Creating Magic Systems

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Writers of speculative fiction—whether fantasy, paranormal, superhero, or science fiction—are dealing with supernatural or hyper-scientific systems that stretch our reality and knowledge of the known.

As writers, our job is to create realities where these systems are understood by the reader and feel natural and integrated into the speculative world. A reader’s immersion requires that our systems are cohesive, logical, and well explained.

Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) refers to these systems, regardless of whether they are fantasy or science fiction, as “magic systems.” Both adhere to the same storytelling principles in order to bring the magic/technology to life.

He distinguishes between “soft magic” and “hard magic” and suggests that they lie on a continuum.

The far end of the soft magic continuum is full of “wonder” and has few rules. The magic users have mysterious abilities and can do whatever they wish with little limitation. Wizards and gods are good examples of characters that tend toward softer magic though they will often be subject to some rules. Rarely is someone with soft magic a main character or they’d simply wave their wands through every obstacle.

Hard magic lies on the other end of the spectrum, and here is where the rules come into play. In this case, the magic becomes an integral plot device in the story. According to Sanderson, an author’s “ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way for the reader depends directly on how well the reader understands the magic.”

So what does the “hard” end of the magic system need for reader understanding?

  1. Origin – What is the source of the magic? Where did it come from? If people have different powers, why?
  1. Simplicity – Some of the best magical systems have very little complexity but a great deal of depth. Magic users have to work to make the system fit their needs.
  1. Limitations – What exactly can the magic do and what can’t it do? Be specific.
  1. Flaws/weaknesses – These are the holes in the magic. What is its foil? When doesn’t it work? Is there a cost to the user?
  1. Tools/Activators – What does the magic need to function? Does it need a special item, something ingested, an initiation, a mutation?
  1. Early introduction – Establish the magic parameters early and foreshadow any change in abilities. Beware of adding magic just when it’s convenient (deux ex machina), especially near the end.

Remember that when crafting a magic system, the limitations and flaws are usually more interesting than the strengths (no different than crafting interesting characters). What the system can’t do is more intriguing than what it can, and it’s the system’s deficiencies that create the challenges and obstacles for the characters.

The number of rules an author employs is what slides the magic system along the continuum. But that’s not the only way soft and hard magic can be blended. Some stories will use hard magic to drive the story, but add little elements of soft magic to increase the sense of wonder.

Magic is no small matter! It will have an impact on the world, nations, cultures, governments, and religions. It will impact power hierarchies, livelihood, family, self-esteem, danger and destiny. Take some time to think about how the presence of magic impacts the overall world. The more your magic system is woven into your world-building, the more real it will feel to the reader.

Happy Writing!

Thirsty Moon

Thirsty Moon

In my fantasy world, the Thirsty Moon ushers in the last of the summer’s heat. Rain is scarce and rivulets run dry in sandy streambeds. Late season gardens thirst for a long steady shower after weeks of waterless weather.

It’s a time for pickling and  stacking wood, blackberries and swimming holes. And now and then, a morning chill slides down with the stars, promising warm pies from cider-scented orchards and hinting of autumn.

The full face of the Thirsty Moon shines tonight, August 18th.

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Excerpt from Thirsty Moon, Eye of Fire

The days ambled by, and Mirah’s garden transformed, weeds pulled in an ever-widening circle, beds edged, produce picked and preserved. She lugged water from the well, determined that her life would flourish, no longer choked by fear and loss. Her modest bounty she shared at the forge, delivering a basket now and then of just-picked greens. Brend smiled when he found her silhouetted in his doorway, her invitation hanging in the air between them.

At day’s end, she left him leaning on the doorjamb, arms crossed, watching her walk into the dusty lane. She strolled past her home, admiring her neighbor’s gardens, the round-bellied pumpkins and hard-shelled squash, bee balm and buttercup crowding each other for space in the sun.

Not long ago, Wyn told her that the myth of a person’s life entailed more than a compilation of facts, the particulars of one’s history. More importantly, one’s myth rose from the way a person was perceived by others and by what one believed about oneself. Myths were amorphous, changeable, imbued with feeling, rich with dreams and reflections. They could be altered by a change in perception or a change of heart.

