Panel members: Jaye Wells, Jim Butcher, Myke Cole, Patrick Rothfuss, Sam Sykes, and Stephen Blackmore. I’m sorry that I didn’t write down their names as they were speaking – I was too busy taking notes. This was an excellent panel, and I think more came out of the panel than any of us thought there would be going in. The room was packed, and doors closed fifteen minutes early because there were no more seats.
Scientific Magic versus Fantasy Magic
One of the first questions inspired the authors to try to define ‘scientific magic’ such as Harry Potter versus more ‘fantasy magic’ such as LOTR. They came upon the definition of ‘scientific magic’ as a magic system where there are definite rules, and they are apparent to the reader. The authors said that the more the rules are quantifiable, the more you can ratchet up the tension in your novel, because the reader knows the rules. Then, the reader feels smarter when they can see how the hero or heroine breaks the rules or twists the rules to his or her advantage.
On the other hand, fantasy magic is one that might have rules, but they aren’t apparent to the reader. For example, Gandalf appears and saves the day because…he’s Gandalf. His magic seems to come at certain times and not others, and there are not particularly any hard and fast rules that we know about it. However, fantasy magic can be done well, too, as long as the author knows the rules well.
One great point about magic inconsistency that was brought up was Star Wars – I believe it was Sam Sykes who said it. At first, Star Wars had a beautiful, fantasy-type magic – the Force. In the original movies, it was ephemeral and numinous. But then in Star Wars I, they tried to invent midi-chlorians and everyone rebelled, although they might not even have known why. It’s because there’s something wrong with taking a fantasy magic system and trying to turn it into scientific magic system – especially in the middle of a series.
Magic and Character Growth
Everyone agreed that there has to be power escalation throughout the stories, so that the characters grow. The stakes have to get continually higher and they have to face moral choices: What happens when they use magic? What happens when they can’t? What do they do when they face a tough decision (for example, they lose if they use magic, but they lose something else if they don’t)? You have to find new ways for your magic system to cause problems for your characters.
They also agreed that any time you put something new into your magic system, you have to think about all of the potential ramifications on the past, present, and future of the plot. They said the worst was the time turner. What happens when you can travel back in time and change the past? That is the most difficult and least thought out of any magic system.
Side note: Writing this just made me think of Star Trek. If you can slingshot around in the sun in Star Trek IV to save the whales, why can’t you do it in Star Trek (2009) to save six billion Vulcans? Even worse, Spock was alive for the prior trip. If you had just seen your whole planet killed – and you had previously been able to go back in time, wouldn’t you try to do it again?
Other Items of Interest
Interestingly, in the first half hour, one of the authors spent a lot of time talking about how you have to build your magic system before writing the plot of your stories because the heart of the story should be the amazing, complicated, flawed characters. Then in the second half hour, another author spent a lot of time stating that you have to build your plot before you build your magic system because the characters and the magic they do are a product of their environments and experiences.
The authors were asked what their favorite magic systems were that they didn’t write themselves. Titles mentioned were : The Last Airbender, The Master of the Five Magics, Last Call, and The Chronicles of Amber.
When asked how to build a magic system, they gave some tongue-in-cheek answers:
- Live somewhere cheap – because you need tons of time off to develop it.
- Do stuff you think is fun, because you’ll be playing around with it and tweaking it for years.
- Find ways to break it.
- Have plenty of Beta Readers try to break your magic system. One author, I believe it was Patrick Rothfuss, said a number around ten (!).
So, what I gathered is that each of these authors had a different, unique magic system, and each of them formed it in a different way over time. I think the overall point they were making is that it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you have a plan, stay consistent, and don’t change the system halfway through. In addition, the overall purpose of including magic in your books is NOT the magic itself. While the magic might be cool and awesome, the only purpose of magic in the story is to help the characters grow, it just gives them another avenue to do so.