Saturday, October 24, 2015

Monthly Mattinee October: A Recipe For Magic

Time To Mix Up A Brew! 

This October, Let's Cook Up Some Laws Of Magic!

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,
..............hmmm, still needs salt.....
You know, if you think about it, the laws of magic and the rules of cookery actually have a lot in common. Do it wrong, and you get a nasty mess either way. Follow the recipe, and you get what you want. It looks impressive and difficult to those who can't do it.  And, of course, you very rarely do either one just for the sake of it. 

Hernandez's great rendition of some
of our favorite American
As comic readers, we see a lot of magic systems cooked up in a lot of ways, everything from the classic superheroes to the difficult and involved systems of something like Quantum Vibe, to the strange and wondrous madness that is Sandman or the vastness of Saga (note, I include sci-fi in this discussion; a wise man once said sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, and the same rules of world design apply!) They have very different techniques, but all of them strive to mix their elements up in just the right way to give a powerful story that leaves you feeling something and wanting more. 

So what are the ingredients for a powerful magical system?
Let's see, what have we got in our creative cupboard....

One Part Concept

That first spark of an idea can flare into a creative inferno...but sometimes all you do is sit there trying to light creative matches that keep going out. What to do?
For inspiration, RESEARCH! I find particularly fertile ground in science news headlines and historical anecdotes. Try this: take a short title of an article, and let your mind mull it over. See if you can get a story out of it.  'Scientists get cells to kill each other' could lead in a thousand directions: what if an army was trained to somehow make the enemy's body literally tear itself apart? What would such a power do to society? Take that idea, and RUN LIKE HELL with it. Go crazy when conceptualizing. Then, when you have a concept that makes your blood fizz, start researching. And don't stop. A concept that isn't really understood  by its author is not a concept that can support a story. Research until you dream about your subject matter. Make it a part of you; only then can you tell a tale fully immersed in it. The creators of 'Fables' did this; Bill Willingham, according to legend, read nothing but folktales for a year.

Three Parts Reality

Now hang on, I hear you cry, what's reality doing in my magical brew? It'll spoil the whole thing!
Well, no, it'll make it relatable and much more readable. Your characters live in a world, and that world should feel REAL.  I could go on and on about  reality, but there are five key concepts to a real world with magical elements


Too often, creators take their magical concepts, plop them into some vaguely appropriate world (sword and sorcery, anyone?) and have done with it. 'Hey, it's here, it works.' But that's not how cultures or people work. People, cultures and concepts interact, clash, blend and flow. Make your cultures and concepts interact. Remember how cultures and people think when you're world building.So, you want a race that's not human? How hard is it for them to get a job? Are they restricted to menial labor, treated with respect? What cultural traits allow them to do well in society? What traits cause them them problems?
If you want a powerful example of doing this right, read 'Doomsday, My Dear,' a terrible and beautiful exploration of what happens when humanity comes up against something they have trouble coping with in their midst. I'll warn you though, human psychology under pressure isn't pretty.

A lot of writers duck this issue by going the 'magic is a secret we all have to keep' route, but that's a bit of a cop-out (sorry J.K Rowling, I still love your books, but it's true) because people don't keep secrets that well, and they don't keep secrets on the basis of the usual defense: 'if people knew it'd be too terrible'. Groups of people don't keep secrets that are hypothetically dangerous, because we're not good at hypotheticals as a species. Groups of keep secrets that are imminently dangerous or all together forgotten, and not well even then. Things come out. Look at the crypto-Jews of Isebella's Spain for a really powerful example of the point. (see, historical research again!)
'X-Men' is probably the popular comic that has best explored this, and as often as it's failed to make the point well, it's also triumphed in making the fact of humans who aren't quite normal a part of the social and political conversation in their world. 'Saga' explored this beautifully as well in its discussion of war mentality and propaganda; the pragmatic willful blindness that living in a war situation brings on in the mind.

One last note on psychology and sociology:  you'll notice that all the good stories I've named have characters interacting with a living world, not a text book lesson followed by some characters doing things. The best writers build their worlds organically around their characters. THE AUTHORS know what's going on, but they don't need to tell the readers EVERYTHING in gigantic info dumps. And comic readers, to be blunt, skip text walls. Be the writer of a world, not of a lecture. 


Conservation Of Mass. Euclidean Geometry. Quantum Physics. All these are names and complicated ways of saying one, very simple thing:  The Material World Has Rules. You can't break them just because you want to. You can circumvent them, you can bend them, or maybe do something clever with them,  but some things can't be broken. Period.
Long before we had science, we as human beings already had a strong understanding of the fact that the world was made of rules. It's an inherent pact we have with the universe as homo sapiens: I will learn your rules, I will understand them, and then I'll learn to use them to my advantage. A lot of ancient magical systems were based around this basic, instinctive tenant, and a lot of our first sciences too. Wise people then and now treat the world as an interconnected set of rules and variables that could be adjusted if you had the knack, but not without affecting the rest of the system. 'The Dresden Files' is a classic example of magic done right: no matter how much crazy crap is thrown at you, no matter how weird it gets, the story stays cohesive because Butcher plays his characters by the rules.
Make your magical systems with this as your guide, and keep three things in mind:

