This being the second part of a discussion on the creation of magical systems in fantasy.
Here are the next three questions that I usually ask when creating a magical system. Please note that you are not limited to the questions listed here. You are welcome and highly encouraged to come up with more questions to answer, to continue to expand the scope of your inquiries. The more questions to ask and subsequently answer, the more complete and well-knit your world will be.
WHAT KIND OF MAGIC IS IT?
There are numerous kinds and forms of magic and more are made every day. These are a few of the most common, and they can be melded in various interesting ways:
- Elemental – invoking the power of elements. This can range from the traditional four (or five) elements (Western: water, fire, wind, earth, spirit / Eastern: water, wood, metal, earth, fire) to various sub-types of elements. For example, sand and shell could be considered subtypes of Water, or you could include sand under Earth. You can also include Light and Darkness/Shadow as elements in their own right or as subtypes. The elements and what is considered part of the elements can be combined and shaped in myriad ways, and is one of the foundations of magic. “Elements of Magic” is a poem that I wrote incorporating as many “elements” as I could.
- “High Magick” – although it can have several names, this is a highly regimented and often inflexible form of magic. It is very rigorous, complicated, relying heavily on props and incantations. This gives it a very artificial and controlled feeling as human will is imposed on something wild and natural. Generally ascribed to human wizards and societies that are highly controlled/rejecting of nature.
- “Wild Magick” – generally considered the opposite of High Magick, although it too can go by many names. This is a very organic and instinctual form of magic relying more on will and intent than incantation and formulas. Taken to the extreme, it can be more of a religious, spiritual, or even philosophical way of life rather than what we usually think of as “magic.” It’s generally less flashy but very, very powerful and often unpredictable, even to the wielder. Generally ascribed to elves or other non-human wizards and societies or lifestyles that are more relaxed and in tune with nature.
- Natural Magic – power inherent in living things. It is a force of nature and part of a creature’s life force. Often present in creatures such as dragons and unicorns, granting them long life and the ability to do things that physics say they cannot do (such as fly, breathe fire, and heal grave wounds.) Usually this magic cannot be directly invoked any more than we can tell our blood or breath to work magic tricks. It’s simply part of who and what they are. This power can be harvested to power other spells by unscrupulous wizards. Often involves the giving and letting of blood.
- Music and Names – the power of the true essence of things, invoked through names and/or music. A lot of pagan magic and beliefs on Earth involve knowing the “true names” of things. The theory is that if you know and can say the true name of an object, you have control of that object’s true nature and can manipulate it at will. This also applied to people. Humans would have a “use-name,” one that people referred to them by and then a deeper “true-name” that they would not share with anyone, because if someone knew your true name, they could control you. A variation off of this is the use of music instead of names. The idea is that everything has its own special sound or song and, like names, knowing the “true-song” of a person or thing gave you control over them.
- Objects and Places – certain items or places hold special power or significance. These are often incorporated into other forms of magic, but occasionally objects or places can be a source of power on their own. Usually old artifacts created by advanced magical races, especially powerful wizards, or groups of wizards hold power, and even on Earth there are certain places that hold special magical significance, or are geysers or “sinks” of magical energy, good or bad.
HOW IS THE MAGIC INVOKED? WHAT ARE THE TOOLS OF MAGIC?
See my poem “Tools of the Trade” for an example of numerous props that can be involved in myriad combinations. Staffs, swords, wands, crystals, amulets, orbs, pendants, weavings, wood, stones, cards, leaves, herbs, knives, bowls, and bags made of every imaginable material: woods, metals, stones (precious and semi-precious gems), bone, horn, shell, fabric and blood. It can be called upon through verbal incantations, gestures, songs, music, dance, thought, and elaborate rituals specific to place and time. Places and times that are in-between tend to have special power or significance, such as dusk and dawn or the shore or the border of a meadow. There are places of power where things, for good or ill, were once worshipped or destroyed, ascended or trapped, special places where power gathers naturally. You can find places like this everywhere, from massive monoliths like Stonehenge to one of my friend’s houses. Stonehenge is visually impressive and reveals a historic near-religious air, while my friend’s house is one of the most peaceful, Zen-like atmospheres I have ever encountered. (You can actually feel the calm settle over your shoulders, like a blanket. You can feel the weight, but it is not oppressive.) You can find many other ritual tools and information on how to invoke or use magic through various books and websites related to paganism or the magical systems of other cultures such as Egyptian or Scandanavian.
HOW IS MAGIC LEARNED?
Can it be learned instinctively in a solitary fashion, the way some people just “know” how to play the piano or ride a horse?
Is it something taught one-on-one via a single master-apprentice relationship, like the Sith or Jedi?
Or is it taught in large, modern-like schools with different classes and subjects, like in Harry Potter? How is this learning funded, through state taxes and grants, or by the patronage of powerful individuals, like those who supported artists during the Renaissance?
Is magic taught through traditional book-learning? Through experience? Through a direct technique-download to the brain?
Some other technique of learning that hasn’t been seen before, or some combination of the above techniques?
This can also enhance the story, especially through setting and the presentation of obstacles. Money controls policy, so if magic schools are funded by powerful nobles, what kind of magic do those nobles want taught in those schools, or what kind of returns do the nobles expect from the schools in return for their patronage? Will this conflict with your character’s personal morals or goals? Or will it help them climb the social ladder and realize their dreams? Also, depending on whether or not magic is publicly endorsed will affect what kind of school can be made. If magic is not well-received, students and teachers must meet in secret and in small groups or flee to hide their abilities and avoid public repercussions. The challenges that face a solitary instinctive practitioner will be quite different from a student in a school filled with peers and professors.
A Word of Warning!
Most people view magic as a bunch of parlor tricks, but please remember that you are researching other people’s beliefs, so please be respectful of the source material. Also, I would avoid actually trying out any spells that involve opening doorways or calling on spirits, demons, or any other extra-dimensional beings. While magic usually relies on belief in the spells, some spells might not, and I would rather not risk having anything dangerous and uncontrollable come in from the other side.