Discussion · Fantasy

On Rules and Magic Systems

May is Wyrd and Wonder month! What best time there could ever be for talking about what I like about magic in books?

(It will have footnotes. I’m preemptively sorry.)

Before I started reviewing, I wanted to write¹. I cared very much about writing a Good and Original Fantasy Novel, so I spent a lot of time reading fantasy writing advice on the internet. A lot of it was bad and I recognized it as such (don’t describe your character’s appearance because it doesn’t matter anyway? Yeah, no), and a lot of it was bad but I’m only recognizing that as I read more fantasy.


Rules? In My Magic System?

In those circles, there seemed to be very specific ideas about how one should write magic. Five and more years later, I’m realizing that I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of things I thought were necessary then.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to understand everything about how the magic works. Which seems to be the main point on which me and internet writing advice disagree more every year, as I read more and more SFF with magic systems that go first in a completely wacky direction and then on my favorites list.

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Let’s first get one thing out of the way: having a kind of magic that is weird, incomprehensible, or mostly unexplained for various reasons, doesn’t mean that the author will use said uncharted and unexplained territory to get a character out of a bad situation. That’s lazy writing and I’m not interested in it, and I think that’s the main reason at first I thought I didn’t like undefined magic systems: because I was reading a lot of fantasy that exploited the loopholes. I specifically remember having a problem with the magic in Caraval because the limits were never established, but would I have had a problem with that had the author not used magic so much to push the story along? Probably not. It isn’t about breaking the rules, it’s about using “magic” as a plot point instead of having the characters make meaningful decisions. As long as the characters do that, you can spare the reader the tedious explanations that manage to take the magic out of magic.

The thing is, realistically, one can fully explain a magic system in a satisfactory way only if that magic system is relatively simple, sometimes simple enough in a way that just doesn’t ring true to me. It might be that I have the perspective of someone studying natural sciences: in ecology, a major issue is exactly trying to describe things with rules or mathematical models, as more often than not, when it comes to more than large-scale patterns, ecosystems just won’t have it. (*points at pond* this bad boy can fit so many variables in it.) Enough that we dedicated a part of the course specifically to idiosyncrasy².

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So why are the mechanisms behind magic easier to understand than the mechanisms behind everyday non-magical things? If anything, it should be the opposite. I love the kind of SFF in which there’s very clearly an entire field dedicated to studying magic, and had a great time while reading Gideon the Ninth, in which the main character, a non-necromancer surrounded by necromancers, mostly understands nothing³ (and as a result, the reader’s idea of how the magic works is extremely vague) but the story still works. All we need is a very vague idea of the limits of what magic can attempt, and then we can go from there. No more explaining, I’m trying to have fun here.

Very predictably for me, I’ve always been drawn to magic that didn’t have clear rules4; in the past, I just thought that had to mean I wasn’t very critical about fantasy. Now that I always find enough reasons to complain about pretty much everything, I doubt that was the issue; if anything, there was a flaw in the idea that things can only be good if done in a very specific way. I’d much rather have a complete mess than same old elemental magic with very clear-cut rules any day, and that has always been true. (As usual, my principle for worldbuilding is “I’d rather be confused than bored”).

I’ve seen the Sanderson-coined idea of hard vs. soft magic systems, and I have a lot of doubts about that, because my reaction to the clear division between hard and soft science is already *stares in natural sciences student*, but I especially disagree with the idea that hard magic systems are for realism5 and a softer magic system’s main point would be to cause a sense of wonder in the reader. No, to me is important that the magic feels real and believable, not akin to a set of rules I could find in the explanation sheet of a board game.

But the thing is, this is a preference. I prefer the weird, unpredictable kind of magic, but I’ve never found myself thinking that a book was badly written for having neatly defined rules. Then why do we feel fine with talking about different, more unusual kinds of magic as if they were flaws or “bad writing”?

I also think a lot of authors and writing advice approach fantasy worldbuilding as if the readers needed to use the magic themselves – and it might be useful for the author to know the limits (and maybe, though not necessarily, the workings behind) more in detail. But the reader doesn’t need to, stories don’t have that constraint, and I think that’s great: you get a chance to have fun, be realistic and go with full chaos.


It Has Footnotes!

