“But it’s magic. The entire point is it doesn’t have to make sense!” This is the logic of my sister’s counter-argument after we saw Frozen a few weeks ago, where I came to realise that not everyone who goes to see movies does so with their literary analysis brain switched on. Some people don’t even have literary analysis brains, and don’t think deeply and examine and obsess over most things they watch or read. Good lord, how do they do it? That’s beside the point. My argument was that the magic in the movie didn’t make sense, which was met with the perfectly valid rebuttal that well, magic is unrealistic as a matter of course, it being magic. Yet is that the way it should be thought of? I say no.
If what we call magic was real, it would just be another science. In the fictional worlds it functions in it’s perfectly accepted by those who know about it as part of the natural world, thus it should work with at least a set of vaguely scientific rules. Yes, we’re already expected to suspend our disbelief to enjoy a story where people can be turned into frogs, but that should only go so far. Magic without rules is random and unpredictable and therefore any plot point it has anything to do with will feel like it’s been pulled out of the writer’s behind. It’s also pretty boring. If your magic can do anything, where’s the tension?
Magic in a story makes things awesome but it should also make things scary, suspenseful and you know, everything that makes a story. Most people who offer advice on this kind of thing recommend that magic creates more problems than it solves, otherwise it just becomes a fix-all solution and there’s no question of how things are going to end since you know the wizard’s going to snap his fingers and set everything right. Magic with thought-out rules, however convoluted or simple they are, is what really makes things interesting. For example…
Let’s look at Frozen, which kicked this whole debate off in the first place. As much as I enjoyed watching ice magic fly around the screen, its nature really isn’t looked into or explained much given it’s the driving force of the plot. Queen Elsa has ice powers, which I can accept on a basic level because you could be freezing water particles in the air or what have you. However, things go beyond suspension of disbelief when Elsa’s powers appear, as well as lacking explanation of where they came from, not to have a limit. At all. Granted, her conflict for most of the movie is not being able to control them, but once she’s able to do that she’s basically left with godlike weather powers with no apparent cap on them. Nobody’s messing with her kingdom, that’s for sure.
To prove that modern Disney isn’t just lazy, we can compare this with Tangled, which has a very succinct set of rules for its magic: Rapunzel’s hair has healing powers, which are activated when she sings. These powers come from a magical flower that her mother ate while pregnant, thus transferring elements of the magic to her baby. The magic is severed and cancelled out when her hair is cut. It’s nothing mind-bending, but it’s a set of believable ground rules that give us an origin story, a set of requirements and a limit. Elsa’s ice powers had none of these, and it left the best part of the movie feeling hollow.
Magic rules give the audience an understanding of how things work and up the tension when they know the limits. Look at Avatar: The Last Airbender, where the audience is given a very strong idea of how the element bending, the biggest fantastical feature of the series, works, right down to origin myths for each type (another point: magic rules can make for excellent worldbuilding!). It’s also expressly something the characters with those abilities have to train at, which is another important factor in making magic not feel wishy-washy. If your heroes just pop superpowers they can easily control from day one, what have they got to work towards?
Where’s the suspense when an opponent better-trained and thus more deadly appears? I would not have thought lightning-bending was half as cool if it hadn’t been expressed how difficult mastering firebending was first (which, bonus points, is also explained with a vague kind of science: as opposed to conjuring flames out of nowhere, firebenders use superheated air. The most badass of them can even breathe fire. See how much cooler that is once it’s slightly grounded in reality?) Giving your magic rules allows for extra wham points when those rules are tweaked, broken or extended.
A good example of that is the Fate franchise magic, with a lot of its inherent awesomeness based in giving its magical universe rules and limits and sending in characters to stretch them. A lot of the magic within is also strongly rooted in the rules of our everyday universe, or at least rules that we can recognise: the laws of causality and conservation apply heavily (matter cannot be created from nothing, energy cannot be destroyed only redirected, every action will have an equal reaction…), and reality kicks back in once the burst of coolness and magic is over, shattering any illusion of consequence-free fantasy awesomeness.
You’ve summoned the collective energy of a small nuclear blast? Okay, now that that’s over, you’re about to pass out and disappear into the ether from using up all your magical energy. You’ve slowed your heartbeat to nothing to make yourself virtually invisible? Okay, now you’re covered in painful bruises from all your blood vessels cracking under the pressure of suddenly having fast-moving blood again. You’ve done, er, any of the awesome crazy crap Shirou does? You’re now probably half-paralysed because, like a good everyman fantasy hero, you went straight to it using natural talent and bravado in place of actual training and knowledge. You’re also going to ruin your own body via magic overcharge, lose the colour in your hair and watch your ideals and everyone you love perish.
This kind of thing goes back to mythological era—magical contracts and spells must be very carefully worded, lest the gods or devil or whoever come back to get the better of you, and Mephistopheles probably will anyway unless your hero is really, really clever. Everything’s got to come with a price and a consequence, or it just isn’t interesting. Look to Madoka Magica for a recent example of a thought-out magic system: use magic as much as you want, but it darkens your Soul Gem, which must be purified lest it crack and turn you into a monster of despair. One character falls tragically to the system and another bucks it through good timing, personal sacrifice and spectacular use of loopholes. And it led to, respectively, the most heartbreaking and uplifting moments in the series. We could not have had one without the other, and there wouldn’t have been any plot or any interest at all if the puella magi’s power had been unlimited and consequence-less.
Whether you’re playing it for Discworld-esque humour or Westerosi terror, high fantasy or Disney adventures, magic has to make sense or it will just be confusing and boring. And nobody wants that. Magic is fundamentally exciting and fun to play with, effectively making anything possible. But if that’s taken literally, you’ve got some nice escapism but… not really much else.