The “keeping magic mystical” rant. Since I’ve already done rants on understandable, rule-filled, kind-of-scientific systems of magic and the pitfalls I’ve seen with them, here’s some advice in the opposite direction.
1) Watch the vocabulary.
The mere act of explaining what magic does or what people believe about it does not automatically make that magic less mystical (see point 2 for examples). However, the language that many fantasy authors adopt during those explanations often reveals a strong bias in favor of science—even when the magic is supposed to be completely unpredictable and chaotic.
Some terms are obvious giveaways, like “hypothesis” and “theory,” but the occurrences can be subtler than that. For example, do mages perform “experiments” with magic in your world? How do they do that if magic is not comprehended, is in fact beyond comprehension? Assuming they knew how to set up an experiment, they still wouldn’t know how to interpret the results they found. And if something different happened every time, the experiments would ultimately be useless. They would either have to give them up or name them something else and work out a different way of dealing with them.
Are there “laws?” Why? (See point 6). Most of the time, “laws” for magic are not special rules unique to it, but are meant in the sense of natural or moral laws. Magic is supposed to be unlike philosophy and science, yet the way that people relate to it is in the sense of philosophy and science. I’m left puzzled. It doesn’t matter to me if the author does want her magic to be scientific, but too often this half-mystical, half-scientific compromise comes off like an attempt to imply that there are “rules” behind the magic without coming up with the effort of making the rules.
Other terms you’ll probably want to look at critically: “universe” (odd for a culture that does not have advanced astronomy), “frequency,” “vibration,” “wavelength,” and terms of measurement like “volt.”
2) There is absolutely nothing wrong with mythological explanations.
This is the ground that many fantasy authors seem to neglect, even when magic comes from the gods. Either it’s pure science or it’s “just the way it is,” as though the people of this world lack any normal curiosity and will just bob their heads up and down tamely in front of a lack of answers.
What’s wrong with the explanations that people in our own world used before science took over? The sun was a god’s eye, or the egg from which the world hatched, or the chariot of Apollo. It wasn’t a giant flaming ball of gas, and it wasn’t “just there.” Depending on your fantasy culture’s religion and mythology, one magical phenomenon might have multiple explanations. People could argue over them the way they argue over doctrine, and for much the same reasons. It’d be a more interesting twist on the old idea of arguments between magicians and the churches than the usual “they are evil and wish to persecute us!” angle.
Want magic to be mystical? Relax. Stop thinking that you need the characters to shut up about inborn magic because they don’t understand genetics. A god choosing that family line will work fine. And in this world, it could be literally true—which isn’t really that common. (See point 5). If your world has not gone through its own Renaissance and Enlightenment, they are not going to have a Terran attitude towards science. A lack of technology isn’t enough, if apparently everyone in the world thinks like we do about the natural world and demands the same kind of answers. They’ll have their own answers.
3) Beckon the grotesque.
I’ve wondered lately why descriptive passages on magic in so many fantasy novels do nothing for me anymore. There are doubtless multiple reasons, but I think part of it is that, even when the authors are writing about destructive magic or evil inhuman creatures like the Unseelie Court, they describe the effects of magic as beautiful, or pretty. That tends in the direction of fluff if the author isn’t careful. If she is, it’ll still call up very similar pictures from a lot of other fantasy books.
I’ve been thrilled and felt wonder from descriptions of the grotesque, however. I still haven’t managed to finish Perdido Street Station, but the descriptions of New Crobuzon, especially the beetle-headed khepri, are a lot more intriguing than yet another scene of moonlit pools and silver wolves and unicorns. And my candidate for most awe-inspiring magical talent I’ve read about this year isn’t the king-and-the-land magic in The Fall of the Kings, although it was beautifully described. It’s the ability to grow cocoons on one’s palms and hatch insects from them that I read about in The Etched City. I’m also enjoying the three brothers nested in each other like Russian dolls from Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, although that’s been slow reading for other reasons.
Many fluffy magical systems that blur into each other across fantasy books share common touchstones—“beautiful” animals like horses and wolves, images of light from moon and sun, natural elements like water and fire that we’ve been trained to admire, brilliant colors. Replacing even a few of those touchstones may lead to the sense of the strange, the weird, the alienness that we don’t understand and recoil from. Insects, disease, filth, blood, and mutated and decaying bodies are much less often terms of fluffy magic. Try beckoning the grotesque into your magical system and see what it does.
4) Lean on natural mysteries, too.
One part of fantasy which I find fascinating is the way that it often offers explanations for things which are mysteries in our own world. Where do people go after they die? Most afterlives in fantasy get described in detail, so that the characters can find out. Sex is harnessed within various constructs, whether those are arranged marriages or a society-specific system of sexual orientation. The reason that bad things happen to good people is because there’s a Dark Lord out there making them happen, or because there’s not a rightful king on the throne. Even the motives of minor characters or villains usually become transparent to the hero. Though the narrative may call them “profound mysteries,” it isn’t content to leave them that way. There must be explanations—not just of cultural attitudes, but of the one real and ultimate truth. If two sides conflict over that truth, one will be right and the other wrong. There is one right way to believe about life, to treat men and women, to feel about suicide, to defeat the villain.
Oh, come on. There’s a treasure trove of mysteries that could help serve your mystical magic system. Why are you going about explaining them all?
