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Choosing your magic

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message 1: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments Here's a question for writers: how do decide what magic, paranormal powers, or other gifts you give your heroes? Do you

* get a clear sense of your character before you even ask that, and then build it around their personality? does it represent their true strength, or maybe the thing that's hardest for them to face?
* have a sense of the power early on, as your story's still taking shape? ("werewolves!" "gotta write about her and her wind magic...")

And of course, how is it different for arming your *villains*?

(I'm an extreme case of the latter right now: all my life I've had dreams about flying by leaping and drifting through the air, so it was only a matter of time before I built a story around an anti-gravity belt.)


message 2: by Shereen (new)

Shereen Vedam | 33 comments The anti gravity belt sounds fascinating, Ken.

I tend toward the analytical camp, so for me, I come up with a plot idea first, and work the magic to fit the story. The characters develop around the magic, since the talent someone possesses would, by extension, affect how they see their world, and react to events.


message 3: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments I like to start with plot too; characters are part of it, but I'm not one to say they just do what they want.

So for you it's more plot > magic > characters than not?


message 4: by Neil (new)

Neil Bursnoll | 19 comments With Augustus Baltazar, I had his power first before the character was developed. It came to me whilst watching the TV show Heroes, so that was my starting point. With the latest two 'leads' I've created, I worked on their characters first before researching their appropriate powers. I guess I've done the legwork on setting the world up so far, so the characters are the more important aspect now.


message 5: by Shereen (new)

Shereen Vedam | 33 comments Ken wrote: "So for you it's more plot > magic > characters than not?"

For the most part, yes, but as Neil said, sometimes plans change and a story can develop in a different way.

I normally see magic more in the realm of world building, while characters, and in particular quirky personality traits and mannerisms, often shows up while I'm in editing mode.


message 6: by Jason (new)

Jason Crawford (jasonpatrickcrawford) | 72 comments As an "organic" writer, the magic a character has is decided, in a basic form, before I sit down, but exactly what they can do with it may change as the story moves on. Because I start with chars and situation (An accountant discovers he is the heir to the magic of King Solomon), the magic is part of the initial setup...usually.


message 7: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments Jason wrote: "As an "organic" writer, the magic a character has is decided, in a basic form, before I sit down, but exactly what they can do with it may change as the story moves on.

Good point. Power concept is one thing, but what particular uses people will try it at can go so much more involved.

Enhanced senses seemed like such a straightforward power. Until my hero had to escape from the police, and he was using enhanced sight to focus on the wall so he wouldn't feel the pain of wrenching his handcuffs around, or a few pages later I realized he could watch all up and down the street by its reflection in the window. Discoveries like that are half the fun of writing. :)


message 8: by Ed (new)

Ed Ireland (edireland) | 40 comments With Fire, my heroine from Fire At Dawn, her single magical ability was an afterthought. She has the ability to control fire and then I thought it would be cool if others were born with abilities to control an element as well. I know it sounds very "Avatar-ish" (the anime, not Cameron's) but it was a good way to give a small group a much larger power.


message 9: by Meri (new)

Meri Elena | 36 comments Heh. I infamously do not have a process for most things, and this in particular. Sometimes my characters suggest a power to me as I develop them, sometimes I develop characters around a power I want to include. Frequently I make it all up as I go along.

For whatever reason, my heroes and main antagonists are more likely to receive a power after I work on them awhile. My minor characters tend to fall into the other camp, growing around the power I think it most convenient for them to possess. I suppose it is just a matter of personal investment on my part.


message 10: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments Makes sense, Meri. Sometimes you want to know what the main characters will be doing before you figure out how; the minor ones start out with a defined purpose already.


message 11: by Deirdre (new)

Deirdre Dore (deirdredore) | 2 comments I remember reading a story when I was young about a girl who could find things. I've been obsessed with that idea ever since....probably because I lose things...


message 12: by Dylan (new)

Dylan White (dylanwhite) | 5 comments With my series, I wanted to make sure everything the ghosts could do made sense within the laws of physics. So there's nothing really "magical" about them — everything is grounded in a reality. So I had to figure out what I wanted them to do and how to make it make sense.

