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Author Topic: Regarding Fantasy Magic
JoBird
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Some authors tend to have harder fantasy than others. By this, I mean to say that they go into much greater detail about how the magic in their world works.

An example of this type of author would be Brandon Sanderson. He puts in some very clear rules dictating the use of magic in his novels. In essence, it seems that he tries to hash out an actual mechanic for his magic system, something the reader can relate to and plausibly understand.

The Mistborn novels rely upon the burning of metals. Out of metal? Out of luck.

Something similar is found in Rothfuss' work -- specifically with sympathy magic. Similar things are easier to bind through sympathy, dissimilar things are harder, requiring more energy, or thaums, I believe he calls his unit of measurement.

A softer system of magic utilizes less mechanic, searches for less overall understanding. Most novels of old seem to lean more toward a softer system. They might imply exhaustion from the working of magic, but they don't necessarily enter into a pseudo scientific realm in the hopes of explanation.

I had this discussion with a friend of mine. He basically said that he wants to feel like he knows how something is done after he reads about it. There's an obvious understanding that magic isn't possible, but if it he were in that world he would want to know how to do it. He likened this to watching Karate Kid. Now, no one is going to walk out of the movie actually knowing karate, but the process of teaching included things like wax on, wax off, painting a fence, and so on. Those movements then translated into the movements Daniel-san used in the film. There was a connection with the audience, folks left the movie feeling like they understood karate a little more. Whether or not they did is moot, the process was made plausible to them.

My question is: do you folks prefer hard fantasy or soft fantasy in that regard?

I believe that the harder magic systems might be the way of the future as far as the genre goes. I'm curious what everyone else thinks. Developing a system of magic can be pretty tough, some thoughts on what you folks appreciate would help me focus my efforts in a productive manner.

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extrinsic
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I think a defintiion of terms is in order. First, though, the question is one of audience, kairos, and decorum appeals. Decorum in the rhetorical sense: suiting one's words and subject matter to each other, to the occasion (kairos), and the audience.

If by hard and soft fantasy you mean similar usages as for science fiction, derived in part from the sciences, which derived in part from magic arts: astrology became astronomy, alchemy became chemistry, magical persuasion became psychotherapy; then the physical and social sciences, then hard fantasy would have a physical science-like rule base and soft fantasy would have a social rule base.

I do see a trend for less patience with social and spiritual belief system fiction, or paranormal and supernatural metaphysics. Since the Postmodern social upheaval of the mid Twentieth century, and its inherent skepticism and cynicism, audiences have been generally trending toward "hard" fiction. However, younger audiences and young-at-heart audiences still want for wish-fulifillment fiction.

World building, establishing the rules as well as the setting of an imagined world takes up a considerable amount of writing preparation and reworking after draft writing. But the bulk of world building shouldn't end up on the final pages as a burden for readers to slog through or skip altogether.

Readers should be given enough information to infer how the world works so they can comprehend the dramatic action, which is paramount. The narrative which focuses on the dramatic situation, problem wanting satisfaction, is more accessible and appealing than the one which is fundamentally a political geography travelogue or recipe book for a menu or how-to for constructing a lodge.

[ July 16, 2012, 03:37 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MAP
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It depends on the book, and the type of story being told. Some books work with little description of how magic works while others require more detailed explanation.

I don't feel like Harry Potter had a well-described magic system. I certainly don't feel I understand the rules and limitations. Anything seemed possible with the right potion or spell. But I still loved the books. And I agree that Brandon Sanderson really explains his magic systems well, so the reader understands the limitations. Both stories worked for me, so I really have no preference.

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MartinV
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I created my magic system by giving actual physics a twist. I took some outdated theories from the 19th Century and changed them until they suited my purposes.
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rcmann
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I try to base my magic systems on adaptations of real world spiritualistic practices mixed with a touch of psi. In other words, something that a lot of people nowadays might actually believe in. Many people now believe in the healing power of faith. Many people believe in telepathy, telekinesis, etc. So my magic is based on a system that is partly derived from the power inherent in the human mind and spirit, and partly from the power of the natural forces around us. Much like shamanistic practices.
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Robert Nowall
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One of the reasons I more-or-less gave up writing fantasy is that I was looking for a new angle on magic systems---the new angles are probably out there, but I couldn't think 'em up.

(Not that my SF is any more original...)

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History
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Oddly perhaps, as a (medical) scientist, I find I prefer writing fantasy [although it has been argued that, technically, all speculative writing, including science fiction, is fantasy, but I'll not digress into this often heated and inconclusive debate].

I insist my fantasies be internally consistent, especially their magic systems, though I believe it is better to present this briefly, if it is not intuitive.

