Magic Systems Need Rules

No matter who you are, you can think of a book that has a magic system that completely disregards all sense and just doesn’t have rules. Heck, who knows, you may find this refreshing, but I think I’m in the majority when I say that that kind of writing immediately takes me out of a book and frustrates the hell out of me. Now, I’m not saying that I want to be sat down in chapter three and have the entire system explained to me in explicit detail. I’m not even saying that I ever want it explained, but I do want it to make sense.

Take The Merciful Crow, for example, which has one of my favorite magic systems. Each person in the world is born with an affinity toward one kind of magic. Whether or not that magic is alive in them, or if they utilize it often, is something else entirely since everyone falls into one of those castes and they must obey the magical rules outlined for each affinity. This isn’t even a “follow the rules or else” kind of situation. Tavin can’t randomly control people because his affinity lies with fire. It’s physically impossible for him to not follow the rules. And, because Margaret Owen is brilliant, she slipped an exception into the rule, too, but even gave that exception rules. Fie, with the right set of teeth, can tap into each of the different castes of power, but she cannot utilize those affinities without the teeth. At no point does Owen pause the story and go, “Okay, this is each caste, this is how they work, this is the set of rules they must follow, etc.” Instead, she gives us the world in piecemeal, in bite-sized bits that make sense in the larger story.

And sure, there’s something to be said about how the rules are explained, but I’m less concerned with that than the fact that there do need to be rules. If you’ve got a magic system where you say that people can only die once, but then you bring back several characters, I’m going to start to not trust you. It’s one thing if you bring one, maybe two, but to keep bringing people back after you’ve said that they can only die once–well, that’s cheating. (Really, anytime a character is brought back from the dead, I do a little eye roll, but that’s a whole other discussion.) Even if you never said that your characters can only die once, that’s going to be the general consensus because, as far as we know, that’s how the world works. There’s some evidence of reincarnation, which I do believe in, but this body you’re in right now has got one go-around. Thus, going into a story, your reader is almost definitely going to expect a character’s death to be game over, that’s it.

A version of this that I really like is The Beautiful. Renee Ahdieh is explicit that, if a vampire dies, that’s considered the final death. There’s no coming back after that. There is a chance when a human is dying because they can be transformed into another species, but if one of those supernatural species is then killed, that’s it. A version of this that I really don’t like is, of course, GRRM. The amount of people that Martin kills and brings back is just stupid. And sure, when they’re beyond the wall, the possibility of it makes sense, but on the other side of the wall? Nah, bro, now I don’t trust you. We’re five damn books in, and I’m still waiting for Ned Stark to show up again. If, however, you came in and said, “Everyone has the ability to be reborn,” then alright, I’m here with you, I’m ready to not believe every death. But if you keep killing & reviving your characters, well.

But why do magic systems need rules? Why can’t we just willy nilly do whatever the hell we want? Why can’t we just make everyone able to heal rather than only a select few? Well, it’s twofold. For one, your healers are no longer special. Think of the amount of books where characters discover they have the ability to heal people, and it’s just world-altering. For so long, the city of Daevabad in The City of Brass is slowly declining in a whole slew of terrible ways, and though Nahri discovering her ancestry, and thus unlocking her inherent healing abilities, doesn’t suddenly change things, it does shift the world in big ways.

But imagine that Nahri isn’t the only one. Imagine that every character in Daevabad has the ability to heal. Well, first off, what the hell is the point of Nahri? Her whole character revolves around the fact that she’s the ancestor of the healers that were massacred. Everything she does to help Daevabad is centered around her ability to heal. If, suddenly, every character can heal, then what’s the point of the story at all? If you decide to give your magic system no rules, say that things like an affinity with a certain power can just apply to everyone, you’re kind of shooting your book in the foot before it’s even begun to walk.

And, on the flipside, that’s also just poor writing. Deciding not to give your magic system rules is deciding not to world-build in an effective way. I talked about why world-building is so important last month, and how vastly it can be utilized, and one of the biggest factors of that are rules for your magic system. Tolkien’s pretty clear from the beginning–Morgoth is The Most Evil, defeatable in only a few small ways. If xyz all happen, then perhaps he’ll actually fall to ruin. At no time does he ever break that rule that he sets out. When Fingolfin stabs him in the foot so badly that he feels it for the rest of his life, that doesn’t actually change things for Morgoth. When Beren steals a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown, he carries on his merry way. When the Valar step back into Arda, when Earendil goes up against Morgoth with the brightest star, and when every race on Middle-earth has finally said enough is enough, that is when Morgoth is defeated because that’s when Tolkien has laid out that he can be. You can’t just, “JKJKJKJK HE’S BACKKKKKKK” when you’ve already laid out rules that say otherwise.

(Was that too subtle? I’m bitter about the ending of King of Scars, and I will never not be.)

Rules are so important in a magic system. I get that sometimes we want to be rebellious and say ah screw it I’m gonna destroy everything, but there’s a line. Destroy everything, sure, but do it in a way that makes sense. If you’ve intrinsically tied two characters’ lives together in such a way that one will be severely changed by the death of the other, you’ve got to follow that rule. You’ve got to impact each of their individual lives so much that they’re inherently changed on the other side. Even if all of that change happens throughout the story, while you’re pulling their lives apart, that works. But to crack open the tie that holds them together with nothing more than a quick battle and no fuss? That doesn’t make sense!

It’s one of the reasons that I love Once & Future so much. At no time do Capetta or McCarthy ever put anything but the utmost gravitas on the relationship between Ari & Merlin, and it needs that gravitas. Much like Naala & Sinai in Daughters of Nri, who need to come together by the end of the book. The rules have been laid out since the beginning–these two women are the halves of a whole, and if the book had ended with them still separated, that wouldn’t have made sense. The magic system in place tells the reader that this is coming inevitably, and to not follow the rules is to break your reader’s trust.

I guess, at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’m going to read anymore of GRRM’s books. It’s for a lot more reasons than just I don’t trust him as a writer, and I’m half-sure I’ll break this and read TWOW the second it releases, but I don’t really want to. He’s broken so many of his own magic system rules that I no longer trust him to tell a good story. If you break so many things that you’ve put in place in book one once we’re reading book two, I’m no longer interested in what you’re trying to sell me as a story.

(I was trying not to call out books besides GRRM, but here I am with another aside to say that I’m also not sure I’ll read Mahurin’s last book because Blood & Honey made me that mad when it literally reversed everything it setup in book one.)

What do you think?
Do magic systems need rules?

2 responses to “Magic Systems Need Rules”

  1. waytoofantasy Avatar

    I agthat magic systems need to have rules, or at least internal consistency. But I also think we, as the reader, always need to know the ins and outs. Sometimes I like it to feel a bit mysterious. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mary Drover Avatar

      Oh, definitely! I love a slow reveal, and I like not always knowing everything, but there’s got to be at least a little foundation; otherwise, I feel like I’m floundering.

      Liked by 1 person

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