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09:04 pm: Ten alternatives to genetic magic
And it’s the ‘ten alternatives to writing genetic magic’ rant! Aren’t you excited?

For the purposes of the rant, I’m defining “genetic magic” as: inborn, inherited magical talent, where the protagonist got it through a family line, perhaps a distant ancestor (very common), or was simply “born” with it (often done when the author doesn’t want to deal with a whole magical family). I often dislike it because the author wants to exalt the protagonist as special, but I don’t consider a person special just because she was born with magic, any more than I consider someone special just because she’s tall or got blue eyes. It’s what’s done with the talent that counts.



1) By mage’s choice. Magic freely available to those who make a specific choice. Of course, to avoid having a world where there are no problems and conflicts, the decision should probably be a hard one. To brag for a moment, I like a world I developed where each person who makes a certain specific choice gains control of fire magic and lives a year in glory, able to do such things as achieve grand art and see the future…and pays for it by a long decline into loss of memory, sloughing of the skin, paralysis, constant pain, and insanity, dying three years to the day after they made their decision. A certain kind of person will still go through with it, but not everyone.

There are merits to this. The author gets to set limitations. The person, assuming he or she isn’t tricked into the decision, faces the risks with eyes open and a true force of will—something missing from the quests where the genetic mage is dragged along willy-nilly, and then convinced through emotional blackmail. And, above all, the character chooses.

There are some forms of chosen magic in fantasy, but they tend to be invariably presented as evil, like demon-summoning. Why this hostility to free will? Are the reluctant heroes who have no choice about any of it really that interesting?

2) By magic’s choice. The magic decides on who gets to have it.

There’s a big variation of this with the gods choosing their heroes and prophets, but I don’t find most of those very original or intriguing, probably because the gods also seem to choose people for the sake of inborn traits or prophecies rather than because they’ll actually make good heroes. Also, the gods’ magic is not often linked to that particular god, or limited very well; the healer goddess might grant her chosen the ability to throw lighting, which seems counterproductive, or the ability to heal every kind of wound or disease ever.

Instead, I like magic as a sentient force. It would almost certainly have a different nature than that of a god, perhaps very alien. It doesn’t even have to be very intelligent, and certainly not New-Agey. Perhaps it’s about as smart as a dog, and chooses people based on what it sees as leadership ability and compassion. But just because someone is compassionate once doesn’t mean she’s compassionate all the time, and that could turn out to be a very bad choice.

I think there should be more “evil” mages who are just as powerful as the “good guys,” without turning to things like blood magic or demon-summoning, while the “good guys” get chosen by gods free of charge. And in a world where magic might look for very different factors than a human, or human-like deity, looks for, that would be possible.

3) Magic linked to developed character traits. And not inborn ones. Many qualities can be argued to have a genetic basis. Maybe intelligent parents have intelligent children. But I’ve known many people who didn’t work to develop that intelligence, instead just skating by on rote memorization, and I bet you have, too. Let’s see some effort and hard work put into it, and, in return, the magic begins coming through correspondence.

What will those correspondences be? It’ll depend on your world. I will be extremely lazy now and use a few from our own. Perhaps someone with courage magic gains the ability to transform into a lion. Perhaps someone who sings beautifully (see point 9) gains the ability to transform into a songbird. And that’s unfairly limiting it to one branch of magic, really. Why shouldn’t a charismatic person gain the ability to change many minds and hearts with just a suggestion? Or a person good with children gain the ability to calm crying children with less effort than normal? At certain points, the lines between magic and human ability would blur, which could make for good stories in worlds where mages have to hide for some reason, or where the person in question slowly develops magic and doesn’t realize what’s happening at first.

4) Magic by transference. This is actually pretty common, in that, say, wizards in many fantasy books take apprentices and pass along their knowledge to them, and sometimes pass along their ability as well. In Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites, a wizard passes on his staff and ability to the eighth son of an eighth son—except that she’s a first daughter instead, and since women are supposed to be witches instead of wizards, this causes problems.

My interest in transference magic runs (naturally) to choice, to the development of a rich mentor/student relationship (or the realistic portrayal of what would happen should a dying mage toss his talent to the first available person, who has no experience at all), rather than the mage choosing someone just because of “inborn talent,” or because that person is the son of a king. I want to see what characteristics the mage considers a prerequisite for passing talent on. The sooner it’s broken from blood inheritance, the better. I would even be more interested in stories of monarchical succession if it was based on really choosing the best leader, whether that leader was the monarch’s child or not. And if magic in your world is rare and powerful and dangerous and ready to fry the unwary, I’ll bet the mage looks more widely than just his own family circle, or the first random orphan child he comes across who reminds him of himself at a young age.

5) Magic by shifting of time. This has a couple different directions, depending on whether you want to go with natural time or human-defined time.

As mentioned in another recent post, I finished The Autumn Castle, by Kim Wilkins, last week. Her faery world has a round of seasons frozen in time; winter is always dark, autumn has long sunsets without true night, and spring and summer are glorious times of pure daylight. In each season, her faery folk live near a different castle, and they move between seasons not with a gradual transition, as on earth, but by a slip through darkness and a sudden waking in the next castle. Gates between worlds also depend on the season. It’s a very simple concept, but it works remarkably well, especially for a fast-paced book, and it provides a ‘race against the clock’ that the heroes won’t be able to easily delay.

For historical time, there’s the sort of concept embodied in Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” which speaks of the world turning between eras. 2000 years ago, Earth passed from paganism into Christianity, and now that another 2000 years have nearly elapsed, the essential truths and possible magic of the world are altering once more:

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

One fun thing with doing this is that once you’ve chosen a certain period of time and picked out what marks that period of time, you have the basics of a detailed metaphysical system. Why that long in each historical epoch? Why that certain beginning and end? Is there anything anyone can do to stop this transition or make it less painful? What will completely new magic do to a world that has always run on one system? And so on.

