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On writing fantasy magical systems

On writing fantasy magical systems published on No Comments on On writing fantasy magical systems

In response to a Tumblr ask, some thoughts on webcomic magic.

(1) Don’t feel the need to start from scratch, or get overly stressed about coming up with things that Nobody Else Has Done Before. Everything has been done before. Frozen wasn’t a hit because “powers controlled based on your emotions” or “ice magic” were new ideas, it was a hit because the characters were lovable and the songs were catchy.

BICP combines shapeshifter battles, monsters bonded to human Masters, cool power sigils, a special magic language, and animating sculptures by engraving them with the right words. Every one of those is a cliche in some way; every one has a TVTropes page. If they seem fresh, it’s because they’re being handled in new ways, or put together in new configurations.

(2) Be inspired by real-world things. That’ll help with the consistency. And the familiarity gives your readers a point of reference, which is useful. Galavant gives the characters magical communication crystals – an old, old trope – but then has them glitch like a smartphone on a Skype call. It’s hilarious and engaging because the viewer knows exactly how they’re feeling.

The magitech communications in Leif & Thorn work like IRL digital communications. Different underlying process, but since human psychology is still the same, you get the same dynamics as our world has with cellphones, texting, social media.

And readers can accept it without needing a detailed list of Rules Of Smartcrystal Spell Encoding. Same way I accept that my smartphone works (or freezes, as the case may be) without knowing all the fine points of the Java or C++ that explain why.

(3) It’s okay to be guided by what works for the story. The “battles take place in a separate realm” trope is a blatant author convenience – it saves you from dealing with the ramifications of real-world destruction, and it’s an easy excuse for why the muggles don’t get involved.

X had just-like-the-real-world-but-with-no-civilians battle realms. Puella Magi Madoka Magica goes to the other extreme, having the characters fight in symbolism-laden psychedelic acid trips. BICP goes with “pretty nature scenes” – in part because it’s easy to find references for a wide variety of them.

(4) Think, in detail, about the implications of your magical mechanics. This is something you get a lot in deconstructions or parodies, oddly enough. (”Why don’t we just attack while she’s transforming?”) When that kind of stuff doesn’t get followed up in-series, fans will often step in and reverse-engineer a rationale. (”The transformations must take place in a flash in realtime – the extended flashy sequence is just a device to show it off to the audience.”)

BICP battles take place in a flash in realtime, but for the participants it’s like an extended detour into another dimension. Why just use that for magical battles? Why not use it to have secure, absolutely-not-bugged conversations – or just to hang out and relax, knowing it can’t possibly make you late for your next appointment?

So that’s exactly what some of the characters do.

I think this is the biggest one, honestly. Unless you’re playing to a very young or very broad and non-geeky audience, your readers will already have put some thought into magical tropes and how they could work. If you anticipate them having a question like “Why doesn’t–?” “But shouldn’t it–?” “Why would they–?” – and then answer it – that’s all kinds of fulfilling.

(Caveat: know which things don’t need more explanation. The Force worked just fine as a spiritual thing; viewers didn’t need or want a pseudoscience biological mechanism involved.)

(5) Think about the historical implications, too. That’ll help make things feel serious. Steven Universe is really thoughtful about working the presence of Gems on Earth into the fabric of human history and mythology. You see Gem-inspired bits of culture everywhere, from totem poles to how-our-town-was-founded legends to trashy romance novels.

BICP also has thousands of years’ worth of history involving strangely-powered immortal nonhumans. Some of the restrictions on Beings’ powers were conceived of largely to keep them from becoming overwhelming historical game-changers. What we do see is Being-based mythology, and…well, technically also Being-based mythology.

(6) You can work things out as you go. It’s not like you have to spell out everything for your audience right away. And if you commit yourself to an idea behind-the-scenes, and then the story develops in a way that makes the idea awkward or unsatisfying or inconsistent, it’s going to suck if you refuse to adapt. (See: How I Met Your Mother.)

Figure out enough of the basics to get started, then fill in the details as you write. I’ve only specified a few of the magical domains in Leif & Thorn. Partly because there are some whose existence I don’t want to spoil…but partly because I want the freedom to make up new ones on-the-spot if necessary.

(7) It’s okay to relax and just go with Rule of Cool. I put magic sigils in BICP because I loved them in Hellsing. There’s no intrinsic meaning to the lines and shapes in the Beings’ sigils – they just look neat.

(The humans-casting-spells sigils, meanwhile, are from real-world hermetics.)

The mages in Leif & Thorn (of all ages and genders) have magical-girl transformations, the kind I first saw in Sailor Moon and in plenty of other mahou shoujo series since. Necessary? Nope. Pretty? Oh yes.

And, listen, some people love coming up with intricate systems of fictional rules, with tons of detail for readers to analyze. If that’s you, embrace it! Worked out great for Tolkien. But if not, don’t feel bound to it just on principle.

If something feels exciting and inspiring to you, that’s going to energize your writing, and it’ll show through to your readers. It’s hard to fake that. Don’t worry and second-guess so much that you cheat yourself out of it.

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