A few weeks ago I was asking on Twitter if anyone had ideas for blog topics and someone - whose name I have since most stupidly forgotten, many apologies - said:
"I would love to hear you talk some time about how you make the magic in your books feel real."Which struck me, after my initial 'Oh, that would be cool' reaction, as a surprisingly difficult question to answer, really. And therefore, probably something I should think/talk about a bit more. So I shall, momentarily (after saying that I'm certain other people made excellent blog topic suggestions to me on Twitter AND in comments.... and I have managed to lose track of or misplace all of them. Maybe some form of undead creature has snacked on my brain after all? Anyone who wants to throw their question or suggestion at me again, I promise to be more careful this time!).
So: magic. All my books have it, in some form or another, to some extent. In two of my books - Daughter of the Flames and FrostFire - any unearthly stuff is confined to the divine power of certain Gods, who speak to, heal, and influence the human characters. In one - The Swan Kingdom - there's a kind of ambient nature magic which is naturally present in the land and all growing things, and some people have the ability to draw on in order to heal and harm. And in Shadows on the Moon there's strong illusion magic which can transform the physical appearance of things, and which for certain people might develop into the talent to transform and even create matter itself.
Each of these kinds of magic is distinct, so each of them called on different descriptive techniques, which I'll talk about in a bit. But at the base level, when you're talking about magic you are talking about something which doesn't exist (as far as I've experienced, though my fingers are still crossed) here in the real world. Which leaves you with both a blessing AND problem as a writer. A completely blank slate.
If I want to describe the sensations of being submerged up to the waist in icy water, I'm on firm ground because everyone knows, at the very least, what cold water feels like. Their memories will fill in the gaps in my descriptions with *empathy*, which is a writer's gold dust. The same goes for emotions. Show readers that a character is angry or in pain; they draw on their memories of anger and pain, imagine themselves in that position and fill in those gaps. Even if I describe something like falling in love - which some of my readers may never have done yet, themselves - there's enough handy shorthand about how this feels for the reader to draw on memories of other kinds of love and emotion and put themselves there in the character's heart.
Okay, yes, this does mean that in describing real life things, sometimes you're automatically going to be putting cliches in your first draft. But when you come back to these moments later on you can pare down the descriptions, cut away the cliches to reveal the essential parts of the experience of the character, find unique new ways to depict these familiar (or oft described) sensations.
When attempting to invoke a sense of magic of whatever kind, you're unable to draw on real world experiences. You can't create a brilliant description of magic by finding by some unique new way to talk about the essential experience of it, or by paring back the cliches or by triggering a reader's memory. You're starting from zero. This means that, on the one hand, you can't exactly be *wrong* in your descriptions. On the other hand, if you don't get it *right* then the magic becomes unconvincing in a way that no description of a real life experience possibly can be. Botched descriptions of magic are usually cringeworthy and laughable.
There's a writer whom I read religiously and love - except that whenever her characters cast spells, they cast them in rhyme. These rhyming spells are so ridiculously bad, and more, so utterly *pointless*, that whenever I turn a page and see one I actually have to shut the book for a minute and make 'YUCK' noises just to be able to go on reading. There is no reason why the spells should have to rhyme - at least, none that any of the characters ever explain. Speaking the spells out loud is just supposed to 'clarify their will'; poetry seems superfluous to that. And in order to make them rhyme, the author has committed some of the worst crimes against meter and scansion I think I've ever seen (and I once judged a poetry competition for five year olds).
Having the characters spout lines like:
'Now you feel the fear most dire,
As you face my righteous fire!'
In the middle of tense, high stakes situations robs the magic of any sense of reality or importance. Witch or not, I can't think of a single person who wouldn't feel a complete berk having to face off against a demon with lines like that.
Do not be like this author.
You have to anchor the reality of your magic in the story absolutely. You have to make it seem concrete and solid and real - as real as the character's sword or their dinner or their own right hand.
But at the same time it's essential that you still leave the same kinds of gaps you would with a real life description - give the reader room to develop that instinctive sense of empathy with the experience you're trying to create. Let them fill in those gaps with other, real, experiences they've had, so they feel they know and understand the magic you've described personally.
To me, those gaps are especially vital because magic is impossible. Which might sound a bit backward. If something isn't real then don't you need to describe it in much more detail to make it seem concrete? But think again. Magic - if it existed - would be something springing purely from the human mind, the human soul, the human heart. It might be considered an art. It might be considered a science. But in either case it would be intangible and unquantifiable, something that human beings would each interpret (often wildly differently) through the unique filter of their own personalities, talents and instincts. I suppose the closest thing to it that we Mundies have would be spirituality, and see the tangle that people get into trying to quantify that!
