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tianaluthien
08-16-2014, 07:20 AM
Hey guys,

So...this is something I've been thinking about all afternoon. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the nature of magic in fantasy, and how it's all rule-based (much of which stems from Tolkien, and believe I have nothing against this -- I love world-building and I adore Tolkien). In direct opposition to this, is the magic of the Narnia books which is a wilder and stranger thing.

The article that spawned this discussion has the following quote:

"Lewis was of a different school from that. Magic, to him, was a much wilder, stranger thing. It was much less domesticated. And when I re-read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I feel as though we’ve wandered too far from the true magic, the kind Lewis wrote. Maybe we want to worry less about thermodynamics and work harder to get that sense of wonder he achieves with such apparent effortlessness.

And then, there are things that he does that are simply not replicable. The lamppost in the woods: there’s something indescribably strange and romantic about that image, which recurs at the end of the book. In some ways, you read Lewis and think: I can learn from this guy. But sometimes you have to sit back and think, I’ll never know how he did that. You know, I’ve seen the lamppost in Oxford which is alleged to be the Narnia lamppost. To me, it looked like an ordinary lamppost. I would not have seen that lamppost, and gone home and to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You had to be Lewis to see it for what it was."

Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/08/going-home-with-cs-lewis/375560/)

And I thought that was interesting and it made me think about how we apply rules to everything and sometimes, perhaps, that takes away from what magic really is.

Just some thoughts I had and thought I'd share.

Cheers,
T :)

kuwisdelu
08-16-2014, 07:35 AM
I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the nature of magic in fantasy, and how it's all rule-based (much of which stems from Tolkien, and believe I have nothing against this -- I love world-building and I adore Tolkien).

I don't think that's true of Tolkien at all, just all of the imitators that came after him. We never really get much of any rules about magic in Middle-Earth, and it doesn't play a huge role in the actual events of the plot. I can't really think of any magic "rules" in LoTR. Can you?

And personally, I don't like rule-based magic or magic systems either.

snafu1056
08-16-2014, 07:57 AM
I think the whole idea of "rules" for magic comes directly from D&D. Magic needed to be boiled down to a system so it was playable in the game.

Of course, there have always been rituals and traditions in magic. Certain spells, chants, and incantations that are handed down through generations. Even shamans, the first magicians, have certain procedures they have to follow. I dont think magic has ever been all that wild because it comes from religion, which is heavily ritualized.

rwm4768
08-16-2014, 08:05 AM
I don't care what kind of magic system if you write it well. However, I would not put Lord of the Rings as a rigid system at all. Maybe it's not as wild as the Narnia books, but there's still a lot of wonder in the magic.

For the opposite approach to magic, I'd refer to authors like Brandon Sanderson. His magic systems have an almost scientific feeling to them.

khosszu
08-16-2014, 08:16 AM
I also think that much of what people used to call "magic" is now biology, chemistry and physics. All rule-based science. So when we write about magic in fiction, we want to understand its rules in order to explain it.

RevanWright
08-16-2014, 08:33 AM
Wild magic is best magic.
It's honestly the only thing I really like to use. The magic of the land and sea and stars. The magic hidden in the shadows at the roots of a tree. The magic of a wish, fueled by a powerful but dangerous wellspring. Something that is so dangerous you dare not use it but in desperation. The power to move the stars, even though the effort will kill you.
That's the magic I like and use. I'm not fond of structure and rules.

Roxxsmom
08-16-2014, 09:09 AM
Maybe you're thinking of Vancian magic? This is the system that the magic system in D and D was based on. Very rigid and rules based. There have been other rules-based systems too. Le Guin's "true name" based system in Earthsea. Sanderson's magic systems (read his blog on the Sanderson's laws of magic use--interesting food for thought re the continuum of rules-based versus wondrous magic in fantasy), Brian McClellan's magic in his gunpowder mage books, Francis Knight's (our own Mr Flibbles) magic system in her recent trilogy. And Harry Potter, of course, with rules, but also some unpredictable elements.

Re Tolkien, we never got inside the heads of the characters who could use magic, so it remained mysterious and unpredictable to some extent. I'd say Lewis's magic is similar, though maybe it's a bit more wild.

It's different, I think, if a protagonist or pov character in a story can use magic. Then the need for some kind of limits and internal consistency needs to come in. This doesn't mean that you need to have characters consciously thinking about the rules or approaching it like a science, but it would need to make sense when he or she could or couldn't use it to do things or solve problems.

