Magic and Mayhem, part one

Hey there, threes of fans.

I’m not 100% sure what happened last week, but somehow, it just slipped away from me. I have been absolutely swamped with client work the last couple of weeks, and when I’m trying to stay on top of client work, all of the things in the fiction bucket slip to the bottom of the priority list.

In any case, the fires are basically just smoldering now, and I have things (mostly) under control, so I’m back. For the moment.

I’ve been re-reading Ravenmarked and Bloodbonded and making notes as I go. I want to appropriately tie up all the loose ends–smite the evildoers, reward the good guys, all that stuff–while maintaining continuity. As I’ve been reading, I’ve been thinking about magic systems–both my own and magic systems in fantasy in general. And I decided to ramble about it all for your benefit (lucky you!).

Executing Magic

I have deeply mixed feelings about magic in my fantasy–reading and writing it. Don’t misunderstand–I love magic, and I expect my fantasy to have magic in it. If I didn’t want magic, I’d read something else.

Where I end up with mixed feelings is in the execution of the magic.

There are basically two approaches to fantasy magic: defined systems and general randomness. And I would say it’s a lot more complicated than just two approaches, really. It’s more of a spectrum that runs from perfect definition to complete random chaos. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s just consider the two ends of the spectrum for now…

The System Approach

The trend in fantasy for many years now has been to write systems–magic that has clearly defined rules and operates in predictable ways. All the writing advice for newbie fantasy authors suggests that the magic needs to adhere to a system. And I get why. People like predictability. We want to be able to look at the set-up and figure out what happens next. And if what happens next seems out of place or wrong, we get irritated. “Hey,” we say. “That’s not what was supposed to happen. You already said that can’t happen or won’t happen. How could that character do that one thing?”


So when I created magic for the world of Taura, I did impose a few rules… For instance, the Brae Sidh cannot weave elements through wood. This is one reason they live in a forest–the wood helps to hide them from the outside world (along with all the little wards and protections around their village). And broadly speaking, except for Connor (for reasons which will become clear later in the series), no one except the Sidh queen can weave all three elements. In my mind, this was a protection given to the world in general by the Creator. The idea of having a race of people running around who could all wreak havoc if they ended up in a tiff with each other seemed to dictate putting a few restrictions on them.

(I’ll come back to that point later.)

Now honestly, I don’t mind reading a strict magic system in fantasy. I think Brandon Sanderson does this pretty well; Warbreaker and Mistborn had some pretty intricate systems that worked as expected–or at least worked consistently. And yet he manages to still surprise the reader in ways that work with the system, but maintain the wonder of a world with magic.

Which brings us to…

The Random Approach

Let me posit for a moment that the system approach for fantasy magic is perhaps related to the generally material worldview most of us have these days. Especially in the western world, we have this idea that things can be ordered and predicted–that we can control our lives down to the most minute factor, that if we just have the right people in charge, we can order the world and society to our liking and have the right outcomes–ones that we predict with absolute precision.

And I have one response to that idea: poppycock.

My lived experience testifies to how utterly impossible it is to have that level of control over one’s own life.

I am, broadly speaking, a planner. And as a planner who has had very few things go according to plan, let me just say that if I could have wiggled my nose a few times, I’d have done it in a heartbeat.


So given how I look at the world, I generally prefer old school fantasy magic–magic that is unpredictable and a little undefined, magic that keeps us guessing and preserves the wonder of the world.

In my worlds, there is much that is undefined and a bit random. I’ve put a bit of structure around the Morrag and the earth, but more to contain them than to define the specifics of what they do. There is still a lot of room for discovery and wonder.

For me, that’s what I like about magic–the discovery and wonder of it. There is a sense in which it must be unpredictable. I mean, it’s magic. If it were science, I’d be writing something else.

I go back to The Chronicles of Narnia for random magic inspiration. I think, for C. S. Lewis, it was the unpredictability of it all that appealed to him. When one is reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there’s a very real sense of discovery and wonder and surprise. The world unfolds before us the way it does before Lucy–and maybe before Lewis as well.

I think the biggest objection people have to random magic is the Deus ex machina problem. When people feel like anything can happen to pull the hero out of a struggle or resolve all problems, it feels like a cheat. Salvation has to be somewhat consistent, even if it’s to be random. There has to be a setup of some kind.

But the other objection is that when anything can happen, there are no limits on the amount of mayhem that can result. And if there are no limits, there’s nothing that really justifies winners and losers in a story.

In other words, the mayhem could be endless.

Mayhem Ensues…

This is getting long, and I have a lot more thoughts, so I’m going to leave it here…

But next week, I intend to ramble more about the mayhem problem. I may or may not mention superheroes, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and the problem of single-factor risk analysis.

In the meantime, I am curious–what kind of magic do you prefer in your fantasy? Comment below!

2 thoughts on “Magic and Mayhem, part one”

  1. I guess I like the idea that magic follows at least *some* rules, partly because I don’t like DEM very well at all – no matter that I’ll use it!
    But I’m glad you brought it up; I haven’t given it much thought, and I should have.

    1. I don’t like DEM when I read it or see it executed, either–I feel like it’s cheating a little! But yeah, it’s hard to NOT use it. I try to at least make those kinds of things flow consistently from the stuff I’ve already set up…

      Stay tuned for part two… 🙂

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