Thursday, August 25, 2011

Verisimilitude: Magic Systems

Reading thuRsday

When we think of magic, synonyms like wonder, amazement, or even supernatural likely come to mind. When we write about magic, particularly when we're creating fictional worlds in which magic plays a part, words like supply, demand and cost should be foremost in our minds. Economics seems about as far removed from magic as you can get, but it's the foundation of verisimilitude even when we're dealing with the most fantastic things.

One of the basic rules of economics is that given two equivalent items for sale, people, as rational economic actors, will always choose the one that is less expensive. When innovations come along that deliver the same or better experience for less, people abandon the old in favor of the new. CDs eclipsed vinyl and then MP3 players became all the rage.

What does this have to do with magic?

What do you think would happen if people could conjure what they need and want with little thought or effort?

I suspect commerce, specialization, and even initiative would disappear. Much of what we strive for simply wouldn't be worth the bother. Most importantly, at least for writers, in a world where the price of anything you want is the wave of a wand, conflict goes away. Put in economic terms, without want (demand, and its implied willingness to pay a price) there is no market.

So what can you do if you want magic in your story? Are there any precedents that will give some degree of verisimilitude?

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The smart phones that many of us tote, for example, would give most lamp-based genies a run for their money (assuming adequate cell coverage during Arabian nights). So the best way to increase the verisimilitude of your magic system is to let your experience with advanced technology be your guide.

In a post on, "Creating Magic Systems," Heather Moore shared her notes from a presentation by Holly Black:
"Holly Black described her world-building process as “6 crazy blue circles”. Each of her “circles” are the springboard for answering the important world-building questions.

"According to Holly, coming up with a magic system that works, you must ask yourself these 6 questions:

  1. Who has it?
  2. What does it do?
  3. How do you make it happen?
  4. How is user affected?
  5. How is world affected?
  6. How are magic users grouped & perceived?
In a similar vein, Brandon Sanderson (who has more experience with systematic magic than most of the rest of us) says that "Magic systems can fall anywhere in the spectrum from wonder-based to rule-based, but to be credible, there must be constraints and consequences."

That conclusion flows directly from Sanderson's First Law:
"Your ability to solve problems in your book with magic is directly proportional to how well your reader understands the system of magic."
Sanderson suggests developing magic as you would the setting:
  • Focus on an ability that isn't overused or give it a unique twist.
  • Add an interesting cost to use that ability.
  • Find good visuals that provide an interesting way to describe the magic as it is used.
  • Include limitations on how the magic can be used--these are usually more interesting than the power itself.
As with just about everything else we've covered under the rubric of verisimilitude, rhyme and reason resonate more strongly than coincidence.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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