And, as always, the Swinburne poem part first…
This is from “Love at Sea.”
Where shall we land you, sweet?
On fields of strange men’s feet,
Or fields near home?
Or where the fire-flowers blow,
Or where the flowers of snow
Or flowers of foam?
We are in love’s hand to-day
Land me, she says, where love
Shows but one shaft, one dove,
One heart, one hand.
A shore like that, my dear,
Lies where no man will steer,
No maiden land.
1) Reconsider some of the common tropes that don’t actually do anything.
For example, I’ve read many stories in which mages had trappings like crystal balls, skulls, and familiars, but never used them. This extends even to published books; in HP, owls deliver the mail, but cats, rats, and toads, though permitted as familiars, don’t actually seem to help their owners study magic. Why are they there, then? Probably to give the world a “magical” feel. But still, unless they’re needed in a story, it would probably be best to shed these tropes. Many amateur fantasy authors reduce them to the level of cliché without meaning to.
(Useless familiars are probably going to be part of my “Animals in fantasy” rant at one point or another).
2) Try to come up with innovative ways of passing knowledge along.
The usual way is an academy or school structure, where students learn from teachers and books. But this isn’t the only way that people acquire knowledge, especially in a medieval-like society where many people can’t read and probably not everyone is born within walking distance of the academy. And how did the very first mages, the ones who wrote the books and didn’t have any teachers to learn from, get their knowledge?
Possibly some young mages can practice exercises or gain control on their own, or gather tips from a parent, relative, or friend who also happens to have magic- or the theory of it. Of course, this assumes that everyone in your society is not a mage and that magic is something relatively rare. That need not be the case. If magic is common, then formal academies would be unnecessary, as they’re assumed to be in most fantasy worlds for skills like language and sewing. Children would learn it as they learned other things, and probably not think to differentiate it from most other parts of their lives.
Which brings me to my third point.
3) If magic is common, it should also be used for common purposes.
There are few people who wouldn’t like to avoid labor. Even if there are complicated arcane theories about why you shouldn’t light a fire with magic merely to avoid getting out of your chair, those will get ignored now and then (the same way people in our own world will ignore minor laws like jaywalking if they inconvenience them). This becomes especially true if there are people in your world who have enough money and time to live above subsistence level and start trying to think of ways to make their lives even better. In most medieval-like societies, nobles at least will be at that level, and if your society is structured around Renaissance rather than early medieval patterns, there may be a middle class as well.
There’s no reason why common magic that’s relatively cheap- either in cost of arcane materials, or replenishible power like the mage just eating and sleeping to regain his strength- should not be the technology of its own world. If there’s a mage who can cause copies of letters that he looks at to appear on a different page, there’s no reason to waste time copying manuscripts, or for that matter developing a printing press. Of course, this particular talent could be rare and restricted to those able to afford it, which would mean that others have a pressing reason to turn to technology. But there’s no particular reason why that talent should remain unique, either, or why the mage shouldn’t sell his skills to the highest bidder. If one noble can’t afford him, why not move on to another?
Magic can certainly be sacred and special and very rare in your world, and with great success (Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is one that doesn’t have much magic in the first books, and yet the people in Westeros manage very well without it). But if it’s not, if it’s cheap because of cheap materials or commonality of talent, why accord it that special status? Dependent as we are on technology, most of us don’t marvel every time a TV turns on, and there would be no reason for a peasant to gape at someone who can make water flow uphill if he sees it everyday. He would be much more likely to try and figure out if this was competition for his mill.
4) Reconsider gender-divided magic.
This is not because it’s necessarily a bad idea in itself, but because very little new is ever done with it. Women tend to get healing and defensive magic, and men the violent magic, even when the society isn’t divided into traditional gender roles. Sometimes this is explained as having to do with women bearing life and so needing to remain unstained by violence or some such thing.
The people who make this argument have obviously never seen a lioness, a mother bear, or any other female animal for that matter, defending her young. Violence doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the ability to bear young, and everything to do with human perception that it’s somehow not all right for women to be violent.
If you have gender-divided magic, it’s all right to give women the ability to fling firebolts around if you want to. It’s all right to give men magic relating to the baking of bread and sewing. Of course, that might require a completely gender-reversed society, which could easily be as boring as the other way around. Either way, if you use gender-specific magic, try to either use it in new and innovative ways, or at least make sure it reflects the roles in the societies you establish. Why should a woman who doesn’t show much interest in tending the sick be restricted to healing magic? Why should a man who is a coward in battle have to drop mountains on people? It might be interesting to set these questions up and deal with them, rather than just assuming that everyone in these societies has to be the same.
5) If magic is dying in your world, give it a damn good reason.
There was a damn good reason in Tolkien’s world; the Elves are fated to pass away before Men, and their “magic” is primarily the reflection of their long lives, knowledge, and ability to relate to the world around them in ways that Men don’t understand. When the pass, the magic passes too. Yet I have read of fantasy world after fantasy world where it’s dying mainly for authorial convenience, not because of any inherent reason in the world itself.
If your plot requires it, try to justify it. All right, you want your hero to be special because he has powerful magic long after the mages have reigned and passed away. But what is the reason for this? It shouldn’t be there just to make your hero special. Is he the chosen of a god, and why has the god brought magic back into the world now? Does he need it to face a powerful enemy who’s a mage, and why magic instead of a strong right arm? And so on.
6) Don’t always write in the shadow of a greater magical empire.
Most fantasy worlds have a period at which magic was more common and greater than it was now, and the moderns stumble around trying to understand the ancients’ artifacts and ways. Yet no explanation is ever given (or at least it’s rare) as to why the magic faded, and as to why everyone else down the generations has apparently been so dumb that none of the artifacts can be reliably used.
Why this? Why not write at the height of the magical empire? Why not write about someone who does manage to discover what happened to everyone, or does manage to recover the knowledge?
This is another trope, like gender-divided magic or dying magic, that can work well, but which authors rarely bother to explain. There was a powerful magical empire. They were evil. They destroyed themselves. What made them so much more evil than modern humans? What happened to their magic? How do we know they destroyed themselves? To which the answer seems to be: Don’t ask.
7) Try to give your magic a metaphysical basis.
This doesn’t mean that magic can always be explained as neatly as the laws of physics can be (although of course if you have an academy of long-lived mages devoted to nothing but research, there’s no reason they shouldn’t answer those questions). But some explanation of magic, if not always a reason, is often nice, even if it is wrong.
What is the difference between an explanation and a reason? I would consider a reason that magic is in the world as something like, “The world would die without it” or “The gods said so.” A reason answers why. An explanation, though, is along the lines of, “Well, magic works this way, and comes from this, but we don’t really know why it’s in the world. Why are there trees in the world? Why did horses take the form of horses and not dancing spots of energy? Why did the gods choose to create us humans and not elves? You tell me.”
An explanation might actually work better than a reason, since if magic is a natural part of the world, and especially if it’s common, why would everyone gape at it and try to explain it any more than they try to explain trees and flowers?
That was fun.