But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C. Clarke

Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. -Agatha Heterodyne (Girl Genius) by way of Larry Niven by way of Clarke

La la la can’t hear you. -Me

This is a whine, not a rant. I rant when I’m angry; right now I’m just frustrated and annoyed. It’s hard out here for a fantasy writer, after all; there’s all these rules I’m supposed to follow, or the Fantasy Police might come and make me do hard labor in the Cold Iron Mines. For example: I keep hearing that magic has to have rules. It has to be logical. It has to have limitations, consequences, energy exchange, internal consistency, clear cause and effect, thoroughly-tested laws with repeatable results and —


This is magic we’re talking about here, right? Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science? Because sometimes I wonder. 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? Science fiction has plenty of its own magicky stuff to enjoy (e.g., FTL, “psi” powers). Shouldn’t fantasy do something different, not just in its surface trappings but in its fundamental assumptions?

Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death — things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense. In fact, I think it’s coolest when it doesn’t.

And here’s the thing: fantasy — specifically English-language fantasy since that’s all I’ve been able to read — used to get this. When I read Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea again last year before the Center for Fiction’s Earthsea Big Read, I was struck by the fact that none of the stuff Ged learned at Roke made any sense. OK, it was all about names. To figure out the names of things, wizards basically had to experience enough to understand them, and disengage with their preexisting assumptions — and then, apparently, they had to cross their fingers and wish really hard. Because magic was an experiment whose results were never repeatable, never predictable, and even the most accomplished wizard could only make an educated guess about what would happen any time magic was used. And in fact, magic itself could change as its caster changed. It was an intuitive thing, not an empirical thing, and an intuitive wizard could build a spell out of guesses — or leaps of faith — based on nothing more than gut feelings. Also, feelings mattered. Bring the wrong feelings into a magic-working and it could all go pear-shaped. Le Guin rendered this beautifully, and I loved it, because it felt like magic should feel to me. So did Tolkien’s magic, which had the same all-over-the-place weirdness to it. In LotR, sometimes magic meant forging a ring with a chunk of soul melted into the alloy. Sometimes it meant learning obscure/dead languages, or talking to obscure/dead creatures. Sometimes it meant brandishing a particular kind of stick in a particular kind of way, and shouting really loudly. Sometimes it meant being born with pointy ears, and sometimes resisting magic meant being born with hairy feet. It was organic, embedded, a total crapshoot. And it was wonderful.

Here’s what I think happened between Tolkien/Le Guin and now: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D has a lot to answer for re the modern fantasy audience (and I say this as a fan of D&D). I blame D&D for systematizing so many things that don’t need to be or shouldn’t be systematized: fantastic racism, real racism, gender essentialism — hell, let’s just say all the “isms” — career choice, morality. Yes, yes, D&D has gotten better over the years, and yes all these things happened in the genre (in spades) before D&D, but remember boys ‘n’ girls et al: systems are remarkably effective at reinforcing stupid thinking. This is because systems are self-reinforcing and have internal consistency even when they’re logically or ethically questionable. It’s the way the human brain works: when enough events occur in a pattern, we stop thinking and go into macro mode. Then suddenly we see nothing wrong with saying that of course orcs are evil, because they’re orcs. Or of course magic has to be logical, because how else are we going to simulate its effects numerically and in a fair way that encourages good team mechanics?

That’s game logic, this concern over quantitative fairness and teambuilding. Game logic should not apply to magic, because it’s fucking magic.

OK, let’s get personal. The Inheritance Trilogy. There was a magic system, of sorts: the scriveners had to learn how to write the gods’ language. This was a science to them, very precise, very detailed, riddled with rules and empirical tests — and I deliberately did not focus on it or describe it beyond the most superficial level. Why would I? I wasn’t interested in the mechanics. I created scrivening solely to frame gods’ magic by contrast, and to illustrate the more fundamental differences between mortals and gods. Scrivening: limited, generalizable, a system complex enough to make Gary Gygax proud. Gods’ magic: SMITE, the end. What, you think the Greeks ever rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang? (Please don’t send me links to wherever someone has rolled up stats for Zeus & the gang.) As far as I was concerned, it defeated the whole point of writing about gods to focus on something so pedantic as “how they do what they do.” They’re gods. They work in mysterious ways. Also: fucking magic.