Just as over describing a real life experience on the page robs it of magic, so over describing magic robs it of reality. Allowing the space for a reader to feel instinctively how the magic in your story works prevents you from creating what I call 'Light Switch Magic'. That is, enchantment which feels dull, mundane and as routine as flicking on the light switch.
Much as I love the Harry Potter books, the wand-flicking and spell-reciting there kind of gave me the pip. Some people in the books were praised for being particularly 'strong' witches or wizards - but if reciting a certain spell a certain way and flicking your wand properly always results in the same outcome, then surely it doesn't matter how 'strong' you are? It's like baking a cake. Follow the instructions, step by step, and enjoy the results. Recite, flick, someone levitates or turns into a frog. Does being a stronger wizard mean they levitate better or turn into a better frog? Why? Surely under this system, Hermione, with her brain like an encyclopedia, ought to have been the greatest witch of all time, ever, because she had All The Spells memorised.
Of course, J.K. saved her books from the deadly dullness of Light Switch Magic by showing all the silly, whimsical, deadly and forbidden consequences of the ways individual witches and wizards *used* their spells. Flying cars, Remembralls, the cruciatus curse, polyjuice potion. Brilliant. Anyone who's ever ridden in a car has probably imagined being able to punch a button and fly over the traffic. Anyone who's ever played dress up can imagine how it might feel to try steal someone else's appearance.
The Harry Potter books were so well rooted in an ordinary person's every day life and experiences, and the way her magic manifested so beautifully rooted in each individual character's strengths, quirks and worldview, that you didn't really need empathy to get the sense that it was all real. But most us can't pull that off.
When I was working on The Swan Kingdom, I struggled a bit with how to depict the heroine's magic. For Alexandra the magic of her land and the way she used it were utterly natural. Almost like breathing, she sometimes didn't realise she was using it at all. The magic sprang from both outside and within her. She herself was only capable of 'small magics' but she was also overwhelmingly aware of the vast power of the land and growing things around her. As a result there ended up being a lot of mixed metaphors in there. One minute calling up her powers felt like burning her hands. The next time her magic knocked her over, like an untrained animal responding to her voice. I felt I was on the right track with all the nature imagery, but the 'enaid' (the land magic) just ended up feeling rather vague. Not rooted.
Then during revisions my editor remarked how much he liked one of the passages in the book where I had used a water metaphor to describe the heroine's sense of the enaid surging up and engulfing her. This was a Eureka! moment for me. The magic I was describing was wild and dangerous but at the same time beautiful and absolutely vital to the land and people. Sometimes it came in a trickle, sometimes in a vast flood. It was part of nature - just like water is, in all its many forms. And everyone knows what water feels and looks like. Water was the perfect metaphor to use because it would trigger instinctive and strong sensory memories in the reader.
I went back through the manuscript with a completely new understanding of the way the enaid worked. Every instance of enchantment in the story needed to display the unique sensory qualities of this magic; how it would feel to work with, how it would move, how it would respond to being called up and manipulated. It was a time-consuming process - not just because magic was everywhere in the book, but because this new understanding of the way the enaid worked meant lots of other things in the story needed to be tweaked and changed.
By the end of the revision these consistent, strongly sensory metaphors and descriptions of the enaid really did make it feel like something completely real, like a wilful and powerful force with a mind of its own, like a kind of rushing river flowing through the story. Hopefully like something that a reader could reach out and feel for themselves if they just concentrated hard enough...
But I tried really hard not to over-describe. Not to create a 'magic system' (I hate that term - systems are for sewage, not magic) within which everything could be classified and categorised, and neatly filed under M. If magic is wild and powerful and intangible then some things about it must be grasped instinctively rather than explained away - or it won't feel like magic at all. It's not science. It's not maths. It's not baking a cake. As the wonderful fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin says:
"Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense."That's where the gaps come in.
Of course, many writers and readers disagree with me here. I've definitely seen reviews which stated that readers were disappointed with how little the magic in my books was 'explained' or 'gone into' or 'explored'. And many writers produce books where the magic does work like clockwork - like an electric switch. If that works for them, fine.
But for me, the keys to making magic seem magical in fiction are 1) linking the feeling of using magic to real sensory or emotional experiences, and 2) leaving enough to the imagination that readers get to fill in the gaps with something that feels instinctively right and real and magical to them.
I might do another post on this, guys - it feels like there's more to go into. Let me know what you think :)