¹ it’s not that now I don’t, but then bilingualism happened, or it happened too late for it to actually work, and things got messy. Currently, I’m at the very desirable stage of being bad at not one but two languages!

² the TL;DR of idiosyncrasy in ecology: hoping to predict how an ecological community  will respond to something basing yourself on what you’ve seen in another place? Oh, good luck with that.

³ when the other characters talk about thanergy and Gideon says “that’s death juice” = accurate equivalent of the kind of sciencespeak-to-Italian translation I constantly do in my head around physicists. (Due to life circumstances, I’m often around physicists.) This is the kind of hard-hitting realism SFF needs!

Uprwoordpres4 irrelevant hill I’m willing to die on: the magic system in Uprooted was perfect as it is, how could it be any different – what, do we want plant magic to work according to easily understandable rules? When it’s about plants? *Flashback to botany course* oh I would love to get some of those easily understandable, always true rules for real plants

5 The wikipedia page on this topic says that magic systems with clear costs and limitations, of which the reader understands the inner workings, make the story feel more realistic. I think that’s quite simply wrong. There are so many things in our everyday life we don’t fully understand the workings or sometimes even limits of, and yet we use anyway. (*looks at computer.*) I don’t know what it says about my life exactly, but I find a general feeling of ignorance and lack of convenient explanation behind something more real than something that can be easily explained in two paragraphs.


What do your favorite magic systems have in common?

14 thoughts on “On Rules and Magic Systems

  1. You’ve thought about it in so much detail and now I’m wondering do I even pay so much attention to what exactly do I like in magic systems. I don’t think I do, I just prefer more character driven stories and if the existence of magic enhances my enjoyment, that’s all I need. I don’t think I even look that deep to realize if there are loopholes and how the author/characters are exploiting them. Maybe that makes me a superficial reader but I guess I’m happy in that space.
    But it’s fascinating to see your perspective and understand how deeply you analyze it 👏👏
    The only think I’m probably looking for in a magic system is a sense of newness or awe and I think that’ll make me happy and excited about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m here to overthink! And then posts like this get made.
      More seriously, the reason I noticed all of this is that I found myself going against to what a lot of writing advice insists is “good”, when of course things are far more complicated than that.
      And I definitely agree about wanting things to feel new and original, that’s important to me as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This post is fantastic and it speaks to my soul. When I was younger and trying to write fantasy I discovered Sanderson’s laws of magic and that was my entry point to the whole discussion of soft vs hard magic systems and the convo on whether magic needs rules or not. I felt so discouraged after reading about all that, i’m not someone who needs a very detailed explaination of magic in a book, if I understand the basics that’s enough for me (even tho I still find detailed explanations interestings when they are present) and as someone trying to write fantasy, I wasn’t excited about having to explain every little thing about magic and having to set all these rules for it. I wanted magic to feel …magical and whimsical without falling in the trap of using magic to get characters out of a bad situations. At the end, what helped me with that dilemma of what I felt I had to do in terms of writing magic systems vs. what I wanted to do was N.k. Jemisin’s essay “but, but, but – Why does magic have to make sense?” which I found eye-opening and now, after reading her book The Fifth Season early this year, I became even more convinced that a magic system can be complex and interesting, even without being explained very well or with a lot of details.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I wanted magic to feel …magical and whimsical without falling in the trap of using magic to get characters out of a bad situations” = this exactly.

      I had never heard of Jemisin’s essay, so thank you for that – I’m always looking for new points of view for what was sold to me as a truth for so long, where’s there’s actually so much space in the fantasy genre for many kinds of different stories. In the end, rigid writing advice is bad writing advice.
      And I’m glad you liked this post!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a great post and so fascinating! I love this topic of discussion. First I have to say that I was going to mention Jemisin’s essay about magic but I see the person before me, Sofia, already did, so I’ll just say that I agree with their recommendation! I think you would really enjoy that essay!

    Regarding hard vs soft magic, I think I like both! And I utilize both in my writing. I think they work differently and do different things for their worlds, or rather, make their worlds feel different, if that makes sense? A world with a hard magic system will have a different sort of aesthetic than a world with a softer magic system, imo. If I were to speak very off the cuff I’d say that soft magic system worlds tend to feel more, well, magical and wondrous and fairytale-like, but that’s not always the case, with Jemisin being the first example!

