This article on science and magic systems is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Sarah J. Sover
Sarah J. Sover holds a BS in Biology with an emphasis in ecology and animal behavior from Georgia Southern University where she graduated as a Bell Honors’ Scholar. She has a background in wildlife rehabilitation and veterinary medicine. She is also the author of the Fractured Fae series from Falstaff Books and the comedic fantasy Double-Crossing the Bridge. Her short fiction appears in all three JordanCon anthologies, and she’s written articles for Writer’s Digest Magazine. In addition to writing, Sarah is an amateur artist, a blues dancer, and a lover of IPAs. You can find her online at SarahJSover.com.
Editor’s Note: Sarah is one of 34 experts who contributed to Putting the Fact in Fantasy, a resource for writers of fantasy and other genres published by Writer’s Digest Books in May 2022.
Magic Systems Made Stronger with Science
The miracle of life is sometimes considered magical, but scientists know better. It’s their job to study that which, prior to careful observation and testing, eludes common understanding. And what is magic but that which we don’t fully understand? So, in a way, science is the study of magic.
When we write magic systems, they are more believable if they are built upon a realistic foundation consisting of elements and concepts already understood through science. Just look to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series to see a magic system that is turned up to eleven by its reliance on the laws of physics. Magical systems that are rooted in science are more believable and tangible than ones where magic is a simply a plot mechanism existing in the ether.
Physics and Chemistry may help develop magic systems, but that’s not where the science ends. Once you’ve created your magic, the natural and life sciences dictate how your characters interact with it.
The Magic of the Life Cycle
Biology and sociology can explain most character motivations, but the life sciences also provide opportunities to infuse life with magic. Biology 101 tells us that all organisms follow specific life cycles. Every phase of those cycles, from how your characters originate to the changes that occur as they mature and die, offers space for the co-mingling of science and magic.
Birth, Growth, and Development
Everyone loves a good origin story! From chosen ones to prophesies and godly conceptions, hatchings, and the other countless potential beginnings to life, there is an element of wonder in birth. We may know and understand the mechanisms by which conception and birth occur, but there’s something more, something ineffable, about springing into existence. That provides the perfect opening for a little magic.
Once your characters are born, observations of life cycles in the natural world can help to inspire the ways they grow and develop. When I worked in wildlife rehabilitation, I noticed that juvenile squirrels would turn from sweet, snuggly babies into hyper little demons in a snap at the onset of adolescence. I used this concept when writing Double-Crossing the Bridge, where teen trolls all go through wontog, a phase of puberty when they transform into ravenous, murderous beasts. The use of pheromones on wontog-aged teens is a key point in my plot, and as ridiculous as the scene is, it’s grounded in a believable, natural phenomenon.
Many stories include elements of growth and development, and that doesn’t change when we enter the realm of speculative fiction. In some stories, life cycles are merely a backdrop, and in others, they’re drivers. In Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, Ged makes life-altering mistakes in his youth that become plot points throughout his journey as he develops in both magic and body. Likewise, Luke Skywalker’s story would be lacking something if he wasn’t on a coming-of-age arc.
Time is inescapable, so aging is a powerful unseen force motivating your characters. Understanding why and how can help us tap into what makes them relatable. At the outset, brain underdevelopment is responsible for the actions of rash, young protagonists. That’s why simply aging a character up or down for a market without taking other factors into consideration can doom your story. A thirty-five-year-old will not make the same decisions as a twenty-one-year-old because the human brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-twenties.
It’s only natural that every phase of life would be extended when writing creatures with longer life spans since a period of deterioration follows the peak brain development phase. At ninety, Loial in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, is still considered young by Ogier standards. As such, his decisions reflect the brashness of youth. The onset of puberty, the period of full maturity, and the eventual physical and mental decline all occur much later for his species.
Altering the unalterable with magic can be a powerful way to connect with readers, but only once the story is grounded in natural processes. Possession of the One Ring has extended the life of Bilbo Baggins, but the effects wear on him, which demonstrates the magic is clashing with the established natural order. There is a peace that settles over him once he gives up the ring and sets to recording his adventures for posterity, thus passing his story down and preserving his legacy, before he faces his own mortality. The idea of legacy is a theme we see throughout science fiction and fantasy. It’s something readers can relate to since it stems from the hope that once our bodies wither and die, we leave some kind of lasting impact on the world.
Power originating from the wisdom of age is another trope that runs rampant through the fantasy genre. We see it in the likes of Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, the wizards of Middle Earth, and in just about all other major fantasy series in some form or another. The aging process gives writers space to explore tropes that tap into the real and relatable hopes and fears of humanity. Growing old is the default for humans, so it provides a strong point of reference when writing magical or legendary creatures for whom aging may look different. But presenting every long-lived species with a youthful adult form can create two-dimensional characters if other aspects of aging such as brain development, behaviors, vocabulary, and other basic biological considerations are ignored.
Even immortal characters are subject to the natural sciences. Aging won’t be the motivator it is for mortals, but origin, development of powers, and the threat of being ended by unnatural sources, ie, a stake through the heart, being stabbed with celestial bronze, beheading, etc., are all parts of their lifecycles just as birth, puberty, and predation are a part of a squirrel’s. When you’re working with fantasy species or practitioners, magic becomes one of those basic biological considerations.
The Nature of Magic
Treating magic as an integral part of the life science of your characters allows you to ground them in the world you create. An important part of that is developing their life cycles with consideration given to the ways they spawn, brain development as they age, and the way magic manifests throughout their lives. Life may be fleeting, but it’s also filled with wonder. In Fairy Godmurder, my noir fantasy, my main character is a fairy who is supposed to grow into her magic during her peak developmental years, but she defies her own nature to focus only on hunting down the killer who slaughtered her first princess instead of learning to control it. Still, biology can’t be overcome by sheer force of will, so we see her power grow chaotically throughout the story.
Not only is it fun to play with magic and biology, but it creates new frontiers for your characters and new ways for readers to connect with them. Magic can be taken at face value as an intrinsic element capable of offering escape, or it can be seen as an allegory for any number of things people struggle with every day of our lives. Either way, if the magic feels authentic, rooted in the parts of the world we do understand, the story does too.
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