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A Quick Recap

This post was meant to be the latter half of last week's Stakes-Destroying Magic, but I had to split it up as it got too long and I hit my deadline. As it turns out, I have a lot of thoughts about magic as a fantasy writer – who'd have thought? Since this is a continuation, let's do a quick recap.

In the last post, I covered four different classifications of magic systems and talked about why the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) isn't suitable for every type of story in a book.

I posted last week's article to the r/fantasy subreddit and got a fair bit of pushback about my characterization of D&D's magic. The most interesting to me were:

  • D&D's "Vancian" magic system requires mages to memorize and prepare specific spells, so if they don't prepare the exact spell they need to get out of a bind they're out of luck! That provides built-in foreshadowing and setup, and is a good way to prevent the magic from ruining the story's stakes.
  • The existence of official D&D books means that fans are quite capable of enjoying all the tricks authors employ to translate the universe's magic into the medium of a novel. Magic systems in the books don't have to be employed exactly as they would be in weekly games.

Both of those were great pieces of criticism, and I agreed with the poster of the second one that it would be fascinating to investigate what those "tricks" are. How do the authors of the official in-world books make it work? Perhaps the first piece of criticism helps answer that. Alas, I haven't the time right now to perform that deep dive myself.

To recap the four types of magic systems I covered (which are really just two orthogonal continuums), there are:

  • Soft magic - used to evoke wonder and mystery in the story
  • Hard magic - used to solve problems in satisfying ways
  • Platonic magic - created based on some pure, ideal form of a given type of magic
  • Emergent magic - created as a consequence of the fantasy world's altered laws of physics

The soft-hard continuum is one I've heard a lot about, but I really loved the Platonic-emergent continuum because it describes exactly how I think about my book's magic systems: as emergent from the laws of physics. This is likely because of my background in engineering; I just can't help but think about the physics underlying fantasy worlds.

That's why I ended up crafting an alternative physics to govern the laws of magic in An Ocean of Others.

So how did I do that? Let's begin by looking at the constraints I was working within.

Cutting and Combining

There were three characters in our original D&D party that used magic: Inac, Dungax, and Lorilla. The three of them all had completely different types of magic in the campaign, so to unify their magics into one cohesive system I had to do a lot of both cutting and combining.

I decided early on while creating my second draft revision guide that I wanted to simplify this magic system quite heavily and make the world much less magical than the D&D setting. I brought it all the way back to the basics. It's certainly not an original idea, but I ended up crafting Archemagic with two aspects: Fire (sometimes conflated with Light) and Dark. Yes, I know this has been done countless times. Yin and yang. Good and evil. Order and chaos. Balance.

I'll get to why I wanted to go with something time-tested and simple toward the end of this post. For now, let's look at how the magic used by those three characters was distilled into Archemagic.

Inac was an abjurer, meaning he was meant to cast mostly defensive spells. My friend didn't play him that way; instead, he loaded Inac up with all kinds of offensive spells such as Chill Touch, a necromantic cantrip that attacks enemies with a ghostly, skeletal hand. He also had some support spells such as Cure Wounds and Mending. Cure Wounds was the initial example of stakes destruction I gave from my campaign notes in Two Different Classes of Story:

Arbitrary, stakes-destroying magic – Grim is knocked unconscious by a pulse of magic (because I failed a wisdom saving throw), but that's okay because Inac also has arbitrary magic to make sure the grievous injury Grim just suffered has no real consequence.

In hindsight, I think the spells campaign-Inac often used really painted the picture I had in my head that would become book-Inac. This is why he ended up being someone who taps into both the light and dark aspects of Archemagic. He's adept with Archefire, but even more so with Archedark.

Dungax was a paladin, so he was quite physically capable, but also had some healing and support spells. I decided to keep Dungax as a paladin in the novel, adding the tie-in to the Church of Light religion. Obviously, the Church of Light would not be cool with Dark magic, so they restrict their adherents to using only Archefire. There was a lot of overlap with Inac's support spells here, so it was pretty easy to unify these two. Inac understood all the magic that Dungax knew, but his understanding went beyond the paladin's ken.

Last, there was Lorilla, a gnome bard with magic such as Vicious Mockery and Charm Person. In the first draft, I tried to include Lorilla's bardic magic, even going so far as writing lyrics to her vicious mockery, which she'd sing during fight scenes. That was fun writing practice, but it didn't really work with the tone of the book. In the end, I cut her magic and just rolled the effects she produced with them into her character's personality.

Since I told you what I decided before explaining each characters' abilities, perhaps it seems obvious that I would have ended up choosing a pseudo-Taoist light/dark magic system. But there were other options too. The first draft had references to blood magic, illusion/psychic magic, healing magic, miracles from the gods... it was kind of a mess. It only started to coalesce as the story formed up in my mind towards the very end of the draft.

Of all those options, how did I end up picking one? How did it coalesce? How do you decide what magic system is appropriate for the story you're trying to tell?

Because regardless of whether you're using hard or soft magic, Platonic or emergent magic, that's real purpose of magic, right? To enhance the story.

Magic-Enhanced Stories

I suppose there are many ways to go about crafting a magic system that enhances a story.

Bottom up would be taking some cool idea you have for a magic system, seeing what kinds of conflict it could create or solve, and weaving a story through those points. In that way, you're confident the magic is "enhancing" the story, though I hesitate to even call it enhancement– without the magic, that story couldn't exist!