Constitutional Rule

The rules of your magical system are like the constitution of your story, a pact of trust between the creator, the created, and the consumer. When a government breaks the constitution, it is unconstitutional, aka illegitimate. When an author breaks their constitution, the same thing happens: they lose the trust of the people they made the pact with, and then they lose readers. This happens a lot of ways: the moth eaten comic-book revolving door deaths (I'm looking at you again X-Men, and not in a good way...), rabbit out of the hat abilities that arrive just when they're required (Yeah, not cute) conveniently ignored contradictions or 'retcon' of something for convenience's sake, or plain deus ex machina contrived endings. This is probably the greatest sin against narrative in my book: breaking the rules of the world indiscriminately.  Once you've made your rules, THEY ARE MADE. Revise sure, expand on their intricacies and find loopholes, but DO NOT BREAK THE RULES. Don't break your rules because they're inconvenient, find a clever work around. Don't break your rules for shock effect: it's demeaning to you and your readers. Don't break the rules for the sake of drama: 'hey Bob look the new kid can break all the rules we just painstakingly introduced, he must be special!' is deus ex machina and damaging to your story. Because once your rules lose legitimacy, your story loses authenticity and tension. If readers have seen you pull dirty tricks before, they will not believe you when you set up a problem. They'll simply wait skeptically to see what you're going to pull this time.


As a person raised with magic, this one hits home for me. I'm a Pagan, and I grew up with magic. I was doing charms to keep the house safe with my mom at the kitchen table at the age of nine.
From right to left, a protection against bad influences, a house protection charm and a protection against violent humans.

And about the first thing you learn is that the law of conservation of mass isn't just for science. In real magic, the results you get are directly proportional to the trouble you take. My grandma told me time and again, 'you get what you put in.' which is pretty much the law of conservation of mass in plain language.  And she was right. So when writing magic in your comics, think about how much energy goes into what your characters are doing. Got a character who flies without wings? What's doing it? And please, please don't just say magic.  Nothing makes me roll my eyes more than stories where stuff just 'magically!' happens. This is lazy writing. Not magic. You don't have to know physics or get technical, but if your character  is throwing giant boulders around, somebody's going to ask where that power comes from. Have an answer and a price. This can go all the way from the magically gentle systems of 'Avatar', Tamora Pierce's The Circle books or Diane Duane's The Young Wizard Series (by far my favorite example of a magic system out there!)  that rely on channeling the dynamic powers of nature and natural law through yourself to make something happen, to the terrible price magic makes the users pay in stories like Simon R. Green's The Nightside Series and Garth Nix's spine chilling Abhorsen books. But remember that there's a price; years of study, tons of energy, even life. Energy comes from somewhere. It doesn't just appear.
In old fashioned terms, to each thing its price


Magic is a trait, a force, a gift and a responsibility. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. When it's used as one, the story isn't fun any more. When everything is fixed with supernatural ease, your characters are impossible to relate to and your story devolves into a series of pretty pictures instead of a gripping narrative. If magic fixes everything, there's nothing left to say. End of story.

Two parts Respect

To balance out all the ingredients of your magical world, add respect. When you respect your source material, you don't pull a Supernatural and screw over every mythological concept you get your dirty mitts on. When you respect your audience, you don't write in contradictions, conveniently 'forget' or 'find' new abilities for your characters at the drop of a hat with the thought 'eh, nobody will notice'. When you respect their intelligence, you don't create contrived situations or poor explanations. When you respect the magic you create, it will work for you.

One Part Beauty

And now that we're over the hard and heavy stuff, let's talk about making magic in comics PRETTY!
Comics are a visual medium, and it's the artist's job to get the magic across. It doesn't have to be neon red sparkles. In fact, it can be quite subtle: just one thing out of place can do it. 'K and P' is a master of this.
Sparkles are pretty useful though, and used well they can get magic across beautifully. Color is also a really useful tool. If you remember that darker colors recede and brighter colors come to the fore, you can make a lot of use of the way the human brain works. If you put bright, hot colors denoting magic over muddier colors of the real world, you can make magic seem to pop or float just above the page. Color contrasts can denote power as well, as in this example from the comic 'West': 
if you prefer the more sigil-driven forms of magic, there's a LOT out there you can do. You can start with alchemist's symbols, which look mysterious but are frankly just shorthand for the periodic table. If you like glyphs, here are links to several great brush patterns: 

And there's a lot more hiding out there; for this purpose, Deviantart is a great resource. A character drawing or chalking arcane symbols is always exciting, and if you use an airbrush to layer such sigil brushes over an image, the sigil will have an unreal, floating look, great for magic drawn with light in the air or cast as a spell. Play with it, try it out, and you'll get some pretty great results.

A Pinch Of Wonder

As a last note now that I've railed on and on about rules and regs, remember as a creator that magic at its heart is about wonder. Have fun. Create something that delights you, that intrigues you. If you are in wonder, your readers will be too.

1 comment :

  1. Thanks, I needed this as I'm planning a new story. :)


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