For example, in my Kabbalist novel "The Kabbalist: The Foundation of the Kingdom" (the following modified to stay within Hatrack's 13 line limit), I created a magic system that permits me to tap the magical mythologies of every human belief system:

"Life, the universe and everything is derived from Potential, which is the essence of what I name the Prime. From this all things are created. Which came first, the Prime or God is unanswerable. Or perhaps there is no difference. ...It is from the Prime, from Himself, that God created the universe and Man, our world, all worlds, and all within them. ... In the quest for purpose and a reason for why he exists, Man derived faith and religion. In the quest to understand how he and the universe exists and is ordered, he derived myth and science.

... Made in God’s image, we are ‘partners in Creation’ and thus possess, to a far lesser degree, the power (to manipulate) the Prime.

What Man imagines, if his Will is strong enough, and particularly if willed collectively, exists."


Thus, my protagonist Rabbi has access to the "magic" of Jewish mysticism (i.e. the Kabbalah) but also that of Christian, Norse, even ancient Egyptian, etc. Most of the theological and mythological belief systems in human history conceive an ordering "magic" or "power" in their respective assumptions concerning God (or gods) and Creation--particularly the power of Words and Names. For these stories, Scripture therefore becomes a tome of "magic." For my protagonist, the love for and power within those words (e.g. Psalms) acts to focus his Will to achieve his intent:

"Naar l’rag’li devarechah, v’or lin’ti’vati. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.]"[Psalms 119:105]

...to create a sphere of light in dark places.

Though a few of my readers (Christian predominately) have been disturbed and made uncomfortable at my use of Scripture this way.

And Extrinsic may be correct regarding there being "less patience with social and spiritual belief system fiction, or paranormal and supernatural metaphysics", since I have yet to find a publisher interested in these tales.

For the shorter stories I merely used the preceding "system" without repeating the explanation. Both methods (i.e. exposition and no exposition) I believe can work as long as you, the author, have a clear understanding of the system of magic you are using, and stick to it...ah, religiously. [Wink]

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by History:
Though a few of my readers (Christian predominately) have been disturbed and made uncomfortable at my use of Scripture this way.

Now this intrigues me even more about your work, Dr. Bob.

Come to think of it, though, the "close your eyes and stick your finger in the Bible" method of receiving guidance from Scripture is not all that uncommon among Christians, and is certainly a kind of "magical thinking" approach. And yet, some other method of using Scripture causes discomfort? Hmph!

Anyway, I'd like to know more.

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MartinV
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And I thought I knew everything about Christians. I am living among them, after all.
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History
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
quote:
Originally posted by History:
Though a few of my readers (Christian predominately) have been disturbed and made uncomfortable at my use of Scripture this way.

Now this intrigues me even more about your work, Dr. Bob.
Thank you for your interest, Ms Woodbury.
As always, if you ever have interest in (or time for) reading one of my stories, you need but ask.
quote:
Come to think of it, though, the "close your eyes and stick your finger in the Bible" method of receiving guidance from Scripture is not all that uncommon among Christians, and is certainly a kind of "magical thinking" approach. And yet, some other method of using Scripture causes discomfort? Hmph!
Ah, yes. The I-Ching method of finding insights and guidance within Scripture. [Wink]
quote:

Anyway, I'd like to know more.

About the fictional magic system for my Kabbalist stories?
Or the ill-ease its use inspired in a few Christian readers?

In regard to the former I think I've captured the gist of it for you in my prior post and to quote more would exceed the Forum's 13 line limit.

However, I suspect you mean the latter. I believe the discomfort for some Christian readers lies in both the negative connotation of "magic" as being derived from "the Devil" and in their knowledge of verses regarding the Witch of Endor, and the prohibitions about witchcraft in Scripture: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" et. al. [Shemot (Exodus) 22:17; Devarim (Deut.) 18:9-10].

The error herein is not recognizing the intent of such prohibitions in Hebrew Scripture: the prohibition of idolatry. For the Jewish mystics, all that we can only ignorantly perceive as "magic" are simply the creative emanations that flow from G-d and permit Existence to Be. "The Lord is G-d, the Lord alone" [Devarim 6:4], the central credo of the Jewish faith. There is no idolatry when G-d is the center of one's thoughts, study, and purpose. Similarly, in Judaism, there is no "Devil", or any being that can in any way oppose or contest with G-d--i.e. no Christian Satan/Lucifer that can be a source for any creative emanation or power....

...with the exception, in my Kabbalist magic system, of how much human beings individually and collectively Will this, which results in all sorts of interesting complications for my Rabbi protagonist. [Wink]

Anyway, that my Rabbi protagonist utilizes "magic" creates unease in some of my Christian readers who critiqued my stories. They may fidgit and recall there was a time when Jews were accused of black magic by their Christian neighbors and persecuted because if it, and here I am seemingly proving it--although I'm not. So I do not fault nor dismiss their Sunday school preconceptions based on a limited knowledge of Judaism and Jewish mysticism, and appreciate their desire to give no justification to heinous acts of the past.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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One of the things I understand from my exposure (cursory as it may be) to Kabbalistic things is the power of words (and as writers, we should all appreciate that in one form or another).
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Owasm
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I always have some kind of 'logic' to my magical systems, even if they are informal.

