After much contemplation about writing magic systems, I’ve decided on a new writing philosophy. These guides work for me, but should in no way be considered “writing rules”.
- In fantasy, I’m going to treat my magic systems like a science
- In science fiction, I’m going to treat my “pushed” science like magic
Magic in fiction can create a sense of wonder and be a tool for the characters. Also, it has the potential to create a Deus ex Machina ending, or make the resolution to the conflict be a wave of a magic wand. In order to avoid this issue, writers can spell out the “rules” of the magic. The reader should understand what is possible and what the characters know about the magic.
Rules, guidelines, laws are all words associated with science. In a world with magic, that magic would and should be studied by someone at some point, though not necessarily as part of the story you are telling. Often the POV character is learning the rules of the magic as she goes through the story.
The best example on magic as science and magic as say “religion” is the Lord of the Rings. Gandolf has an endlessly unknown and powerful magic that he uses as needed to get out of the situations the character find themselves in. He is a religious character and often acts as a savior figure. No one could tell you how his magic works.
The One ring on the other hand (`snicker`) does work like a science. It was constructed. It always works in the same way. It has rules: can only be destroyed in one place, corrupts, turns the wearer invisible. It is a constant.
Within this framework, you can still have surprises. Someone can figure out new ways to use magic, but they still have to follow the rules. Foreshadowing goes hand in hand with this. You are building up to something awesome, but if you don’t put the pieces in first, the resolutions is going to feel cheap.
So, in my fantasy writing, my goal is to treat the magic scientifically. I’m going to invent rules, and the characters must use the magic within the set of rules.
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Sciences fiction works a little differently, and this whole point depends on how much science knowledge you have and how much of that you want to build into the story. My science education ended with high school chemistry. So, in my science fiction stories, I don’t dwell on or explain the science in the story. I’m only talking about the parts of the story that are different from our current reality.
Faster than light (FTL) travel is a good example. Me trying to explain the science of FTL is going to sound amateurish no matter how much research I put into it.
Unless the story is about the scientific effects of FTL, what I choose to do is present FTL as a thing that exists and no one in the story universe questions how. It just works. Kind of like magic. It just works. No one ages differently. Reality isn’t bent. There are no consequences. No side effects. (Unless those are a part of the story you want to tell). Likely, I will never write a story where the effects of FTL are central to the story because I don’t want to try to get the science right.
One could argue that if I don’t delve into the science than the story isn’t really science fiction. That type of story is only a part of the science fiction umbrella. Some call it Hard SF, or at least the more a story focuses on the science, the harder the SF.
In many science fiction stories, only one or two things are different from the way science is understood today. These differences have many consequences on how we as humans would think, speak, behave, interact, and react to the world. These human experiences do not depend on an explanation of how the science works.
Those human experiences are what I like to explore in my science fiction. The science just works, like magic.
This guest post was contributed by Ryan Decaria is the author of Devil in the Microscope and co-host of the Meeple Nation Boardgame Podcast. You can follow his musing at madsciencefiction.com and @ryanpdecaria on Twitter.