Talking About Magic Part Three


I love the idea of real magic. Surrounded every day by traffic and buildings, by dishes that need washing and trash that needs emptying, I can’t help desiring a world in which something sparkling and strange could be right around the corner. When I was a kid, I used to wander in the marshes near my home getting muddy and wet (to my mother’s great dismay), wishing the fae would come out and play with me. Now that I’m grown, I find that magic in the fantasy worlds I read and write.

Magic systems are as individual as the writers who create them. Almost every system has a base on which it’s built. Some are based on natural elements, and function best under the open sky. Others are designed in a more scientific manner, with an alchemical exchange required to achieve results. The religious magic systems depend on a deity who’s paying attention and who’s been properly venerated answering the calls of its powerful faithful. Traditionally magic was considered to be overcome by the intrusion of modern technology. Much of this was due to the legends of the fae, who were weakened by the presence of worked iron. Luckily a number of writers threw that tradition aside, and have come up with gorgeous, intricate systems rooted in the concrete, steel and fumes of the modern cities.

So yes, you can use anything to build your magic system, but how do you go about displaying how it works? Of course you can let your character mumble a few words and wiggle his fingers, but wouldn’t it be more fun to introduce something new? A neat way to achieve that is by leaning on the old and familiar magic we all do every day. Some people call them superstitions.
Think about your ordinary day. Most of us have odd little habits or rituals that we do almost without thinking about them. The traffic light changes to yellow just before you enter the intersection, so you kiss your palm and slap the car ceiling to keep the light from turning red before you pass under. Someone at work says, “How much worse could this day be?”, and in response we knock our knuckles against the nearest wooden desktop. Two people say the same phrase at the same time, and one of them quickly calls out, “Jinx!” to avoid…I don’t even know what they’re trying to avoid. Ordinary things no one even gives a thought to in these modern times, but think about it for a second. What if they really worked? Maybe in your fantasy world, calling “Jinx” creates a wall of force around the speaker while the unfortunate slower guy is smacked sideways by a spectral hand. Or if you don’t send a kiss to the traffic light, the traffic deities frown on you, changing the rhythms of the subsequent lights to make sure you stop at every one between where you are and where you’re going, and forcing you to be late for work. How about the old rhyme “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye if I lie”? I bet there’d be a lot less lying going on if this was actually the punishment.
There are a million superstitions, from every culture on the planet. It’s our way of doing minor magic of our own. Doesn’t matter if they don’t work they way we wish. Even if you’re not writing a modern fantasy, the words and motions of little superstitions can lend an air of authenticity to the magical world you hope to create. It will resonate with almost any reader, since we all have something we do for luck or safety. If nothing else, the gestures and words of simple superstitions will provide a solid starting place from which you can build something truly fantastic.


10 comments to Talking About Magic Part Three

  • When we do “JInx” in our household after two people have said the same thing, the slower person isn’t allowed to speak at all until the faster one says his/her full name aloud. And you’d be amazed at how strictly the girls used to abide by it. Jinx could buy fifteen minutes of silence on a car trip. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is…

  • Magic. Sigh….
    I’d love to have a genie in a bottle who wanted to make all the rough waters smooth. I think that’s why I write fantasy now instead of mystery. I need magic in my life. Spit into my hand, cross my heart and hope to … live long and prosper. (laughing)

  • I find it equally fascinating all the little ones that are personal, that nobody else knows about — generally we call them nervous tics, but aren’t they a form of this same type of “magic”? Or what about those psychological habits? If Joe Shmoe doesn’t check every lock in the house before six, he’ll be stuck checking and re-checking it all night. OCD could really be intense magical rites.

  • Right hand itches, you’re gonna shake hands with a stranger. Left hand, gonna come into money.

    How bout that ol’ step on a crack. That’d kinda suck a bit.

    What if what you said had power and happened literally? There might be quite a few phallus-cranius or rectus-cranius sub species of human walking around the world. O_O !

    Quote: I’d love to have a genie in a bottle who wanted to make all the rough waters smooth.

    Just steer clear of the Wishmaster kind. O_O

  • Great timing, Misty. I’ve been trying to work out the magic system details for my current WIP. I’ve leaned toward mind control for the antagonists, but was having problems giving it any sense of authenticity. This was just the sort of thing I needed to get my lizard brain working on rites and gestures in order to help flesh things out.

    Many thanks,

  • Thank you Misty for a great post. It had me thinking, or at least re-thinking some of the ways I’ve used magic in my stories. Your post has already sparked some story ideas. Thank you!

  • This is a fun post, Misty. I’m currently developing the magical system for my story. I’m finding that the story is dictating a lot of what my magic system is about. I hope it works out and I’m not stuck rewriting the whole shebang because of an unintelligible system.

  • Beatriz

    I’d write a long comment about how un-supersticious I am except that I have to go retrieve my gaming dice from the bowl of kosher salt in which they have been residing for the past two weeks. 🙂

  • Great post, Misty. Some of my more recent projects are moving away from traditional fantasy models, and I’ve really enjoyed trying to come up with odd and intriguing forms of magic for them.

    I’m especially enamored of urban magic right now: magic that springs from essentially urban conditions and frames of mind. Like a certain corner being known for causing accidents, say, or certain street-lights being unlucky to pass under. Superstitions and tics relating to urban circumstances as well. Like your stop-light example. Also, mythological creatures springing from rather than inhabiting urban accoutrements. Like the gods of traffic. It’s fascinating stuff.
    Not that I have anything against plain old urban fantasy, but it seems like we should be able to address modern issues with modern representations.

    Now, that’s only a small subset of the possibilities put forth in your post, but I’m only a (very) small subset of the people reading it. If only the i-pod had a cloning app so I could work on multiple projects at once. (Well, I do that already, but imaging if there were six of me…)

  • Douwe

    My magic tends to be systematic to a fault, an influence of video games I suppose. (“I’m out of mana!”)