Willow - Magic Systems

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Summary of this month’s movie:

Here come the spoilers! There's a prophecy that says a child with a particular birthmark will bring about the downfall of Queen Bavmorda, so of course, she imprisons all pregnant women in an attempt to stop the prophecy. But the midwife sends the baby downstream on a raft. Willow is a farmer and amateur magician, and he finds the baby and is chosen by the town council to return her. Against their better judgment, Willow gives the baby to the first person they meet, a warrior named Madmartigan .

But brownies steal the baby from Madmartigan. The brownie queen tells Willow he has been chosen to protect the baby, whose name is Elora Danan, then gives him a magic wand, directs him to a sorceress for help, and sends along two brownies as guides. Bavmorda's daughter Sorsha is after them, but after a couple close calls, they make it to the sorceress, only to find she has been turned into a rodent by the evil queen. Sorsha captures them. They manage to escape and find the castle the brownie queen said would give them protection, but it's under a spell and all its inhabitants are frozen in ice. Madmartigan, refusing to give up hope, prepares for Sorsha's attack while Willow fails to transform the sorceress into human form.

Sorsha and her army arrive, but so does an army led by Madmartigan's old friend. During the ensuing battle, Sorsha changes sides. But Bavmorda's general captures the baby and takes her to the evil queen. As our heroes prepare to storm the castle to rescue her, Willow finally returns the sorceress to her true form, and she puts a spell on the camp to protect them from Bavmorda's magic. The next day, during the battle, Willow saves the baby from Bavmorda's murderous ritual at the last moment, and Bavmorda is destroyed, in part by her own magic. He leaves the baby in the caring arms of Madmartigan and Sorsha. then returns happily to his village and his family with a gift from the sorceress: a book of magic to study.

Jeni, what’d you think about the movie?

Jeni: Okay so I saw this movie when it first came out because I’m old. And I probably haven’t seen it since I was a kid. Watching it again as an adult, there’s definitely a sense of nostalgia with it. Do I think it is the most original story ever? Nope, not at all. It’s basically all the standard epic fantasy tropes, and there’s nothing in it that’s as obsession-worthy as a lot of other fantasies out there. But I was surprised how well some of it held up, especially the costumes and effects. You never know how old movies are going to translate when you watch them years later. But I think this movie has a lot of appeal to anyone who’s a fan of classic fantasies and/or like D&D style adventures. What did you think?

Carly: I hadn’t seen this movie before. It is one of those I was always aware of and one that I assumed I’d enjoy. It is such a cult favorite and I always love those, but you can never tell if it will translate past nostalgia. And I actually really enjoyed it. There were definitely some old tropes I didn’t love, and there was out classic secondary female character that I wanted to actually know more about (Sorsha). Speaking of, we haven’t had one of those in a while… are movies getting better at that??? Anyway, I enjoyed it. I think my husband would like it and kind of want to watch it with him. It wasn’t as funny as The Princess Bride, I could’ve done without the brownies, but it had definite fun moments. Basically: I liked but I didn’t love. So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?

Jeni: Let’s talk about the magic system in this movie! Like I said before, there’s nothing here that’s super fresh or anything, but I think this particular movie makes for a good study in magic systems for a few reasons. First, because the magic system is fairly standard, it’s not hard to understand, and that lets us really look at how it works within the story and the world. It also has a few different elements at play. For example, we have magical creatures as well as magic users like the sorceress and Queen Bavmorda. Also enchanted items and potions. Carly, you mentioned you could have done without the brownies, but I feel like that about that whole love potion scene. Whew, I definitely could have done without that. Anyway, we also have this character, Willow, who wants to use magic, so we get to see him learning and making mistakes, which is such a great mechanism for showing your viewers (or readers) how something in your story works. I actually really liked the scenes with him using magic because, even though they were partially comic relief, they showed progression and gave us clues about how the magic works in their world. Like, at one point, he’s trying to change the sorceress back into her human form–his main magical goal throughout the movie–and she mentions not to forget one word of the incantation because that’s the word that pleads for change or something to that effect. My editor brain kinda perked up at that detail. Anyway, like the rest of the movie, the magic system isn’t necessarily super original or special, but I think it’s a great choice for writers to learn more about how to make magic systems work in their own stories.

