TaleSlinger: Coherent Magic Systems pt.1
And how to write them
Hi folx! Welcome to TaleSlinger, where I take 30+ years of writing experience, and try to distill it down into advice.
Distilling this one is likely to be hard because there's a lot to cover, so I'll be splitting it up into more bitesize pieces.
This time: a definition, and some groundwork.
Coherent Magic Systems
Let's start with that definition.
Magic in fiction is everywhere, from the most subtle to the most overt; the most simple to the most complex. There's no real limitations on how it's possible to imagine magic into your story world, and if you’re a consumer of fictional media you’ve very likely seen it in at least some of its varied forms.
But first, what does coherent mean in magical terms?
It means your magic:
Has structure and rules;
That make sense and can be understood with as little explaining as possible;
And are then applied to every situation where magic is involved
You have to, at some point, whether it's before or during, lay down that structure and those rules, and ensure your magic stays within that framework. You can give it a little leeway to bend the structure a bit, but it must not break out.
This means you also need to know how magic works outside of itself as well. Knowing the mechanics and how your magic users go about it is, of course, necessary. But you also need to know how it affects others, how its used in the world, who is it that gets to use it and why, etc.
Once you have a fully contained and coherent system, you then have to stick to your own rules. Avoid the temptation to break them. Yes there is a time and place to do that, but put that out of your head for now because you need a solid set of rules before anything else.
James Barclay & The Raven books
What I'm going to do, over the next few weeks, is a deep dive into the books which contain one of my favourite magic systems. There are 7 Raven books—two trilogies and an extra (and also a prequel trilogy of the elves). I love this system because magic is a part of every single bit of life in Balaia, where the Raven live, and also in Calais, where the elves live.
First, I want to lay everything out for you, then next time I can get into things properly. So let me start by introducing you to the Raven.
The Raven are a group of mercenaries, that are really fucking good. They have a very close bond, they love each other even when they’re arguing, and they have one big rule: kill but don't murder (killing in battle & self-defence is ok, but never outside of that). They have smaller rules, of course, but that one big one is only matched by the other: Raven do things the Raven way, and that’s how they can do the impossible. Because they’re Raven.
And, to be fair, as we meet them for the first time, they have spent the last 10yrs undefeated.
The group we meet right at the very beginning quickly changes, but the mainstays—those we get to know and keep (at least for a while) include:
The Unknown Warrior: the leader. A powerful man with mysterious past, fast and deadly with a 2-handed sword.
Hirad: the heart. A barbarian; nimble, powerful, skillful with sword and either dagger or fist.
Ilkar: the shield. An elven mage, Ilkar has never lost a shield, and is skilled in both defence and offence.
Denser: the pain in the butt. A powerful and efficient offensive (and defensive when needed) mage.
Erienne: the unexpected. A standard college mage at first, she soon carries the One magic (will explain that later).
Obviously I'm talking magic here so it's the mages and their colleges I'm focusing in on, but they work as a team, and part of it is the tactics they use (and the tactics their enemies, and entire armies, use).
(listed in order of perceived morality, with the colour of their magic heart):
Julatsa (mainly an elven college but not all; also the youngest) - yellow
Lystern (usually tries to be Switzerland) - green
Dordover (wants the power of Xetesk) - orange
Xetesk (known as the dark college, for good reason) - blue
There is, arguably, a fifth school of magic, practiced by the more “primitive” Wesmen across the mountains, but these Colleges scoff at it as not being real.
There’s also the One magic, but that’s a whooooole different thing, and it’s best not to mention it to most College mages (but I will get into the One later).
Spells are given 2 syllables, each capitalised (HotRain, ForceCone, etc).
To cast a spell, the mage tunes their eyesight to the mana spectrum, and uses their training by way of words, and hand and finger movements, to focus their mind. They create the shape of the spell they wish to cast and, when ready, speak the command word (usually the name of the spell) to cast it.
Many of the spells are known to all four Colleges, but each also has their own specialty spells which the others don’t.
As far as the Colleges are concerned, their mages can only cast their own College's magic, and any other College’s magic cannot be combined or known. In the process of accepting the flow of mana (if they survive and remain sane), the magic precludes any other College teachings. The spells, the lore (College-specific writings), all of it can only be accessed and used by a mage who has accepted that College's magic (except for a long dead mage named Septern, but again…we’ll get to that later).
“You think it’s a gift, but to us it’s a calling we have no choice but to obey. We don’t walk in here, they find us and bring us.” - Erienne
This magic comes from what they call the Heart. In a safe place in each College, a special building, built to very specific specs, holds a teardrop shape in the colour of the College's mana—this is only visible to those of the College of course, though few get to actually see it.
Not everyone can learn magic. Humans and elves are either born able to do so, or not. If they have it, they have to choose a College to help them channel it, or it will kill them and possibly anyone nearby (or the nearest College will just come and take them away). It's dangerous though. In the Mana Bowl, where a mage who has studied the basics opens their mind to accept the flow of the live mana, they go through something called a Night. The mana storms inside their head, battering them until either their mind collapses, or reforms around it.
End of Part One!
Alright! You now have an overview of how things work in the Raven universe. Some of it won't make sense yet, but it will soon! Come back in 2 weeks where I'll start tearing apart the fabric of the magic to show you the working parta, and how and why they fit together.
Also, do stick around for the one where I explain the One magic, and how Barclay takes those very carefully laid rules, and breaks them!
But for now please share, subscribe, like, comment—whatever you’ve got—and come back on Sunday. Thank you.