Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Becoming magicians

How do people become magicians? Let me count the ways.

1. Genetic

If one or both of your parents were magicians, you’ll be one too. This is very common, but it makes me wonder.

In the Potterverse, having one Muggle parent didn’t seem to have any effect on the offspring’s ability (e.g. Snape). What if this wasn’t the case, though? What if magical talent was more like skin color, something which could be diluted or lost altogether enough generations down the line?

This would place some entertaining pressure on magicians. If they were an endangered species, so to speak, they might be required to reproduce only with other magicians. Fall in love with mundanes, by all means, but don’t plant cedars in a cornfield.

2. Learned

Magic can be taught. This is also very common in fantasy.

In a population where everyone has low-level magic (or no magic at all), some people might ignore magical skills entirely while others would use their abilities to pursue their chosen profession, whether that’s farming or trade or mining. Some, though, will have the resources, the talent and the volition to train to improve their skills – becoming magicians.

The more rural the setting, though, the fewer people will go on to that kind of higher education. Even Harry needed all those Galleons his parents had left him. A protagonist could conceivably be taught magic by a wandering wizard, but that would raise the questions of why the wizard had only taught the protagonist (please, no Chosen One) and how everyone else in the protagonist’s community feels about one person being singled out as the beneficiary of arcane knowledge.

3. Acquired

In Elizabeth A. Lynn’s novel Dragon’s Winter, shapeshifters have to design and make a piece of jewelry inspired by the animal into which they will shift. After that, they can change shape at will, but their power is bound up in the jewelry. Steal that, and they can’t shift.

I like this idea. For one thing, it gives the magic a realistic weakness – something acquired can be something taken away. For another, it opens up all kinds of story possibilities.

What if a meteor exploded above the atmosphere, scattering hundreds of shards over the world, and each shard gave people the ability to do magic? The shards which fell in populated areas would be snapped up, of course, but what about those in more inaccessible regions? We’ll assume that one weakness of the magic is that it doesn’t facilitate tracking down more shards.

So people would be hunting those down. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, others would be trying to acquire more and more of the shards for themselves.

4. Gained involuntarily

In the Wild Cards universe, a virus infected everyone on earth. Most people died, but the survivors ended up with some kind of power (though many of these powers were useless – like the ability to levitate a penny – or the people ended up horribly disfigured as well).

My kind of story, in other words. Some are born great and some achieve greatness, but when some have greatness thrust upon them, they don’t always make the best use of it. The same would go for magical ability.

5. Situation-dependent

Magic could be tied to location or time. For instance, everyone is a mage when standing inside one of the special chalk shapes on the hillsides. Or everyone gains magic powers as natural light increases. Would this make midnight or high noon more dangerous a time?

What other ways could you suggest?


GunnerJ said...

One thing I find lacking in fantasy is the idea of learning magic as a transformative experience. In many cultures, for example, in shamanism and similar traditions, there is the idea of a spirit journey or opening of the third eye, which awakens the novice to a world beyond the norm, forever altering their point of view. (This is something that GRRM gets right, in regards to Bran's warg powers.)

There's also the possibility of combining more than one option. For example, to go back to shamans (or witch doctors, or cunning men, or what have you), often it was a trait one was born with that set one aside and made one a candidate to be a shaman. In some native American tribes, this was homosexuality or transexuality. Such people were said to be "two-spirited," having both a male and female soul, which gave them power. But they still had to learn their craft, or undergo an awakening.

Another interesting note here is that the "inborn trait" has nothing inherently to do with magic, or only does because of cultural beliefs, and has implications beyond one's spiritual potential. What I mean is, there's nothing inherently magical about being gay or feeling that you have a different gender than your body would indicate, and both situations affect your life in more ways than your tribe wanting you to learn to mediate between the material and spiritual worlds.

elizaw said...

When I designed the magic in my current WIP, I made it very limited, and very dangerous. In a brief summary, there are only three 'spells', you must be of the right subrace, and it's very likely to kill you, especially as a child. The spellcasters have an infant and child mortality rate like nothing else.

So what I'm doing is a bit between three of your points. Magic is by heritage; crossbreed with humans, and you might weaken the line (though some 'bastards' are excellent casters). Magic must be learned... or you'll almost certainly kill yourself.

And magic requires an item... not to cast, but to get away from it, to save you from yourself.