I find Sanderson's intensity about magic systems to become somewhat tedious. Sometimes it gets in the way of the plot, to my way of thinking.

However, I admit to writing soft science fiction and light fantasy. That might color my view. [Roll Eyes]

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rcmann
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It's been a while, and I do not pretend to be a bible scholar. But I would have sworn I recall reading a verse that said, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live among ye." Not just, 'to live', but 'to live among ye'. Am I senile?
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mfreivald
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It seems to me that a "magical" system that relies upon a strict set of rules is not a magical system at all. It's an alternative physics, and is an essentially materialistic approach with metaphysical objects substituting for physical objects. And though I haven't read any Sanderson, I would probably find such intricate works of reflected materialism tedious, as well. That being said, there's nothing wrong with a fantasy story about an alternative physics.

To achieve true wonder, however, I think a great amount of mystery is necessary, and a system of magic that is not pressed into small rules has a much better chance of affecting that. It is, in my opinion, the more difficult and the more rewarding approach.

That does not mean random use of power is any better. (One of the reasons it's more difficult.) Random use of power with no rhyme or reason is probably more tedious than the intricate reflections of materialism. It also degenerates into meaninglessness and leaves a story flat. I felt this way about the Susan Cooper novels. Her imagery was so rich, and yet my visceral reaction to them was left flat and disappointed.

So magic still has to have at least some tacit limitations and some non-random aspects to it to reach its full potential. Furthermore, it has to carry with it some kind of meaning. I think some of you have insinuated as much above, though not explicitly (barring a careless reading on my part). This requires a very skilled pen, and it is exceedingly rare that I put a fantasy book down with the level of satisfaction that it can provide.

So--naturally I had to try to do it, and naturally my ego will not allow me to finish this post without mentioning my work. My unpublished novel "Confessions of an Elder" is the first work to spin off of many years of effort to find a unique approach to magic that carries meaning. It's actually so simple, I find it hard to believe it is unique, but I have yet to see its equivalent.

The results are mixed, most likely due to my ham-handed skills, but what I wound up with is a system that hints at purpose behind the way magic works, but still leans a little more toward the "alternative physics" than I was hoping for.

I hope the trend will be away from alternative physics. I do sometimes like those books, but they actually have more of a wildly speculative sci-fi novel flavor than a fantasy flavor. I'd like to read more books in the fantasy genre that truly inspire a sense of wonder and amazement--and let those who want hefty explanations find their entertainment elsewhere.

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MattLeo
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On the Exodus 22:18 issue, I believe it is intended to encourage the execution of sorceresses -- "witch" being a term culturally specific to medieval to modern Northern Europe. It's not entirely clear what would qualify one as a sorceress in the period prior to the Babylonian Captivity.

The problem is that until the mid 1700s it was very difficult to draw a line between natural philosophy and magic. In fact, the more learned authorities on witch hunting such as Francesco Guazzo took great pains to distinguish "natural magic" (medicine, technology, botany) which was lawful, from "unnatural magic" (necromancy, demonology) which was forbidden. He had considerable metaphysical difficulties with explaining how anything "unnatural" could exist at all, but that's a different story.

Now as for elaborately plausible systems of magic in fantasy literature, they are entirely unnecessary. This is shown whenever a popular fantasy novel gets reworked as a role playing game. The game designers do nearly all the work of making the magic system systematic and consistent. I can't think of any popular fantasy work you could translate in any direct way into the kind of exact and balanced rules a game needs. What is admirable clarity in a game design is tedious detail in a story.

It's one of those areas in writing that's more like dancing with the reader's imagination than issuing marching orders. Yes you want to be specific with detail, but not necessarily *comprehensive*. The reader needs to know enough rough detail of how magic works so that he knows certain relevant things are possible and certain others are not -- although the implications may not necessarily be the ones he foresees (this was a staple of Asimov's robot stories).

What you have to do as a writer is to create a satisfying story. What you have to do as a *fantasy* writer is conjure belief. If you consider how to use magic in a story you'll see that belief is quite distinct from plausibility. Plausibility is important of course; you need to make the motivation of a miracle plausible, and the results of a miracle plausible. C.S. Lewis calls this process as applied to miracles "naturalization", as in becoming a naturalized citizen. A supernatural cause immigrates into the world from outside the realm of possibility, but immediately acts just as any mundane cause would.

