Magic, Part 2

My last blog post dealt with the rules of magic. Specifically, I discussed how to make the magic in your novel unique, and how to make rules so that your magic makes sense.

Today, in part two of a three(?) part series, I’ll be discussing the next two points about magic:

3. How to break your own rules (and do it right)
4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic

As usual, my advice is offered as someone who is educated, but not an expert. I’ve been studying writing for years, and I have a bachelor’s degree in the Writing Arts from Rowan University. I am not, however, a published author (yet).

With that in mind, let’s get down to business.

3. How to break your own rules (and do it right)

This statement might leave you scratching your head for a moment. My previous blog post was all about making rules, and now I’m telling you to break them? What gives?

Breaking your own magic rules can be done in one of two ways. The wrong way is to break your rules in an inconsistent, poorly written way that makes your readers think you made a mistake. If you establish a rule like “wizards need to wave his hands and chant magic words to cast a spell,” and then suddenly your wizard is using magic when he is tied up and gagged, your readers will protest that he can’t do that.

If, however, you establish that the “broken” rule signifies something greater, then the character breaking the rule will be seen as accomplishing something significant.

Harry Potter is a good example. Throughout most of the books, wizards need to chant words to cast a spell. In the 6th book, however, it is explained that some powerful wizards can use “nonverbal” spells. It’s specifically established as a sign of a more experienced wizard. In this case, “breaking the rules” is a sign of greater power.

An even better example is “The Matrix.” Believe it or not, “The Matrix” actually establishes two sets of rules, and then breaks them in different ways.

In my previous post, I mentioned how you can “show” the rules of magic by keeping things in character. Having one character explain things to another is a common trope used to show the reader how things work. There’s another, more effective tool, which can be used to establish the “reality” of your world and how magic fits in it. I’ll call it “reacting to the impossible.”

Imagine this: You sit down to watch a movie, one which you know nothing about and have seen no previews for. The opening scenes show a well-known city like New York or Los Angeles. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you quickly realize the movie takes place in the real world (as opposed to, say, Middle Earth). You see two people chasing each other through the streets, so you know it’s an action movie. Then, without warning, one of them shoots fire out of his hands at the other.

Right there, in the opening shot, you’ve established that this is a story where magic exists. You didn’t need to explain. The reader (or viewer) won’t doubt or question it. They see magic, and therefore know that it is real (in the reality of the world where the story takes place).

Now, the chase continues, and a moment later the two characters come across an innocent bystander. Another blast of fire shoots out, and the bystander screams “That’s impossible!”

You’ve now established that this is a story where common people don’t KNOW that magic exists.

Magic, from wizards to vampires (which as supernatural creatures count as “magic” for the purposes of this post), can come in many forms. There are four primary ways magic can exist in a world:

1. Magic exists and is well known. This is the case in movies like The Lord of the Rings, where no one questions that Gandalf is a wizard. Also in books like the Wheel of Time, everyone knows Aes Sedai exist. Magic is a part of reality in these worlds.
2. Magic exists, and is hidden. This is the case in most stories set in the modern world. In Harry Potter, wizards hide from muggles. In most vampire stories, the vampires keep their true nature hidden from normal people. Magic is a part of reality in these worlds, but it remains hidden.
3. Magic is rare, and thought to be just legend. This is the case in a story where magic exists, but there is no “secret society of wizards.” Think of the difference between, say, Harry Potter versus The Craft. In the former, there is a whole society of wizards, and they send their children to wizard school to learn from experts. In the latter, witchcraft is believed to be just legend until the characters in the story rediscover it on their own. Magic is still part of the reality in these worlds, but it is forgotten or unknown instead of just hidden.
4. Magic is one of a kind. This is the case in a story where there is only one character who ever develops magic, and his case in a unique one. Superhero stories are often designed like this, since the superhero is meant to be unique and special. In these cases, magic has never been a part of the reality in these worlds until it is created for the first time.

Deciding whether magic exists in the open, is hidden, is rare and forgotten, or has never existed before is a good way to develop your world’s magic. You can decide whether there is a secret society, where magic is shared among those who know of it; or whether the main character is one of a kind, the first person ever to develop their powers.

Let’s get back to “The Matrix.” The opening shots of the movie establish a seemingly real world city. We see the police closing in on Trinity. Agent Smith warns the cops that “his men are already dead.” Then we see the first fight scene, and WOAH, did she just run across the wall defying gravity?

This establishes that this is a world where magic exists (keeping in mind that “bending the physics of a computer program” is effectively “magic” for our purposes).

A few moments later, during the chase scene, Trinity leaps across the street in a seemingly impossible jump. Agent Smith follows. The cops stop, stare in shock, and one of them mutters, “That’s impossible…”

This establishes that this is a world where magic is hidden. Normal people don’t know about the magic in the world.

As the story continues, we eventually learn the “rules” of the world. Morpheus explains everything to Neo, and they begin training him. We see things like the Jump Program, where “everybody falls the first time.” This establishes that for the main characters, magic is routine and normal. This is similar to how magic is commonplace for the wizards in Harry Potter, even if muggles think magic is impossible.

But remember when I said “The Matrix” establishes two sets of rules? This is the first one. The second one comes when Morpheus is kidnapped, and Neo and Trinity have to rescue him.