I imagine there will be some who take issue with the narcomancy used in the Dreamblood books, even though that’s a little more systematized, because it’s partially based on stuff Jung thought up during a psychotic break. Well, we’ll see.

Part of my frustration comes from a few incidents lately in which I’ve worked with up-and-coming writers as part of convention workshops, etc. 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.

Is that all fantasy is? Thin storytelling papered over a players’ guide? Is that all fantasy should be? Mechanistic magic, formulas and figures?

Of course not. Fantasy is, can be, should be, so much more than that. So give me mysterious, silly, weird, utterly cracktastic magic please. And easy on the logic. It’s not like we’re doing science, here.

114 Responses »

  1. What a brilliant post! I agree wholeheartedly.

    Let the magic flow, and damn the logic.

  2. Just a week ago I started reading your Inheritance series. I have a Kindle and read two or three books a week. So there are few plots that aren’t too unpredictable anymore. I had no idea of gender or race when I read your first book of the series. I was amazed, bewitched (that’s magic, right?) and totally thrilled by your characters, the whole premise of the book and reminded constantly that this was another world… a fantasy world but it had all the relativity of our world and the human conditions – both good and bad!! I had to read all three. Not since LOTR have I become so imerssed in a series. Bright, witty, sassy, different and loved it all!! So in spite of my mispelling errors and all, I’d like to say I have found a writer to treasure. We all need magic. Until the last 150 years, magic was real, we have tried to “scientific” everything and become so far from the every day magic that it makes be sad. A birds trill in the morning brings the “Magic” of a new day. A field of corn stalks in the wind whispers magic of the soil, rain, and sun. Magic is not a set of rules. Magic just is!! Thank you for putting magic where it belongs!! And please keep doing it!

  3. I agree that magic should basically have no rules and limitations. My mind just naturally asks why and how when I’m world-building, so I have rules, but they apply to the magic users and their limitations rather than the magic itself.

    Huh. Thinking about this helped me answer another question I’ve been asking myself. Doubt 1% of it gets into the book, but oh well. I understand it.

  4. Wow, this got a lot of attention! I tried to read all comments across a few days; I’m sorry if I missed some.

    Something you said stung a little, about why people who like mechanistic systems don’t just read scifi.

    I’m pretty sure a lot of that is ‘trappings’. I like both science fiction and fantasy. I like both stories with wonder and unicorns and Jonathan Strange’s magic, and stories that explore how changes in the operating rules of the universe affect the development of society. And I like magic as a metaphor, sometimes. But I don’t enjoy the trappings of science fiction, and I don’t like the grimdark tone that often seems to pervade whatever I last tried to read off that shelf.

    I’m truly sorry if your wonderful writing has been criticized for not being Mistborn, by the way.

    As a writer and a gamer– I have never, ever tried to develop a magic system based on D&D, because D&D has a ludicrous, illogical magic system that has no connection to describing the world. Vancian, apparently. I _have_ tried to develop a magic system because Orson Scott Card told me to do so in his book on How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, but I quickly decided that his ideas about magic having a price were… limited.

    These days, when my settings have a ‘magic system’, the ‘system’ is a human-imposed method for understanding the underlying structure of the world. It is, yes, a form of science. But I am also okay, and even excited about, having unicorns appear. (Unicorns are my shorthand for what the conversation started calling ‘numinous’. I guess ‘miraculous’ would also work?)

    And to be fair, while I hide science under my magic, I’ve also embedded magic within my aliens and AIs. People can wave their hands and cite Clarke’s law, but the fundamental truth is that in that setting, I was content not to know how things worked, even under the surface. They just did.

  5. I like Terry Pratchett’s “rules” on magic. To do magic, you have to be lucky enough to get away with it, and arrogant enough to believe you can bend the universe around you. If you are only one, but not the other then the results will be dangerously unpredictable. Or to put it another way, predictably fatal.

  6. “Magic by definition is not based on anything we can measure or readily grasp.”

