Adding Magic and Spirituality to Your Story

A post at Writer Unboxed: On Magic and Spirituality in Story

There’s a lot of talk in SFF communities about hard versus soft magic systems—hard magic systems being the most well-explained and intricate. Heck, I’m not even fond of the word “systems” when used in conjunction with magic. For me, explaining magic makes it more like science. I like magic to have an unknowable quality to it. I like magic to be just beyond the grasp, of the characters and thereby of the reader.

Oh, yes, I feel the same way! I react exactly the same way to the word “system” when used with “magic.” I especially like magic that isn’t systematic, isn’t explained. Think of Piranesi, for example, or the fairyland style of magic in, say, Song for the Basilisk.

Naturally I was pleased to run into this attitude in the linked post.

Getting to the core of what it is about magic and spiritualism that I feel enhances a story is a sense of wonder. I don’t consider it something that’s exclusive to SFF or speculative fiction. I love stories of any genre that can incite me to feel it, even as an underlying feature.

Yes, I’m on board with this as well.

I’m just finishing up reading a sprawling epic fantasy. The world-building is phenomenal, the scale of the story is gigantic, and the political maneuvering is elaborate. And I’ve been wondering why the story is feeling flat, lifeless. The story has kept me intrigued enough to keep going, but just barely. As I considered writing this post, it hit me: it’s failing to incite a sense of wonder. There is little in the way of overt magic in the story, which for me would typically be a good thing. There is, however, a set of deities, and we actually get to experience their interactions with one another. You’d think that would do it, wouldn’t you? But I don’t have to wonder whether or not these gods are interfering in human affairs, or even tipping the scales. Let alone whether or not they actually exist. These deities are right there, on the page, telling me exactly what they’re up to.

For me, my rapt attention or astonishment has been wiped away by this lack of mysteriousness.

This is a post that resonates for me. The fantasy gods I like least are the ones that are giant people who stroll onto the stage and are just … people. I think of gods like this as the Greek God style of deities: giant powerful people who aren’t at all special or even interesting except for being giant and powerful. This is the sort of fantasy god who lacks any sense of, yes, wonder, and I would add, who lacks any sense of the numinous. They are, for me, largely boring if they are not active in the world and largely irritating if they are active in the world. As always, the right author can make me enjoy the just-people sort of gods, so there are exceptions, but generally I prefer gods that are either more godlike or else absent.

The linked post continues:

I’ve noticed a compulsion by some storytellers to explain the magic. As if they need to define a consensus reality for the reader. When I look at the definitions above, the key terms are: mysterious; belief; assertion; personal; uncertainty; and doubt. Why would I want to take those very human aspects of life out of my story? … When I’m told in a story what to believe, what is certain—if I’m taken by the hand and shown a consensus reality—it can diminish my sense of wonder. On the other hand, if I’m experiencing the story’s world from the characters’ shoes, with a grasp of their beliefs, uncertainties, and doubts, my attention is more likely to be rapt. I’m more likely to be led to astonishment. I’m more likely to gain a sense of wonder.

I will say here, the desire to explain the magic may not be the author’s personal inclination. Two or even three times, I’ve had editors push me to explain and systematize magic in a novel. Not City, as far as I can recollect. That is so obviously fairy-tale magic that I think no one would push to make it more scientific or algorithmic. But for several others. I’m generally half-hearted about systematizing magic and I think the linked post captures something about why I’ve felt that way.

The author of the linked post is Vaughn Roycroft. As far as I can tell, he’s written one fantasy novel, The Severing Son. He discusses that novel in the linked post. I must admit, I’m not caught by the prologue, though you can certainly click through and see what you think.

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11 thoughts on “Adding Magic and Spirituality to Your Story”

  1. The danger of mysterious magic is using it to fix the characters’ problems is deus ex machina.

    But a mystery is half the charm. You can even get it to fix some problems, early in the story, as long as the characters find it odd if not creepy, and it increases the pressure on them.

