October 24, 2018 at 8:58 pm #54821
Great thoughts guys. And good distinction between hard magic and soft magic. I definitely lean more towards soft. I see the merit in hard magic, and it certainly has a lot more wiggle room for cool originality instead of just ‘ooh, spiritual giftssss’, but soft magic definitely fits with my world, style, and stories better.
Not that soft magic shouldn’t be presented originally, but it definitely usually comes from a fairly generic source.
Martin, with your example of the hobbit povs, you touched on part of the mechanics thing I was talking about. Let’s see if I can elaborate a little.
So, this theory began as a strong aversion to the ‘sit down and explain the magic to the newbie’ scene trope. That trope is for the reader’s benefit, and is basically a glorified information dump. As I studied it, I realized this mindset of ‘the magic must make sense!’ permeates entire systems and leaves readers flopping about in a sea of information with no emotional directives that help them form attachments, forgive flaws, and enter wholeheartedly into any symbolic significances hidden in the system’s structure. It’s almost as if the author is convinced that the more logical sense their system makes, the easier it will be to accept. This may be true to some extent… but the logic of a system is not necessarily what’s most important.
After mulling quietly over this for a few months, I came to the conclusion that there are two steps to designing a magic system. Think of yourself, the creator, as a watchmaker. To begin a watch, you have to make, align, synchronize, and set in motion all the gears. This is the rawest, most basic and most important part. Without these gears, the watch will be useless. This is the logical, physical structure of your magic system.
However… very few watch buyers are going to care a lick about what lies behind the face. If we sold watches without faces, and simply told people they’d have to learn to tell time by understanding how the gears work together and counting off the seconds based on the movement of the wheels, no one would use watches. The end product with such a universal use is very much simplified. Almost, as it were, disguised.
This is the second step in writing a magic system. You, as the author, need to know what lies beneath the surface. That’s your foundation. But you also need a face for it. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to introduce human elements.
We already looked at Allomancy; let’s take a peek at Surgebinding. If the bones of the system were all we had— Surges of Progression, Surges of Illumination, Surges of Division, etc.— we would get lost pretty quick. But the focus of the system is not on the surges themselves, but on the spren who give access to the surges. Something that could have been very technical and boring is given elements of whimsy, humor, friendship, unpredictability, a certain air of childlike mystery, and above all the potential for change.
The system becomes more than a system; it becomes something ‘alive’ in terms that everyday humans can relate to. The key is relating. None of us can relate to wielding magic. None of us are particularly deeply interested in understanding magic. We only care about it because of the potential it has to change the characters we love and the course of their future. But if it’s just a technicality, tossed around like a rubber ball, connecting it to the character’s inner lives and struggles becomes very difficult.
We the creators can help with that by giving our systems human faces. This may not mean anything remotely close to spren, though the spren are a good example. Perhaps this means that none of our pov characters understand the magic, and every time they ask about it they’re put off with something ignorant, condescending, or even outrageous.
‘I can’t tell you about it. Your hair isn’t blue. Only people with blue hair understand it.’
‘Oh, yes— the formula for invisibility is three cloves of garlic buried in a barnyard until they’re niiiiiiceeee and ripe’.
‘Dude yes! Let me tell you about the time I…’ *spins long, ridiculous yarn about visiting two old gods who wanted to get married and gave him their immortal powers in exchange for his cottage and sickly old cow*
If a system has realistic accomplishments and realistic consequences, it doesn’t have to be realistically explained. At least not right away. There’s no need for the ‘talk to the newbie’ trope. If we sprinkle bits and pieces of the truth between our elements of human nature, we can slowly weave a larger picture. By misdirecting the readers around the truth of how things are, withholding information and giving false information, when the time comes to reveal that truth they will be relaxed, eager, and entirely ready. Their heart has accepted it; now we move to engage the head.
The man who is first romanced by the simple, orderly face of a watch will eventually wonder about the engine that makes it run, and find himself ready to open the back and take a peek inside.
INFP-A. If you can't be brilliant, odd will do.October 25, 2018 at 12:56 am #54871
Gosh. I should have known that Sanderson was the one who used the terminology of hard and soft magic systems to differentiate between the two ends of the spectrum of handling magic! *facedesk* Honestly, guys, my memory is so broken sometimes…
@taylorclogston I guess, at the end of the day, it comes down to (again) me simply wanting to define the terms (again) according to my own liking. So (again), semantics. Which, to be honest, doesn’t generally move the substantive discussion forward. Eek!
Simply put, if I had my way, hard magic systems would be denominated with a more scientific label that doesn’t include the word magic, just to differentiate it from what I would consider *real* magic, which by nature has an element of the transcendent. No hate towards hard magic systems! I just don’t think they are the best developers of deeply abiding, experienced themes. Like @josiah said, there is something lost.
Granted, there are things gained by hard magic systems as well, which ought to be explored and used to their full potential!