Think about it. If your character can just wildly and whimsically cast any kind of spell, with no cost, and whenever they want, the story would be pretty dull.

Or if the magic is by its very nature somewhat capricious and unpredictable, then you'd still have to show how this feels to the person using. Is it exhausting to use? Does he or she call on it sometimes and not have it respond? Does it do unexpected things?

It might be fun to take that angle. But you'd have to be careful to not have it seem like an implausible coincidence when and if it does something to move the plot forward in a beneficial way or get the character out of a bind.

Jack Oskar Larm
08-16-2014, 09:23 AM
I also think that much of what people used to call "magic" is now biology, chemistry and physics. All rule-based science. So when we write about magic in fiction, we want to understand its rules in order to explain it.

I think this brings us up-to-date with all kinds of magical thinking, i.e. astrology, religion, shamanism, voodoo, leprechauns, little green men from outer space, gods and goddesses existing 'up there!' somewhere, all the heavenly bodies moving around the Earth, etc, etc.

As we learn more, our imaginative reasoning adjusts accordingly. It's always been a long train of theories based on solid evidence, which is only ever hampered by those threatened by change and/or 'truth'.

So, it makes sense that magic in fiction would also evolve. It seems quite natural to then apply this new knowledge to notions of magic. Sure, there's always going to be a lovely romantic vision of magic which is perfectly good for fiction - although it will always tread awfully close to cliché. Having said that, our understanding of ourselves, our planet and the universe is still at an early stage and, therefore, open to any number of wild magical ideas.

kuwisdelu
08-16-2014, 10:22 AM
It's different, I think, if a protagonist or pov character in a story can use magic. Then the need for some kind of limits and internal consistency needs to come in. This doesn't mean that you need to have characters consciously thinking about the rules or approaching it like a science, but it would need to make sense when he or she could or couldn't use it to do things or solve problems.

I don't think that's necessarily true. I think of magic as the same as prayer. Both are highly ritualized, and does anyone really know how or if a prayer will be answered?

Jack Oskar Larm
08-16-2014, 10:29 AM
Keep in mind that all ideas or systems of magic were governed by at least a human hierarchy from apprentice to master. From this standpoint, an apprentice might use magic quite effectively without understanding it. And I would accept that even a master's knowledge of the workings of magic could have limitations.

Liosse de Velishaf
08-16-2014, 11:20 AM
Tolkien made use of wild magic almost exclusively in his works. There were almost never explanations, and very few hints that he had any.

Rules-based magic comes as someone said from Vance mostly, and developed over time until we got to stuff like Brandon Sanderson's systems.

You don't have to have a system or well-defined rules for magic to work in a narrative, but you do have some sort of consistency to avoid excessive deus ex machina. There are many ways to achieve that.

buirechain
08-16-2014, 04:17 PM
I think there's a certain amount of confusion of wild vs. rules based that comes up because there may be rules, the author may know all the details of the rules, or at least have a good sense of them, but the characters don't know as much. I'm reminded of Neil Gaiman's review (http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2014/02/why-you-should-see-winters-tale-and.html) of the Winter's Tale movie:

"There's a thing that happens in Hollywood, when you hand in a script with magic in it, and the people at the studio who read it say "We don't quite understand... can you explain the rules? What are the rules here? The magic must have rules" and sometimes when they say that to me I explain that I am sure it does, just as life has rules, but they didn't give me a rule book to life when I was born, and I've been trying to figure it out as I go along, and I am sure it is the same thing for magic; and sometimes I explain that, yes, the magic has rules, and if they read again carefully they can figure out what they are; and sometimes I sigh and put in a line here and a line there that spells things out, says, YES THESE ARE THE RULES YOU DON'T ACTUALLY HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION and then everyone is very happy.

And there were places in the film where it felt like Akiva was, either because he'd been asked, or preemptively, explaining the magical rules. And I trusted him and the film and would rather have just figured it out for myself."

The other thing that comes up on those lines, is that I just read Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead. It's heavy into rules magic (the magicians are lawyers), but there are parts where it's mentioned that the rules that humanity and the magicians aren't the natural way that magic works. Instead they're a convenient fiction so that humans can manipulate something that's too big, and maybe to wild, to be completely fathomed.

I wonder if that may be something that occurs behind the scenes in a lot of magic based fantasy, but that doesn't necessarily get brought up, or it easy to overlook.

tianaluthien
08-16-2014, 07:12 PM
You don't have to have a system or well-defined rules for magic to work in a narrative, but you do have some sort of consistency to avoid excessive deus ex machina. There are many ways to achieve that.

