Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rationalizing magic

I've been thinking a lot lately about how I write stories, and how my methods might be causing me some difficulty.

As I've mentioned before, ideas are the easiest for me. However, they come in bits and fragments, rather than whole story ideas.  For example, I imagined a girl tripping and falling through shadow into another dimension. Marbles that hold bits of memories and music. A society where the young people never see summer, because of a plague that happens only then. And an area so contaminated that no magic can exist there.

The problem I have is making those bits of ideas work in the context of a whole story... and a logical worldview.  I can get so frustrated with the rationalizing process that my interest in the story wanes.

Let's take the example of the place so contaminated that no magic works there. I liked the idea of there being sites around the world where no magic can exist. I've been reading about several case studies - Fukushima is always in the news. And about Japan's Minamata Disease, caused by years of chemical factories spilling tons and tons of organic methylmercury into the ocean, leaving thousands of people with nerve damage and developmental disorders (note: do not google Minamata Disease, especially pictures, if you have a weak stomach or want to be able to sleep  tonight.  I'm referring to descriptions of effects on children and a few horrifying photos).  Fukushima, of course, is always in the news.  And, of course, Chernobyl (last year, I read Voices from Chernobyl, made up entirely interviews with survivors. It's one of the most amazing and heartbreaking works I've ever read).

An abandoned grand piano in Pripyat. Photo attribution Timm Suess, from Wikimedia Commons.

So it all seems great - poison, toxins and radiation disrupt magic. But how? The scientist in me wants to know, the reader in me hates when things don't make sense.  Never mind having no idea how toxic metals might interact with magic, I don't know enough about physics to explain how radioactive iodine and other particles might interfere with whatever energy defines magic. In the current short story I'm working on, I don't go into it too much, except to state that magic comes from the energy of all living things, so anything that disrupts or corrupts that flow of energy corrupts magic.

So how about you? As a reader, how much logic do you expect from magic systems? Do odd magic systems and ideas bother you in a novel or short story if they're not properly explained?

And how do you, as writers, handle ideas that seem cool but don't make immediate logical sense? How do you explain them without getting frustrated?


  1. Ooh, good question. I like to crack open Orson Scott Card's book called How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. There's a section in there about world-building, and I find going through and answering those questions incredibly helpful.

    It also helps me to pair the idea with a character or a plot idea, which gets me thinking outside the box. For me anyway, the story has to come before the science/magic, although they play off each other.

    1. Heh, I just took How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy off my bookshelf to finally get around to reading it. I'll look forward to reading that part!

  2. Yeah, I'm a scientist as well and the logic part of my brain won't turn off, even for magic. That's not to say I don't like magic in fantasy. It just needs to make sense for the world it's in and follow whatever rules make sense for that world.

    As a wildlife biologist I had a different take on your idea. When humans screw a place up and are forced to leave, nature takes over. Chernobyl is now a thriving "wildlife sanctuary". That makes me wonder if maybe these places could be the source of magic derived from the combination of human tragedy and natural wonder. That's a pretty potent combo.

    1. Adam, I'm a wildlife biologist too (an ornithologist, mostly). There was recently an article about wildlife in Chernobyl that I've been meaning to read for a while now.

      Honestly, I hadn't even gotten to the wildlife portion of it yet. My mind goes first to ecosystem processes and how those would create their own magic, but then I worry I'd start to be too lecture-ish about conservation.

      Anyway, it is a really interesting point. I envision fragile webs of magic unseen elsewhere, or maybe unusual magic evolving within the heart of where magic shouldn't be able to exist. So yes, thanks for the idea spark!

  3. As a reader, I just expect the magic system to be consistent and make sense in the context of the story. I really don't want it to be rationalized by a pseudo-scientific explanation unless that explanation is important to the plot.

    I like your idea of a contaminated, magic free zone, and Adam's take on it as well. Very interesting ideas that would make some awesome stories. So get writing. :)

    1. That's a really good point, MaryAnn. How much of this would really need to go in the story? And how much do I want for my own benefit that might be more hindrance than help?

      But yes, I'm off to write some ideas down while I'm still envisioning flocks of birds trailing sparks of magic in their wake.

  4. I love your idea, and it got me thinking in a different direction, too. Someone close to me had thyroid cancer that was treated w. radioactive iodine. How awful would it be to be a mage and have to chose between cancer or losing your magic? Just a thoughty thought.
    Great post!

  5. I love that photo, how cool is that?

    The rules of magic always trip me up, because I'm a creative person and a logical person, and these two people inside me don't much like each other.

    Happy writing!


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.