This question makes me thing about "The Incredibles." All of their powers had to do with their personalities. Mr. Incredible was the protector so he had to be strong. Mrs. Incredible, aka Elastagirl had to bend and stretch to keep the family together. Dash was fast because he was the hyper little boy. Violet could turn invisible and create force fields because she was the dark, moody teenager trying to keep people out. Frozone had ice because he was cool. He was Sam Jackson, after all (NOT Laurence Fishburne!). And even baby Jack-Jack had all sorts of powers because babies can be all over the place — fiery when they're angry, an anchor, and seeming to be able to get into anything and everything. And Syndrome failed because all of his powers were manufactured — he was trying to be something he wasn't.

It's a great example of the abilities matching the characters.


message 13: by Kyra (last edited Feb 11, 2014 12:17PM) (new)

Kyra Halland (kyrahalland) My magic usually follows development of the characters and the world. I have one world where magic is like a self-contained pool of power, and the principles of conservation of energy and matter apply, so when magical power is used it has to be balanced. I have one character who has an extreme sensitivity to pain. The balance for doing magical healing is pain for the healer, because the sickness and pain taken from the patient have to be filtered out of the magic before it returns to the reservoir, so the person doing the healing takes it on. My character with an intolerance for pain + healing talent = instant conflict!

In another project, a fantasy-western series, the main character is a wizard who is a bounty hunter and gunslinger. I gave him a gun with magical powers, and as I've gone along I've been figuring out what things it would be better to do with a magical gun than either by regular magic or a non-magical gun.


message 14: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments The balance for doing magical healing is pain for the healer, because the sickness and pain taken from the patient have to be filtered out of the magic before it returns to the reservoir, so the person doing the healing takes it on. My character with an intolerance for pain + healing talent = instant conflict!

Great fun. It's easy to say a power represents your greatest strength, but it can be fun to tie it to the thing that's hardest to do. --Which can be fun for things like Fire and other attack magic, if the character really wants something more flexible but gets something that's better for picking fights.

Speaking of keeping a balance, do you know the Fullmetal Alchemist anime?


message 15: by Mishka (new)

Mishka Jenkins (mishkajenkins) | 25 comments I tend to go with the flow on this, sometimes I come up with a character knowing what I want them to be able to do. Other times I think of a story, setting, etc and magic is the last thing that comes to mind! :D


message 16: by A. (new)

A. Payne (a_payne) I usually have the basic idea in mind for each character, but often as they develop further new ideas come into play or I find that the original powers don't suit them.

Either way, I always start with the character first, then build the powers around them.

That being said, every once in awhile I get the idea for the power first and then craft a character around that ideal if it doesn't already suit a character I already have imagined.


message 17: by Kyra (last edited Feb 13, 2014 12:18PM) (new)

Kyra Halland (kyrahalland) Ken wrote: " Speaking of keeping a balance, do you know the Fullmetal Alchemist anime? "

I've watched Fullmetal Alchemist, but I don't remember a whole lot about it. It's been a few years.


message 18: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments Kyra wrote: "Ken wrote: " Speaking of keeping a balance, do you know the Fullmetal Alchemist anime? "

I've watched Fullmetal Alchemist, but I don't remember a whole lot about it. It's been a few years."


I mention it because of their "law of equivalent exchange," that's another example of magical balance. Though I like specifics like taking on a patient's pain more.


message 19: by J. (last edited Feb 25, 2014 08:16AM) (new)

J. Bennett (jbennett_gwbw) | 26 comments Wow, this conversation is fascinating and enlightening. I love learning about all of your character building processes. Writing gives us the ability to create our own worlds, but those worlds still have to make sense! When we give powers to our characters, we must decide how those powers function and how the characters use them. I remember reading Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkin, which features a character, Kahlan who has the power to permanently bedazzle men when she touches them. In the book, we learn that this isn't a power Kahlan can turn on and off. Rather, she must constantly hold it back. It costs energy and effort to not unleash her power. I remember how eye-opening this concept was to me. Kahlan was defined as much by how her power functioned as the power itself.

My own books feature a protagonist with enhanced senses, strength and agility. Like Ken, after I started dabbling and realized the story was actually going somewhere, I had to sit down and really map out her abilities. How far can she really see? How strong is she? How fast can she run? Even she has limits, and these limits define how she will (and can) observe and react to all the challenges she faces.


message 20: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments J. wrote: "...How far can she really see? How strong is she? How fast can she run? Even she has limits, and these limits define how she will (and can) observe and react to all the challenges she faces."

To me, that's the most fun of all. How does an ability start to change how you look at the world, how you live, what you want?