By the time we get to the rooftop scene where Neo and Trinity fight the Agent, we’ve already established that the main characters are special people who can do “impossible” things. They break the rules (from the point of view of “normal” people who are still plugged in). And yet, they have their own set of rules. While they can bend the laws of physics, they can’t completely break them. While they are strong and fast, they can’t beat an agent.

And then Neo starts to break those rules.

When he first starts dodging bullets, Trinity has the same reaction as the cop from the beginning: she stares and says “That’s impossible. I’ve never seen anyone move like that before.” Just as Trinity jumping across the street broke the cop’s view of reality, Neo dodging bullets breaks Trinity’s view of reality. She thinks it’s impossible, and yet she just saw it happen.

We, as the audience, believe that it happened because the characters are forced to believe it. No one stops and says “But Neo CAN’T do that, it’s against the rules!” We accept that he CAN break the rules, because he is special.

Any time you establish a set of magical rules, you can break them, as long as you show that the character is able to break them for a reason. A character suddenly and inexplicably doing something the audience views as “impossible” will break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. However, a character suddenly doing something the other characters view as “impossible” can force the other characters to accept what they saw with their own eyes, and in turn force the audience to accept that it is possible. The audience’s reaction is basically to think “the other characters were obviously wrong about what is and isn’t possible.”

This is the difference between breaking the rules the “wrong” way and the “right” way. The wrong way makes the audience stop believing in your story, because they think it no longer makes sense and the depicted events aren’t possible. The right way makes the audience believe that the depicted events ARE possible, and the characters in the story just didn’t realize it.

You can use this technique to build up tension. By establishing limitations on magic, you show that wizards, vampires, superheros, and other powerful characters aren’t gods. They’re people with limitations and failings, just like anyone else. Then, by having the characters surpass those limitations, you can create a heroic moment where they do something awesome that the audience didn’t think was possible. This works even if the ENTIRE movie has had the characters doing “impossible” things, like jumping across a city street in a single leap. Because the early scenes established that, in the reality of this world, those things ARE possible. The rules you establish early on essentially shape the audience’s expectations, and they will accept the reality you present before them.

This point is already segueing into my next point, so let’s move on:

4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic

We’ve just seen how Neo is “special” in “The Matrix,” even among an entire cast of special characters. The main characters can all do things we’d normally consider impossible, but Neo takes it a step further. He becomes the one who stands out, even among a group of extraordinary individuals.

“Breaking your own rules” is a great way to establish a character as special. Let’s compare these concepts to the Harry Potter stories.

Harry lives in a world where magic is a reality. He goes to a wizard school where every single person he meets can use magic. He should just be another wizard among many. So what makes HIM so special compared to all these other extraordinary people?

A lot of it is his ability to do some things with such ease. He gets his broom to fly on the first try, while the other students are still fumbling. He gets the hippogriff to accept him even though it clawed Draco. He manages to summon a Patronus despite its great difficulty, and then teaches the other students how to do it.

Harry is shown, in multiple ways, as being an elite even among wizards. Even when he is surrounded by people who make the impossible happen every day, he stands out.

Establishing a set of rules for your magic world is a key way to make a character stand out. After all, if the audience doesn’t know that some things are impossible, they won’t see it as particularly impressive. For example, in “Superman,” “Harry Potter,” and “X-Men,” there are characters who can fly (albeit through different means). Flight, in those stories, is commonplace. Yet in “The Matrix,” the fact that Neo can fly shows that he is special, because no one else in that world can fly. Your world’s rules will exist independently, and the rules of other stories don’t apply to yours.

The scale and magnitude of magic can also change from one story to the next. In “The Wheel of Time,” someone throwing a fireball bigger than a man’s head is considered powerful. In “X-Men,” however, Cyclops can blast the roof off a building with the intensity of a blast. In “Harry Potter,” teleportation is an advanced, difficult power, but in “Jumper,” the main characters teleport with ease. In “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a vampire catches fire the moment they step outdoors, but in “True Blood,” Bill is able to move outside for an extended period, slowly cooking alive.

Each world will establish its own rules, and its own standards for what is “normal” and what is “extraordinary.” Your world should have its own standards, which you should define when you first begin building your world. If a character has super strength, how strong are they: strong enough to lift a car, or strong enough to move a mountain? If we see Superman lift an 18-wheeler over his head, it’s not impressive, because we know Superman is strong enough to do that. If, on the other hand, we see Buffy life a motorcycle over her head, we see THAT as impressive, because that’s pushing her normal limits. If we see “The Flash” dodge a bullet, it’s not impressive because he’s so damn fast. But when Neo dodges bullets, it’s an amazing moment.

It’s all a matter of scale, and establishing what is normal vs what is impossible in your own world. You don’t need to have a character do something that’s never been done before in order to make the character “special.” All you have to do is establish that some things are limited in YOUR world, or that a certain character has limits on their own personal strength or power. Then, when they surpass those limits, it will be seen as an impressive moment. Even if the same act on a different character wouldn’t impress the audience at all.

Choosing how powerful a character can initially be (and by extension, how strong they need to become to be “special”) can be a complicated process. However, the first step is realizing that you need to establish a baseline of what the character is capable of, then surpass that baseline (by breaking the rules) later in the story.

These issues will be continued on Thursday’s blog post, where I’ll discuss:
5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”)
6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)

I may also spend some time sitting and thinking (I do that a lot, sometimes while staring at the wall) and see if there are any other key points I’ve missed. Also, feel free to post questions in the comments if there are any other points you’d like my opinion on.


5 thoughts on “Magic, Part 2”

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