A system of necromancy which raises the dead in a way that the living can’t even comprehend is going to be infinitely scarier than one where the reader gets a detailed explanation from the first page of how a necromancer draws ghosts back and puts them into zombie bodies. It will also lead to a confirmation of necromancy as “dark” magic, in the sense of obscure, and lead to the impression that its practitioners must be crazy, to be messing around with this mad, unknowable magic.
A character who takes the place of a woman in a specific magic ritual isn’t allowed to take a man’s place in the next one, even if it’s a different ritual. Why not, though? If sex is such a mystery, surely it’s not as simple as Tab A going into Slot B. Hell, we know it’s not that simple outside magic, so why should it be so inside magic?
Why couldn’t the mystical reason for things going wrong be far deeper than just a Dark Lord coming back from the dead or the wrong king sitting on the throne? It might not have to do with humanity at all. And if it takes more effort to solve than just fighting a civil war and putting the rightful king on the throne, more power to you.
5) Put a sense of awe and wonder back in the magic’s users.
There are people in our world who regard thunderstorms, earthquakes, and even computers with more awe and wonder than the average citizen of a fantasy world shows to its magic. Magic is supposed to be marvelous, but it sure doesn’t seem to provide many marvels. People use it casually if it’s familiar, despite all the dire warnings about what could go wrong and the lectures about natural balance. (This is the part where the characters start acting like they know they’re the main characters in a book and not going to die, because they use magic when it would be perfectly reasonable not to, given the danger supposedly attached to it). If it’s unfamiliar, then people still don’t react with awe, but with disgust and fear—which the author often uses to propel the frightened or disgusted people into a mob that will hunt down the innocent mages using it. The mages themselves, of course, know the magic isn’t dangerous.
There goes the awe and wonder again.
I think this might be one of the less obvious reasons that so many authors aim for quantity over quality, such as heroes killing ten thousand people with their magic. They want readers to be awed, and they know that magic being common and well-understood isn’t going to do it. So they go for size. The magic must be awe-inspiring if it kills ten thousand people, right?
Well, not really, especially when characters show no reaction to that other than “Good job!” or a few moments of horror that vanish soon because, well, they were enemies, right?
If you want your magic to inspire awe and wonder, then write your characters reacting to it in that way. Yes, even your mages. If magic is mystical and can’t be understood in the sense of science, they are not going to react to it like scientists, sorry. Come up with how they would react to something that did wow them, and write them acting and speaking that way.
6) Strip the magic of moral laws.
Magic is often inherently “good” or “evil,” even in fantasy worlds where authors say that it’s only power. Necromancy and magic involving blood are frequent choices for the evil or black side of magic. Healing and elemental magic are frequent choices for the good or white side of magic. When characters encounter evil magic, then they feel “cold” or “slimy,” while good magic gets described in terms of light, beauty, color—well, you can go look at the list of “beautiful” terms that I gave you in point 3 again.
Ultimately, I don’t think this will work if you want your magic to be beyond human comprehension. That doesn’t mean that it might not have moral laws. But if its moral laws coincide exactly with humanity’s and the whole natural force of the world gets outraged when someone uses magic to commit murder, then that’s pretty much saying that the code humanity’s picked for itself is the right one, and so why shouldn’t magic be perfectly comprehensible?
Perhaps magic’s laws are along the lines of “The green stone must remain to the left of the black stone at all times, or bad things will happen.” Perhaps the magic changes its mind frequently. Or perhaps magic is totally amoral, in the sense of plagues and earthquakes and tsunamis. There are explanations to be had for those things, certainly, which may be something you don’t want to saddle your magic with. But there aren’t moral reasons, in the sense of “Oh, that tsunami destroyed those people over there because they stoned a woman to death.”
Think long and hard about your world before you put good and evil magic in. The more magic shares with humanity, the less mystical it usually is.
7) Realize that some systems and symbols are simply more overplayed than others.
It’s been a long time since I found inspiring mysticism in a King Arthur retelling, or a Celtic-themed fantasy, or a Tolkien knockoff. If authors pick up the same symbols that everyone else has used and toss them into the story without adding anything else of their own, then it’s tired, not mysterious.
Your system of magic doesn’t have to be totally and completely original, but if you choose symbols that everyone else has already heard of, and especially if you choose to explain them in the same old way, then why should anyone approach them with an open-eyed sense of wonder? We already know the rules of this system of magic. We’ve heard them from a hundred other books that chose the same rules. I know what a mother goddess will do, and that elemental magic relies on fire, water, earth, and air (with sometimes heart or spirit thrown in for a tiny bit of variety), and that necromancy is bad, and that unicorns are a symbol of good, and that there’s a connection between the king and the land. I might still think it’s a good story, but nothing in it is a mystery to me.
Ultimately, mystical magic has challenges in it that “scientific” magic doesn’t. You’re struggling to keep alive not a system of rules, but a certain attitude in which awe and wonder mix with attempts at explanation that never reveal more than a tiny part of the whole. It’s hard work. Just be prepared for it to be hard work, and resist the attempt to take shortcuts.
That rant was hard, because it goes so much against my own inclinations. *whines*
And now I have to do a rant on creating a sense of the forbidden next. *whines again*