    I think that’s a rather limited definition. There’s lots of things that get called magic. Magic tricks, that have mechanistic explanations we the audience don’t know. Magic spells, that might or might not have some conceptual basis, but are hoped to work reliably (and usually do in fantasy.) Magic that’s very mechanistic, but using mechanisms very different from real ones, possibly with some moral or emotional or spiritual component.

    Earthsea magic seemed quite replicable to me. Learn the names, and you can change things into each other; it’s pretty systematic. Ged can make a light or turn into a hawk or dragon or go into the afterlife on demand. Conversely, D&D spells are individually replicable, but collectively show pretty much no logic or structure, they’re all sui generis.

    RPG.net has repeatedly had discussions about this, with some people wanting games that give a feeling of “real magic”, wondrous and unpredictable. Insofar as there’s a consensus, it seems to be that you can only reliably do that by mostly keeping magic out of the hands of the players, so it’s something their characters weakly interact with, or something that happens to the PCs. Just going symbolic, like Ars Magica with ranges like “voice” or “sight” or “name” rather than “X meters”, seems to only work so far; once you’ve got a reliable system you can “do science” to it, however weird.

    I note that the books I think of as numinous magic are mostly standalones. Lud-in-the-Mist, Strange and Norrell, most things by Robin McKinley. These books often have mages who presumably do have an understanding of magic, but it’s not explained, and over the length of the work the author can get away with it.

    So that’s an alternative explanation for the prevalence of “mechanistic” magic: not that readers prefer it, but that readers prefer extended series, and extended interaction with magic is going to take the numina and mystery out of it, unless it’s kept very arm’s-length and, over longer lengths, perhaps rare. Familiarity breeds contempt and all.

    Alternately, maybe you could have lots of arbitrary magic, but then it’d start feeling like a horror novel, as stuff just keeps happening. Or like magic realism like Hundred Years of Solitude. And that’s not particularly popular, at least to fantasy readers.

    Hmm, maybe that’s the difference between fantasy and magic realism: whether the characters use magic or are used or just randomly affected by it.

  7. I like your post a lot, Nora, I heartily agree with your defense of numinous fantasy, and I’ve had this complaint myself often. One reason I’ve never managed to read any farther than the first book of Harry Potter is that, while I found the book engaging, fun, and well told, the comparison with The Wizard of Earthsea was so inescapable for me that the gap — and it was precisely a gap between numinous, awesome, inexplicable, fearsome, bigger-than-we magic, and a Flinstonelike magic which cozily replaces every modern convenience with its reliable magical equivalent (owl post!) — was so painful. It’s not that it wasn’t fantasy, but it wasn’t feeding me with what I crave and go to fantasy for.

    Plus, while I greatly appreciate Ellen and Terri’s contribution of historical perspective, I have to say that D&D couldn’t have *helped*. I suspect far more modern mechanistic-style authors, and readers, played D&D than ever read Niven…

    That said, I have two… I dunno, not quibbles or reservations exactly, but maybe qualifications.

    One is that I think what’s actually more interesting, about real, historical ideas of “magic”, than simply clasifying it as unordered, unsystematized, and numinous, is to look at the historical, and permanent, *tension* between the systematized and the numinous. Because in fact the word “magic” already suggests stepping beyond a purely *religious* attitude of propitation of the divine. “Magic” comes from the Magi, a sect of Zoroastrians or term for Zoroastrians, and the association comes from the fascination of the Hellenistic world with the Magi as supposed inventors of astrology and alchemy. Note that astrology and alchemy stand at a border between worship and science. Their attitude is that the world is ruled by mystical, mysterious, nonmechanistic forces that have personal wills and cannot be fully understood — and yet, rather than seeking merely to woo and propitiate them, alchemy and astronomy attempt precisely to systematize, to construct models and formulas around numinous events. What distinguishes alchemy in its late phases from science in its early phase — what Newton-the-alchemist was at pains to conceal from the Royal Society fellows of Newton-the-scientist — is that the model is never fully sufficient, the rules are never complete, the experiment never fully reproduceable. A chemical experiment is independent of the will, soul, and state of mind of the experimenter (yes, new age quantum folks, it still is after Heisenberg, sorry!); an alchemical one is not. Transumting lead into gold requires the proper recipe, the proper equipment, AND the proper state of mind — a spiritual transformation and refinement of will on the part of the alchemist. So you cannot call alchemy purely mechanistic; but nor can you call it purely numinous. It is, rather, the *intrusion* of the systematic into the numinous.

