Throwback Thursday: Using Magic in Fiction

Originally published 12/03/2017 under the title ‘A Few Words About Using Magic in Fiction’

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: The Alloy of Law

If there is one series of fantasy novel I absolutely loved, it was the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, so I felt I was on pretty safe ground picking up this spin-off novel set some 300 years after the events of the original Mistborn trilogy.

This book follows the story of Lord Waxillium ‘Wax’ Ladrian, a lawman and Twinborn who spent most of his life trying to establish law and order in the aptly named Roughs until he is forced to return to the city of Elendel to fulfil his duties as head of a noble house. However when a spate of train robberies and kidnappings leave the local constabulary baffled and Wax’s intended fiancee is also kidnapped, Wax teams up once again with his old partner Wayne (I know…) to save the day with a whole lot of gun slinging and, of course, Sanderson’s trademark magic systems.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And you’re right, it was pretty good.

Let’s start, as we always must, with the most important factor of any good story: characters. As was the case in the original trilogy, The Allow of Law boasts a stellar cast of larger-than-life characters whom you can’t help but fall in love with, especially the four main players: Wax (protagonist), Wayne (sidekick), Marasi (love interest) and, to a lesser extent, Miles (antagonist). All of these speak with their own distinctive voice, have well established and consistent traits which makes them stand out from one another and are reasonably well established in their goals and motives. I really can’t say anything bad about the characters and that alone makes a book worth reading.

Worldbuilding, of course, is something Sanderson is famous for doing well and the worldbuilding in The Allow of Law is no exception. While still firmly rooted in the world he established in the original trilogy, three centuries have passed since the events of The Hero of Ages and the world has moved on into industry, science and all the challenges any society might face while it is on the brink of modernity. It is unsurprising then that an emphasis is placed on crime, law and civil order, however we also get a good flavour for how religion and culture has developed over the centuries in a world in which metal endows some people with magic.

My main criticism of this book is that the pacing was just a shade too fast without much respite. There were a lot of action and fighting scenes, which can be cumbersome at the best of times, and even more so when the reader has to pause to remember what happens when a Coinshot pushes steel or a Bloodmaker taps his goldmind. And let me tell you, there’s a lot of that in this book.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Mistborn world might want to read the original trilogy first. While the story is distinct enough from the original that it can stand alone, it is nevertheless deeply grounded in Sanderson’s original creation and tends to assume a certain level of knowledge from the reader about the world the story is set in (especially the magic system).

All in all, a fantastic little book. I’m not convinced it’s Sanderson’s finest work (he has set his standards so high) but it’s a good read and a strong successor to his earlier masterpiece.

⭐⭐⭐⭐


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

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WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: 5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

First published 29/10/2017

Among the many styles and genres of fiction which I enjoy, I must unashamedly confess to a particular fondness for popular sci-fi and fantasy. Yes I know it’s all just unrealistic escapism into a nonsense world of space adventures, suspiciously human shaped aliens and humanity being conquered by the very robots we built to help us but still… it’s fun. And you know… fun’s allowed, even if you like serious literature.

All the same… there have to be limits. But for some reason, sci-fi is just chock full of certain clichéd tropes, some of which are so very ridiculous that it frankly beggars belief that they ever became clichés. The others are just plain done to death. What follows are some of my (least) favourites.

The Holographic Hook

You’ve got to write a space opera and are struggling to come up with an exciting opening scene to draw the audience in from the very beginning. Solution: an exciting space battle! Ships firing at one another, hand to hand combat between aliens and humans, lasers, explosions–

Then an admiral calmly walks onto the scene and ends the simulation. It was all just a holographic training exercise!

This kind of scene, made famous by the Kobayashi Maru scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and then repeated time and time again in one form or another), gives the audience a burst of excitement that has very little bearing on the story which is to follow. The best it can do is foreshadow some internal conflict the protagonist may face later on in the story.

Please… it’s been done too often. Put some effort in and come up with a proper hook for your story.

Is That You Clive?

You’re alone on an abandoned space station or a spooky castle. Or maybe you’re just home alone, meticulously colouring in your colouring-in book on a dark and stormy night. Suddenly you hear something… something rattling, hissing, banging… perhaps even a sinister inhuman voice whispering your name.

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

No. No, it’s not Clive. It’s never Clive. And really, ask yourself, is this the sort of thing Clive normally does? If it is… you need to dump Clive and get yourself some nicer friends. Just saying.

Just once I’d like to read or watch something where the victim doesn’t automatically assume that the scary noise is their friend pulling a cruel prank on them. Or better still, just once, I’d like it to really be Clive pulling a cruel trick. At least I’d be surprised.

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

Something terrible has happened to Clive. He’s being controlled by an alien or replaced with a robot duplicate. His behaviour is erratic. His speech has become strange. His eyes have turned luminous green and he has grown horns.

And no one really notices until it’s too late.

My personal favourite example of this occurs in the Doctor Who episode, Rose. Rose returns to her boyfriend’s car to find he is now made entirely of plastic and is talking funny. And what does she do?

