Sunday, May 04, 2014

How Do You Believe In Magic?

I’m working on the final draft of my novel, Spell of 13 Years.  It is a fantasy novel, in a world in which magic is known to exist, but since the main character is not a practitioner himself, I contented myself with just showing the impact of the magical effects of the spells and such that happen in the book through the first three or four drafts.  Now that I’m working on finishing the piece for publication, I thought it was time to hammer down the specifics of magic in my universe, which lead me to a reconsideration of magic as it’s presented in fantasy games and literature.  
Hard vs. Soft Fantasy.  
I heard a panelist at a WorldCon I attended in the last few years declare that she wrote “Hard Fantasy.”  I immediately knew what she meant and put myself in that same camp.  
Hard Fantasy, as with “Hard Science Fiction” is a story in which the rules of magic are clearly laid out and are not violated by the characters just to allow something to happen.  The difference between science fiction and fantasy is, of course, is that the rules of Science Fiction is science itself, a collection of knowledge proven to be accurate by the work of all of those in the field.  There may be the occasional experiment that produces unexpected results, like the faster than light neutrinos that the scientists at CERN reported a couple of years ago, but generally speaking there is one body of information that is agreed upon by a vast number of people.  
The rules of fantasy, though, don’t have that same degree of...  Trying to find a word here...  Approval, shall we say.  Like religion, which has a strong relationship to magic, there are as many beliefs on what magic is and how it works as there are religions in the world.  It becomes the author’s job to decide to create his or her own “science of magic.”  For a writer of “soft fantasy,” this is less of a problem.  Magic is whatever you want it to be at the moment.  The problem for me, from a story-telling standpoint, is that such a magical system allows for too many outs when it comes to conflict.  The enemy has you surrounded, then a just cast a translocation spell and Poof!  You’re someplace else.  That’s why even the softest of fantasies, where magic is what it is, there are some restrictions placed on its use, to give some sense of drama.  
Having already made this distinction, I knew that I had to have very specific rules and ideas as to what magic is, where it comes from, how it works and, most importantly from a story-telling standpoint, how it is experienced.  
Fireworks or Tiny Sparks.
I think magic can be divided into two basic flavors from the standpoint of how characters in a story experience such events.  
The first one is the big, flashy, Fire Ball spells, Levitation, Transmogrification, right there in front of you, how can you not possibly believe it’s not true, type of magic.  This is probably the most traditional kind of magic fantasy stories are written about.  It’s the magic of Harry Potter, most role-playing game systems and movies made in Hollywood.  The casting of such spells and their impact is big and obvious.  Dragons appear, walls explode, tables and chairs become alive and walk about on their own.  Abracadabra, it’s there.
I am certainly not opposed to this sort of magic, several of my favorite stories were written using it, my preference, at least currently, is something much more subtle.  I prefer the unexplained.  The “coincidence” that someone claims was their spell.  It is a relativistic experience, where I’m feeling the poltergeist shake my bed as I try to sleep, but the skeptic standing in the bedroom doorway believes its just the train passing by on the tracks behind the house.  
One of my favorite magical systems in a role-playing game was in Vampire: The Masquerade, and the series of books that followed.  The basic premise was that “normal people” did not see the world for what it really was, with Vampires, Werewolves and Mages running about doing fantastical things.  This “veil” over their perception caused them to see things in a more “realistic” context.  If someone cast an “electricity spell” on another person, a normal person passing by would see the victim of that spell step on and be electrocuted by downed power lines.  It’s funny, but research into human memory and perception tell us that people often do reshape their recollection of events so that they fit with closely held preconceptions of how things are or ought to be.  
I think this sort of expression of magic makes it more mysterious and amorphous, and hence more powerful.  It becomes something that can touch on primal fears, rather than another sort of weapon to use.  
Is it just secularized religion?  
This is what I think what magic is in most literary presentations.  It is the stuff of gods and goddesses, separated from it’s liturgical source.  It’s the desire to have a miracle without having to do all that praying and fasting stuff monks and priests are forced to do.  
My first glimmer of this understanding came when I first starting playing Dungeon & Dragons as a teenager, when comparing the rules for magic for Magicians and Clerics.  They could do pretty much the same thing.  If a Magic User cast a “Fireball” spell and a Cleric invoked “Holy Fire,” the end result was that something, or someone, went up in smoke. 
Some of my skeptically inclined high school friends would refuse to play clerics just because they didn’t want to align themselves with a god “just to cast spells.”  
I had a mental breakthrough on the relationship between magic and religion while reading the Sefer Yetzirah or Book of Creation, an ancient kabbalistic text translated into English.  It was in one of the commentaries that accompanied the translation where the author noted that ancient kabbalists believed that “The Word” which God is referred to have spoken was purposefully left out of the Book of Genesis because if people reading the text out loud spoke the word, they would create universes, just like God!  Since the “breath of life” fills our being as creations of God, we have within is the power to do as God does.  This is echoed in the New Testament, when Jesus talks about having the faith of a mustard seed to move mountains.  
In the kabbalistic tradition, though, it takes more than just faith.  It takes saying the word, the right words, to bring such miracles about.  And since men have not the purity or perfection that God has, it sometimes takes a cabal, a group of men working in concert, to have such miracles occur. 
Replace the word “miracles” with “spells” and you’ll get a glimpse as to where I think magic and religion connect.  
Magic has to Feel like Magic
In the end, writing is an art form.  And that means, it is ultimately more important for the magic to feel correct as it expresses what the writer things is magical about our communal existence.  
I remember an event, years ago, when I played role-playing games on a regular basis.  There was one game called Castle Falkenstein, which had what I thought was a particularly good combat and magic system.  
To recreate the feel of role-playing in a world modeled after the Victorian era, the game designers opted to replace dice wit playing cards.  Instead of rolling dice to see if they hit the target with their gun, or if their spell worked, they would draw a card each round to build a hand.  This hand would be compared with that of the game master to see if they won.  Each suit in the magical system applies to a different type of spell.  Hearts are what are used for healing spells.  Spades affect the Earth.  
I remember one gaming session I was game mastering where one of the party members was injured.  They needed to heal him and quickly, because the enemy was closing in.  The magic-user in the team kept drawing cards each round.  He needed to draw hearts for a healing spell, but the last card he drew to gain enough power to cast the spell was a spade.  With no time left, he cast the spell.
“Ok...”  I made my decision on the spot.  “Your spell works, he’s completely healed.  But...  All of his clothing as turned to stone, trapping him inside.”  
“Ooohhh!”  Everyone started talking at once at one to do.  They finally decided that two of their members would bar and hold the door, while the other two stomped on their companion to break his stone clothing apart.  They were able to get him out and escape through the sewers from the basement they were hiding in.  Everyone agreed that they liked the impact of moment. 
Next week, a write up on the magical system I created for the world of Spell of 13 Years.


Post a Comment

<< Home