Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Doing" magic

I can't seem to write a novel without some element of the paranormal. Even the little bit of a plot bunny I had yesterday while watching a show on female mobster Virginia Hill involved a touch of the paranormal (Mafia UF, anyone?). Oddly, although I define UF as being magic-focused to differentiate it from magical realism, I don't often think much about how I "do" magic. But writing two different UF series has got me thinking a little.

In my first series, Shadow Embers, which is co-written, magic is very organic. It's not something you see or something that's really flashy--it's just something that is. It's woven into the fabric of the world, and when it appears, characters are is very matter-of-fact about it. This is in part because there are no major human characters in Shadow Embers; it's completely focused on supernatural people. Magic is an effect: either people have an effect on their environment through magic, or magic directly affects people. It's framed in terms of action, sometimes cause and effect. Here's an example from my as yet unfinished novel Touched, which is part of the Shadow Embers series. The point of view character is a Seer with psychometry, meaning he gets visions from touching things.
Vasily gave up the argument--arguments between them never lasted long--and shrugged, tugging off one glove. There was only one way to find out. He closed his eyes and reached out to touch the rail. His skin prickled as it always did before he touched something that would give him a vision, the last-minute sensation that came too late to pull his hand away.
Vasily, especially, is focused on sensation. Other characters use a little more or a little less description, but it's almost always in terms of action (Korian forms a word, Grace makes an Illusion). Here's another example from Touched:
He didn't notice, at first, when Vasily began to move the air away from his face. It was safer than drawing the air out of his lungs, which risked lung collapse. Creating one pocket of air without oxygen was harder; air moved all the time, naturally, and didn't like to be confined, but he had no desire to kill the man—it would attract too much attention. 
There's just enough explanation so the reader understands what's going on. The description overall is pretty minimal.

On a Twisted Tree, my current project unrelated to Shadow Embers, is a lot different, though I didn't realize exactly how different until someone pointed out my treatment of magic in the story. The two protagonists experience it differently: Lindsay feels it and Cary sees it unless they're touching, when they can do both. But either way, it's a lot flashier. An example:

The world went black again for a second, with even the dim lights of the green magical web disappearing, but then the entire world flared into life, bright as day. He could see the rivers of magic flowing into the pools of the nodes, but he could see every tiny trickle that branched out from the rivers, every tree and blade of grass and into the horses' legs. He could see the glimmers of red shifting in the trees and the brush, maybe little animals. He could feel them, too, like bugs crawling over his skin. Of course, he could see and feel Cary, out-shining them all.
All except one.
The figure stood in the middle of one of the rivers of magic they'd tapped to make the circle, overlapping it. Lindsay's magic-sense felt the interruption like a hand stuck into the flow of water; except the water didn't keep flowing around it. The magic flowed through the figure, like a sieve. The figure itself looked like something Lindsay had seen in a book once, something from mythology, half-man and half-horse. It had all the colors of fire, from white to red to indigo. And it was looking at them.
The character of magic is completely different. This is in large part because while Lindsay and Cary are supernatural, they're new to the supernatural world and so are more conscious of it. Part of it is because I wanted to do the flashy magic thing--it's so outside what I normally do.

Another difference is the presence of the supernatural in these two worlds. In Shadow Embers, magic is very organic to characters. They're born to do it. But it's foreign to the world. All supernatural people are imports--they're descended from a group of people who took refuge our world a few millenia ago. Only those people with magical blood can use magic, and it has a direct effect on the world and its elements.

In Tree, magic is literally the fabric of the world. It's completely natural, although it can be corrupted to have negative effects on the world. (Yeah, that may or may not be a statement on my part.) Even those not inclined to be able to control magic can still have an effect on it--all it takes is intent. And not even intent to do magic, just intent to do something. If you get a group of people who want the same thing, they can make it so. This idea will be developed more in future books.

I've never believed in magic for magic's sake. It has to be an integral part of the setting. I think the major difference between these two projects is that in Shadow Embers, the magic isn't the primary part of the plot. It's always a big part of part of the plot, but the primary aspect is character interaction and conflict. Magic doesn't affect the plot as much as people do. Tree is also very character-based, but magic--the discovery and use of it--has a primary effect on the plot.

So there's my analysis for the day.


  1. ...I have long wanted to write mobster UF, actually.

  2. Dude, right? I totally have to do it.