by Gail Z. Martin
How does a writer go about creating a magical system when magic isn’t ‘real’?
Fortunately, we have centuries worth of books, letters, writings and documents detailing all kinds of magical systems by people who believed them to be very real. Lift the hood on modern magical practices and the structure of religions, and you’ll find food for thought. The trick is taking those elements and making them something unique to your world, rooted in your special brand of magic.
Mystical practice–whether occult or religious–has a core need to create a sense of altered and heightened reality in its devotees. The means of doing so is well documented, and validated by psychology. Trance states can be induced by repetitive actions (chanting, rocking, dance), by chemicals (peyote, wine, hallucinogens), by physical hardship (fasting, grueling initiation rites), by sleep deprivation or extended solitude. Once the right mental buttons have been pressed, susceptible initiates will have visions, hear voices, feel non-existent stimuli, believe themselves to be flying. Most ritual initiations have some element of acting out a form of death and resurrection. These are the stuff of belief and religion–and the same building blocks of magic.
Liturgy has as its intent the opening of liminal space, thinning the veil between our world and the next. Blood and sacrifice often factor in at some level, literal or metaphorical. There is power in speaking the old words in the old ways, dressed in clothing that denotes being set apart from daily occupations, in a space deemed to be sacred, with the intent of achieving a mystical connection with something greater than ourselves and tapping into that power.
Think about the rules for the magic you create. Who has magic and who doesn’t? Must you be born with it or can it be acquired? Can you learn to improve your magic, or do you come ‘factory-equipped’? Do abilities differ in type and power? Is magic permitted in the society? Desired? Feared? Persecuted? Do people with magical abilities hold special positions and do they have a choice about being inducted into those roles? How can magic be misused and what are the consequences? Who are considered the ‘bad’ people with magic, who are the ‘good’ people and why? Is magic hidden or openly used? What are the limits and costs of using magic? Where does the power come from? How has the use/understanding of the magic changed over time or vary depending on the status of the user? Always build in a Kryptonite for your mages so that they don’t become all-powerful. Magic must have a price, both to learn and to use or else you’ve got a lot of godlings running around throwing lightning bolts and it’s bloody boring.
Study what makes ritual and religion tick, and you’ll understand the psychological drivers necessary for a convincing magical system. I can usually spot when an author has no first-hand experience with a faith tradition or is contemptuous of anything mystical because their attempts at written magic fall flat. They are missing the heart, the transcendence. Magic has rules and structure, but it is also emotional and transcendent. Miss that, and all you’ve got is a shopping list for odd ingredients and some funny words in bad poems.