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11thHerald

Magic Systems and Whimsy

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This thought was mostly sparked by me reading an old blog post from NK Jemisin about the popularization in fantasy of the idea that magic must have a system; that is, it must basically be a science (maybe one that isn't possible in our world, but one that has internal consistency and essentially follows the laws of physics/the universe as much as possible). Jemisin's post was mostly about how she doesn't like that this idea has become so central in fantasy recently at the expense of more mystical or "soft" magic that isn't as consistent and logical. Brandon Sanderson, as I think we all know, is a big user/creator of scientific magic systems. I know this is highly unlikely, but I think it would be really cool if whatever world the Shard of Whimsy settled on is the only one that doesn't follow this rule within the Cosmere; Whimsy's magic is mysterious and unexplainable. I feel like this would actually be kinda fitting. All the other Shards produce rigid, scientific magic systems, but Whimsy is well, whimsical, and as a result, its magic system is as well.

Obviously, this probably won't happen, but I just wanted to share this thought to see what other people think. 

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While it would be interesting to see Brandon's take on a truly soft system, I wouldn't want it to be in the Cosmere. One of the things I love most about the Cosmere is that it has defined rules that make sense, and this is something Brandon seems to care about too. 

I could see Whimsy having a system with shifting rules and maybe even bending rules, but part of the Cosmere is that there are real rules that even Shards (maybe even especially shards) can't break.

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Posted (edited)

TL:DR I think Brandon already uses soft magic systems, because to him it's a storytelling tool more than a world building tool. My next thoughts are mostly a summary of what he's said, but read Sanderson's Laws of Magic to get it in his words.

 

Brandon is very, very aware of soft magic systems. His very first convention as a new writer and a panelist, the first question that he got asked "how should magic work?" To which he responded that it needed rules! The rest of his panel thought he was nuts and the next 30-45 minutes was spent with him arguing over if a rules-based magic system was stupid. Brandon has made such a big splash that he has shaped the genre to the point that other people do what he does and it seems to have become the norm, even though when he first became a writer most people thought you needed a soft magic system to create a sense of wonder.

Brandon has talked about this quite extensively on Writing Excuses and in his BYU creative writing lectures that he posted on YouTube. An internet search of Sanderson's Laws of Magic will pull up his rules for why he does what he does, and for him a soft magic system versus a hard magic system is actually a narrative tool, not a worldbuilding tool. It's about how much the reader knows and if it's engaging a sense of wonder or engaging the logical mind that is trying to predict how the hero will use their magical abilities to save the day. You also can have both a soft magic system and a hard magic system in the same book and I'll give the Lord of the Rings example he uses:

Spoiler

We know what happens when Frodo puts on the One Ring, he turns invisible, he gets more corrupted, and he alerts the agents of Sauron. Hard magic system, we know what will happen. Gandalf does magic stuff and can pretty much do whatever the plot needs him to except destroy the One Ring. Soft magic, at least to the casual reader who hasn't read all of the appendices and The Silmarillion.

I'd say that most things a Shard does, we know they can do it, we can theorize how it works, but we don't reeeally know how Harmony reshaped Scadrial, other than he's a god. I'll probably get arguements from people who do understand the mechanisms, but when I read it, I wasn't thinking about the mechanics of how this worked, I got a sense of wonder that I think Brandon was trying to evoke.

The Nightwatcher, we know you get a boon and a curse and so technically has "rules" but if we see another boon we have no idea what's gonna happen to the recipient, other than it won't be pretty. In contrast we have a good grasp of a typical Windrunner's skillset, and know more or less what they can do up to the Fourth Ideal. Probably.

 

From a world building perspective, I doubt Whimsey will be a top-down intentional soft magic system. Brandon has been branded as The Magic Systems Guy and he's been published as such. The Cosmere has been branded as such. I'd guess he would just write a new non-Cosmere world if he wanted an entirely soft magic system to not disrupt his marketing. 

Edited by Duxredux
Added another thought
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Posted (edited)

I could see Whimsy's system being a more open system that can appear soft. For example: similar to Mortal Magic in The Dresden Files

Spoiler

Spoiler for those that don't want to know. 

At first glance, Dresden Files magic seems to be very soft and open. The further you read into the series, the more you realize there are "rules" but they are so loose that interpretation to work within the rules makes it feel soft. For example:

  • Black magic is addictive
  • A mortal magic user (Wizard, hedge-wizard, sorcerer, etc) can't use magic they don't truely beleive in
    • Which has important implications further in the series
Quote

Example: In Summer Knight when Harry confides that he can no longer trap sunlight in cloth because "you have to be genuinely happy;" but it's his belief that happiness is a pre-requisit and his lack of happiness prevents the spell from working

Molly example (Bombshells): 

Quote

Harry always used an object as the indicator for his tracking spells—his amulet, a compass, or some kind of pendulum. I hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings, but that kind of thing really wasn’t necessary. I could feel the magic. . .

