Eisenheim

Storytelling Ethics

16 posts in this topic

I have what I think is great idea for magic system based on scars, but it seems impossible to write a story with it that doesn't valorize self-harm, specifically by cutting.  Does anyone have thoughts on how to deal with a problem like this?

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Make it more than just a scar, maybe it has to be done by a certain person or in a certain way?
I don't really see the problem, honestly. I made a game where a huge part of the magic system was brands that the priests could give you.

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Did you publish?  I don't have a problem writing, but I am concerned about the difficulty and the implications of trying to publish a story that uses the magic as I envision it now.

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I don't really see the problem, honestly. I made a game where a huge part of the magic system was brands that the priests could give you.

 

 

There's a difference between ritual scarring, often as a rite of passage, and self-harm, which is what Eisenheim was mentioning above.

 

It's definitely a tough line, and sometimes it's hard to see that line if you aren't someone who's been affected by it, or close to someone who's been affected by it. I don't have either experience, so I don't know that I have any useful suggestions to make, especially without knowing the greater context of the magic system. If it's, as in Gargoyle's system above, a ritualized community thing you could research cultures which practice it and see how it's performed and viewed. If it's more of a personal thing then you might run into issues such as you initially mentioned.

I don't know if you want to go into more detail of the system here as a discussion. If you prefer, feel free to message me directly.

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To go into a little more detail, the idea is that spells are cast by scarring yourself, with deeper, longer cuts for more powerful magic, but that the total magic you can ever perform is limited by the restriction that the scars can't touch or cross: magic is self-sacrifice, and you can't sacrifice what you've already lost.

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a good idea might be that the scars have to have meaning.

 

for example, the other day I nearly cut off part of my finger. it hurts, and im quite embarrassed that it happened, but the scar is there. since there was little reason for it, it might only have a miniscul effect, hardly noticable at all.

 

but say, I was bitten by a dog while trying to keep it from my sister, and have the bite scarred into my arm, that would give the scar meaning, since it was given in an act of courage or whatnot.

 

also it should be noted that a lot of people take pride in the accidental cuts and scars that they have, so maybe give a peculiarity in that regard?

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Very interesting discussion. My current project, Waifs and Strays, features a magic system that is similar, but more extreme (i.e. costly - do the math). I have lingering concerns about that feature of my story however w.r.t. its marketability. Considering what's been said here, it seems to me that the greater cost makes imitative behaviour less likely. 'It' (please forgive my obliqueness) is certainly not a widespread issue in the way that scarring (self-harm) is, as far as I'm aware.

 

Actually, Shrike has a good perspective on this, as he is reading my story, and I'd be interested to hear his thoughts on the comparison.

 

In relation to you dilemma, Eisenheim, I wouldn't let it stop me writing the story, because I'm not a professional author, so time-is-money does not apply in my case. I presume it doesn't in yours either, or you would have an agent that would answer this question for you! On the basis then that all writing is practice, I personally would write the story. If you get the opportunity to ask an agent for advice on the matter then grab it... In fact, it might be a good (i.e. novel) 'in' for contacting an agent. 'Hey, I don't want you to read my story, but I have this interesting dilemma...'

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Actually, Shrike has a good perspective on this, as he is reading my story, and I'd be interested to hear his thoughts on the comparison.

 

I didn't have an issue with this in Waifs and Strays for a few reasons. First is because by and large people are giving up extraneous stuff like hair or nail clippings for minor effects. Second, the two times you show us people giving up more there was no joy in it at all. You emphasized the sacrifice, and the suffering, and the need to do the thing. There was desperation and never any sense that people would be doing it if they had any other choice.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, I didn't have an issue because I've never been a self-harmer, nor have I ever been close to someone who was, so it didn't have any deeper emotional resonance with me. If you really want to know if your work hits too close to home on glorifying self-harm, you probably need to ask for the opinion of someone who suffered through it, or who has watched somebody go through it.

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Yeah you shouldn't look at this as a problem that stops you from writing the story. You should look at it in a way that the outline you've come up with is challenging and requires you to relate to people who have had difficult experiences in their life that you need to reflect accurately, and with ample foreshadowing in the book of exactly how into cutting or scarring you're going to get. At most that might make you decide you should set the story aside for a bit and come back at this issue with more writing experience, but I think honestly if you've sunk anything significant into writing this story it will be best for you as a writer to muscle through.

 

(You can also help make this less an issue with the magic as a whole by having it be normal for the magic to be practiced on less critical areas than people use to cut in real life, so it's neither as triggering nor as dangerous, and having there be similar issues of social stigma for anyone who does scar say, their wrists.)

 

Like any case of "writing the other", if you've not experienced self-harm yourself, you need a good touchstone on this issue who doesn't mind discussing the details with you and reading multiple drafts from you, and also you need to include people who've experienced this in your beta reader list. If you're going to go in-depth on this, you may also want to explore the relationship between cutting and other types of self harm. (for instance I know there is a certain overlap between eating disorders and cutting)

 

But avoiding glamourising it is the easy part. Show the negative consequences in a fair manner that makes it clear this isn't a great thing to do, and start dropping the foreshadowing for this before you even get into the scarring magic.

Edited by Ari
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Showing it isn't a great thing to is really the crux of the problem.  The issue is that, unlike cutting in the real world, the intentional self harm of the story serves a purpose, and isn't necessarily viewed negatively in the space of the narrative.  That's what I'm concerned about.

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If the world is advanced enough that they recognize things like self-harm issues for what they are, than I would suggest you build this in as part of the world - maybe have it so part of prescriptions for depression and self-harm issues is "you can't do magic," and other, similar things to indicate that the people know this is a problem and have procedures for it.

