Personal Magic

N.K. Jemisin recently blogged about magic. I quote:

It’s hard out here for a fantasy writer, after all; there’s all these rules I’m supposed to follow, or the Fantasy Police might come and make me do hard labor in the Cold Iron Mines. For example: I keep hearing that magic has to have rules. It has to be logical. It has to have limitations, consequences, energy exchange, internal consistency, clear cause and effect, thoroughly-tested laws with repeatable results and –


This is magic we’re talking about here, right? Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science? Because sometimes I wonder.

I couldn’t agree more. The point of magic, the whole reason why it’s magic and not science is that it does not submit to rational analysis. Magic is unempirical. Magic is non-repeatable. If you can reproduce it in a lab, or bottle it, and sell it on shelves, it ain’t magic. Read the Jemisin article for more details.

Having made this declaration, however, I find myself at a loss for what to call the many "magical" systems one finds in books which are not mysterious, unempirical, or non-repeatable. This category of non-magic includes Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Modessitt’s Recluce books, most of Brandon Sanderson’s books, and almost everything that goes under the rubric of D&D or other RPGs. "Crypto-science" was the first thing I thought of: the magical systems in these books basically operate under the same principles as any other scientific technology, though their mechanisms are completely fictional. Sometimes magic is distinguished from technology by requiring an innate "spark"; in other cases magical talent appears to be more like a talent for art or math, where some people have a special aptitude, but the basics are teachable to anyone.

What’s notable, though, is that in all of these cases magic is impersonal. It doesn’t depend fundamentally on who you are or who you’re dealing with. Magic, like science, works the same for everyone. So I settled on the terminology of impersonal magic to describe these systems.

We can contrast this with personal magic systems, in which the identity of the magic-user is crucial to the working of magic. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says the Elvish word for "fire", strikes the wet wood with his staff, and a fire starts. The other characters could talk Elvish and swing sticks around all night and not get anything other than splinters. Gandalf’s magic works the way it does not because he’s tapping into secret forces which anyone could invoke, but because he’s Gandalf.

This is different even from Robert Jordan’s case, which it superficially resembles. Rand from the Wheel of Time may be the Dragon Reborn, but his identity as the Dragon merely means that he can channel really, really well. The One Power that he channels is not any different for him than it is for anybody else, and his abilities differ in degree but not in kind from those of every other channeler in the series. The one exception may be the prophecies regarding the Last Battle, in which the person of the Dragon might play a role beyond that of merely channeling a lot (it’s not exactly clear). But if that happened it would be an exception, a mere glimmer of personality shining through what is otherwise a very impersonal system.

Analyzing the difference in terms of personality illuminates why I prefer the personal systems to the impersonal. Under an impersonal system, using magic is a technological activity; under a personal system it’s a social one. Impersonal magic derives from what you do; personal magic derives from who you are. This difference allows the personal systems to illuminate different aspects of the human experience. An impersonal system will tend to be about intellect, analysis, and power, while a personal system will tend to be about passion, relationship, and love. This doesn’t mean that I dislike impersonal magic systems, necessarily — intellect is a fine thing, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise — but ultimately I find the metaphorical range of the personal magic systems more to my liking.

In The Wedding of Earth and Sky, magic is intensely personal. The driver of the plot is a spiritual strife between two of the Powers of the world, and the problems that it causes cannot be solved by mere power, but only by reconciliation. This is the sort of story that can only be told with a personal magic system, and that’s why I wrote it.

1 Comment

  1. Although I may be fishing here, I think I see what you’re referencing in regards to what constitutes magic, in regards to “repeatibility” (sorry for the bad spelling) In The Last Airbender series, bending is not referred to as magic, but rather an art, an ability that can be mastered with much practice. Any bender is a bender because they are endowed with the ability. But what made the Avatar something of a magical force what his reception to performing all the bending skills, where others could not.

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