Carly: Okay so what makes a good magic system? Limitations. Without limits there is nothing your characters can’t do, and that’s not fun. If everything is possible and everything is easy, there is no conflict, no plot, no growth. In order to avoid an easy magic system, you need structure and limitations. In this movie, Willow can’t just easily bring the sorceress back, he has to work at it and practice. There are limitations. And limitations lead to rule and structure. You need solid rules by which the magic works. Think of it like your magic physics. What is possible, what is impossible, how is the possible achieved, and what are the drawbacks? Solid magic systems have all four of these items fleshed out. You never want to run into a moment at the end of your story where you create a new rule to get the plot to go in the direction you want. A Deus ex Machina, god from the machine, is often the antithesis of a good magic system. If you’ve done the work on your magic system, the plot should react to it naturally. That doesn’t mean you can’t break the rules as your characters understand them, but it all must make sense as you and the reader understand the magic system. A good magic system upholds your world and plot, it doesn’t cater to it. So create strong rules and have your characters learn how to work within the rules. The next step to creating a good magic system is creating drawbacks or stakes. Once your magic system has rules and limitations, it needs dangers to balance it out. If there are no repercussions to magic, if there is no catch, then everyone would be able to use it to achieve the best ends for themselves. Sometimes those catches are created by the magic users themselves, aka everyone is at odds with each other so no one can achieve their goals, or sometimes the magic has a side effect. An equal or greater reaction. Magic is real in this world, it comes from somewhere, it has limitations, and it has repercussions. Maybe it is scarce, maybe when you make something something else must be unmade. Maybe for every good thing you get from it you get an equally bad thing. Again, think of it like physics, for every action there is a reaction. How does magic respond to being used? If you structure your magic system with all this in mind, it is going to lead to lots of fun interactions within your story.

Jeni: Like we are always talking about on this podcast, there really aren’t elements of storytelling that don’t overlap with basically all the other elements. Magic systems are no different. So it’s really important to consider how the magic system affects the rest of the story elements and vice versa. I think one of the things that comes to mind when we talk about magic systems is worldbuilding. I mentioned before that there are magical creatures like brownies in this movie, as well as people who learn to use magic and then can enchant objects that anyone can use. One of my favorite little parts is near the end when Willow throws the enchanted acorn and Bavmorda grabs it. You kinda think, yay, he finally got to use one and it’s really going to count because she starts to turn to stone. But then no! Her magic is so strong that she basically reverses the enchantment, and all I could think was about saving throws in D&D haha So, when you’re creating a magic system, consider how magic is used, who can use it, who can’t, all of that stuff, and then think about how they might use that in their world. One of the reasons I really love contemporary fantasy is because it plays with this concept a lot. We have seen a lot of magic being used in medieval-type settings like this movie, but how does magic work differently in a different setting? Just as importantly, though, how does the world work differently because of the ability to use magic? How might the magic users in your world live very differently because they can use magic for mundane activities? For example, I would literally never commute anywhere ever again if I could just poof there instead. Okay, but other than worldbuilding, also consider how magic is going to affect your plot. How does the use of magic–and its limitations–create and resolve conflict? In a lot of magic systems, we’ll see this trope of “all magic has a price,” and thinking along those lines can really help give your magic its own interesting spin. Like, if your magic users have to consider what they will have to give up, that’s going to change how and when they use their magic. But also, how might using magic get your character into trouble? How does it interact with the other plot points of the story? Theme is another area where your magic system can say a lot. Magic inherently deals with power, and it can be a compelling metaphor for real-world power differentials. Then of course, there’s character, but I’m gonna let Carly talk about that.

Carly: Ooo I get to talk about character… that’s always fun. Okay so how does a magic system affect your character? The obvious place to start is if your characters are magic users. And whether or not they are magic users, what is their level of understanding of magic? One of the best ways to break rules in regards to your magic systems is to have your characters have a limited understanding of the magic system. You can break a magic system rule if it was never a rule to begin with, your character just thought it was. Their level of understanding is what will help you convey your system to the reader, so really think about where you want them to be. The biggest trope is having the main character be new to the magic, completely unfamiliar with it, a novice. It is the easiest one because then readers can learn about the system and its rules along with the character. But you can also have them have a solid understanding as long as they find ways to convey that understanding to your readers. Next you want to think about the society around the magic system. Can everyone use it? Is it secret or open to the world? How do non-magic and magic users feel about each other? Are there different types of magic users? Is there a hierarchy? How does society as a whole respond to magic. It’s important to think of your magic system as something that is within your book's culture. Culturally, how do your characters feel about and react to magic? In this movie magic is valued and rare. Willow spends the beginning part of the movie wanting to impress everyone with his magical potential so that he can be taken on as an apprentice. Magic comes with clout. It makes you impressive and valued. In other stories magic is feared or forbidden. These are all cultural and societal responses to the system you’ve created. The more limitations you have the more you’ll be able to figure out how your characters will respond to your magic system. If it is scarce, maybe they value it like in this movie. If it is abundant, maybe other talents are valued more. As you structure your story and your system, it is important to take into consideration how your characters will feel and interact with magic.