I haven't read Wizard's First Rule (yet), but Kahlan sounds unique-- like she could get almost anything she wanted (except stay alive if too many people knew about it, I bet), but more interested in avoid the permanent fallout it would have.

An all-around athlete like yours might start to feel superior, or at least self-sufficient, but be aware being able to outlisten or outwrestle the person next to her only goes so far if she wants more. What does she want, and how have her talents shaped that?


message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

J. wrote: "Wow, this conversation if fascinating and enlightening. I love learning about all of your character building processes. Writing gives us the ability to create our own worlds, but those worlds still..."

I love discussions like this! You brought up a good point, about things having to make sense.

If you write within the real world, things have to make sense by our real world standards, but if you write in an alternate world, then you have to craft those standards of "norm" on your own, and show them to your reader. It can be very fun, but time consuming, and it makes a character's abilities even more challenging, because they have to fit into your new rules.

Whenever I think of what abilities a character might have, I think of their personality, and build first around that. I usually write a book first before I really start to map out their abilities fully, because I'm still getting to know them. Often, those abilities take on attributes -- such as the character's strengths and weaknesses, emotionally and mentally, their view of the world and themselves, their hopes and dreams -- but sometimes their abilities have nothing to do with any of those things up front, and while I'm trying to figure out what, say, the ability to create and manipulate fire has to do with a character, again I learn more about them.

It's the same and yet different for my villains. I usually end up loving my villains the most, because I love that type of character, and their abilities often reflect my love for them rather than my would be "fear" of them as a villain. For instance, one of the villains I'm working on now is very manipulative, but I like this about him, because not only is it fun to write, but it really challenges my hero and heroine. The villain therefore ended up having a degree of shape-shifting ability, which often helps with his manipulation. Would he be so manipulative without that ability? I don't know yet, but the fun is in finding out.


message 22: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Avery (sarahavery) | 5 comments In my epic fantasy, I've tended to give magic to whole nations or cultures. Some characters are stronger than others in the magic, and they have different styles and challenges in how they use it, but since the magic arises from how they ritually manage their relations with their ancestors, the core of the magic stays consistent within whole communities.

In contemporary fantasy, I tend to give characters the most conflict-generating abilities they could have. The professional fortuneteller in Tales from Rugosa Coven has OCD. She really can tell the future with her cards, a skill she learned in the first place because her visions and intuitions were consistently dead wrong. The accurate fortunetelling's a huge advantage, but it's part of a daily internal struggle, it's a source of tension within her community, and it leads her into trouble more often than out of it.

Actually, there's my rule of thumb for supernatural abilities in fiction: they should create at least as much trouble as they solve, preferably more. Trouble feeds story.


message 23: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments It does work both ways, doesn't it? An ability can reflect someone's strength, or it can come from however they react (strong or weak) to the situation they're in. And of course they're really about stirring up more trouble.

I've got a manipulative villain who's a shapeshifter too-- or rather, his magic is really mind-control, so he makes the right things into probes to do his dirty work. The next book will start to show how much trouble that's got him into in the past.

--Actually, I'm looking for a beta reader for the first book, if anyone's interested.

Have you all read Brandon Sanderson's Three Laws of Magic? Great stuff: 1) An author uses magic based on how well he knows his rules. 2) Power limitations are more useful than more power. 3) Expand on power that's there before you create new powers.


message 24: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Avery (sarahavery) | 5 comments I hadn't read that bit of Sanderson, though I did like his essay in Writing Fantasy Heroes, edited by Jason M. Waltz. I wrote a review of that book at Black Gate (http://tinyurl.com/ntq5fjn) last year when it came out. For fantasy writers, I'd say it's indispensable, though probably not for writers in other genres.


message 25: by Ken (new)

Ken Hughes (kenhughes) | 13 comments Sanderson's good and getting better (his The Way of Kings gets my vote for blowing Game of Thrones away some day). He's also a writing teacher, and one of his specialties is finding new wrinkles for people's powers-- especially in a fight. Nobody settles for the obvious move in a Sanderson battle.


message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

Ken wrote: "Sanderson's good and getting better (his The Way of Kings gets my vote for blowing Game of Thrones away some day). He's also a writing teacher, and one of his specialties is finding ..."

Sounds interesting! I'll have to look it up. Thanks for the mention. :)


message 27: by David (new)

David Staniforth (davidstaniforth) | 12 comments For me the character comes first and then the plot. The magic is built around that, and from there the rules develop to allow for difficulties to occur.


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