  2. The rule I generally hear, is that the more vague your magic rules are, the less that magic is allowed to be used to solve things in the book’s climax. Interestingly, I was just rereading Tuyo, and I think maybe it breaks this rule? Not that the rules about how singers work are vague, exactly, but Etta singing to bring the fengol is the first time we even really see a singer in action, right? The fengol has been well established by then, but the Ugaro brand of magic hasn’t been at all. But, it doesn’t feel like a cheat to me – not sure why.

  3. SarahZ, we haven’t seen singers in action, but we do have lines that indicate that a singer may accompany warriors to battle — unlike other women — and that a singer could cause a blizzard. I think those lines are important, even if the reader doesn’t pay that much attention to them. Those are the lines that set this up. But one big reason for the second appearance of the fengol is to remind readers that this is a thing before we get to that final battle.

  4. That makes sense – I figured, re: the fengol’s reappearance, but those other establishing remarks didn’t consciously register with me.

  5. I think for me, I don’t care about how the magic works, but I like to have some details about what exactly magic practicioners have to do (assuming the magic is at least somewhat controllable). Do they need to memorize spells? Carefully perform rituals? Do some sort of meditation/focus thing? etc.

    I have occasionally read stories where it is entirely unclear what people are actually doing to perform the magic, and that always annoys me. If it’s a skill they have learned, then I want to know at least a little bit about what they’re *doing*.

    Etta calling the fengol works perfectly fine for me, because she’s singing and I understand what that is and how she could learn it and perform it. I don’t really need to know what happens between her singing and the cold coming, or why it works for her and not someone else – leaving that vague is what feels like magic.

  6. In Vespertina, which I recently read (and reported on somewhere here in a comment) magic was integral and required for the climax. That worked because it was built up to properly. It’s when the author pulls a deux ex machina out of nowhere that ‘mysterious magic’ becomes a writer failure. And in that book it was mysterious to the narrator, because she had never been trained for it. her teacher was the somewhat hostile possessing spirit she was using – but it had things it wanted so they could negotiate. The reader got some idea of what was possible from smaller stuff that happened along the way to the climax.

    Or sometimes the writer just keeps larding on the specialness and it becomes ridiculously obvious that nothing bad is ever going to happen permanently. Michelle West has fallen into this with a couple of her characters.

    Etta and the fengol, or the way the problems were allayed in the last Griffin book, and laying the new boundaries in Keeper of the Mist, all are set up as possibilities even if not focused on. So they work as magic and non-cheaty. That’s foundation, set up. There was just enough detail for this reader to accept them.

    Spirituality, though – All too often is missing. And if it’s included I don’t necessarily believe in it.
    The greek god take mentioned in the OP isn’t numinous, although I’ve read books set in ancient Greece that conveyed the numinous in the characters’ interactions with deities. Those are usually the ones with a more ‘force of nature’ take than the larger than life human version of, say Riordan’s Peter Jackson series. Even if gods play a large role they aren’t necessarily numinous or convey spirituality. I think it may partially depend on what level of character is interacting with them.

    Take Hodgell’s Kencyrath books, for example. Lots of gods and lots of power thrown around on the page. But the narrative voices are all pretty down to earth and worried as much about mundane things as about the god-level stuff. This may have to do with the fact that the narrators are also Higher Beings or on their way to being them, so maybe that is how they can get away with being so casual towards powers. If they were normal (for that setting) people, it would be far more plausible for them to be more cautious in their interactions, however mundane the Earth Wife, for example, appears.

    I suppose there’s a place for the sort of god who can be a buddy, appear to change the tire, or whatever, but when I think fantasy, that’s not what I expect to find. I expect mystery, danger, and non-human concerns.

  7. When thinking of Greek-ish, I like the way the gods are handled in the Queen’s Thief books – they definitely exist, they sometimes interact, (you even get a bit of a sense of personality at times), but not enough to seem at all like people.

  8. I agree, SarahZ — that’s a much better way to handle Greek-ish gods, at least for me personally.

  9. I was recently rereading the Penric and Desdemona series by Bujold and her world of the five gods is my favorite take on spirituality in SFF. You get human action moments and numinous moments.

  10. In Making Money, Pratchett makes the divine numinous by being doubtful. One quite understands why Moist decides to make a thanks offering.

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