For years, I’ve begun my writing classes with a session called “A Thousand Ideas in an Hour.” I ask questions, the class offers a variety of answers, and gradually we work our way toward interesting, believable, powerful stories.
Usually I start with a character and generate a story out of that character’s relationships and motives. But when time allows, we also generate a fantasy story, beginning with a simple question: What is the price of magic?
Even if magic comes from learning spells or acquiring magical objects, from invoking gods or learning to interpret arcane lore and oracles, what really matters is the cost of using the power. Think of it as magic inflation. If magic has no cost, then there is nothing to keep everyone from getting it and using it as they will.
In my thousand-ideas sessions, we spend a lot of time talking about whether you must pay the price yourself, or can foist the cost of magic onto someone else. Then we have a whole new set of questions that imply more questions, and more rules of exactly how the magic works. What we always demonstrate in these sessions is that the restrictions on magic are the source of good stories. Every nuance of a rule transforms the world and makes new principles of social organization necessary. Story possibilities pop up everywhere.
But I also learned years ago that fantasy works best when the magic system closely (if metaphorically) resembles the ways that power works in the real world. For instance, if your own children pay for your magic use through a stunting of their growth and/or a twisting of their bodies, then magic users have a strong incentive to have children, but then they merely exploit them.
So in that case, who would marry a magic user, knowing that any offspring they had would be deformed and crippled?
The answer is: ambitious people who care only for themselves. The marriage becomes a conspiracy to have children only to destroy them in pursuit of power. So . . . power only flows to monstrously ambitious people who don’t care if their children are destroyed by their pursuit of power.
In other words, it works pretty much like the real world.
Back when I came up with the magic system for the Mithermages stories, the series that starts with The Lost Gate, I had not yet taught a writing class and didn’t have the advantage of all these years of listening to the excellent ideas and resourceful suggestions of my students. In a sense, I reasoned backward from the real world to find my magic system.
How do farmers gain the power to increase their yields? They nurture the soil. They protect their seed and then their crops. They help the plants they are growing to fight off competition from other plants, parasites, or predators. (To a plant, a sheep is a predator.)
The same principles apply to every kind of agriculture. The cattle rancher might kill and eat the beasts, but first he must nurture and protect them, guaranteeing the maximum number of offspring that reach harvestable age.
If you want to hunt deer, there must be deer to hunt. If you want to eat fruit, then you must nurture and protect the fruit-bearing trees.
It’s a symbiotic system. Yes, you exploit the object whose yield you are trying to increase; but can it not also be said that the beast or plant you’re growing is exploiting you?
Are squirrels exploiting oaks by carrying off their acorns and burying most of them to eat through the winter and spring? Or are oaks exploiting squirrels by getting them to spread their acorns far and wide, counting on a certain number of squirrels to die without every digging up their caches of oakseeds?
So I expanded on that idea, applying it to inanimate objects, and allowing beasts, plants, and animals to behave in ways they ordinarily can’t—magical ways—in order to serve the needs of the person tending them.
Thus a treemage of great talent and skill not only helps trees to grow, but can endow them with enough of his own powers that his trees can walk, or take on even more human attributes. And perhaps the mage can take on attributes of the trees—great strength and sturdiness, for instance. The creatures or objects that you serve become your source of power—and you become their source of power, too.
To apply this to sandmages or stonemages or watermages or windmages, I had to animate these things we normally think of as inanimate. And I also had to figure out how you would go about serving sand. What does sand need? Dryness, I decided. And wind to blow the sand around.
So to serve the desert, you need to become something of a windmage. By blowing sand, the wind becomes visible and powerful, able to scour stone. You speed up erosion. So a sandmage is actually part windmage. You serve the wind by guiding it to use sand to tear away all obstacles that impede its flow. In the process, you serve the sand by drying everything up.
In effect, you’re a sand-herder, a shepherd of the wind.
I went through a similar process with stone, with water. To gain the power that resides within a thing, you serve it, you give yourself to it, and it responds by drawing power from you as you draw power from it.
Does this really correspond to the real world? Of course. We gain enormous amounts of power from oil by releasing it from underground prisons, exposing it to the air, and then heating it to release the carbon long sequestered within it.
We dam up water to make more and more lakes, and then release its gathered power by passing it through turbines or spreading it to places where the water would not otherwise have flowed. We gain from the power of the water; the water gains from our containment and shaping of it.
In a way, all this magic system does is exaggerate, clarify and personify the way the real world works. Instead of mechanical manipulations, you develop a personal relationship. Yet in the real world, our engineers and farmers study for years to learn, one way or another, how to successfully manipulate the elements from which they will derive power.
What is a civil engineer but an ironmage, or a claymage, or both, depending on whether they build with concrete or steel? I don’t know about you, but what they do has the effect of magic to me. I don’t know how bridges are built, but I walk and drive on them with perfect trust that the spells will hold.
It’s a long way from this core principle to the magic system of The Lost Gate, of course. Over the years I extrapolated more and more, until this underlying principle could explain all magics that have ever been believed in throughout history. The Indo-European gods? They were mages of exactly this sort—mages of electricity hurling thunderbolts like Thor or Zeus, mages of plant life bring forth bountiful harvests like Proserpine or Hera.
Then there came the gates. I knew my story needed them, but what was it that a gatemage served?
Then I realized: spacetime. It is the medium through which all other objects move, and yet spacetime only contains them, cannot causally affect them. But ah, what if a gatemage bends spacetime to allow causality to flow through unexpected channels? To bring far things near, and send near things far? Then spacetime becomes an active part of the world, not just the inert recipient of the actions of other things.
And that is where all the possibilities of the Mithermages universe come from. The mages themselves might not understand all of what they do—but to write the stories, I must understand. And to the degree that this magic system feels powerful and interesting to you, I suspect you’re responding to the way it reflects the workings of the actual world.
Orson Scott Card is best known for his best-selling Ender's Game series. His new book, The Lost Gate, is the start of a new series starring a young mage who discovers his true power after being exiled from his own world.
LOST GATE TRAILER
Author photo by Bob Harrison