    Obviously, “magical” traditions vary in this regard. Alchemy and astronomy and “magic” in its etymological sense are born at the birth of the Eurasian philosophical tradition (that continuous body of thought and inuiry, stretching from Greece to China, which we used to so quaintly divide into East and West), and this tradition might be particularly interested in systematizing (along with some others — Mayans, anyone?) Our broader meaning of “magic” certainly includes other traditions, shamanic or animist practitioners say, who are perhaps less likely to reduce things to formulas.

    Even there, though, the line between what we (we urban, writing-fixated, moderns) from the outside, anthropologically, are likely to call “religion” and “magic” has something to do with the idea, not merely of coming close to unseen powers, asking favors of them, etc., but of figuring them out and building systems and artifacts to — if not compel them to do our bidding — then at least raise the likelihood thereof in some kind of systematic way. Where we get recipes, spells, incantations, diagrams, secret traditions passed down from master to apprentice, and where those traditions attempt not merely to contact or honor entities, but to control them or to produce effects more or less reliably, we begin to talk about “magic”.

    So rather than (or in addition to) talking about mechanistic *vs.* numinous magic, I think what’s interesting is thinking about magic as the place where the mechanistic and the numinous meet.

    This comment is ridiculously long now, but the other thing I wanted to say is I think sometimes when people tell writers “your magic must be logical!” they actually don’t mean it in this scientific mechanistic sense of logical; they mean narratively logical. When magic happens in your book, it should feel right; it shouldn’t be too predictable, it can surprise, but it should surprise in a way that has that retrospective feeling of inevitability that harmonious creations produce. We need to understand the constraints on characters’ agency, not for the sake of geeking out about the details of those constraints, but because the constraints define what’s at stake and what’s possible, and therefore the characters’ narrative universe.

    The magic in 100K Kingdoms passes this test with flying colors. The way in which, for instance, godlings are constrained by having to follow their natures — at the price of being wounded or diminished — sets up very adeptly what we believe they can and cannot do. Or take the different levels of power that godlings, scriveners, demons, and the Three have — I don’t need character sheets, but I do need (and you give me) a precise sense of who’s likely to get their ass kicked when this one and that one go toe-to-toe. Consider the threat of an upset in the basic universal structure of powers, on which the plot of the third book hinges: you had to carefully set that up so that, on the one hand, I wouldn’t see it coming — it has to be truly shocking that such a threat can exist — and on the other hand, that it doesn’t seem throw-the-book-across-the-room implausible, that we don’t say “WTF? First you tell me these characters are all-powerful and now all of a sudden some two-bit nobody can…”

    You had to do a lot of careful management of clues and expectations to make that all work so smoothly, and I think it’s often that kind of management, not systems-for-their-own-sake, that people are trying to point too when they say “magic needs rules”. Rules may be the a misleading word; but it’s overstating the case to say that numinous or fairy-tale-like magic is anything-goes rulelessness. Even in a fairy tale, there’s an implicit structure behind that “of course”.

  8. Great discussion. I like the idea that, even if there are rules behind a universe’s magic, the humans using it don’t understand them and have no way of or inclination to find out. This playing with something beyond understanding or predictability gives the story the sense of thrill and danger of the unknown which is going to stay unknown, which is a large part of the appeal of the genre, at least for me. :)

  9. there always a rule over there its just the author doesn’t tell us. maybe is not systemized as DnD, but their is a rule. for example, black magic in harry potter can be countered. That’s the rule. i think its all depend on what type of book you want to write. if its like a DnD type with system then stick with system, and avoid as much as possible with not make sense. if the book is started with does not make sense then it does make sense for the book, because the book it is about does not make sense.