In working out some of the plot points for my novel, I had a moment like that. I bounced a certain idea off my friend and she just gave me this look...which was enough to make me go and seriously look at the nagging doubts I had behind the idea. Then result is something I'm much happier with. I feel like it's sometimes a fine line to walk.


The other thing that comes up on those lines, is that I just read Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead. It's heavy into rules magic (the magicians are lawyers), but there are parts where it's mentioned that the rules that humanity and the magicians aren't the natural way that magic works. Instead they're a convenient fiction so that humans can manipulate something that's too big, and maybe to wild, to be completely fathomed.

THIS. My imagination has always taken magic to be something wild and untameable, thanks to Lewis and Tolkien*, and that's been my happy place. And I love the idea of magic being something beyond our control so we feel we have to explain it, somehow.

*Re-reading the thread, and thinking about it, I need to change what I said about Tolkien and rules...because the more I think about it, the more I realize that one of the (many) reasons I love his books so much is that sense of awe and wildness and age-old mystery that pervades Middle-earth.

So it's possible I'm thinking of more D&D style magic (I've never played, but I've learned a few things from friends who do play), in terms of rule-based.

Filigree
08-16-2014, 09:35 PM
Patricia McKillip writes fantasy with magic that may follow vague strictures, but tends to be gorgeous and mysterious.

Michael Steven
08-16-2014, 10:58 PM
Take a macro-view of magic and you can see some interesting facets of magic.

1) Wild magic, as you mention, more often than not becomes deus ex machina (or deus ex magician as I like to refer to it) where the author has a simple fix available to save any situation with a simple wiggling of the fingers. The wild magic is never under the control of the novice spell caster; it has a mind of its own that takes care of all the petty details to make things turn out just right.

2) Rules are necessary even for magic. Why? Because without them you're not able to repeat the same effect twice. You'd cast a spell and anything could happen. Actually, this is often used in the YA magic stories to add some levity. Looking at you Rowlings.

Think of it this way, if magic actually existed in real life, it would not be supernatural. Just like physics, chemistry, et al -- the laws of magic would be learned and set down with mathematical formulae, and theories would be developed as knowledge increased.

Wild magic can be fun, but it is best saved for light-hearted stories and not for anything serious. Why? Because it's too plastic and too easily abused. The deus ex magician can be fun, certainly, but not when it's the characters who should be resolving the situation(s) and not by tossing in an ethereal life raft to save them time and time again, or a ham-handed twiddle introduced to make them the winners.

Roxxsmom
08-16-2014, 10:59 PM
I don't think that's necessarily true. I think of magic as the same as prayer. Both are highly ritualized, and does anyone really know how or if a prayer will be answered?

True, and if the whole thing is the magic comes when and how it comes (maybe even in spite of the ritual instead of because of it), that could be interesting.

I tend to prefer magic that's more limited and that has more defined costs, even if it's not always predictable in its effects, but that's me. I'm a scientist, and I love examining the logical trade offs that might exist when someone can affect the world or other people/beings in certain ways.

I liked Harry Potter, but it really, really bugged me that we never knew what was really happening to all those poor animals that they were vanishing or transfiguring into pincushions or whatever, and why it was never really explained why old Voldy couldn't just transfigure his errant death eaters into pieces of furniture as punishment (you've failed me, Goyle. You're going to be a toilet for the next month).

See, that's how my mind works :D

My man beef with a plot driving protagonist who could randomly cast wondrous spells throughout the novel is it could start to feel like luck--a benefit that the character didn't earn. But it's all in how it's done. It might work if it got the character into binds at least as often as it got him or her out of them.

The Last Unicorn had an interesting angle on this kind of unpredictable magic, with the protagonist who was blocked but had it come through in a wild, and unpredictable way at the end.

But he'd earned it by then. Regardless of the kind of magic one uses, I think having it feel earned when it's used to advance the plot is important.

Smeasking
08-16-2014, 11:25 PM
Roxx, The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite stories of all time. I adore all stories that are well told, in that they draw me in with wonder and awe; stories which are so engaging they make us forget about what's realistic and what isn't. That's kind of the catch-22 for me in this whole 'learning the craft' thing. Ever since I started learning about writing, I find myself dissecting everything I watch and read now. Ugh. But, there are still old favorites like The Last Unicorn that still mesmerize me no matter how many times I read or watch it. For that, I'm glad. :)

As far as wild vs. rules go, I'd say I'm a fan of a happy medium between the two. Then again... each has their place--depending on the story being told--and even in my own novel, and previous thread about magic vs. powers, I've learned it's not really black and white. I think it's more about each individual writer, and their own vision. And in either case, I love, LOVE magic--in any way, shape, or form--in any story. A good dose of magic just makes things more fun. :)

tianaluthien
08-16-2014, 11:39 PM
The Last Unicorn had an interesting angle on this kind of unpredictable magic, with the protagonist who was blocked but had it come through in a wild, and unpredictable way at the end.