Top down might be crafting a whole story around the characters while including all the magic elements, then trying to work backwards to piece the "rules" together. I can see echoes of the gardener versus architect debate here. This method can work to craft a hard magic system, but to me it seems easier as a way to create a soft magic system. Later drafts could harden the system up by presenting as many of those retrofitted rules to the reader as you desire.

My approach for determining the magic system was more... middle out. I had the story (for the most part) and the characters (for the most part), and I knew which of those characters would be using which type of magic (for the most part). Like I said, I consider my magic system as highly emergent, which means it's a part of the setting, so I treated it as subservient to the characters and the plot (as discussed in Unwinding the Path).

The characters and the plot drive the themes of the story, so the setting built to house this story should also reinforce the themes. That includes the magic system. After that was decided, I retrofitted some fake laws of physics that allow the magic to exist in this world. In sum, it was a combination middle-out/top-down approach.

I say this as if I went in to the project knowing exactly how it would all shake out. In reality, the first draft was a sloppy mess that I'm not sure could be said to have themes at all! Only toward the end of the draft did something resembling a story start to emerge: once the ending was in place, I understood where it needed to begin and knew what themes should be present. None of it was decided ahead of time. Even as I work on the third draft now, things shift it subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways.

Let's focus on one example to show how I tried to use Archemagic to emphasize the interaction between two of the story's themes: light and dark, and survival.

/* Note: This is all from the second draft, so it's subject to change before publishing the final product. */

As I said above, Inac's understanding of magic far surpasses Dungax's. He sees the interplay between Archefire and Archedark, how they can be used together. Dungax, being a paladin and closely associated with the Church of Light, sees Archefire as acceptable but thinks the use of Archedark is evil, as the doctrine states (and for good reason). In the story, events are unfolding that make survival in this world much more difficult. The world is sliding toward hell, metaphorically, and Dungax believes this is in part due to the use of Archedark.

One of the questions I explore is whether it's necessary, as the world slips toward darkness, for a person to throw out their intuitions of good and evil and to do things that they believe are beyond the pale in order to survive the dangerous times. Can someone keep their virtue intact, or must they take on some darkness themselves, so to speak, in order to adapt and survive? What are the costs of doing so? I don't know the answers to these questions.

But when Dungax and company are in true peril and Inac's heretical Dark magic saves his life, what must he confront within himself? How can such an event change a person's beliefs?

Other aspects of the worldbuilding tie in to the theme of light and dark as well, such as the presence of the Sibling Suns. There's a prevalent belief that the past contained a Dark Era and the current state of affairs is a Light Era. The main character grapples with what it means to "move the world" toward light or toward dark through his actions, how to make the right kind of difference.

Is it too much? Is this all too tidy and on-the-nose for a story, which should be more complex and murky? Maybe! I really don't know how to strike the right balance. I guess I need reader feedback to let me know, so that's something I'll be looking out for when the book is finally published.

The Hard Magic System

All of this has been about Archemagic so far, but there's another magic system present in the series.

Last week, I said I ran into an interesting issue while writing the second draft that's related to Steven Erikson's point that soft magic systems have rules, but the author is not obliged to explain them.

I envisioned Archemagic as the story's "soft" magic system, with the other as the "hard" magic system. However, what happened is that both of them are presented as relatively soft in the first book. If anything, the two have flipped and Archemagic's rules are explained in more depth.

I think this happened because a lot of the mystery in the story revolves around the second magic system, which I'll neglect to explain (for obvious reasons). Even though in my notes there are way more rules about how this other magic system works, to the characters the system is inscrutable. Therefore, it remains largely inscrutable (and soft) to the reader as well.

No one in the story understands precisely what is happening with this magic, so it's up to the main character to piece some of it together. Enough so that he can survive, anyway. He may learn enough to survive, but the system is complex enough that he still has a lot of learning left to do throughout the series.

This ties in with what I alluded to earlier: why I wanted Archemagic to be something as simple as Fire and Dark. There are four reasons.

  1. As already discussed, it fit the themes of the story.
  2. Keeping Archemagic close to something as primal as light and dark makes it easier to blend with the second magic system; they're both emergent phenomena from the faux-physics of this world, but influence the world in completely different ways. /* It also makes the next logical question a bit easier (i.e. possible at all) to answer: what emerges when two emergent magic systems interact? I'm saving that for later in the series. */
  3. Because the second magic system is so complex, I didn't want to introduce two hard-to-understand magic systems into the story. That would have been too much to ask from the audience.
  4. This is my first book. I wanted to use an age-old idea rather than try to come up with something completely original.

This is the book where I'm most likely to fail, since I've never written a whole novel before. With that in mind, it made more sense to use a tried-and-true idea rather than invest a ton of time into creating something brand new when there's a good chance all that effort will go to waste. Opportunity costs strike again!

In the end, however, I think I did end up with something pretty original. I used a "middle out" approach to create Archemagic, then retrofitted some laws of physics that would allow it to emerge. These laws had to work with the second magic system as well. So the idea of Fire and Dark may be derivative, but how it interacts with the second magic system and the characters' neurology created something I believe to be quite novel.

Neurology? That probably seems out-of-left-field here. It will make more sense after you read An Ocean of Others, I promise. Until then, don't let it get in your head.