Saturday, October 23, 2010

Developing a magical system

Ah, good intentions gone awry. I meant to post more about world building this week but I had to put down my beloved cat of the past ten years, Tacy, who had cancer. I posted about it more extensively in my personal blog, I won't recap here, but suffice to say I haven't really been thinking about anything creative. =( I'm feeling a little better today, though, so I'll attempt some blabber about magic systems.

I'll admit it, I find creating magic systems kind of a bore, especially what I think of as "sorcery" type magic. In Arestin, the magic I deal with most is actually telepathy, which I find more interesting. But, in the Magic Under Glass world, we have no telepathy, just sorcery. In Magic Under Glass it was kind of vague--Nimira really didn't come from a magic background so she didn't know magic or know much about how it worked, but for Magic Under Stone I had to figure it out a little better.

Some questions to ask oneself while developing a magical system:

--Does everyone have the innate ability to use the magical system?
--Are there different types of people with different abilities or potential abilities?
--Is magic something you study, or does it just simply happen?
--Are certain types of people forbidden from certain magics?
--Are certain types of magic forbidden, period? Or, the reverse--are certain magics only allowed to a few, like court magicians?
--How is magic categorized in the world? This may affect how magic is studied or thought of.

In Arestin, for example, magic is categorized as either "aggressive" or "passive" (they probably have a better word for it in their language), shapeshifting is aggressive, healing is passive. Moving something with your mind is aggressive, merely sensing it is passive. Traditionally aggressive magic is considered a masculine art and passive magic more of a feminine one, which of course annoys a lot of people in progressive modern Arestin, and affects how these abilities are perceived, just as our cultural perception of sewing and cooking being female arts and say, building shelves and sword fighting being masculine affects how these activities are perceived and taught. It's good to know these details about your world so they can come up organically in writing and make everything feel more rich.

In Magic Under Glass, magic is categorized by species: earth (fairies), fire (humans and also jinn), water (merfolk), air (winged folk). There is also spirit magic, accessible to all races and considered the most dangerous and mysterious. Every race kind of has their own rules and thoughts about magic, though. Some of it was based on legend and myth, some on astrology and some on mere common sense.

Sometimes it's kind of hard for my brain to juggle two worlds with two different magic systems! I tend to have a certain way I think magic could work and I have trouble writing about it working in a drastically different way in another world. There are still some major similarities between magic in Arestin and Magic Under Glass...but Arestin has telepathy and Magic Under Glass has a distinct spirit realm, that's the major difference.

In a relatively unrelated note, I realized today that the fairies in Magic Under Glass are really more like elves. If I had called them elves I probably wouldn't see the occasional bitchy review about how I didn't follow lore. (I'm sorry! It's an alternate earth with echoes of our world so I wanted alternate lore with some echoes of our fairy lore.) But fairies are hot and elves are not, and I need to sell books, so I guess I'm not that sorry. ;)


  1. I just wrote a longish comment and Blogger spazzed and could not swallow it and so *LOST* it.

    The short version: I tend to like magic that is re-imagined more than lore well-studied and faithfully followed. So YAY for your faerie/elves!

  2. Well, THAT is a bummer. I'll just have to absorb the original psychically. =)

    (But, I agree. By the way, oh my gosh, Skin Hunger had pretty much the best descriptions of learning magic ever. But it does irk me, in a small way, when I see reviews about how I must not have known my lore. Well, I would not call myself a lore expert...I'm obviously more of a history person than a myth/lore person...but I'm not completely clueless about it either.)

  3. Very helpful post, Jaclyn. I always love reading your thoughts on these different matters.

    I know you're rather busy, but if you happen to find some free time please come read about the magic:

    Hope to see you there and if you can help me spread the word that'd be even better yet. Thanks so much and can't wait to read more from you.

  4. I'm so sorry to hear about Tacy, Jaclyn. :(

  5. Awesome post. I had to think a lot about how magic works and then dump some things out of my WIP so that the rules made sense. Hey, cool ideas can always be saved for another story!

    Oh, by the way, here's a gorgeous picture of the sea and sky in honor of your upcoming book. (It's from Terri Windling's blog.)


  6. I like these points to think about. I'm copying them and keeping them handy for whenever I get around to actually writing the book that's been bugging me for three years now!

    I think sometimes the rules of magic just came to me, like "oh - this is how it works in this world. Good to know." But I also played with the "passive/aggressive" types, first as you have it, with men vs. women, then as two different "species" of magic folk. But I had only a murky idea of it until I read this - answering these questions helped crystallize it for me! Thanks!