Time Travel because current consensus seems to be if you want to play around with the space-time continuum, be ready for the rift in space which leads to a black hole. Not that I understand what a black hole is but it sounds good. :)


Hayley E. Lavik said...

fortunately it's great fun to figure them out! It's a time to let your imagination fly

Karyn, that's my thought exactly. I love doing things like this, especially because I get to call the shots and just fiddle until things suddenly click. Yes, it's technically developing rules and constraints, but it's all part of the fun of it, and just as rich for story fodder as figuring out character flaws and deepest fears :D

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Janet, I'm so glad you mentioned that. I realize the number of romance subgenres that actually need to think about proper magic are pretty few, but it does all have relevance. I plan to follow this up with a few more posts on world-building principles and why everyone needs to build worlds. Then again I had planned a few more posts on villain types until a comment last week hijacked my intent and I wrote this :p

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great points Anita, and I love that you brought up time travel. It's a whole other can of worms with huge repercussions depending how it's handled, but while it's usually out in the science end of the spectrum (standing stones and such aside), it definitely can't just abide some clear cut scientific rule. If it did, the book would be nothing but exposition on how it works! :p

I would also hazard to say (and in no way mean to call it a form of magic) that these principles can apply well to handling spiritual and religious elements in an inspirational. If outside forces come into play, they need to fit the framework of the story, they need their limits, and it can't stretch the reader's belief in the world unfolding.

I remember you recounting feedback on one story at a conference, and mentioning that God's will alone wasn't reason enough for both characters to move to the same small town. If it seems too convenient and serendipitous (unless serendipity plays a clear role in a story), readers won't buy it and then the whole structure can start to suffer, the same as weak characters or weak magic systems :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I've only written a couple of stories that included an element of magic. In my romantic suspense "Seeing Things" my heroine Leah is psychic. The "rules" I made up for her, although I didn't think of them as rules at the time, were that she couldn't just be all-seeing and all-knowing. Her visions were often confusing, and she was left to interprete them. Also, her visions were only triggered when a child she knew of or had met was in trouble. Mostly I used information I gleaned from researching real psychics who have worked with the police to formulate my rules.

The costs to Leah for using her psychic powers were mostly emotional. Her former fiance left her, finding that living with a woman who "sees things" too weird. She also had a breakdown after a child she saw in one of her visions is found dead.

In my novella "Burning Love" two of the characters are angels who match mortals with their soul mates. The rules for them are that they have one chance to arrange a meeting between the mortals, and after that it's up to them. Mortals have free will and angels can't interfere. I have my angels break the rules of Heaven, but it's for a good cause!

Thanks for a great post,

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Those are excellent examples Jana, thank you for illustrating exactly what I mean! You've got limits and issues, and you know how they'll play out in the story, but they don't need to be tangible and set in stone. Your own intuition tells you when things with your psychic heroine might be getting a little too convenient :)

Silver James said...

Late. Again! So sorry, but so happy! Yes, yes, yes! When dealing in worlds where there is magic, there must be rules just like science has rules. And time travel is such an interesting anomaly. All that changing history mojo! Which can be a good thing, and one my heroine and a Druid priest discuss in FAERE FATE.

In my Penumbra series, where magicks poplulate the world next to humans, there had to be rules...and the rule of law--which is the whole premise for Sade to do what she does as the MAGIC liaison officer for the FBI.

I LOVED this post! I'm copying and pasting it so I can use it for reference or a quick referral when someone asks about magic! :D

Helena said...

This is so fascinating, Hayley. I normally don't even think of magic in my writing equation, but your mention of "the magic of writing fiction" caught my eye.

I remember talking about the need for something, let's call it extraordinary, to happen in my rather ordinary story. So maybe something is telling me that I need a little magic -- with rules, of course.

Thanks so much for your very well articulated post. I have a feeling I will come back to it again and again. You've covered a lot of valuable territory today!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Silver I'm so glad you stopped by! Really happy to see the magic users stopping by to represent today. Your stories are perfect examples too. I'm so glad the post will be helpful to you, and that I didn't have any glaring omissions :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Personally Helena, I'm always a proponent of a little magic in fiction, but that's just me. It's one of the things I love about folk tales, that they lend an element of the unusual without becoming too blatant.

Yunaleska said...

I've recently been thinking at rules in relation to magic, since some of my wips will use a lot. This was a well detailed post, which has helped me out a little (I must conjure up more cost and weaknesses for magic).

Thank you :)