Also, I put things out of order when defining hard and soft magic systems and defined them according to what they are (generally) most useful for in terms of plot building and conflict resolution, rather than sticking to the rational vs. mystic definition, which is the correct one. Apologies! I have, at one point, read a summary of Sanderson’s articles, @hope but having not heard the tale from the horse’s own mouth, my memory is invalid as a confidently airtight resource. As I have discovered through this conversation. 😀
Steering back to the question, “Why does magic need to be mystical?” I’m hard put to come up with an answer. I’m not being simplistic or sarcastic when I say this, but the rhetorical retorts that come to mind are things like: Why does music need to be harmonious? Why does architecture have to be structurally sound? And the answer being: Because in being/doing those things, it is best fulfilling it’s strengths as an idea or concept.
Which clearly shows that it all comes down to our definition of magic, which I, regrettably, did not define in my original comment. Nor will I attempt to define it now. My thoughts on the matter have become much less formulated because of the sharpenings that everyone’s comments have given me, so I hesitate to go there without thinking over it further.
My definitions were mixed up from the get-go, so the wording throughout my analysis is not what I would like it to be now. :/ That’s what I get for starting my comment at midnight… XD
Thank you, @taylorclogston , for including that excerpt of Tolkien’s letter. I enjoyed reading it a lot, and it helped me see where my terminology is all mixed up.
@josiah I am so glad that you mentioned something about the theme of deification in Sanderson’s works. That is something which I had picked out in almost all of his major series, and I was certain it had something to do with his Mormon beliefs. But until you said something, I didn’t have actual proof that my thoughts were correct. To me, seeing how well he incorporates that theme into his writing is encouraging, because it gives me hope that we can do the same with our theological beliefs in a way that is clear, artistic, and anything but preachy.
@hope-ann I think you’re right. I got caught up in the presentation/mechanics, rather than specifically addressing the underlying foundation of magic systems themselves.
As rambling as your paragraphs may have been, I enjoyed them! And I think at the end of the day I agree with you that elements of both hard and soft can be used to make an excellent magic system. I think when it comes down to it, I’m going to write magic systems that are technically a cross between hard and soft – a bit harder (but not Sanderson-level hard) in design, but very soft in presentation.
@kate I’m pleased that you’re also a fan of soft magic. XD It must be an INFP/feeler thing.
(Real-world parallel to my soft magic goals: I love theology and can study and talk it at length, but at the end of the day, what keeps my heart beating for Christ is the sheer beauty, art, mystery, and transcendence of the Gospel, and how it really can’t be classified and compartmentalized with words; to understand it, one must experience and love it. End rant.)
Fascinating, and I think very accurate analysis of how we should introduce our magic systems to our readers. Just for clarification, this is where you’re talking about presentation/mechanics, right?
I especially loved your summary:
“The man who is first romanced by the simple, orderly face of a watch will eventually wonder about the engine that makes it run, and find himself ready to open the back and take a peek inside.”
What I love about this is that soft magic systems, because there is something transcendent/unknown about them, almost automatically trigger that wondering desire in the heart of people to understand more and start to take apart the watch, so to speak.
In fact, I think this longing/desire to explore further is one of the main feelings that we, as artists, are trying to evoke in our readers with respect to spiritual truths. We want our stories to be the watch-face that catches the eye and sparks that longing for something more, something beyond, prompting a search into the inner workings of our worldview and of the God who holds it together. It was something akin to this which drew Lewis to faith, as he encountered something in George MacDonalds stories which he could not explain and yet effected him deeply – for the rest of his life, in fact!
Perhaps we could take your theory, @kate , and apply it to our writing in general, and not simply to magic systems alone?
myths don't dieOctober 25, 2018 at 6:34 am #54879October 25, 2018 at 6:38 am #54888
Oh, and I would agree with you on the Feeler thing part, only @josiah is an INFJ, so… XD Perhaps a Dominant Feeler thing. The INFJ dominant function is the Introverted INtuition, while for INFP it’s the Introverted Feeling. Also for the ENFJ (that’s Daeus, and his magic could probably be classified as more soft than not) though instead of Introverted Feeling it would be Extroverted Feeling.
Still feeling. 😉
Okay, I’ll stop now.
INFP-A. If you can't be brilliant, odd will do.October 25, 2018 at 6:53 am #54914Taylor Clogston@taylorclogston
@karthmin Tolkien’s letters are great. I need to get a hard copy of them some time.
I think I getcha. I don’t agree that magic is best when it’s mystical, but I getcha. The ideas of “sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic” and “sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science” resonate with me a lot more than sheer mysticism. A lot of 80s grungy dark fantasy stuff involved technology that was advanced enough to be scary and alien to humans and to me that created a sense of awe that I think a lot of other people feel when they idealize magic as mysticism. One of the fundamental works of my genre involves a world that appears to be magical to everyone involved, down to an evil god being the big bad, but in the end it turns out to effectively be the work of mad scientists from Earth creating vile engines of sorcery.
