Teaching the Reader the Magic Arts

Hello again, dear readers. This is Rii’s husband, coming back once again to cover for her after a sudden increase in writing work to talk about one of my favorite subject: magic systems. Specifically, I want to talk about how to have a magic system that is revealed gradually over the course of a whole series.

One of the best known examples of this is Harry Potter, and I think it’s a pretty great example for pros and possible cons of revealing a magic system over time. So let’s jump right in.

One of the big pros of revealing a complex magic system over a long period of time is that often that makes the most sense for the story. In Harry Potter, Harry and company are students at a school specifically designed to teach magic. It would be pretty jarring if we were told absolutely everything about magic right off the bat. No one wants that much of an info dump at the outset of a series, and there would be almost no way to do it with at least some “as you know, bob”-ing. By revealing magic along the way as Harry learns about it, we are made to feel as if we are right there with him, just another student at Hogwarts.

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Though thankfully not actually right there with Harry during his angsty, shouty phase…

 It did wonders for immersion in the story, and at least for the most part it all felt natural.

Another pro of this method is that it tends to leave the reader with a sense of wonder and mystery. Whether you are using a soft “because magic” magic system or a hard pseudoscientific magic system, magic is supposed to be fantastical and a little beyond our comprehension. That’s what makes it magic. And that sense of wonder can keep the reader coming back, hungry for more, glued to the stories. And that is always a good thing for you as a storyteller.

So what are the cons of drawing the magic system out over several books as opposed to having it well established by the end of the first installment?

For starters, you have to make sure that it makes sense for the characters to not know about magic, and this can be deceptively hard. Harry Potter’s route of following students at a school for magic worked well, but well, it worked so well that a lot of other people did it and for many readers its a little cliche and… well, it’s hard to live up to HP’s standard. But it can be equally hard to come up with other plausible reasons why your characters don’t know something important about magic.

This brings us to another potential pitfall. It can be hard to balance the difference in knowledge between reader and characters. It can be frustrating for readers to know something that the characters don’t that could really help the characters out of whatever tight spot they’re in. This sort of dramatic irony is not inherently bad, but I feel like with magic systems in particular it is painful, especially if used repeatedly. The opposite end of the spectrum can be just as bad. If the characters have knowledge that the readers don’t, then the readers can become lost with what is going on, wondering why the characters make the decision they make. Or worse, the reader can look back and wonder why the characters didn’t use a particular bit of knowledge much earlier. Harry Potter is a huge offender here. It is understandable that the children don’t know about certain spells and potions, but the adults have no excuse. To take one example, the whole imprisonment of Sirius Black should never have happened. There are so many ways that he should have been exonerated. Veritaserum, priori incantatum, occlumency, the list goes on and on. Heck, they could even use a time turner and invisibility spell combo to go back and watch the whole incident for themselves. Black should have never been tried, let alone convicted and sent to Azkaban. There is never a good reason given why they so thoroughly dropped the ball on this one, and it could have changed the whole series. Harry could have been a (relatively) well adjusted boy who grew up with a loving god-father instead of his abusive relatives. He could have known about magic all along. Who knows how much better he might have been at defense against the dark arts and any number of other subjects if his first idea that magic existed hadn’t had to wait until he was 11?

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Because at least when Gandalf neglected his friends, he still left them in the hands of nice, competent people, and when he lied to them, it was just to steal all the exp, not get the Hobbits killed.

So it is usually best to have your characters learn at about the same rate as your reader, which can be a tough balancing act, especially since it has to be tailored to each individual story. If you want an example of how this can be done well, I would recommend the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson (I would recommend it anyway, because it is awesome). There are good reasons given for why there are unknowns about the magic systems and the pacing of revealing that extra knowledge is spot on. Seriously. Read Mistborn if you haven’t already.

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Although really, the second arc of the series is my absolute favorite more than the first three…and though I’d recommend reading all of them, you CAN skip the first arc.

Anyway, the key thing to remember here is to think about the larger implications of your decisions when it comes to magic systems. They can mean the difference between a great story and one that falls flat.

Oh, and make sure that if nothing else YOU know all there is to know about your magic system. It wouldn’t do to paint yourself into a plot hole or retcon corner, as can be said of Harry Potter. And with that, I bid you adieu. Happy writing, and may your magic systems be as awesome as you are!
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About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
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4 Responses to Teaching the Reader the Magic Arts

  1. Adding Mistborn to my 400-foot reading list. I think the only issue with the author knowing all there is to know about magic is that we rarely know all there is about the story until we actually write the end. I imagine Rowling had the same issue. Our challenge, then, is to explain the discrepancy in a way that appears 100% intentional rather than skate over the issue and hope no one notices.

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    • Idk, I mean, it depends on how much you plan the magic system out beforehand and what kind of system it is. With Allomancy and Feruchemy (two of the three magic systems in Mistborn), it is highly scientific in a way – still totally magic – but all the boundaries are set beforehand. There are still some questions to be asked, but if Sanderson were to sit and think about all the possible aspects of the magic system he made, he could think of those questions before he ran into them in-story (which is clearly what he did). I think magic systems definitely can be completely mapped out beforehand, it just depends on how well it lends itself to that purpose (how loose/soft it is), your own outlining style, and how much effort you put into it. Course Sanderson has shown to be an outlining king so…it makes sense his magic systems would be well-defined beforehand.

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      • It also depends on how prominent magic is in the story. In a story like Harry Potter where magic is the entire focus, it has to be thought through from the beginning. If magic is more of a background effect, it leaves more room for discovery as the story goes on — as long as the author remains completely aware of development in the system rather than ignoring it and later trying to make up excuses as to how it played into the plot. I suppose for those who don’t have Mr. Sanderson’s mad skills, the next best option is total awareness and the ability to adapt.

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