Not ready for home, she climbed a narrow path to the meadow above Taran Leigh, a path she knew well, like the myth of her life. The air carried a hint of coolness, signaling the coming of fall. Pulling herself up over a stone stile at the top of a small rise, she paused, drawn from her reverie. The meadow unfolded before her, awash with blue dannies fluttering endlessly, delicate petals raised to the sun. The flowers filled her with memories as if they lingered there only for her to find.

When she stepped into the meadow, the petals closed around her, bearing her as if on a wave. Floating through them, she touched them with her fingertips, felt their soft kisses. In the center of the meadow, she surrendered her burdens, lay them down with her fear to be carried away with the flowers when the wind came. The graceful alder bent its branches, alone in the waterless sea. She gazed up at a sky as blue as the dannies and saw a glint of copper wings, a dragon coming for her.

Coming Next Week!

A Great Book Where Nothing Happens

I get such a kick out of all the different types of writers and books and readers there are in the world. It’s just plain thrilling. The best part is it reinforces the notion that we can all focus on writing the stories we love, and if we write them well, there will be readers who’ll enjoy them.

And, of course, those who don’t, but that’s not the subject of this post and really, does it matter? If we’ve done the hard work and produced a quality book, it’s still not going to appeal to everyone anyway, so why stress about it?

I just finished reading The Goblin Emporer by Katherine Addison. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though nothing happens in the book. Yeah, nothing happens. There are probably 2 pages of action out of 447. I know some readers who would rather spend a night with the stomach flu, bowing to the bowl, than suffer through the lack of a riveting plot.

Yet to me the book was engaging. The pace was graceful, and the main character, a goblin named Maia, was exquisitely real, his emotional life written with meticulous care. I wanted to jump into the pages and hug him. It’s one of those books where you’re pulling and pulling and pulling for the main character. Even without a plot.

Maia is the youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor of the Elflands and has lived his entire life in exile, lonely, uneducated, and missing his dead mother, the only person who ever treated him kindly. When his father and brothers are killed in an “accident,” he is heir to the throne and completely ill-equipped for the intrigue and subtleties of court politics. He’s a kind, sincere young goblin, whose gentle approach endears him to some and leaves him vulnerable to others. The entire book takes place during the first winter of his reign and covers the painful steps he takes coming into his own.  Maia’s journey is far from over by the end of the book, but there’s a glimmer of good things ahead.

Yes, there is a character arc, a modest one. In The Goblin Emperor, it’s the only forward progress in the book, because, yup, nothing else happens.

Aside from those of us who live for character-driven books, how did Addison achieve such wide appeal with a book lacking any hustle and bustle? Partly, in my opinion, by making the extraordinarily clever choice to tell the tale with goblins. Goblins characters and their goblin world switched up the entire story into something unique. I wonder if I would have liked the book as much if Addison wrote about an average human boy. Hmmm, probably not.

Addison’s world-building was complex, a whole geography and history, customs and rituals, philosophies and religions backing up the narrative. I got a kick out of most of it, particularly the character descriptions, the precise style of speech, and elaborate clothing. I will mention one significant challenge: the names of most of the places and characters were confusing – unpronounceable and so similar to each other that, other than the main players, I didn’t know who was who. And yet I still loved the read.

For me, this book reinforced a few notions about writing:
1. Write what you love, that story bursting to be told
2. It isn’t necessary to conform to methods and rules
3. Bust the paradigms and be wildly creative
4. Write the absolute best book you can
5. There are readers who will enjoy your words.

Happy Writing!

Writer as Witness

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As storytellers, we create settings and characters with enough authenticity to entrap readers in our imaginations. The goal is to elicit feelings somewhere in the broad spectrum of human experience, to personally invest the reader in the outcome of our tales.

Frontyard1.dianapeach.jpgA sense of reality and plausibility in our stories aids us in that task. External intricacy adds texture as it paints pictures in a reader’s mind. Our own emotional landscape is fodder for our characters’ souls.