Goes out for dinner with him. She suspects nothing until the Doctor fires a corkscrew straight through his skull without injuring him. And she’s supposed to be his girlfriend.

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

So it finally happened. Aliens have made contact with humanity. They may have come in peace or they may have come laser guns blazing, but one way or another, it’s first contact day for the people of Earth.

You know Earth, don’t you? Seven-point-four billion different versions of the truth, spread across one hundred and ninety five independent sovereign states (to say nothing of those who want to break away and start their own nation or conquer others) all gathered together on one planet, unable to agree on even the most trifling of matters?

A whole host of different political ideologies, systems of government, international treaties and religious beliefs, and yet when the aliens finally come, humanity all rallies around a single leader, or at the very least, sets aside all their differences. Usually it’s the President of the USA, except in Doctor Who where it can be just about anyone except the President. In any event, I have a sneaking suspicion that if aliens did make themselves known to us today, humanity would not respond with a single unified voice, or even two or three differing voices. Call me cynical but I think it would probably be chaos.

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

How would Donald Trump respond?
What about Kim Jong-Un?
What about Angela Merkel?
What about ISIS?
What about the Pope?
What about the World Health Organisation?
The Scottish National Party?
The British National Party?
Richard Branson?
Kim Kardashian?
The writers of Doctor Who?
The guy that sells the Big Issue in the town centre?

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

I don’t really have a problem with functioning magical artefacts if you’re writing a fantasy, set in a world of magic and myth, rather than a sci-fi set in space and/or the future. At its core, sci-fi (even silly popular sci-fi) tends to speculate on the advancement of technology and science, rather than the possibility that magic might actually work. If we are assuming that magic is not real, as sci-fi tends to do, we have to ask some serious questions about why it would work on an alien planet.

‘Ah, but, you see, it’s not really magic!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s just technology that seems like magic!

But if it’s just technology… why dress it up like magic? Star Trek is very guilty of this. Whether it’s the legend of the Tox Uthat (a quantum phase inhibitor which appeared in TNG: Captain’s Holiday), or Vulcan mythology concerning the psionic resonator (TNG: Gambit), there just seems to be no end of magical artefacts in space which are actually just very clever technology. Technology made of stone. Stone technology that does magic. Heck, some even involve meditating and muttering incantations.

Dishonourable Mentions:

  • Everybody knows how to fly every kind of spaceship in the universe, even if it is of completely alien design.
  • Everybody knows everything about science.
  • Rough alien taverns. Just once, give me a classy alien wine bar.
  • With just a slight modification to the engine/shields/BBQ grill, we can do some sci-fi magic to save the day!
  • The bad guys believe emotion is a weakness and that is their Achille’s heel.
  • Love conquers all (exemplified in the Doctor Who episode Closing Time, where Craig is turned into a Cyberman then somehow manages to turn himself back into a human simply because he hears his baby son crying… as if he was the first parent the Cybermen ever upgraded. Seriously, I preferred it when the Cybermen’s greatest weakness was gold).
  • Universal translators.
  • Legendary technology, planets or lifeforms which really do exist.
  • Having a weapon of mass destruction called ‘The Weapon’. By all means call it the Super Zappy Death Ray, but don’t call it The Weapon. Use your imagination and give it a name.
  • Shooting the control panel/monitor shuts down everything on the entire spaceship, unlocks every locked door and/or disarms the Weapon.
  • Snippets of news reporters telling the general public how to survive the alien invasion. I repeat, do this to survive the alien invasion!
  • Jeanie who works at the shop is actually THE PROPHESIED CHOSEN WARRIOR QUEEN OF ALL THE MULTIVERSE and she doesn’t even realise it.

Well that was a far from exhaustive list but I’m glad to have got it off my chest anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment below and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what reverses your polarity.

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

Among the many styles and genres of fiction which I enjoy, I must unashamedly confess to a particular fondness for popular sci-fi and fantasy. Yes I know it’s all just unrealistic escapism into a nonsense world of space adventures, suspiciously human shaped aliens and humanity being conquered by the very robots we built to help us but still… it’s fun. And you know… fun’s allowed, even if you like serious literature.

All the same… there have to be limits. But for some reason, sci-fi is just chock full of certain clichéd tropes, some of which are so very ridiculous that it frankly beggars belief that they ever became clichés. The others are just plain done to death. What follows are some of my (least) favourites.

The Holographic Hook

You’ve got to write a space opera and are struggling to come up with an exciting opening scene to draw the audience in from the very beginning. Solution: an exciting space battle! Ships firing at one another, hand to hand combat between aliens and humans, lasers, explosions–

Then an admiral calmly walks onto the scene and ends the simulation. It was all just a holographic training exercise!

This kind of scene, made famous by the Kobayashi Maru scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and then repeated time and time again in one form or another), gives the audience a burst of excitement that has very little bearing on the story which is to follow. The best it can do is foreshadow some internal conflict the protagonist may face later on in the story.

