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The elaborate and complex magic of language

How to Create a Rational Magic System June 19th, 2015 by Chris Winkle Magic systems vary from colorful bears with tummy badges to ritual blood sacrifices. Some feel cohesive; others feel random. Some are carefully planned; others contradict themselves and lead to plot holes.

Creating a rational magic system allows you to add realism and depth to your world while still leaving room for new and interesting changes. What Is a Rational Magic System? A rational magic system is one where every spell is guided by the same metaphysical laws. Harry Potter In the Harry Potter universe, magic works in several different ways: Wizards cast spells by waving wands and saying incantations.

Some plants and animals have magic inherently inside them, creating a variety of results.

  • I will certainly do so soon;
  • Pinker may be implying something of the sort;
  • Could it be that a generally spherical brain with a certain kind of neuron packing, through complex laws of physics we don't understand, somehow gives rise to language?
  • Brandon Sanderson is fantastic at crafting magic systems;
  • The interesting discoveries aren't about this kinship system or that form of shamanry.

However, you can mix pieces of magic plants and animals in a pot and get powerful effects. While characters can invent some potions, it appears they only do it by trial and error, not through a formula that guides what goes into a potion to create specific effects. Old magics can occur without any intent. For instance, the Patronus Charm is a spell that is critical to the plot of multiple Harry Potter books. It worked well, but it had to be named before it became important to the plot. In addition, there are no boundaries the elaborate and complex magic of language what magic could theoretically do in the Potterverse.

Avatar In the world of Avatar: The Last Airbendermagic called bending is embodied by the four elements of air, water, fire, and earth, plus spiritual energy. With the exception of the Avatar, people who cast magic are only attuned to one of the four main elements. By adopting a specific mentality and pairing that with martial art forms, they can move and manipulate their element. When an earthbender is blocked by a mountain, we know that with enough effort, they could create a tunnel through it.

Almost all of the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender is clearly linked to the same rules. For instance, some animals can also cast magic, and they do it pretty much the same way people do. The Legend of Korra. The Difference The magic of Avatar feels like the elaborate and complex magic of language natural result of a different set of physics, whereas the magic of Harry Potter feels like the arbitrary inventions of an author. However, in most cases a rational magic system works better.

Both Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender are hard magic systems, because they explain magic and its rules to the audience. The audience must know the rules, because the heroes use magic during the story. Lord of the Rings and Game of Throneson the other hand, use soft magic.

Even without understanding the details, it feels like it all fits together. To keep your magic mysterious like in Game of Thrones, hide how it operates. Most often, your audience should see the effects of magic but not the cause. In Game of Thrones, the red woman throws leaches into a fire, and later several lords die far away. Crafting a Basic Framework The first step is building a metaphysical framework for how and why magic works.

The best frameworks have limitations inherent to the way they operate. To craft your framework, just answer these questions. Here are four common categories you can consider. Energy Many systems treat magic as energy similar to heat, magnetism, electricity, or movement.

In many worlds such as Star Warsthis force is generated by living things.

The elaborate and complex magic of language

It could also be from astral radiation or human emotion. Energy-based magic is easy to use because it comes with limitations. We know it takes more kinetic energy to move a big rock than a small rock, so we can imagine it requires more magical energy too. Higher beings In some magic systems, gods or other powerful beings are the source of all magic.

This is harder to work with, because the divine are technically spellcasters themselves, and incredibly powerful ones. They can only work through people that do their will voluntarily.

Substances In Dune, those who are exposed to spice develop powers over time. Substances like these make it easy to put limits on the amount of magic used — just limit the substance. However, set guidelines for how people react to exposure.

If one person grows wings and another teleports, your system will feel arbitrary. Shifts in reality Used by the Matrix and Mage: The Ascensionsome magic systems are based on the idea that reality is more malleable than it seems, allowing some to bend it out of shape.

If you use this source, decide why reality is so malleable — is everyone in a dream or a virtual reality game? Your answer could have huge ramifications for your world.

What's Related

These systems usually adopt limitations from physics, even though physics is no longer a limiting factor.

In the Matrix, lifting something huge is harder than lifting something small. That works for just Neo, but if you have many spellcasters over long periods of time, someone will be able to smash two planets together. Or just feel ridiculous. How is it accessed and directed? That source has to be available to a spellcaster, and that spellcaster needs to direct it to accomplish specific goals.