But he'd earned it by then. Regardless of the kind of magic one uses, I think having it feel earned when it's used to advance the plot is important.

I've never read The Last Unicorn though I vaguely remember watching and being traumatized by the film as a child. I'd love to see it again.

One of the more interesting ideas that was recently brought onto my radar screen actually came from the show Once Upon a Time (as much as I love this show, I have serious, serious issues with the writing. But that's for another thread...): all magic comes with a price. I think people have mentioned this in the posts above, but since I first heard that line, it's been something I've been integrating into my stories.

It makes me think more about what the character is doing and why they're doing it, and what interesting repercussions there might be. Sometimes it's physical, sometimes personal. But the price is always high.

kuwisdelu
08-16-2014, 11:49 PM
My own approach is not to impose rules on how magic works itself, but not to use magic to solve anything that couldn't be solved the same way without magic. The magic itself simply serves as a metaphor — an external expression of an internal journey — to create realism through magic.

Some people refer to such an approach as "magic realism". :tongue

ClareGreen
08-17-2014, 12:19 AM
It may be worth bearing in mind that most of both Tolkien's and Lewis' magic were divine in nature, rather than mortal. The Istari (and other Maiar) were actually demigods and the elves closer to the gods than mere humankind could ever be. Meanwhile the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a (very) thinly-veiled parable.

Half the point was reminding us that magic is bigger than man.

jjdebenedictis
08-17-2014, 01:49 AM
A large part of why we read fiction is to exercise the non-logical parts of our brain, i.e. the bits that engage in associative problem-solving, not logical problem-solving.

Those are the parts of the brain that give you gut feelings and flashes of inspiration. They're also the parts of the brain susceptible to magical thinking -- i.e. that's the bit that feels uncomfortable about stepping on a crack because you might break your mother's back, etc.

You use every part of your brain to deal with reality, and also to understand fiction, but fiction is a workout practically designed to appeal to the associative mind rather than the logical mind. Thus, it's not surprising that many people find reading about intuitive, "wild" magic very appealing. Your associative mind loves intuitive, lateral-thinking exercises.

But like I said, we use all parts of our brain to understand fiction, including our logical mind, which means that some people will find it equally appealing to read about magic that also has some well-formed set of rules governing it. Their logical brain likes to get involved in the story too.

So I don't think we've lost anything by having many books that are about rule-based magic. It's just a matter of taste; some people want stories that make more sense on a gut-instinct level, and some people want stories that make sense logically too. We should have both.

Tatra
08-17-2014, 05:50 AM
Wild magic will forever have me think of The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper. That series had the same sort of juxtaposition of ordered magic alongside the wild magic.

I also think that part of the fun of writing about magic is figuring out what I want it to be in a particular novel. :D

Jacob_Wallace
08-17-2014, 07:39 AM
Tolkien's magic wasn't rule based, but I wouldn't call it wild either. Most of the magic took the form of enchanted items, like the ring, the various swords, the stones, etc. or are qualities of a race like trolls turning to stone, immortality of elves and wizards, shapeshifters, etc. We hardly ever see the wizards use magic except in the movies.

When I think of wild magic, I imagine precisely that. Magic that's wild. If it can be wielded, it's unpredictable. Usually it can't be wielded and does what it wants.

NRoach
08-17-2014, 07:49 AM
Tolkien's magic wasn't rule based, but I wouldn't call it wild either. Most of the magic took the form of enchanted items, like the ring, the various swords, the stones, etc. or are qualities of a race like trolls turning to stone, immortality of elves and wizards, shapeshifters, etc. We hardly ever see the wizards use magic except in the movies.

When I think of wild magic, I imagine precisely that. Magic that's wild. If it can be wielded, it's unpredictable. Usually it can't be wielded and does what it wants.

Magic as a whole in Middle Earth is unbounded and wild, but individual magics have a finite (but wildly varying) scope.

tianaluthien
08-17-2014, 06:15 PM
I also think that part of the fun of writing about magic is figuring out what I want it to be in a particular novel. :D

THIS.