But on the other hand–I kind of feel I want more mysticism in real life? I don’t agree with a lot of the doctrine of Eastern Orthodoxy, but dang they do a good job of making you feel God is holy and awesome. A far cry from lowkey conservative Protestantism where we sing corny hymns and fixate upon the mechanical ABCs of salvation and how you just gotta accept you’re a wretched sinner who needs to live for Jesus because he’s the way and never go beyond that.
"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and MargaritaOctober 25, 2018 at 4:41 pm #55086Daeus Lamb@daeus-lamb
@kate My magic system is actually two magic systems, one hard and one very soft. The hard is the one shown most of the time and the soft (think the wall that keeps Menthril imprisoned) is the world-changing one.
Are you thinking of my article The Sheer Awfulness of Christianity?
👖 🐢🐢🐢🐢🐢October 25, 2018 at 9:47 pm #55177
@taylorclogston I’m glad you mentioned the ideas: “sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic” and “sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science”. The fact that they resonate deeply with you explains your starting point a lot more to me. And when I say that those same ideas are ones that I have been more and more desiring to steer clear of and avoid, it may explain to you some of my basic starting points as well.
It it my personal opinion that those ideas tend to cast our understanding of reality through a naturalistic/materialistic lens, because it lends towards a rational explanation for everything, even the things we cannot understand. To me, that isn’t an adequate analog to reality, in which we find many profound truths which we cannot rationally explain/fully comprehend and yet we hold them to be true. In addition, I sense that those ideas are soon to become (if not already) a trope in speculative fiction. But that, too, is just my personal opinion. There is still something innately interesting which draws me in to those ideas, and so I think there will always be merit to exploring that dynamic within our writing.
Also, I think it is worth mentioning that I am not in favor of sheer mysticism devoid of any grounding in reality. Like Tolkien delineated in the letter that you shared, the magic users in Middle Earth have those traits by nature of what they are. In other words, the magic is a natural, organic part of the way the world works.
When I contended for a necessary element of transcendence in my original comment concerning magic systems, I did not mean to imply that the magic itself wasn’t something natural to that world, or even that the magic users should only have their abilities as a divine gift, instead of as part of their nature. What I was arguing for, albeit poorly, was that the magic system must point beyond this world in some way. Personally, this is how I experience the magic in The Lord of the Rings. I know that it is something native to the elves, wizards, and etc., and therefore there is an element of earthiness to it that can’t be denied. And yet still there is something about it all which points beyond the present reality, to something which cannot be understood. Tom Bombadil is an excellent portrayal of this dynamic. He’s imminently earthy, and yet incomprehensible.
Lastly, I concur with you that the Greek Orthodox church does an excellent job of cultivating an atmosphere of awesomeness and holiness – not just in their liturgy (though it does come out there), but also in their doctrinal focuses. I was mentioning this to a friend just the other day, so it’s a strange coincidence that you should say the same thing a few days later! I concur – there is something deeply lacking about the glib theologizing that goes on in the Protestant church today. There is art, substance, and heart to the Gospel which cannot be fully explained or delineated by any collection of doctrinal phrases. We would do well to stand more in awe of the sheer beauty of God and everything that He has done.
myths don't dieOctober 25, 2018 at 9:50 pm #55179
@taylorclogston Forgive me for once again falling into the language of absolutes (“must point beyond this world”). I am far too attached to my ideas when once they take root in my head!
myths don't dieOctober 26, 2018 at 6:12 am #55221Taylor Clogston@taylorclogston
@karthmin Is all good, thanks for explaining. For what it’s worth, even if we disagree on some stuff I always enjoy our conversations and seeing you pop up in various threads =P
Even if I do prefer rational magic systems I nodded along with your point about spec fic being inundated with them. The big craze in self pubbed fantasy now (and has been for a couple years) is gamer lit/litrpg, where the magic system is in accordance with a strict set of video game-ish rules. Ironically the protagonist usually has some almost supernatural ability to break these rules, but whatever =P I think rational magic systems are easier from a storytelling perspective to implement because they can just be tools everyone uses to do cool mechanical things with. Mystical magic needs to mean something, which is tough and probably not a focus of much spec fic these days outside of some scifi.
And let’s look at the highest rated books of all time on Goodreads… Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Name of the Wind, The Way of Kings, and Words of Radiance are all in the top ten and all have rational magic systems, and aside from Harry Potter all the rest are extremely scientific. These books may be popular for various reasons but in the top twelve only the Lord of the Rings box set (at #7) and A Storm of Swords (at #12) use mystical magic systems. Western culture emphasizes the rational over the mystical (and I’m exemplary of that) and it would be nice to have some counterbalance.
"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and MargaritaOctober 27, 2018 at 11:55 pm #55793
@taylorclogston The feeling is mutual! I love the balance that you bring to the conversation.
I definitely think you’re right about the value that Western culture places on the rational over the mystical. We’ve lost something and gained something by that, I think. But all things happen in cycles, I think. So we’re probably due for some kind of resurgence of the mystical sometime soon…
myths don't die
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