 

The other thing I would suggest, especially if the world isn't advanced, is to have a character who has these issues and work through the implications over the course of the story. It doesn't have to be a main character, but it would probably help to highlight the issue as a problem of the world. 

 

The idea suggested earlier - that people would normally make the cuts on parts of their body that aren't common for self-harming people, and that's how it's "different" - could also help.

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Showing it isn't a great thing to is really the crux of the problem.  The issue is that, unlike cutting in the real world, the intentional self harm of the story serves a purpose, and isn't necessarily viewed negatively in the space of the narrative.  That's what I'm concerned about.

 

If the world is advanced enough that they recognize things like self-harm issues for what they are, than I would suggest you build this in as part of the world - maybe have it so part of prescriptions for depression and self-harm issues is "you can't do magic," and other, similar things to indicate that the people know this is a problem and have procedures for it.

 

The other thing I would suggest, especially if the world isn't advanced, is to have a character who has these issues and work through the implications over the course of the story. It doesn't have to be a main character, but it would probably help to highlight the issue as a problem of the world. 

 

The idea suggested earlier - that people would normally make the cuts on parts of their body that aren't common for self-harming people, and that's how it's "different" - could also help.

 

Yeah, that's definitely the way I'd approach this. You could also have in-world terms for "cutting for the purpose of magic" (which you can theme as a sacrifice) and "magical cutting that is also self-harm" (which iwould presumably be something similar to a having martyr complex) and "mundane cutting that is self-harm." Having a name for these problems on its own does a lot to imply that people are thinking about them and taking it seriously.

 

I was definitely trying to say, like Meandbooks was, that you should show someone who perhaps at one stage committed magic with no issues, but for whom it has developed into a pattern of self-harm for the sake of self-harm. This will help make the distinction clear.

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To go into a little more detail, the idea is that spells are cast by scarring yourself, with deeper, longer cuts for more powerful magic, but that the total magic you can ever perform is limited by the restriction that the scars can't touch or cross: magic is self-sacrifice, and you can't sacrifice what you've already lost.

 

Is the magic a one-shot thing based on the creation of the wound, or does the scar bear a permanent magic like a rune? I don't know that that necessarily makes it less troublesome, bit one shifts the focus a little bit away from the act of cutting itself.

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Theres that saying "pain is weakness leaving your body" but maybe in your case "pain is magic tearing into the world".  Personally I would look at any type of self inflicted pain to magic transformation as a sacrifice type system and wouldn't really make the depression cutting yourself connection.  They are signs of pride and status?  How does having these powers effect the social standing of the person?  Maybe if there is a class of scarred people it will be easier to develop a culture around it.  Maybe its positive or maybe it means you were willing to hurt yourself in order to hurt someone else and your shunned for it.  Maybe it is like a mowhawk indian tribe thing (they shave their hair into mohawks o their gods can see them during war time).

 

In Bloodsong there is a binding magic where a character has ritualistic scars carved into their skin (with blood?).  I do not remember the details.

 

 

Good luck!

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Here's something that would distance your story from the self harm issues, but it may not fit with what you've already developed for your world. When you said "scars" my immediate thought was of how long it takes for a regular wound to develop scar tissue. If it is the scar, not simply the cut, that causes the magic to work then a magic user must plan a long way ahead. You can't really have people slicing themselves up for immediate effect, and if it is planned then it seems most likely that the incisions would be done with (or by) other people. I also see people in this world discovering a use for ointments etc. that prevent wound healing and promote more prominent scarring, not to mention a huge use for anesthetic agents. (By the way, what technology level is this society?)

There are two more important questions--must the scars be made by the person themself? And does the shape of the scar matter or is it simply the length/size that powers the magic? If the shape matters then you have moved even further from self harm by making it a creative, possibly artistic process. If someone else can do the actual slicing then you would naturally have a huge industry in tattoo parlor style magic lounges, ranging from posh to clinical to scuzzy to downright criminal. Those sorts of locations might still exist, on a smaller level, to provide material and know-how to people if they have to do the cutting themselves.

On the other hand, what is the role of intent in this system? Can accidental scars power magical effects? If so, then you not only have an interesting way to deal with accident and abuse victims, you also have some unintended consequences that befall those who engage in self harm, and an avenue to deal with it explicitly if you want to. The effect could be good, bad, or neutral depending on the needs of the story and the role of scar shape. If intent matters, then the follow-on consequences of scars inflicted during self harm will almost always be greater harm or pain. In this case you will definitely need someone with experience in these issues to consult with.

Finally, a point that is not really on the same ethical front but is an important consideration for how this works (which you've probably already dealt with.) The limitation that "scars may not intersect" screams out for sabotage and accident. Don't want your enemy to have their powers? One small cut in the right place totally negates their elaborate scar network (though this neutralization may take serious planning ahead, depending on the cut versus scar question above). Accidentally kicked by a horse? You are no longer useful to the people who hired you for your enhanced skills. Bummer!

Edit: Oh yeah, I almost forgot! If it is scar tissue specifically that powers the magic, you could do something interesting and possibly unexpected using internal injuries. Old man down the road has cirrhosis from a life of drinking, and his diseased liver is all scarred over, providing him with unbelievable eyesight or telepathy or something. (Though it might be limited to more acute injuries depending on how you apply the "non-intersecting" rule.)

Edited by ccstat
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Maybe make it an issue you learn about in the book. 

perhaps wizards are seen as kind of taboo because they may have deliberately harmed themselves for power? 

Edit: Sorry this is kind of late to the party

Edited by Flynn
Made "EDIT" sign less confrontational (decapslocked)
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