“If anything is possible, nothing is interesting.” I firmly believe that, and it’s the reason that I’m even bothering with this rant at all. While I don’t think every magical system needs 100 pages of breathlessly complicated rules that would make a Rosicrucian happy, I want limitations. Those are different from sheer “rules.” Rules for magic show the effort the author’s put into worldbuilding. Limitations on magic prevent the author from using too little effort, and trying to pass moldy toilet paper off as a story.
1) If your magic is limited by an outside force, keep track of it. Hi. My name is Limyaael, and I’m one of those anal-retentive readers who starts keeping count the moment an author introduces a specific number of things, like weapons or warriors. This has occasionally ruined a fight scene for me, as I knew that a last orc warrior should have attacked the hero, or the archer should technically have run out of arrows two pages ago. (Mini-rant on: If you introduce specific numbers, it is your responsibility to keep track of them. If you’re not up to it, use indefinite words like “several” or “some” instead of “five” or “twelve.” /mini-rant off)
You can imagine how I feel about magic where the author indicates that, say, the character has to eat before she shifts shape, and then said character keeps shifting shape back and forth when she hasn’t eaten in three days. I am sure that the character kicking ass and helping the plot along when she changes form is not at all the reason why the author is doing this, of course. There must be a good reason, and as soon as I pull one out of my ass, I’ll let you know what it is.
Look. No forgetting your own limitations because forgetting makes the characters look good. If said character cannot pull power from a ley line more than twenty miles away, and she drains all the magic from the ley lines within twenty miles, suddenly having her “discover” that she can reach out to a ley line forty miles away is not a brilliant plot maneuver, it’s laziness. If an author has hinted at the ability beforehand, then I want damn good reasons why the character never before discovered that she could affect ley lines more than twenty miles away; it would make much more sense for her to have the power waiting in reserve than to just “suddenly” learn of it. If an author hasn’t prepared this beforehand, it’s once again not only laziness, but pathetic hand-waving and ignoring of her own rules. Quit it.
And, here’s a shock, ever consider that perhaps your character can use some other means than magic to fight her way out of the problem? Show her panting, exhausted, with no more ley lines, miraculous or otherwise, to help her out, and suddenly I’m a lot more interested.
2) Make the exceptions harmonize with the rest of your system. I’m sure you’ve all read at least one book with this scene, give or take a few names:
“Well, yes, blood magic is so thick and evil that it kills everyone—except purple-eyed women of the line of Whorebass. The ancient Dark Lord Agrithanon, who had studied magic for ten thousand years, brewed a blood magic spell as perfect as could be devised. But when he sent the blood magic against you, it recoiled from you and you lived.”
BZZZT. I am sorry, author, please try again. The inconsistencies here are too thick and too laughable.
a) Why doesn’t blood magic kill purple-eyed women of the line of Whorebass? I want to know how it interacts with eye color, gender, and genetics, please, since the author went to such trouble to specify that. “It just doesn’t” is idiotic, and too convenient. (See point 3).
b) This Agrithanon has studied magic for ten thousand years, and yet never learned of this particular immunity that the purple-eyed Whorebass women have? And if you say “it was secret,” I will hurt you. That’s yet another too-convenient coincidence.
c) Why haven’t the purple-eyed Whorebass women been taken advantage of, or studied? If blood magic is common, you’d think that other people would try to acquire the secret of that protection, not just stare in respectful awe when the Whorebass women save the world and ignore them otherwise. If blood magic isn’t common and there are other kinds of destructive magic that hurt people, then you have another problem, to whit:
d) Why didn’t Agrithanon use something else against this teenager (yes, I bet it’s a teenager) that he wanted to kill besides blood magic, either before or after it failed? Oops, of course, I forgot. The author wanted him to use the magic that the heroine just happened to have an immunity to. I’m sorry, I missed that reasoning under the very loud voice screaming “BULLSHIT” in my head.
Hero/ines in fantasy, if they have magic, tend to be “exceptions,” as I’ve mentioned before: exceptionally powerful, or they’re the only ones to have that kind of magic ever, or they’re the only one that can answer the prophecy. Well, show me how the exceptions work with the rest of your magic system. If it just has gaps wherever you need it to have gaps, and is otherwise perfectly safe and tame, you’re back to deciding that anything is possible, and should be possible, because you say it is. (For the hero/ine, of course. Minor characters exist to get killed off or to be her faithful followers).
3) If you want a “scientific” magic system, you’ve got to pay science’s price. There are several that could fit the bill, but the one I’m thinking of here is the way science changes and evolves, throws out old ideas, pops up new ones, tests the new ones, tries to replicate the test results, gets rid of the theories if they turn out not to explain things satisfactorily, and attempts to harmonize its own apparent exceptions with the rest of the system’s underlying rules. Science is a hell of a lot more alive than any “scientific” magic system I’ve come across. In fact, I would say that most of those systems aren’t scientific at all. “Complex” doesn’t equal “science,” and neither does “having rules.” Literary analysis can be both of those, but it would be extremely hard to say it was a science.
Your magical system can have rules. It can be complex. But those rules will need to flex and shift and change, to go after exceptions—like why blood magic doesn’t kill the purple-eyed women of Whorebass—and try to explain them, to shake off the stupid moribund customs that authors usually enslave their magical academies to. Tests will need to take place, multiple tests. “Laws” will range from simple to complicated, and if unknown factors get into the mixture and upset everything, then the mages will have to spend some time and effort discovering what those factors were and why they caused the reaction they did.
Sounds hard, doesn’t it? Sounds limiting? (Good). Then remove the label “scientific” from your magical system, or be willing to recognize what it really means when you call it that, inside the book or out.
