Saturday, August 15, 2009

Using Magic in Writing

writingAs a teacher at Seton Hill's Masters in Writing Popular Fiction program, I work with students every semester to try to help them perfect their writing abilities. Not that I'm perfect mind you, but since I've gotten books traditionally published (that's all I'll ever do, mind you), someone seems to think I know what I'm talking about. So occasionally, I'll post something for the writers out there who might stumble across my blog to try to help them out as well. Tonight's topic: Using Magic.

Magic is a curious thing. No, I'm not talking about slight-of-hand trickery here, but what Alester Crowley referred to as "Changing your environment by will alone." Magic is an invisible (in most cases) force that projects the user's will to make things happen. Quite simply, "I will it, therefore it is so." But when you're writing your magnum opus, there are many pitfalls to using magic, some of which I'll outline here.
  • If everyone can use it, it isn't magic. It's science. - Okay, that may come across as inflammatory to some people, but lets look at it for a moment. "Magic" is unknown. "Magic" is a mysterious power. Most important, "Magic" is special to only the few who can use it. That's why it's called "Magic." Fire was once called "Magic," but we've gotten past that because a majority of the world walks around with little portable fire-starters (lighters) in their pockets. What a computer does is, to many people, still quite magical because those people still can't understand how a hunk of plastic and silicon can create so much interesting stuff. But, chances are, if you're reading this, you own a computer. Just like most other people in the world. It's not magic to you. It's technology. If you build a world in which everyone, down to the last little person, uses magic, doesn't it stand to reason that it would lose a great deal of its mystery, and would be commonplace, and would therefore be taken for granted? If you have a world where everyone can do some extraordinary thing, would they think it was extraordinary? No. They'd find it normal. Magic isn't normal, now is it?
  • Magic isn't a catch-all - Too many times, I've seen young writers come in and explain away an incredible amount of unbelievable events with the byline of "Magic." He's being attacked. Magic. His friends are falling. Magic. His room is messy. Magic. In fact, many times, the characters use so much "Magic" that the reader is left wondering why there's any conflict at all. If the character can just magic his way out of everything, why isn't he living high up on a mountain somewhere living the good life and using magic to suit his every need? A character that can do absolutely anything through magic is boring. It's trite. And it's also wholly impossible for a reader to relate to them. If he's so all powerful, he would be a god. Instead of having your character use magic to get out of every little thing, make them use their brains. Make them make choices. Make them living, breathing creatures that have to struggle to overcome odds because that's what makes a story interesting.
  • Magic has a cost. - Magic is energy, or the manipulation thereof. Ask yourself this: Where is that energy coming from and how is it directed? If it comes from inside the person or elsewhere, it's still being directed by the character. That's all fine and dandy, but guess what? Your character is now a conduit. Let's put it in terms of electricity. Your character is a wire, electricity is the magic. The source of the magic is, let's say, a 9-volt battery. Hook up the battery to the wire and let it go. Eventually, the energy will run out, just like magic. But then let's say you hook up a car battery to the same wire. What happens? First it gets red-hot, then it melts the casing off, then the wire melts, then you're left with a dead wire. The same thing applies to the theory of magic. Your character's body is the wire. The energy coursing through him is using him to travel, much like the wire. Too much energy going through him will burn him out. If the energy is coming from inside him, what happens when fatigue sets in? Or if he uses all of his energy? The energy runs out. Your character dies. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, really. But what I am saying is that, no matter what, you have to show that there is some cost to using that energy. Does it make him tired? Does it hurt? Does it strip away a piece of his soul whenever he uses it? What is it that limits the magic? What makes a superhero so interesting? Is it is powers, or his weaknesses? I'm putting my money on the latter.
  • Learn the Rules - Magic, like everything else, has limitations, laws, and rules. Especially if you're working with an established system of Magic (like Wicca, for example). If you're writing a story about a group of witches, learn about the philosophy of Witchcraft, Druidism, Vodun, and every other religion that uses magic (Catholics, though they won't admit it) so you can write about it like you know what you're talking about and don't come off as a tool. If you're creating your own system, fine and dandy, but figure out where the limitations of your system are before you go writing and making it up as you go along. The readers may never see your "rule-book," but they'll get the idea when you start showing those laws.
  • Learn your Terminology - If I say "Witch," what do you think of? How about "Satanist?" How about "Druid?" The fact of the matter is, most of us have been spoon-fed media-slanted half-truths our entire lives, and only the truly intelligent question it. For example, I know quite a few "witches," and absolutely none of them are green, have warts on their noses, or wear black peaked hats (except on Halloween, and then as an inside joke). They're not evil, don't put hexes on people, and generally believe in being as good to each other as possible. Satanists? Guess what...They don't sacrifice babies. In fact, true "Satanism" doesn't particularly believe in the concepts of good and evil, nor do they get up every day saying they're going to dedicate their lives to Satan. They're more hedonists, and pretty much leave everyone else alone. However, screw with them, and their doctrine says they have every right to destroy you. The name "Satanism" came from a loveable little kook named Anton LeVey, who chose the name just to be controversial. Ever hear about pentagrams and candles being referred to as part of a "Satanic Cult?" No...That's not really true. The Pentagram isn't an evil symbol, and candles are used everywhere. Nine times out of ten, the "Satanic Cult" that people are looking for are bored teenagers lashing out at their parents or another hopelessly deluded individual who believes what he sees in movies. You, as a writer, should be smart, educated, and should strive to not fall into such bullshit. You must be more intelligent than that, lest you offend the wrong groups or, worse, the people who actually do know what's what will cry bullshit and tell everyone that your work is sophomoric, idiotic, and pandering. And we wouldn't want that, now, would we?

1 comment:

  1. Good article! You should also include if magic in writing is a good thing or a bad thing, and some surpporting information for each.