Making Magic (Consistently) by J. Kathleen Cheney

Posted on Aug 31, 2015 by   5 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized

jkCheneyImageA few years ago I was watching a movie that shall remain unnamed, and in it, a priest sought to banish a witch by reading a passage from a sacred book, but the witch caused the pages to burst into flame. Near the end of that same movie, a copy of the same book was present, and although the many witches present set aflame all the paper in the room, they didn’t set the book on fire, even though it was being used for the same purpose as before. That really bugged me. I kept wondering why they didn’t just burn the book to stop the person reading it.

Why weren’t the witches’ powers consistent throughout the movie?

All authors face this dilemma. Sometimes we have a fantastic plot idea…and we just can’t make it fit into the world we’ve established. If we go ahead and use that idea, it’s likely the readers or viewers will notice there’s something wrong. Something about the plot will bug them. And that’s why we writers, to keep from making the same mistake that the movie made, strive to create a consistent system for our magic.

A system? But isn’t magic a thing of wonder? A mystery? 

Interestingly enough, I’d say no. Most fantasy authors construct a firm set of rules behind their characters’ magic. They know up front what will work and what won’t. That doesn’t mean their characters know those rules.

Nor do the readers need to. 

Have you ever read one of those novels where the writer drones on and on about how this circle of pentagons interacts with that pentacle of swords and so forth? Personally, I always skip those parts. I don’t care to know the technical side of magic; I just want to see what the magic does. So it’s actually the results of magic that need to be consistent–the logic of it.

Even before I started typing my Golden City series, I had formulated the rules that govern my selkies’ magic. Some came from my reading of mythology, some from seal behavior, and some from pragmatism. I had to decide how their harems worked and what happened to a selkie if he or she left the harem. I had to know whether a male selkie could reproduce with a human woman (no) or whether a female selkie could with a human man (yes.) (That also made me ask the question of whether a male selkie could reproduce with a seal cow. We really don’t want to examine that too closely.)

Despite that, I didn’t dump all that information into my manuscript. We writers have to be economical with our words. Most of us won’t spread our magic’s rules out in front of the reader (or the characters) like a college course before the story starts going. Instead, the reader usually discovers various rules along with the characters. And many rules never make it onto the page, not being pertinent to the plot. 

I discussed this recently with a couple of other authors whose work I follow, mostly because they’re good in this kind of situation. Diana Pharaoh Francis is author of Urban Fantasy who’s also penned Epic Fantasy in the past as well. The revelation of her magic’s rules is especially well done, with bits and pieces coming out only when the reader needs to know it.

After the debut of her newest series–the Diamond City Magic novels–she and I discussed this need to dole out information. She said, “If you dump all your magic system on a reader at once, you end up flattening them, and worse, boring them silly. Think of it like a horrible romance–introduce the characters, have them kiss, have sex, get married, and triumph over difficult circumstances all in the first chapter. *Snore*”

At the same time, the writer has to have everything set up ahead of time. One of the books I recently read was Darkness Brutal by Rachel A. Marks. Marks does a great job setting up a particular scenario that involves a romantic–possibly sexual–relationship between two young adults.

Although the plot didn’t go where I half expected it to go, I noted that the seeds of that divergence had been planted, only so subtly that I hadn’t made note of them. When I went back and looked, I saw they were there; I’d simply misinterpreted them.  But they were consistent. 

I discussed that particular scenario with her later, and she told me, “With the basis of my magic system being soul magic I obviously needed to link everything into that concept. So, when it came down to it, Aidan’s ability to connect to souls was what allowed Kara’s spell to connect and unlock his future. I don’t mention it in the text, but really in that instance (since he was more running from his abilities) his greatest strength became his greatest weakness, allowing Sid’s plan to play out. When I’m building a magic system I try to begin with a broader concept or moral logic for lack of a better term, then as I start to plot out my story and build my magical system up, creating those details and twists and turns, I feel like everything for the reader can be traced back to that single seed of moral logic. Then when “all is revealed” it allows for the puzzle to lock into place in the readers mind (hopefully), giving a more impacting Ah-ha! moment.

That “all is revealed” moment is the main reason that the author is keeping so much information under their belt. Just as the romantic elements of a story need to be parceled out to keep the readers’ interest, so do the magical elements. And if you can put the climax together for both parts, even better.



J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her novella Iron Shoes was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). The final book in that series, The Shores of Spain came out in July, and a new series will debut in February 2016 with Dreaming Death.

You can connect with her here



5 Responses to "Making Magic (Consistently) by J. Kathleen Cheney"

  1. Comment by Rachel Leigh Smith
    August 31, 2015 12:44 pm

    I’m in the process of building my first magic system, with shape-shifters and the Greek and Egyptian pantheons. Very helpful stuff!

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