6) Magic by bodily change. One aspect of this, and one only, sees an awful lot of use in fantasy. That’s puberty. Magic is often said to emerge when a girl has her menarche or when a boy…er…when a boy goes through puberty, apparently, though most of the time the authors don’t have as visible a sign for them as for girls. No menstruation will ever matter as much again. Nothing the boy or girl matures through will ever matter as much again.

Oh, bull. People don’t freeze as teenagers, though many fantasy characters seem to. What about when the changes of puberty cease, and those characters are fully (physically) adult? What about childbirth and menopause? What about when a man loses the ability to sire a child? What about when the bones begin to lose their sturdiness, when the first age spots appear, when the first sign of white or gray appears in someone’s hair?

This might seem to tread the inborn line again, but only if you make it so that only one character, or a small minority, have magic emerging or changing with their bodies. If it happens to everyone, then the society has achieved a small but significant difference from our world already. We have an enormous embarrassed hush surrounding many consequences of age, for example. But what happens if a woman achieves magic after menopause, or grows most powerful then? Here’s a rationale not based on wisdom for the elders to be respected in a society. Alternatively, you could have the most powerful magic in the young (making for very unruly children) and a different basis for the fetishization of youth.

7) Magic by place. Hello, distance!

I’m talking here about a certain place not just being conducive to magic—that’s the province of a lot of stone circles and old temples in fantasy—but actively being its support and its source. Say, the closer one lives, the more powerful one is as a mage.

Oh, boy, do you have a class fight on your hands! Or, if it’s kept secret, the deed to a house built on that spot might be bought and sold very carefully.

And there’s no saying that the place has to be safe or convenient for humans to live in. Perhaps the most powerful magic around, a place powerful enough to colonize your planet’s moons from, sits right in the middle of a swamp. Or the polar ice cap. Or a bone-dry desert. Or a jungle thick with fevers. People will almost certainly still strive to reach it, because people are That Way, but it’s not going to be an easy march. There’s a good premise for a race to the arctic.

8) Magic by object. Once again, common; there are talking swords and magical necklaces around. They might even have their own wills, though often the author gives them a canned personality (most talking swords constantly want to drink blood or are whiny and don’t want to kill).

And then the author links the object straight to an inborn trait again, saying that only a woman can wield it, or only someone of a certain bloodline, or only someone with that nefarious “inborn talent.” So the object becomes useless to everyone but a certain few, and perhaps even deadly to those who might try to take it up and wield it against its chosen. (Hello, David Eddings. Hello, Orb of Aldur).

I think it would be much more interesting—read: chaotic—if the object really could be used by anyone, and especially if it was easily breakable, or had a will of its own, or was prone to teleportation. Paranoia would shoot up. Any thief who could take it would be up to his eyeballs in danger and in opportunity. Wars could start, to claim it or take it away from someone unworthy or make sure that a rival didn’t claim it. Of course, the war would be complicated by the fact that said rival or unworthy person could use it just as well as the person racing to take it.

9) Magic by art. I’ve read a very few examples of this. Charles de Lint’s Memory and Dream is one, where the painter can bring some of her paintings to life. Yet not every painter can do it, and it isn’t fully explained what she does when she paints one of the “numen” pictures as opposed to an ordinary one. For that book, it happens to work, because the general tone is mystical and dark, but I remained interested in the differences between artists and what would have happened if many of them (the book is partly set in the artist-rich town of Newford) had learned and started employing the technique, or made it known to the world.

In other arts, the magic to be defined could be entirely up to the author, and doesn’t have to be limited to bringing depictions of realistic characters to life. Perhaps sculptors learn to carve statues where each part of the body foretells the ending of a certain war, depending on how they carve it. Perhaps architects align their buildings in a certain way, rather as in fung shui, to give everyone inside the greatest possible peace or happiness. Or not. (It should not surprise you that the first use of this which springs to my mind is slumlords ordering certain sets of tenement housing which will keep the people inside docile and obedient and prone to pay their rent). Perhaps musicians learn to “addict” people to their music, leaving them wanting to hear more and more.

It might seem like an odd thing to mention, but I cling to this one because I like artist heroes, and am constantly surprised that more fantasy doesn’t handle the theme of art, given how many fantasy novels take place in gorgeously decorated courts, among nobles who would have money to act as art patrons, and the like. That, and I just finished Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay again.

10) Magic by natural resource. This could be simple, a direct link. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover world has kireseth flowers that cause psychic powers to appear in the first human colonists when they inhale the pollen. Other books use gems or metals to initiate the same kind of thing.

It could also be a gradual transformation, where the magic was first something else. Think of the way that diamonds get transformed from carbon. Perhaps magic was once stored in the living bones of an animal, and only gets released when the bones have spent a certain period of time underground and then are dug up. (Magic paleontologists! Hee).

This is different from object magic because, while many magical objects seem protected in some way, or are rare, a magic natural resource could run out. And then what does a world, perhaps as heavily dependent on magic as our own world on oil, do?



Sorry for not answering comments, but I have to run; I’ll do it later.

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Comments

From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 29th, 2013 03:30 am (UTC)
(Link)
Exalted (a tabletop RPG) is a great place for "The magic chooses." Each Exaltation chooses someone who's done something particularly badass in their particular idiom. Not necessarily something good - it might go to a general who made a misguided and suicidal charge, or an incredibly audacious con artist - but something incredible and world-shaking. And quite a lot of the backstory involves people trying to track down these floating, free-willed shards of awesomeness and control them.

Also, it's great for setting up a campaign because once you answer why your character is Exalted and what he did with it, you've basically got your backstory, character traits, and call to adventure all in one go.
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