Ask The Author: magic systems, sorta

I am implementing an almost-certain-to-be-erratic Friday Blog Post based on reader questions! Today’s question is a very, very old one:

“What’s the most difficult part when constructing a system of magic for a world?”

That is a Very Good Question.

So, like, let’s take the Walker Papers and the Negotiator Trilogy, which are my two longest/best known serieseses.

You would not *believe* how many books I read about shamanism, animism, and Native American cultures while preparing to write the Walker Papers. LOTS. MANY. BUNCHES. (I was frankly slightly less concerned about the Irish side of things, although I was also AMAZED at how well the two mapped, in the end!)

What was fascinating about it was that after reading books from people who had studied shamanism all over the world, it was really clear to me that there were certain extremely consistent elements in every single culture. They weren’t all called the same things, but what I called the Lower and Upper worlds were things that almost every culture seemed to have some variation of, and how people traveled to and through those spaces had a lot in common, too. The transformative healing powers, those were common denominators. The concept of a specific personal inner space was common. The maybe-literal-maybe-not-maybe-depending-on-what-plane-you-were-in shapeshifting/transformations were common. All of it was meant, in some way, to teach the traveler something.

So I read and I read and I read and I READ, and eventually I took everything that seemed most common, structured it into more or less my own words, thoughts, shapes, and concepts, and turned that into Joanne’s magic system. I did my very, very best to be respectful and true to what I’d read, and I was, frankly, prepared to tell people that it was only a story, I didn’t mean to be treading on anybody’s beliefs and toes. I feel like maybe that was the greatest *difficulty*: I was aware of the fact that there are many shamanic/animistic practitioners in the world, and I didn’t want to be offensive.

To my great surprise, I actually had a number of people who have reached out to me over the years with the expectation/belief that I was a practitioner myself, because they felt I’d gotten so much right that it seemed unlikely I *wasn’t*, to them. Well, I’m not, but I did study very hard. :)

So, like, I was eyeball deep in research for that. Was it *hard*? No, not exactly, but it was a lot of work. A lot of reading. A lot of thinking. And it was also really enjoyable. I learned a lot, and I would recommend as thorough an approach as you can take, especially if you’re playing in someone else’s culture. (Which, honestly, I might not do if I was writing the books in 2023, but…I’m not. :))

The Negotiator books, OTOH, were…mostly made up. :) I didn’t entirely mean to map the first 4 Old Races I came up with to the four traditional Western elements (earth, air, fire, water), but when I realized I had I was like “oh well sure of course,” and ran with that, with the addition of Void as the fifth element/race. And then since I was already there, I took it a step deeper, with…I almost don’t want to say, because I think only one person I’ve ever talked to has figured out who Chelsea Hu *is*/what she represents, and I kinda wanna leave them with that win. :D

But because I was dealing with near-immortal races, inhuman peoples, well, they had to have cultures of their own, laws and rules and expectations of their own, and certain kinds of power that conflicted with one another. Each of the types of Old Races is broadly dangerous, obviously, but they’re also *specifically* dangerous to another type (there’s a reason the Malik/Janx fight went the way it did!). There was the fact that I’d, uh, been inspired, by certain pop culture to have gargoyles night-bound, and so why was THAT, and there are reasons for it that still haven’t been fully answered in the Old Races universe.

And, because I’d just written the Walker Papers, where Jo’s magic was ALL metaphysical, I really, really wanted the Old Races universe magic to be REALLY, REALLY PHYSICAL. It’s all touchable. Humans in that world are not magic, although they can be imbued WITH magic to a certain degree. So part of my development for the Old Races was literally in direct opposition to what I’d *already* written, so that I wouldn’t be treading the same territory, and that was a super deliberate choice.

So, hrm. I’m not sure this really addresses the question of “what’s the most difficult part” very well, honestly. Trying to stay consistent within your own rules? Making sure there’s a price to pay when you break the rules (I’m looking at Joanne and her Rainbow Bridge here, like, she definitely should not have done/been able to do that)?

It’s a lot of thinking! It’s all a lot of thinking. That’s the hard part. :D But god, it’s fun! :D :D :D

And please feel free to ask questions, whether inspired by this post or otherwise, for future answers. :)

Tagged , , ,