Especially since I've realized that a bunch of my stories are actually set in the same world. So I'm trying to see where it all comes from. It's great fun :D

Roxxsmom
08-18-2014, 12:32 AM
My own approach is not to impose rules on how magic works itself, but not to use magic to solve anything that couldn't be solved the same way without magic. The magic itself simply serves as a metaphor — an external expression of an internal journey — to create realism through magic.

Some people refer to such an approach as "magic realism". :tongue

And it sounds really fascinating. Magic as metaphor is a neat concept.

In my novels, the character's dilemma (and main problems) wouldn't exist if the magic system didn't work the way it did. Part of the thing is that he has to learn how to deal with this, because mastering his magic (which is rather nasty) is the only way he can get out of the bind he's gotten himself (and everyone else) into with it.

The metaphor, as such, is he opened a bottle and he can't get the nasty, dark goo back in, so he's got to find a way to balance the damage it causes with its benefits and (hopefully) find a way to navigate the problem without destroying himself.

A bit like the situation if someone created a scientific technique and it results in their being a new superbug that's threatening to kill everyone. And the only way to fight that superbug is to use the technique that created it to make a vaccine.

But this doesn't mean I'm spending narrative time explaining how the magic works. It's more a matter of showing it and showing its effects on the protagonist (and how it feels to use it) and the other characters in the story.

The thing is, there are lots of ways to integrate magic into a world and story and (hopefully) make them cool and compelling.

I do like the concept of a "wild" magic that's unpredictable in its effects (because, perhaps, it stems from some other, unknowable realm or entity), yet it's very, very costly to its wielder.

Donaldson's books used the term "wild" magic, though I'm not sure if it's what the OP had in mind or not.

PeteMC
08-18-2014, 03:35 PM
Clare already said it, but again - Tolkein and Lewis wrote about divine magic, not human magic. Tolkein was virtually writing an alternative religious doctrine, whereas Lewis was literally writing a Bible story (albeit with a fancy hat on).

The Vancian magic that D&D pinched is ideally suited to a gaming system, which obviously needs the rules explaining in detail in order to make the game balance work. I don't personally think it makes for great reading.

The real problem here is that human magic can never truly exist, because as soon as something is understood it stops being magic and becomes science. Many of the things we (humanity) take for granted now would have looked like magic 2000 years ago, but aren't now because we gained understanding of them when we invented / discovered them. This is why Sanderson bores me to tears - however cleverly thought out his magic systems are, by the time it's been explained to the nth degree it has stopped feeling like magic and turned into a chemistry lesson.

Divine magic on the other hand is easily accepted by various religions, mostly because it is not and cannot be understood.

JimmyB27
08-18-2014, 04:56 PM
This is why Sanderson bores me to tears - however cleverly thought out his magic systems are, by the time it's been explained to the nth degree it has stopped feeling like magic and turned into a chemistry lesson.

What's boring about a chemistry lesson? :O

PeteMC
08-18-2014, 05:09 PM
Nothing, if you want to go to a chemistry lesson. If you want to read about magic though...

JimmyB27
08-18-2014, 06:29 PM
I think it's important to note that having rules for your magic doesn't mean you have to explain them, just that you have to adhere to them. And your characters don't have to know about them. Once upon a time, humans here on earth thought that the gods shot lightning at the earth, and blew hurricanes and so on. We now know better, of course, but the actual facts of the matter haven't changed. Your characters can be equally ignorant of your rules of magic.
In fact, I think one of the things that annoys me most about magic in fantasy is how static it is. We humans are inventive little blighters, and I can't imagine humans here, or anywhere else not studying something as potentially useful as magic. And, of course, (cue groans) the best method we've found for studying things is the scientific method so, again, I see no reason humans in a fantasy world wouldn't use that method to study their magic. After all, when you get right down to it, it basically boils down to 'try stuff, see if it works'

Chasing the Horizon
08-18-2014, 09:00 PM
"Wild" magic (I like that term) is the only kind I can write. I simply can't suspend my disbelief enough to buy that there's some perfect order to magic when everything else in life is so chaotic and unpredictable.

JimmyB27
08-19-2014, 12:50 PM
"Wild" magic (I like that term) is the only kind I can write. I simply can't suspend my disbelief enough to buy that there's some perfect order to magic when everything else in life is so chaotic and unpredictable.

Indeed. I mean, it's not like we have rules in physics or maths or anything... o.O