Monday, June 18, 2012

Magic systems in fantasy

On her blog, fantasy author N. K. Jemisin has written about magic systems and the way magic is portrayed in fantasy in general:
Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system — we’ll come back to this word “system” later — I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction?
To a certain degree, I think Jemisin has a strong point - fantasy isn't necessarily about clearly organized and logical systems. Magic is often something inexplicable and, well, magical. Not everything has to make perfect scientific sense - indeed, many of the cornerstones of fantasy literature forgo such systematic magic systems. The best fantasy succeeds in creating something so other that it just doesn't need any kind of system or justification.

But I disagree with Jemisin to dismiss magic systems overall. First of all, I think there are enough readers whose tastes overlap enough between science fiction and fantasy to justify having the lines blur a little. Many of these magic systems Jemisin dislikes are, in fact, stand-ins for science in those particular worlds. It's not science, and it's not science fiction, but it's fantasy that does appeal to sci-fi lovers... That's not a bad thing.

Then there's Jemisin's complaint against magic systems as a whole. Here I must politely withdraw - Jemisin sees a much bigger, looming issue in the concept of a "system" than I ever will. I know what underlying problems she's referring to and recognize them, but I really don't think that they have anything to do with the fact that certain fantasy worlds have particularly organized and detailed ways to conduct magic. Correlation does not prove causation.

Lastly, I must admit: I kind of enjoy magic systems. As I mentioned earlier, many writers who use magic systems in their books use it as a form of science. On the other hand, the vast majority of fantasy that does not take place in modern-day Earth (and sometimes even those stories that do) completely eschews the mere concept of science. It just doesn't exist. As a scientifically minded person, this can sometimes come off simply as sloppy writing. A well-structured magic system can, however, make a fantasy world seem a lot more believable - it shows that the author put a lot of the world-building. It's obviously not the only factor involved in my appreciation of the book, but like originality, it can add a whole new dimension.

The source behind Jemisin's frustration? This:
I’ve seen these folks, most of whom are future fantasy novel-writers, positively agonize over their magic systems, taking great care to consider rules, required resources, the laws of conservation of magic, yatta yatta yatta, all for fear that they’ll get published someday and have their magic systems picked apart by the Fantasy Police. In some cases these writers had spent far, far more energy on trying to create a magic system than they had on trying to create plot or characters. Sadly, I’ve seen this same kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on mechanics in the works of some published writers — and worse, I’ve seen readers going ga-ga over this sort of thing, as if the magic system really is the only part of the story that matters.
Here I once again completely agree: magic doesn't have to be organized. In fact, oftentimes "organized" magic systems aren't pulled off well and, like Jemisin points out, it ruins an otherwise interesting story. Writers shouldn't have to bend over backwards to explain how their magic works, they need to make sure it fits their world comfortably. For some worlds, this will mean that magic is like science - it's logical and clearly explained. For many other worlds, however, magic will simply be magical. Both are fantasy, and both are fine.


  1. It's an interesting thought but magic is rarely without limits in some sort of system. It would be a bit boring, honestly, if magic could do EVERYTHING. But, while some sort of structure needs to exist, it doesn't need to exist in a novel. Sure, take a few months to puzzle out how it would all work -- and then sit down and write the novel that takes place in that system. Does every in and out of magic need to be laid out or explained? Of course not. Will it work better for readers than just adding in some new bit of magic each time you need it without any rhyme or reason? It might. :) That's my two cents on this anyway (a.k.a. I totally agree with you). I'm also a scientist though so maybe I have exactly the bias that she was worried about.

  2. I believe that magic needs to have limits as to what it can do, who can use it, the general idea of where it comes from(As in how do you get the spells), and what can you do and not do. It doesn't have to be a science, but it needs some structure or you have the danger of magic being a deus ex machina.


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