Inspiration comes in the most boring ways

October 12th, 2010 | Tags: ,

Part of my creative process–that part which hasn’t yet been stifled and made limp from oxygen deprivation and routine exhaustion–is to put an ear to the ground. I have been listening since the beginning of October when NaNoWriMo came back on my radar. Sometimes it comes to me more or less unbidden, but this time I had to fish it out of the morass of disappointment and unfinished thoughts that I left stewing from last year. One of the great difficulties of even approaching completing last year’s novel was the raw, undeveloped state I had started it in; I found myself wrestling not only with the words but the form of it.


This year I have some lead time, so I have begun outlining what I want to write about. And the course of listening to the turmoil in my head brought me to the realization that I have been mulling over the nature of “magic” in this world for the last year. I wrote (hinted at, really) the various fates of the actual characters in the story, but the underpinnings of their strengths and weaknesses were vague and ambiguous. It was the part of the story that I didn’t have time to both create from whole cloth and still make sense of the characters’ actions, so I just handwaved it. (A great deal of handwaving occurred that month, but never you mind :) )

This is the best part, though! I imagine that any fantasy author must at some point, even if it’s only in his or her head, address the nature of the magic in the created world. I’m not speaking of strict philosophical treatises–though such are the foundation of the archetypical wizard–but like time travel and other devices, there must be a minimum of inconsistency at some level. Even if that only means that magic is consistently inconsistent.

OMG. First axiom of wizardry. I’m already getting somewhere…so yeah, basically I’m writing about the discovery of magic. Whee!

Anyway, the point of this post was that the process of arriving at a solid kernel of an idea to expand into a story with people and things happening can sometimes be simple and  inevitable once you give up waiting for the flash! of new ideas. Sometimes you’ve been having the idea with you all along, but only just now does it strike you as something to take to the prom.

  1. October 15th, 2010 at 07:11
    Reply | Quote | #1

    I suppose fantasy authors often speak of magic “systems”, although to my ears that rings of gaming more than fiction. I like how you put it: “consistently inconsistent”. I think that the best magic in stories follows that principle. Too often authors treat magic as if it were an alternative science, a system of metaphysics that trumps the expected rules of the universe. When, really, I think magic is a cheat. I don’t mean anything moral by that term. I think magic works best when there are laws of physics in a world, and then magic breaks most of them. Magic should be impossible. Wondrous. I think when it gets broken down, when it loses its mystery, it fails to feel like magic. It feels like physics, which is awesome in its own right, but I find that the best magic is always mysterious, just beyond comprehension or believability. It is the lie we prefer to the truth.

  2. Steve Killen
    October 15th, 2010 at 22:46
    Reply | Quote | #2


    My gut responds in the affirmative. But it seems counter to the very notion of high fantasy–where entire societies make use of magic, for instance. The cheat lies, I suppose, in the fabric of a whole culture in that case–if there are to be cultures where magic is a taught thing, then the largest portion of the magic-users wield it in mundane fashion. And so the mold-breakers would be the focal point of a given story. But these would simply be the exceptions that prove the rule.

    Entertaining fantasies involving magic is a form of cognitive dissonance, I suppose, so I would want to release the reader of such a burden in as many ways as possible. Otherwise it seems too easy to get caught up in why a given magic wielder is special and unique. Add multiple characters like that and you get exponentially greater difficulty, juggling each of their unique and special abilities instead of walking down the road chatting with them. So it seems useful to resort to a larger, underlying principle: various Deeper Magics of sorts, maybe.

    Furthermore, I am also turning my thoughts on Clarke’s “sufficiently advanced technology.” Our understanding of the real world has improved to the point that we can disseverate the causes and effects from the wild hypotheses we used to employ in the form of mystical or divine forces. And I don’t think it’s impossible to take that notion to a logical end, making the practice of magic itself a study of scientific inquiry. Would a mage not want to gain consistent control of his talents? Why else would he study? The result of that study seems necessarily to be something objectively explainable, or else he would have no means by which to reproduce it.

    In short, I don’t think explaining magic reduces its mysteriousness. If anything, I want to explore the routes of those mysteries, to see what lends them their power, that I might increase it by improving upon it. If fantasy is true, as LeGuin puts it, then best to be a proper truth-seeker and plumb its full dimensions, no?

  3. Sparrow
    October 20th, 2010 at 20:33
    Reply | Quote | #3

    I agree with you about the mage. I think such an individual would want to understand, on a deeper, more significant level, the nature of his/her ability. I’ve rarely seen it done well in high fantasy. Most high fantasy doesn’t bring magic to the place where everyone has it, where it is ubiquitous. Martin’s series, for example, or LeGuin’s Earthsea keep magic restricted. These restrictions permit the author to maintain the mystery of magic. There was one book – Lev Grossman’s The Magicians – that treated magic in “scientific” way. He was vaguely successful, but since he didn’t care to be precise, it didn’t seem to matter very much to the narrative that he was telling. If an author wants magic to be scientific, then he or she has to spend time making it so. If that is something that you intend to do with your work, I’m eager to see it.

    As for mysteriousness — it seems to me that any explanation, by its very nature, reduces mystery. Perhaps not the wondrousness of magic, but its mystery I think can only be truly preserved by deliberate obfuscation.