Jeni: So how do you know if your magic system needs work? Of course, feedback is one way. Classic. Sometimes that feedback might be “magic feels too easy” or doesn’t seem to have enough limitations. It can also be sort of the opposite, that the magic system is too complex or isn’t explained well enough. If you’re an “all vibes, no plot” kind of writer, you might have problems like this and need to flesh out your magic system more, but I have also worked with writers who have very meticulously detailed magic systems but aren’t managing to get the right information on the page or are even giving too much information so it feels info-dumpy. So, if your magic system is feeling off to you or your readers, really consider all of these elements. You know I love a reverse outline, and you can do something similar as it specifically relates to your magic system. In other words, create a separate document where you track magic throughout the story, scene by scene. How is it used? What do you reveal about it? How does it impact the plot, setting, theme, character, etc? What are you showing the reader versus what are you telling them? Like with anything in a story, knowing what to show and what to tell can make a huge difference, so sometimes it can come down to that. Studying other magic systems and breaking them down the same way can help you get out of your own brain a little too. Look at your favorite fantasies and how they use magic. I tend to gravitate towards magic systems that are somehow based on scientific concepts, whether that’s conservation of energy–in other words, if you use magic to create something, that energy has to come from somewhere–or related to elements. What kind of magic systems do you love, Carly?

Carly: Oh gosh, I love those too. I also am a sucker for underground magic, where not everyone knows about it but when you find out, it opens up a whole other world. But that might be my “maybe magic could be real” showing. I particularly love it when someone comes up with a magic system I haven’t seen before, something based on a mundane element of our world. Like what if we had a magic system based off of cleaning supplies? I guess that’s just potions and brooms. But still. We see lots of interesting ones based on chemicals, aka potions, and others based on books and learning. Any magic system that takes effort is a big seller for me. And that leads me into how to improve your magic system. Have I mentioned limitations yet? Yes? Constantly? Okay cool. So improve it with limitations. Next figure out how much of the system is revealed to your reader. Is it a soft or hard magic system? A soft magic system doesn’t really explain the magic at all, while a hard system explains all the rules and intricacies. No matter which system you choose, you still need to be aware of the limitations, but this will help you decide how much to convey to the reader. Soft systems only work if you have soft repercussions for the magic, you don’t want an easy fix coming in with no explanation. Most systems will fall somewhere in the middle. You want your characters interacting with the magic system and by having them interact with it you will show readers what the system is. Like Jeni was saying, you want to balance the show vs. tell here. So use her reverse outline to figure out where you can show and when you need to tell something about the system. The key is to build the magic system throughout the story. It should build on itself as the characters interact with it more. Don’t front load all the information, but also you don’t want to reveal a rule at the last second that will solve everything and would have the whole time, had the characters just known about it. You want your characters to interact with the system early on in small ways that will later be reflected in the climax. As I always say with worldbuilding, you need to pepper it in as your characters come up against it. We can learn a lot about your magic system from small moments and interactions. Keep it part of the main conflict and part of your characters’ lives and it will organically thread throughout your story.

Jeni: Okay and lastly, I want to talk about our favorite thing–tropes! Woo! One thing about this movie is that it really is like all the fantasy tropes thrown into a blender haha When it comes to magic systems in particular, it’s really important to know what has been done before so you can put your own spin on it and create something new and interesting. Here, it’s important to know not just other books in your age category and genre but also movies and TV shows as well. Knowing the expectations your reader is bringing to the story is the best way to make sure you’re creating something that can surprise and delight them. And of course, remember, tropes aren’t inherently bad–it’s all about how you use them. One thing I want to mention here as well, which we’ve already touched on a little bit, is to consider the origins of the kind of magic you use in your story. This goes into representation of various cultures and backgrounds, and it’s really important to understand how “magic” is sometimes used against groups of people. For example, demonic possession or dark magic as a reason for mental illness or physical disability can be problematic but is something I still see on a pretty regular basis. So you need to make sure you’re being thoughtful about how you’re using magic within the context of your story but also always be very mindful of how real-life people will be affected by your story

Our query this month is adult literary fiction. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?

Carly: This story sounds really interesting and emotionally complicated, but in the best way. It does need a good amount of work though. What we’re missing is a solid query structure. It starts by giving us too much mundane information that we should learn from the body of the query, aka when and where it takes place. Next, it introduces each POV character in their own paragraph, which is perfect, but it doesn’t end with enough stakes. The conflict is clear, but the stakes are lacking and because of that the conflict feels too soft. Don’t tell us what the story is meant to convey, show us what is at stake for your characters so that we can feel what the story conveys. Basically, you can cut the entire 5th paragraph. You want your intro, hook paragraph. Then one paragraph for each of the dual POV characters, and then a paragraph that brings their stories together and really shows the conflict and stakes that they are up against.

Jeni: I think this story sounds so poignant and lovely. The query itself definitely needs some work, like you said. I wanted to mention specifically how important it is to know the conventions of your genre. So, this story is adult fiction, and the query says it’s historical. Typically, what’s considered historical will vary a little depending on your audience. A loose guideline for adults is usually 50 years in the past, although that can vary some as well. Historical for kids can be more recent and is often based around when the age category would have been born. So, for children, 2006 could be historical, but for adults, it isn’t. So, whatever your age category and genre, just make sure you have a solid grasp on the expectations because that will make a huge difference when you query.

Next month, we are watching the new multiverse movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once. We will also have another query or blurb critique. If you want your query featured on the podcast, you can find the details about how to do that on our website or Twitter page.
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