Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So last week I wrote about aliens and included not just actual aliens, but any science fiction, fantasy or historical view on aliens. Today I’m discussing magic or technology indistinguishable from it. To do it well, or at least adequately, you need to follow some rules so as not to lose your readers.
I’ll skip straight into the rules this time, rather than have a rant.
- Magic needs to be consistent. While you can well say that magic is magic and can do anything, you still need to maintain consistency. A good author will at some point, explain their magic. But whoa there! Wait for me to finish before you jump on me and tell me magic should be mysterious. Trust me, I know. Take Star Wars as an example. In the original trilogy, the force was a mystical life energy that surrounds and suffuses all of us. It was a power related to emotion and affected the mind and allowed for exceptional physical feats. Then came the wretched Phantom Menace and suddenly we were told midichlorins were responsible for the force. What? Some kind of parasite or symbiotic bacteria or something made a jedi a jedi? So if Darth Vader sneezed on someone they could come down with a bad case of the force? So in the first case magic was explained as being unexplainable and intrinsically linked to life and existence and in the second case we are given some hocus about microbes. The first instance is the sort of explaining that is good and the second is bad. Why is it bad? It could work, but by being so specific as to name the microbe involved we expect to hear more about it. How does this microbe create the force? Why don’t people breed and inoculate themselves with them? Why are jedi so revered if they are just parasite infested? The one little explanation threw up too many questions that beg an answer. It is fine to get technical, but be prepared to back your technical explanation up with further detail. Which brings me back to consistency. Each piece of the magic puzzle needs to logically fit with the next so the reader can accept the impossible and build an model of your world in their head.
- Don’t pull surprise endings. Magic allows you to do things that normally aren’t possible and that can be fun and can enhance your story by pushing it into the realms of fantasy that your readers want and expect. But don’t go using your magic as a silver bullet to solve difficult situations, at least not without warning. I’ve read good books where magic saves the day and I’ve read bad ones. In the good there is some build up to a conflict or tricky situation and in that build up, as a reader, I come to see that the magic the main character has been learning will finally come to bear after so many failed attempts. In the bad books the main character suddenly realises they have the power to win and they win. That’s called cheating. Could you imagine if at the end of Aliens, rather than Ripley running out of the hanger and returning in the power loader she had previously piloted she returned with some great big gun and just shot the queen alien? There would be no struggle, no almost being sucked out the airlock and no heroic save by Bishop. The loader was introduced earlier, Ripley demonstrated great skill in its use and then she remembered it was there and used it.
- Why doesn’t magic solve every problem? This is a question you need to answer. In Star Wars, the jedi are powerful warriors, able to fight with an instinct beyond that possible by other people and they can manipulate the minds of the weak. So why don’t they rule the galaxy as omnipotent overlords or run mighty empires like despot rulers? Fortunately we are told there is “the light side” and “the dark side” of the force. It would seem that the dark side guys tend to be a little heavy-handed and probably jealous. You could imagine the emperor and Darth Vader hunting down and killing anyone who might be a threat. The light side is all about not letting your emotions rule you so they have an academy where they train all their jedi to be gentle, philosophical beings without the lust and greed that would otherwise make them want to rule the world. You have to come up with similar answers. Because let’s face it, if I had super magic powers you can bet I’d use them to gain wealth and power. I’d probably take a nice country and run it the way I want and anyone who disagreed would find life as a mouse less than satisfactory. Not everyone would do that, but the old adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is fairly apt. If you could change people’s thoughts at a whim, how long would it be – good intentions or not- before you got pulled over for a speeding ticket and you decide you shouldn’t get it? How long until you’re in a situation where it’s either use your power or suffer? So you need to provide reasons for why magic doesn’t solve every problem or why it doesn’t cause every one (like beer).
- It must have a cost. We’re all quite happy with the idea that to be a world class athelete you need to train constantly and hard. I’ve run a couple of marathons and I can tell you that it comes with a cost. I was unable to do more than shuffle for about for several days after and for the following week I could barely run two hundred metres without my legs feeling tired and wobbly. So given that, we usually expect magic will come with a price. That is not just to limit its power, though that is a good thing too, but because by having a cost we humanise it.
- It shouldn’t be a prop. In the ’90s there were a number of science fiction shows that were really crap. The tendency was to have a cop show where some guy in a funny mask took the place of the guy dealing with racism and an alien drug was in place of a human drug. The science fiction was just a backdrop, a prop with no real reason. The same story could have been told, more or less word for word and scene for scene without the science fiction elements. Don’t let this happen to your magic. If your story could happen just as well without the magic, don’t have the magic. Better yet, change your story so the magic is important to it.
There are no other rules and those that I’ve listed are absolute, you can’t argue with me. Naturally I’m being a little sarcastic, but nonetheless the rules I’ve listed are important and shouldn’t be dispensed with unless you’ve got something better.