    I think there’s a particular kind of thrill that comes with a hard magic system that I don’t feel with soft magic systems. They each have their own appeal, certainly, but when a magic system comes with a ton of rules and limitations and I, as the reader, not only work to understand these rules, but then get to see these rules clicking into place and interacting seamlessly with the plot in a way that remains accurate to the canon established by the world – there’s something so satisfying about that. It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine! Unnecessarily complicated, but so, so satisfying!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found Jemisin’s essay really interesting because while our ending point is similar, we get there from different directions (I like when magic is like the science I know! Which means I’d need a textbook to understand it and so the author doesn’t bother.) But yes, the result is the same and that’s what I want from fantasy.

      About magic’s different roles: I don’t think I find Sanderson’s hard vs. soft magic categorization useful for the most part. It puts the magic of fabulist stories and the magic of science-fantasy in the same category (no rules/the rule of metaphor vs. too many rules to fit in a book, as if it were a science in itself) just because they don’t fit the kind of game-design-like magic Sanderson uses in his books, while they have extremely different aims and underlying mechanisms. The kinds of magic different from the game-like style shouldn’t be lumped together when there’s so much variation in what one can do without explaining rules to the reader.

      I do agree about rules being necessary to make things click, but I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed it like that. That’s something I’m definitely going to pay more attention to in the future (loved the Rube Goldberg machine comparison!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d say you’ve learned an important meta-lesson. The best source for refining your view of how to write fantasy is to read fantasy, not advice about how to write fantasy. Even bad fantasy teachers you something, as you have shown in your excellent reviews. Publishers, reviewers and readers seek exciting, new and original voices, while the advice on how to write shows you how to have your voice fit in with those who have already published.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A wonderful post!

    Personally, I think how much the magic system is defined is dependant on the purpose and what the book wants to accomplish. If I’m reading paranormal mystery I want it to be defined enough I can make my own guesses and so the answer doesn’t come out of thin air. If I follow some Middle-Grade adventure story I would enjoy learning along with the characters and discovering big and small things. If we go into symbolism and magical realism just give me enough so things don’t come out of nowhere and let me interpret things on my own.

    Some systems are so detailed you could make a dnd like game out of them and some are so vague you just follow their reality without questioning things. The kay is to know what suits what story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree! I think a lot of (bad) fantasy writing advice on the internet goes at this the other way around, by putting magic into rigid categories (“you can only use magic with very few defined rules for fairytale-like stories and whimsy”, for example) instead of having it be born from what suits each individual story, when that’s what should come first. I still prefer the weird kind of magic, but it wouldn’t fit every story.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree, I don’t necessarily want a super defined magic system, but it does have to have limits. Loopholes in the magic are lazy! I don’t want everyone to be all powerful. So I guess limits could be defined as rules, but I don’t need to know where the magic comes from or exactly how it works, I’m happy with it just existing! Great post 😀 (And Uprooted is one of my favorite books <3)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yessss I love so much about this! As someone who reads and (tries to) write, I love coming across those magic systems that feel real even though I don’t necessarily understand or even know all of the exact rules, in much the same way that I don’t get how quite a bit of science works because my mind doesn’t work that way. I don’t need to understand everything about outer space to believe it’s there, and that’s the same for me with magic systems.

    As long as I know what the limits are – the most important question for me with magic systems is whether or not it can raise the dead, because I want to know if the story actually has stakes or not – then I’m quite happy to be whisked away. I loved the magic system in Uprooted – particularly the way Agnieszka describes her relationship with it. 🙂 Gideon the Ninth is one I need to get to asap!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you end up liking Gideon the Ninth!
      And that’s interesting about raising the dead being a limit, I usually don’t mind if the presence of that kind of magic is a twist, but at the same time the stories I read never have resurrections without costs and/or horrible side effects – so that’s not necessarily a problem with stakes, one still very much should Not Die
      (…interestingly, Gideon the Ninth is a book about necromancy in which it’s not clear how much of a dead person one can raise. Somehow it still manages to work out of sheer refusal to make any sense at any point)
      Anyway, I’m glad you liked this, and thank you!

      Like

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