4) Recognize the line of the ridiculous. Like, for example, the story about the tsunami that comes sweeping up to the coastline but doesn’t kill the heroine who’s right in its path. And after that, she has the power to kill people with fire. Because it’s a magic tsunami.
I’ve seen some sublime excuses to give protagonists magic, and then I’ve seen ridiculous ones. One good test: the more violations of separate natural laws that the magic involves, the worse it is. How hard you will make people wheeze, giggle, or fling the book across the room should be an external limit on what you can do with magic. What you intend as a scene of high drama may come off as simply high.
Ask yourself if there is, really, any reason to introduce your protagonist’s magic with a magical tsunami, or to have her magic come from her grief for her dead parents. Questions pop up like mushrooms after rain. Has no one else in the world ever grieved for their dead parents? (Answer: Sure, but the author doesn’t care about them). What makes this grief so special? (Answer: It’s the heroine doing the weeping). Why did no one else in the path of the magic tsunami survive it? (Answer: So the heroine could angst). Why did the magic tsunami give the heroine fire magic instead of, say, water magic? (Answer: Because fire magic is Cool).
You’re dangerously close to violating your own worldbuilding rules if you do this, not by breaking a stated rule, but by allowing yourself one outrageous coincidence and then no others. Why not more magic tsunamis? Why not natural disasters that constantly leave one person alive with fire magic? Why not have everyone who experiences grief develop magic? Hell, why not have magic come from any random occurrence along the way? It would make as much sense as that initial introduction of it.
5) Permanent cost to the protagonists is a Good Thing. “Magic should cost.” This is one of those Widely Acknowledged Lessons™ that most people only pay lip service to. Either the cost is healed almost at once—such as by the heroine getting that good ol’ silver hand in the place of the one she lost—or the cost falls only on other people—so the bad mages kill others, and the heroine weeps and moans over her fallen companions, and then gets up and uses the life force they willingly sacrificed for her.
Why not make the cost permanent? Why not have the cost fall like thunder on the protagonists’ heads, instead of other people’s? Those would lessen the idea that magic is bark without bite. It would introduce an element of real danger, and real risk. (For all that many Wise Old Mentors and others warn fantasy protagonists that magic is dangerous, they don’t make all that much effort to block its use; in fact, anyone who does try to prevent the protagonist from using her power is probably Evil.) It would provide a sharp limit on how many magic-using people are actually in the world, so that there aren’t mage heroes charging to the rescue of every kitten in a tree. And it would answer that vexing question about, “If the world has magic, why isn’t it that world’s technology?” Probably, if you could only acquire eternal life by cutting off all your limbs and biting out your tongue, and even then it only had a 50% chance of working, there wouldn’t be as many wizards all gung-ho about becoming immortal.
Yes, this is far from the only possible limit, as you’ve seen from my other points. The major advantage of it is that it tends to answer a lot of objections in one neat bundle, and doesn’t lead to the wild blue yonder of “Anything’s possible.”
6) Use the reactions of other people as limits. As angelhedgie pointed out in the last rant, people who react to ultra-powerful mages with terror are not being evil or stupid; they are being realists. How would you like to stand next to someone who could destroy you with a glance or a breath? Would it really be as easy for firebreathing dragons or medusas, or the mages who essentially are firebreathing dragons or medusas, to coexist with humans as a lot of authors seem to think it would? Wouldn’t a country use an ultra-powerful mage as a weapon against others, if they could coax or coerce him into doing magic for their cause? Not everyone will be mindless supporters of a particular mage—and that’s okay. And, please, powerful mages as a persecuted minority is so overdone, and equally unrealistic. I bet you that some mage, somewhere, during the persecution or before it, snapped and used his power against “ordinary” people in self-defense, or did it to make his life easier. That encourages and justifies more fear, and cuts away that stupid-ass justification that everyone who uses magic is good and pure and would never do eeeeviiiiiil.
It gets much more fun when you stop assuming that every negative reaction against magic is completely horrible and unjustified. What are the shades of the reactions, then? What laws govern mages? Do people even want to make an effort to live in the same society with them? How might the answer to that last question vary by nation, race, religion, creed? How steady is their position, or how precarious? How might they try to make it steadier, and how might people react to acts that they could see as aggressive? (Remember, the desire to keep the status quo the same is a great motivator).
I honestly don’t see why more authors don’t think mages are people and therefore subject to the same forces that govern other people. It’s probably mindless hero-worship, again, that inability to look beyond the protagonists that are the children of the author’s heart and see other characters populating the world as worthwhile.
7) There’s no reason physical limitations on magic shouldn’t exist. After all, if a person’s stressed or tired, it doesn’t just affect the way she catches a baseball. It’ll affect her emotional control, her relations with others, her ability to do complicated tasks like read and understand a long history textbook, her priorities, how much time she spends doing other things than worry, her appetite, her sleeping pattern, and ultimately her health.
A stressed or tired mage could be affected just as badly. Did he stay up late to read the ritual on demon-summoning? I sure hope he memorized the correct way to cast a circle. Is she so tired her eyesight’s blurring? It’s probably going to affect where the fireball lands. And then, if a magical mistake does occur, the protagonist can deal with guilt, regret, another source of worry, another goddamn thing to do, physical consequences in the form of burns or the demon eating him…
I’m continually baffled by how many mages get things right when they’ve been chased across country for two days, with no chance to rest or eat, and seen two of their best friends die right before that. Unless they’re so jaded that these experiences are tiny tolls on a life-long list, I would expect some reaction, and I would expect that reaction to leak into their magic.
Comments to comments coming, when I get a chance to answer them.