  • In my example of magic that is acquired by consuming a plant, a clever alchemist might distill and concentrate the plant down to an elixir that is digested more quickly;
  • I'm interested in all aspects of human language;
  • But research in psychology, linguistics, and AI have shown that there can be an interesting intermediate position;
  • When I first met Steve, he seemed to me to be the perfect avatar of that attitude, the ultimate MIT cognitive- science product;
  • One of them is universality;
  • The problem can be stated as an engineering task:

The source should give you an idea for how it might become available. A substance can be traded on the market, gods can be prayed to, and individuals might be sensitive to magical energy — or maybe everyone has machines that do it all for them.

Directing magic can involve a range of activities, but it commonly includes these aspects: Character thoughts provide an easy method of directing spells, but unfortunately it comes with few limitations to keep spellcasters from summoning a deus ex machina. Characters might need to communicate what they want to the gods or program it into a computer.

Perhaps characters almost never ad lib their desires; instead they follow specific directions hoping for specific and hopefully reliable results. Rituals generally fall under this category.

If a character casts spells with a combination of substances, dance movesand symbols drawn in charcoalassign a role to each component. You should understand why some spells have symbols in common but different dance moves. Just knowing how everything works can go a long way. What are the constraints of the system? First, the elaborate and complex magic of language through what magic is capable of doing in a theoretical best case scenario.

It could range from absolutely anything to a single effect such as moving objects or pausing time. Limiting what magic can theoretically do will dramatically cut down the number of plot-breaking scenarios you might have to deal with. Second, look through all the essential pieces of spell creation and casting, and think how the casting process might fail at each step.

Humans access it by eating a special plant that bio-accumulates it.

From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Once eaten, the magical substance builds up in their systems until they focus their will to cast magic. Access to magic requires pairing the magical substance in the ground with specific vegetation. Only some areas would have the substance, and those places could have the wrong climate for the plant, or the ground could have been salted to keep anything from growing.

People could get sick by eating a lot of it at once or by eating a lot over the years. It could taste terrible and perish quickly. Drying or pickling could weaken the effect. Before anyone can cast a spell, they need to have eaten the plant previously, building up magic in their system. If they run out, they have to eat and then digest the plant before they can do any more.

To make the spell work, they might have to understand the scientific details of what they want their magic to accomplish instead of giving it vague goals. A long list of constraints will make it much easier to craft conflicts in your story.

Adding Variety If rational magic systems only had a basic framework, they might get dull. Splitting into categories The elemental magic of Avatar is a great example of splitting the same form of magic into different types. Most often, the source of magic itself comes in different types that create different effects.

  • To make the spell work, they might have to understand the scientific details of what they want their magic to accomplish instead of giving it vague goals;
  • Moreover we, and every human society, value people who are articulate and persuasive, which certainly sets up pressures for better language;
  • Nonetheless, children have mastered these constructions before the age of three, and you have the impression at a certain point that you're having conversations with your child, whereas the child a short time before could produce no more than one or two words of baby talk;
  • Those people are retarded, but nonetheless they have language;
  • Dothraki itself is still a work in progress; the available corpus is still quite small, with fewer than 500 words known so far, but it is to be expected that, as the series unfolds, it will become more complex and detailed.

However, you can also experiment with different techniques for accessing and directing the magic, each with upsides and downsides. To avoid adding a sense of arbitrariness, your choice of categories must feel natural. For instance, if you have chaotic magic, dark magic, and lawful magic, your audience will wonder where the light magic is.

Magic of the Ancients: Five Incredible Texts of Spells, Curses, and Incantations

Otherwise, your categories will feel contrived. You can get away with a strange assortment if you have mechanics that explain it. Generally that means their strengths and weaknesses will be roughly equivalent. You could use a rock-paper-scissors relationship where earth beats air, but air beats water, water beats fire, and fire beats earth.

Or you could simply say that air is good for dodging, while earth is good for blocking. Again, you can have variance if there are rules that explain it. The size of those continental plates and their placement on the planet would be an arbitrary effect of nature, and so the magic they generate might reflect those arbitrary characteristics.