CanCon 2015 day 2: Magic and magical systems

Panellists: Leah Bobet, Kate Heartfield, Jim Davies, Leah Petersen

KH: Why do we choose to systematize magic?

LP: There are so many ways to approach it. I think the goal is to bring something unique to readers. Generally, epic fantasy means systemic magic.

KH: Have reader expectations changed over time?

LP: If you know what you’re aiming for, you have to dig in.

JD: In Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, magic is inexplicable. It’s more wonderful because it’s not explained. Observation yields magic. Understanding saps magic of its wonder. The best solution is to have your magic system generate questions in the reader.

LB: Where do you want to go today? Patricia McKillip is more mystical. Lev Grossman is more systemic. Your story is going to dictate the nature of the magic in it. Magical realism liberated the idea of what magic could be. I could be organic. You need the right tool for the job. People read books for different reasons. Is the reader looking to be challenged or are they looking for the familiar?

JD: I read role-playing game books for pleasure. I had trouble getting through Harry Potter because I felt that there wasn’t anything that couldn’t happen.

LB: Authorial fiat may damage your world building drastically. You might end up with one foot on the cliff and one foot in the air.

KH: The question asked in Grossman’s The Magicians is, who gets to have the magic? Harry Potter never explored that question. How do modern authors address this?

LP: In a book I’ve read recently, every culture within the world had its own magic.

JD: The charm of hidden world stories like Harry Potter is that it could be happening right now. Writers could also be lazy.

LB: Some magic systems play with magic and class. Scarcity implies privilege. What would it be like to be special? Knowledge can be magic. Music can be magic. If magic is important in your story can the average person get it? I am special – magic is internal and only the gifted can access it. This thing is special – the magic is external and anyone can use it. Our systems are a reflection of our enthusiasms as authors.

LP: Increasing diversity means that everyone looks at magic differently.

KH: A great example of that is Aliette de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings.

LB: In The Shadow Speaker, the pathways to knowledge are difficult.

Q: Can magic and technology work together?

LP: Yes. Look at the Powder Mage trilogy. As technology increases, so does magic.

LB: Elizabeth Bear had one of her characters use divination by MP3 shuffle. That would be cool – an app for magic.

KH: Steampunk conflates technology and magic.

Q: How do you decide that the story you’re writing needs magic?

LB: I had an idea for magic using resonance and chords. It was cool stuff theory. Editors make you justify your bullshit, though.

KH: You have to get into the how of it. Science and technology is to science fiction what magic is to fantasy, generally speaking.

LP: I had to think about how the magic in my story world worked, but do my readers really need to know this?

Q: How quantified does the system have to be?

LB: Theme can be your guide. Like Water for Chocolate used food magic. In [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, the landscape is magic. In The Cooler, the magic was the character’s ability to dampen luck.

JD: How systematized is systematized? Even if you use spells, unpredictable results may render the magic non-systemic.

LB: Magic cooking would be yummy.

Q: When do you go subtle and when do you sensationalize?

JD: Stage magicians are sensational. People who want you to think they have power work more subtly.

LP: It will depend on the story.

LB: If everything is at a 10, they everything is really at a 1.

Q: Can you talk a little about consequences?

LB: Magic can have social consequences, sour relationships. It can be small, cumulative things. Check out Resurrection Man.

KH: The magic user can get to a point where they’re forever changed by the magic. In The Fisher King legend, the king is linked to the land, so the consequences are not just for him, but for all his people.

LP: The price could be to lose your generative ability. You’re sterilized as an initiation. It’s all up front.

JD: In The Runelords, the cost of magic comes from someone else.

LB: For Ged, in the Earthsea trilogy, the cost is his morality.

And that was time.

Next week: Blood spatter analysis (!) A constable from the OPP explains how it’s really done 😉