  • Magic is invoked through non-native Language - but there is no Magic Language. Language gives structure to the forces being called upon; but to prevent accidentally releasing those forces non-native language is used (to make the process deliberate) or in Harry's case - nonsense faux-latin words - Flickem Bicus
  • Only mortal magic negatively influences technology, because only mortals have a soul. And that (current) sideeffect has changed over time as the consensual reality shifts how magic affects the people and the world around them
    • Hundreds of years ago, practicing mortal magic may have turned food sour, or cause warts and other growths, etc.
  • The differences between evocation, thaumaturgy, etc.
  • etc. 

So, there are rules, but they are loose and very open to influence by (in Cosmere terms) Command and Intent. 

So, could see Whimsy's investiture being like this - some core "rules" but very open to interpretation and belief; causeing it to manifest slightly differently for different people.

Edited by Treamayne
SPAG
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Posted (edited)

It's possible - he definitely doesn't exclude soft magic in the cosmere on principle; in fact, he seems to consider the Old Magic as a take on just that:

Quote

Questioner

One of your characters wishes for and is given capacity... That is one of my favorite concepts of all the books that I read of yours. Can you talk about the inspiration for that gift of limited and maximum capacity?

Brandon Sanderson

To not give spoilers, there is a character in The Stormlight Archive who has asked the Old Magic, which is a force that kind of has references in things like The Monkey's Paw and what-not, a force that doesn't always give you things exactly the way you want them. And I built, by the way, the Old Magic into The Stormlight Archive because I felt that at a certain point, while I love to do these rule-based magic systems, I wanted there to be a contrast to it... It's kinda like this idea that, yes, modern science and things have explained a lot of stuff, but there's something primal, perhaps, in the past, I don't actually know. But that idea that there's a primal magic that doesn't really adhere to the rules, we can't anticipate it, was really, I felt, vital for me to include so that I didn't overexplain everything in the books.

So, there's a person who asked for capacity. It wanted to be, let's say, strong enough to lift (it's not actually strength, but it's more of an emotional thing) what was coming. That, I feel like, is a very real thing to wish for, right? I have frequently, like... people say "What would you wish for," and I say "The ability to fly," because I would love to be able to fly. But really, if I sit and think about it, capacity, ability, the capacity to hold all of this stuff in my head, would probably be the sort of thing that I would wish for. So this character, in some ways, is giving wish fulfillment for me, because that's what I would maybe ask for if given the opportunity, but even that kind of turns on its head because the Old Magic just doesn't get people in the way that people think they should be gotten.

Footnote: The Monkey's Paw is a story by W. W. Jacobs.
Oathbringer San Francisco signing (Nov. 15, 2017)

 

Edited by Elegy
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If I had to guess what it was going to be, I'd guess that the sytem would be ever-changing... maybe not a soft magic system in a technical sense, but soft in that it never works the way its user would expect... like... it may be a system that is the least connected to "intent".

I dont think the Cosmere will go soft with an entire worlds "magic system" but Whimsey is likely the closest we'll get to that, whatever it ends up being.

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1 hour ago, Lunu’anaki said:

If I had to guess what it was going to be, I'd guess that the sytem would be ever-changing... maybe not a soft magic system in a technical sense, but soft in that it never works the way its user would expect... like... it may be a system that is the least connected to "intent".

I dont think the Cosmere will go soft with an entire worlds "magic system" but Whimsey is likely the closest we'll get to that, whatever it ends up being.

Honestly I think this is what I was trying to say. I want the magic inspired by Whimsy to feel a lot more mystical/unknowable: more whimsical compared to the rest of the Shardic magic systems. 

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Something I think is lacking from this discussion is that, as Duxredux pointed out, hard-vs-soft magic is a narrative tool. I'm reminded of how when Jim Butcher was asked which he preferred, he said something along the lines of, "all magic is hard, its just depends on whose head your in. If you follow a character who doesn't know how the magic works, it will seem soft. But to the author all magic systems are hard because the author knows exactly what the magic can or can't do." Where this enters into our discussion here is that, in general, those of us who discuss magic mechanics here in the forums are closer to the author perspective. We are learning the fundamentals of how investiture works and are able to piece things together from multiple invested arts by comparing and contrasting the different manifestations of investiture. This does not mean that Whimsy can't have invested arts that seem random and soft. It just means that it will be a "bounded randomness." To the people of Whimsy's world, they might believe there is no reason whatsoever to the magic, but we as the fans will probably see some of the underlying principles of investiture, even if there's no way the people in-world could know about it. All of Sanderson's magic seems very hard to us when in-world its a lot softer.

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