I think that if you go too far to making the magic itself plausible, it's no longer miraculous or wonderful. A lot of urban fantasies go too in in this direction. You've got a huge reader database of vampire, werewolf and wizard tropes to build with. This is very efficient for you as a writer, all you have to do is add a few plausible extensions to that collection. Since fans want to be taken to the commonplace vampire universe and shown a bit more of it, that's a fair deal, but notice what you've done here. You've added *plausible* extensions to *familiar* settings. The result may be satisfying, but you can't expect it to have that glorious miraculousness that a freshly imagined fantasy world can offer to its readers.

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JoBird
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Thank you all for your thoughts on this so far. I'm sorry that I haven't commented on many of your posts yet, but I find myself still trying to digest a lot of it.

In fairness, I wrote a fairly long response a little earlier. Unfortunately, while I was writing it I realized that I had no idea what I was talking about. So, I deleted it.

The basic struggle seems to be one between faith and reason, how to make the reader believe, and how to keep the plot progressing while doing that. I have no idea where I fall on this subject. I don't like this feeling of uncertainty, I know that much.

It may be that there is no definitive answer to be found. Which is better: this subjective thing or that subjective thing? No two people ever read the same book, as Edmund Wilson wrote.

It's also possible that I'm not even asking the right question. I don't know.

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History
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מְכַשֵּׁפָה, לֹא תְחַיֶּה
--Torah, Shemot (Exodus) 22:17

Hebrew to English translation is often a bit tricky.
Very literally this is: "A whisperer/spell chanter, no(t) to live."

In Hebrew Scripture the term is translated as "sorceress" and in the KJV it is "witch" (and is listed as verse 22:18).

However, context is everything. As I shared in my prior post, the primary concern then and, admittedly still relevent today, is to avoid and not be tempted to idolatry. Sorcery and witchcraft is defined here as the false belief in a power other than the One G-d. There is no such power per Scripture. Thus, such mummery leads people to stray, and to sin. Sorcerers seduced people from their covenant with G-d and brought harm to both the individual and community. After their centuries among the polytheists of Egypt, and the ignorant fears that led to the folly of the Golden Calf, the Israelites (Scripture's "Everyman") needed strict guidance to stay on G-d's path.

Yet...Rcmann is also correct. By taking the context of the Torah as a whole (including "Do not mistreat the stranger"), some commentors have concluded that the intent is "Though shalt not permit a sorceror (idolator) to live among thee." There should never be witch burnings or drownings, as these are cruel and unjust. Simply do not support with one's business those who would lead you astray with their false claims of fortune-telling and promises of powers.

Btw, the same injunction is seen concerning false prophets--e.g.
Deuteronomy 13:1-6 "So shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee."

The Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) pursued the knowledge of G-d, not any other Power (for there is no other). They did this via a spiritual/mystical understanding of His Word within Scripture, all to gain an insight into the truth of the Divine (including "Life, the Universe and Everything"--as Douglas Adams would say).

O.k. Jewish Bible lesson over. [Wink]

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by JoBird:
The basic struggle seems to be one between faith and reason, how to make the reader believe, and how to keep the plot progressing while doing that. I have no idea where I fall on this subject. I don't like this feeling of uncertainty, I know that much.

It may be that there is no definitive answer to be found. Which is better: this subjective thing or that subjective thing? No two people ever read the same book, as Edmund Wilson wrote.

I believe the "basic struggle" is an impenetrable veil from one side of the struggle and a whispy memory from the other side. "Subjective" is the key. Given a privilege and a right as well as an obligation and responsibilty, a duty to think critically and consciously fully for one's self once age of maturity has been passed, to contribute meaningfully to the conversation, since no subjective position is in and of itself inherently right or wrong, what you decide is yours to decide and to own for all its nobilities and frailties.

If it works, it works; if it doesn't, it doesn't. The "it" is persuasion. I nor any reader needs to be made to believe. Once a reader decides to read, the first of three persuasion meaning spaces is invoked: willing suspension of disbelief, per Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Readers begin with a tacit contract between reader and writer a fiction will be believable for all its creative inventions.

The second per J.R.R. Tolkien is secondary settings different from everyday routine alpha world settings. More stimulating than everyday routines, if a routine interruptus doesn't present in the alpha reality, a fictional one will suffice for the time being.

Third, participation mystique per Kimberly Falconer by way of Lucien Lévy-Brühl, pertaining to "a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity" (Participation Mystique Wikipedia).

Don't spoil willing suspension of disbelief, create stimulating secondary settings, persuade readers to participate in the imagined world's mystique, and the "basic struggle" veil sublimates. After all, fiction or prose in general is pretend make-believe for readers, but not by a writer making or coercing or by force majeure. Prose is persuasive seduction of the finest kind.

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