Last week, I talked about magic in stories (not to be confused with the magic of stories, which in many ways is much more powerful… but I digress). Today, I’d like to continue the thought series and consider this:
Which is better; a structured magic system or a free-form magic?
I’m not going to decide for you, although I’ve already decided for myself. Shoving the structured side of my brain aside, I’m going to do my best to present the pros and cons of both in a short post (short because college classes have started up and yeah).
The Power of Rules
We’re artists; each and every one of us. Rules don’t become us: we hate the idea of rules, of boundaries, of someone saying “no you can’t do that; it’s not art”. Instead, we strive to strip our lives of all rules and borders and become real.
At the same time, however, a few simple rules can create a lot of strength, very quickly.
I think that the strongest pro regarding a structured magic system is that your forced to creatively find ways for your hero to use the magic against the villain. In short, defining your magic system and saying “it can do this, but not this, and only a little of this” forces you to choose the better option, the option that follows the weak one. You avoid Deus ex Machina because you and your reader know the boundaries, and know that there will be no cheating. It’s impossible to pull out magic and say “it can do this now” whenever convenient to you. Instead, you have to create. You have to apply critical thought to your magic and use your problem-solving skills.
Structured magic doesn’t necessarily have exact, lengthy rules. It’s simply saying something like “my magic has these specific spells and no others, and each spell does this”. You create closure.
To use an example, my recently finished Agram Awakens has four intertwined magic systems. They all involve these cubes (which have different names in pretty much every country). They are the source of the magic [marking my system at as an exterior magic], and are used by people.
I’ll keep this simple and say: there are four basic physical properties that your average joe can manipulate with these cubes. One of these is the idea of “temperature”. A person can mentally use the cube to “move” heat [energy] from one place to another, create “pockets” of heat and cool (excess energy, the lack of energy). A practical use: pulling energy out of the surrounding air to create a warm “bubble” in the middle of a blizzard.
The other’s I’ve labeled as: light, sound, and welding (magnetism). I don’t have time to explain in detail, but that’s it.
That’s all most everyone can use the cubes for. The other three “magic systems” are related to how a person and their cube are “related” to each other, and I don’t have time to explain.
I don’t spell out everything the magic system can do. But I give it boundaries: the magic system can’t mess with gravity and so forth, unless the user gets really creative with the welding/magnetism aspect.
I don’t have time to go over cons, so we’ll skip to the pro of a free-form magic system.
Most free-form magic systems are found in the “odd” fantasy novels, or in urban fantasy/mythology novels. One of the best examples is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. These books are bizarre, as a best description of them. At every turn there’s a new element, a new snippet of something Otherly, something quite unlike our world.
What makes it free-form? The reader never knows the rules. There is no limit to what Alice will meet, what she finds when she looks in the teacups or around the bush. Is it a smoking caterpillar? Is it a jabberwocky? Is it a piece of soap you can eat so you change size? Is it an ocean of tears?
Why not… all of them?
The best thing about a free-form magic system is that your reader can find anything. Their imagination is allowed complete freedom, as is yours. You can expose your reader to a true sense of wonder: “what’s out there?”
I also mentioned urban fantasy/urban mythology, and I’d like to take a moment to address that with a simple title: Percy Jackson and the Olympians. These books by Rick Riordan are full of magic and wonder, none of which seems to be ultra-constrained by rules. There are a few, making it a sort of middle-road magic, but in general, it’s free-form.
And people love it.
So which one is better?
I guess I can’t tell you the answer, because there isn’t an answer beyond this: write the one that works best for you. Some amazing writers, like Brandon Sanderson, J. R. R. Tolkien, and more wrote immense and powerfully crafted structured magic systems. And other amazing writers, like Lewis Carroll and Rick Riordan and C. S. Lewis wrote similarly immense and powerfully crafted free-form magic systems.
The point isn’t to choose one over the other, it’s to write one particular style well. Avoid the pitfalls of either kind (Dues ex Machina for free-form, info-dumps explaining the rules in structured), and write the magic well.
I’ll address that in a couple weeks.