Please… it’s been done too often. Put some effort in and come up with a proper hook for your story.

Is That You Clive?

You’re alone on an abandoned space station or a spooky castle. Or maybe you’re just home alone, meticulously colouring in your colouring-in book on a dark and stormy night. Suddenly you hear something… something rattling, hissing, banging… perhaps even a sinister inhuman voice whispering your name.

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

No. No, it’s not Clive. It’s never Clive. And really, ask yourself, is this the sort of thing Clive normally does? If it is… you need to dump Clive and get yourself some nicer friends. Just saying.

Just once I’d like to read or watch something where the victim doesn’t automatically assume that the scary noise is their friend pulling a cruel prank on them. Or better still, just once, I’d like it to really be Clive pulling a cruel trick. At least I’d be surprised.

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

Something terrible has happened to Clive. He’s being controlled by an alien or replaced with a robot duplicate. His behaviour is erratic. His speech has become strange. His eyes have turned luminous green and he has grown horns.

And no one really notices until it’s too late.

My personal favourite example of this occurs in the Doctor Who episode, Rose. Rose returns to her boyfriend’s car to find he is now made entirely of plastic and is talking funny. And what does she do?

Goes out for dinner with him. She suspects nothing until the Doctor fires a corkscrew straight through his skull without injuring him. And she’s supposed to be his girlfriend.

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

So it finally happened. Aliens have made contact with humanity. They may have come in peace or they may have come laser guns blazing, but one way or another, it’s first contact day for the people of Earth.

You know Earth, don’t you? Seven-point-four billion different versions of the truth, spread across one hundred and ninety five independent sovereign states (to say nothing of those who want to break away and start their own nation or conquer others) all gathered together on one planet, unable to agree on even the most trifling of matters?

A whole host of different political ideologies, systems of government, international treaties and religious beliefs, and yet when the aliens finally come, humanity all rallies around a single leader, or at the very least, sets aside all their differences. Usually it’s the President of the USA, except in Doctor Who where it can be just about anyone except the President. In any event, I have a sneaking suspicion that if aliens did make themselves known to us today, humanity would not respond with a single unified voice, or even two or three differing voices. Call me cynical but I think it would probably be chaos.

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

How would Donald Trump respond?
What about Kim Jong-Un?
What about Angela Merkel?
What about ISIS?
What about the Pope?
What about the World Health Organisation?
The Scottish National Party?
The British National Party?
Richard Branson?
Kim Kardashian?
The writers of Doctor Who?
The guy that sells the Big Issue in the town centre?

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

I don’t really have a problem with functioning magical artefacts if you’re writing a fantasy, set in a world of magic and myth, rather than a sci-fi set in space and/or the future. At its core, sci-fi (even silly popular sci-fi) tends to speculate on the advancement of technology and science, rather than the possibility that magic might actually work. If we are assuming that magic is not real, as sci-fi tends to do, we have to ask some serious questions about why it would work on an alien planet.

‘Ah, but, you see, it’s not really magic!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s just technology that seems like magic!

But if it’s just technology… why dress it up like magic? Star Trek is very guilty of this. Whether it’s the legend of the Tox Uthat (a quantum phase inhibitor which appeared in TNG: Captain’s Holiday), or Vulcan mythology concerning the psionic resonator (TNG: Gambit), there just seems to be no end of magical artefacts in space which are actually just very clever technology. Technology made of stone. Stone technology that does magic. Heck, some even involve meditating and muttering incantations.

Dishonourable Mentions:

  • Everybody knows how to fly every kind of spaceship in the universe, even if it is of completely alien design.
  • Everybody knows everything about science.
  • Rough alien taverns. Just once, give me a classy alien wine bar.
  • With just a slight modification to the engine/shields/BBQ grill, we can do some sci-fi magic to save the day!
  • The bad guys believe emotion is a weakness and that is their Achille’s heel.
  • Love conquers all (exemplified in the Doctor Who episode Closing Time, where Craig is turned into a Cyberman then somehow manages to turn himself back into a human simply because he hears his baby son crying… as if he was the first parent the Cybermen ever upgraded. Seriously, I preferred it when the Cybermen’s greatest weakness was gold).
  • Universal translators.
  • Legendary technology, planets or lifeforms which really do exist.
  • Having a weapon of mass destruction called ‘The Weapon’. By all means call it the Super Zappy Death Ray, but don’t call it The Weapon. Use your imagination and give it a name.
  • Shooting the control panel/monitor shuts down everything on the entire spaceship, unlocks every locked door and/or disarms the Weapon.
  • Snippets of news reporters telling the general public how to survive the alien invasion. I repeat, do this to survive the alien invasion!
  • Jeanie who works at the shop is actually THE PROPHESIED CHOSEN WARRIOR QUEEN OF ALL THE MULTIVERSE and she doesn’t even realise it.

Well that was a far from exhaustive list but I’m glad to have got it off my chest anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment below and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what reverses your polarity.

Until next time!