Magic Systems – GUEST POST by Rebecca Zahabi
We’re thrilled to welcome Rebecca Zahabi to the Hive today.
Rebecca is here to talk about creating magic systems in your world building, but first, let’s hear a little about Rebecca’s brand new novel THE COLLARBOUND, out today from Gollancz:
As the world faces rebellion and chaos, two people – one an escaped slave, one an amnesiac mage – will discover that their pasts are entwined, and their futures destined to collide.
On the other side of the Shadowpass, rebellion is brewing and refugees have begun to trickle into the city at the edge of the world. Looming high on the cliff is The Nest, a fortress full of mages who offer protection, but also embody everything the rebellion is fighting against: a strict hierarchy based on magic abilities, and the oppression of the Kher community.
When Isha arrives as a refugee, she attempts to fit in amongst the other mages, but her Kher tattoo brands her as an outcast. She can’t remember her past or why she has the tattoo. All she knows is that she survived. She doesn’t intend to give up now.
Tatters, who wears the golden collar of a slave, knows that this rebellion is different from past skirmishes. He was once one of the rebels, fought beside them, and technically, they still own him. He plans to stay in the shadows, until Isha appears in his tavern. He’s never seen a human with a tattoo, and the markings look eerily familiar. Despite his fear of being discovered, Tatters decides to help her.
As the rebellion carves a path of destruction towards the city, The Collarbound follows an unlikely friendship between a man trying to escape his past and a woman trying to uncover hers, until their secrets threaten to tear them apart.
A tale that questions fate and finds strength in not-belonging, The Collarbound hooks from the opening pages and will appeal to fans of magical, brink-of-war settings, like that of The Poppy War, and lyrical, character-driven writing, as found in A Darker Shade of Magic.
by Rebecca Zahabi
Today I’d like to look at one aspect of worldbuilding: the magic system.
Creating a magic system isn’t easy. One solution is to write magical realism, or what I’ve heard call ‘soft’ magic systems. This, in a nutshell, relies on readers knowing the cultural context of the writer’s magic, and letting it unfold like it does in myths and fairytales: the magic is variable, usually recognisable for people who’ve read myths from that culture (a kiss will cure a curse, a painted sigil will banish a ghost, etc.). The magic is left unexplained, which works best if the story isn’t plot-driven, or if the magic is simply a metaphor.
But I’ll focus today on what people might expect to find when reading a fantasy novel: magic which can be served as a plot-point, and which the characters – and by extension, the reader – have a good understanding of. Often, the magic needs to be original, and fun, and used creatively, so it’s enjoyable. But it also needs to be consistent and believable, so it’s understandable and doesn’t create plot holes.
I’ve seen the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson used before to explain how to write a solid magic system, and that’s because it’s a great example. In Mistborn, allomancy requires metal. Each metal has a different effect, and often metals go in pairs, with opposing effects: allomancers can predict opponents’ future moves (effectively ‘seeing’ the movements as a shadow in front of them) or on the contrary see someone’s past. They can use metal to heighten perception or hide themselves. Or they can push or pull on metal, yanking it towards them, shooting flying coins (coinshots), using metal in the ground or buildings to fly through the air.
All of this is not only a consistent, coherent system, well-balanced, but it’s also a fun idea, with original, creative ways to exploit the power available (for example, using it to fly).
For me, using the magic creatively is the key. It’s always the most important part of any magic system I create.
In The Collarbound, mindlink is about knowing the other person, or at least being able to empathise with them, so that the mage can picture what would upset them accurately. It’s about both creativity, and social skills. It is a social power in which how well you understand people impacts how efficient your magic is. And it’s creative, because the only limit to what you can summon in mindlink is what you can imagine.
(I was talking with some friends, and I realised I have a tendency to create magic systems which require imagination: Twine, the magic in my YA novel The Game Weavers, also relies on the weaver being able to imagine new creatures and strategies. I suspect I’m biased: I make magic systems which I would be good at. In my books, the writers and artists are the magicians – wish fulfilment, no doubt!)
Mindlink is a mix of guesswork and creativity and psychological warfare. The other form of magic, fleshbinding, is only done by the khers. It allows them to share physical sensations. It also cancels out mindlink, and khers are immune to mages. There is, although I didn’t plan it, a body/mind dichotomy.
I am currently reading Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, which I hadn’t read when I was creating my magic system. Interestingly, she also has a mind-flesh dichotomy (it’s ridiculous how everything she writes is nearly exactly what I’ve worried about). Her mind-magic is very physical, I find – she uses terms like hitting, tugging, shielding, etc. Patternists do share knowledge and memories, but a lot of the descriptions of patternists fighting is expressed in physical terms in Butler’s prose. She also uses a physical magical, which is focused on shapeshifting and healing – when fleshbinding is focused on sharing pleasure and pain. There are overlaps, of course, but I find it interesting to see how our explorations have differed, how we’ve gone in distinct directions from a not-so-different starting point.
Aside from the body-mind opposition, any asymmetrical magic system can be interesting to explore, because imbalance is a great source of story. Imbalance is movement. No story is interesting if everything stands still.
I have been watching The Wheel of Time Amazon series (and no, I have not read the books yet, making me very late to that particular party, I know) and one thing I noticed with interest was the gendered magic system. On principle, I’m a bit wary of gendered magic, because it can be used as a way to create an ‘official’ gender inequality in-world which then justifies all sort of prejudiced nonsense. This being said, I enjoyed it here, maybe because it felt as if this was a Medieval setting in which men tended to be in charge, but this particular group of gifted women rose to power, giving us a balanced conflict between men with/without power, women with/without power.
To summarise: a balanced, structed magic system can be deeply satisfying to understand and create, and feel harmonious and complete. An imbalanced, messy magic system can also be fun, for different reasons, because it allows for struggles and mayhem. The magic needs to both be original yet feel coherent. And maybe it doesn’t matter if the magic resembles other magic systems that have been written before, as long as it’s doing something new and innovative with the magic, the characters and their interaction within the story.
The rule of thumb, as always, is to have fun.
The Collarbound is out NOW from Gollancz and available HERE
Rebecca Zahabi is a mixed-race writer (a third British, a third French and a third Iranian, if the mix is of interest to you). She started writing in her home village in France at age 12 – a massive epic where women were knights and men were she-witches which set out to revolutionise feminism.
Since, she learnt how to actually write, and has slightly re-jigged her expectations of what she can achieve with a keyboard and a blank page. The plan of taking over the world, however, has not changed.
After honing in her craft in a variety of genres – playwriting, short stories, an attempt at Icelandic sagas – she hopes to write novels that can make a difference. She is currently working on Tales of the Edge, an ambitious trilogy blending magic and structural violence.
Rebecca is represented by Alice Speilburg from the Speilburg Literary Agency.