I love the idea of writers as witnesses. We are observers of details, the ones with personal knowledge of hidden imagery and feelings, which we attest to through our words.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron encourages artists to become witnesses, to take time out of each day to observe our outer and inner worlds with curiosity, as a way of enriching our store of experience and ultimately our art. She suggests occasional artist’s vacations, to gather experiences foreign to our daily routines.

Frontyard3.dianapeach.jpgI frequently wander about in zombie-like unconsciousness. My familiarity with my routine and surroundings allows my brain to dally elsewhere, usually embroiled in developing scenes, prodding characters, and plugging up plot holes.

Unless I make a mindful choice to engage, I don’t.

I wrote a post back in October called Emotional Writing about a necessary willingness to explore painful feelings. This is tough work: witnessing our own agony and blindness, picking through our hearts with an observer’s impartial eye. And how far are we willing to delve into someone else’s experience, to embrace it as our own?

Frontyard5.dianapeach.jpgToday I’m another kind of witness. If I sit still and pay attention, I see cloudy light reflected on rain-slick leaves, the diamond patterns of stained glass at the end of a dark hallway. Gossamer cobwebs thread the air around the old chandelier. The dog snores on the couch and rain drips from sagging gutters to patter on the metal roof. It’s chilly this morning, and Pinky the cat has commandeered my sweater. If my nose weren’t stuffy, I might smell coffee brewing.

Any one of these details may end up in my writing today.

I share a few photos of moss growing in my yard. I would have never witnesses the beauty if I hadn’t taken the time to look.

Pearseus Trilogy: Epic Adventure with Great Action

I finished two reads yesterday. One was the IRS Instruction Manual for Personal Income Tax Form 1040. The other was the Pearseus trilogy by Nicholas Rossis.

The tome was dull, convoluted, and hard to understand. I found it extremely difficult to follow as if the author actually intended it to be confusing. There were whole sections that I merely skimmed. The IRS clearly needs beta readers and a paid editor!

81N9Ac-uLgL._SL1200_Now…on to Pearseus! A thoroughly entertaining read!

(Sorry, Nicholas, if my intro gave you a coronary).

The Pearseus trilogy is an epic adventure that chronicles the feats of four protagonists that become embroiled in the complex political and philosophical factions of a multi-dimensional world. Ultimately, they play key roles in saving the planet’s inhabitants from annihilation.

This is one of those tales that balances nicely between science fiction and fantasy. Though many of the beings and events have a fantastical feel to them, they have alien versus magical origins. Earth technology still exists, but is limited and barely understood. I enjoyed the occasional resurfacing of Earth artifacts, wisdom, and colloquialisms.

The overall feel of the trilogy reminded me of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. The sweep of the story is epic in nature and new people, beings, information, technology, and weapons routinely come into play, modifying the scope of the protagonists’ goals and challenges, and upping both the dangers and the means to overcome them.

61K71C0IBpL._UX250_One of Rossis’s strengths is his meticulous world-building. Pearseus is a planet claimed by three different sets of inhabitants. Refugees from the Earth spaceship, Pearseus, seized the world from the First, who previously usurped it from the native creatures and terraformed it to their liking. This layered history of conquest serves as a major source of contention in the plot. At the same time, Rossis gives the globe’s current nations distinct political and cultural identities with a realistic smattering of political maneuverings, back-door alliances, and betrayals.

The trilogy has quite a bit of philosophical discussion as the varied cultures play against each other. These unhurried moments are interspersed between great action scenes, and they lessen as the plot picks up speed and zooms toward its conclusion. Action descriptions are skillfully done, effortless to follow, and frequently bloody. The main characters and supporting cast are well-rounded, believable, and easy for the reader to identify with. Teo, a despicable power-monger, is particularly engaging and I looked forward to his scenes.

All in all, a great choice for epic fantasy and science fiction readers.

Order from Amazon here: Pearseus Bundle   or   Book I: Rise of the Prince.