Using magic in fiction

Including magic in your fiction is probably the most dangerous thing you can do, short of writing explicitly about sex. Sex will only excite or bore your readers (probably both). Magic can disrupt your metaphysical framework, create major flaws in your narrative, and make you a habitually lazy writer. And it will drive off a fair number of your potential readers, either because they don’t like stories with magic, or they find your use of it to be incomprehensible, manipulative, or destructive to your story’s credibility.

So when I decided to use magic in my fiction, I thought the most sensible thing to do was to look at actual manuals of magic, grimoires, to see how to structure a plausible and consistent system of magic. After all, James Blish had used actual grimoires for Black Easter (1968). Certainly I could do as well. I picked up some copies of old grimoires and read through them, stumbled on Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (2009), and spent some time on Joseph Peterson’s web site Twilit Grotto: Archives of Western Esoterica. I mention his web site in part because I used Peterson’s printed editions of The Lesser Key of Solomon and The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses in my readings.

Many of these works are illustrated with diagrams that one uses in invoking spirits of one kind or another. Here’s one such diagram from an English language edition of The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Many American editions of the work, including this one, were illustrated with negatives of the original images. (Peterson restored the original versions for his edition.)

Blish had wondered why he had never read a book based on “what real sorcery had to be like if it existed, although all the grimoires are explicit about the matter.” Considering that Blish seems to have done quite a bit of reading, this was a very odd statement for him to make. It doesn’t take reading more than a few grimoires before one realizes that they do not embody one consistent theory of magic. Part of this no doubt reflects the realities of their existence. To become popular, a grimoire had to promise insight into the metaphysical reality, and either deliver real magical powers, or offer the possibility of doing so without actually delivering. Consequently, grimoires often offer elaborate, confusing, and incomplete instructions, dressed up in elaborate explanations.

Unfortunately, the reality of using magic in fiction is that it must provide the means or the metaphysics needed to support the plot and themes. Confusing and elaborate rituals are great for color, but inconvenient for plot. It’s hard to scare up a goat and a planetary conjunction every time you need one. Blish could use a selection of grimoires (mostly various “Keys of Solomon”) because the point of his story was tightly connected to the metaphysics of those grimoires: magicians use the power of God to compel demons to perform evil. However, there are an infinite number of possible uses for magic in fiction that could not possibly use the Western grimoires. Lovecraft needed his Necronomicon not just because he didn’t have access to any real grimoires when he first started writing, but because his stories ultimately depend on a completely different set of metaphysical assumptions than the Christian ones found in the grimoires.

Oddly enough, one of the reasons I ultimately rejected using the grimoires as the basis for my fictional magic is the same as one of the reasons Blish used them. He wanted to show that practicing magic has moral consequences. So do I. But Blish could show those consequences only at a cosmic level, while I want to connect them to every individual act, which is not possible with the grimoires (or, at least, not easy).

The other reason I rejected using the grimoires is that much of their logic is metaphorical or alchemical. That’s interesting in its own right. However, it’s not what I wanted for this story. The logic of magic in The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge is essentially scientific. Not that in 1886 practitioners know much about that scientific logic. In that respect, they are still on the frontier, knowing just a few of the broad rules. As with physics, chemistry, and biology, it will take years of work by a community of magicians to sketch out the logic of scientific magic.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Dragon Lady, Writing fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Using magic in fiction

  1. Russell says:

    Excellent post. I’m glad, however, that I didn’t read it before I started my current story, else I might have been afraid to take the risk.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Hardly my intention! After reading your chapter 3, I do have to admit that fantasy worlds give you more legitimate latitude in the use of magic, as does humor. Wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Lewis Carroll, now, would I?

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