Out of My Head and Onto the Page

It is November and the annual madness has officially taken hold. It is five days into NaNoWriMo and my official word count is at just over 15,000. For the sake of expedience as I didn’t have the time or energy to world-build for a new novel this year, I have resorted to my last writing resort, fan fiction.

Spinning my own tales using existing characters and world is how I became interested in writing fiction.  This is the first time, however,  I’ve ever taken the time to write down one of those spin-off stories.  Usually the tales remain strictly in my head, the stuff of daydreams in idle moments.  I’ve decided that I would write a story about Hogwarts ten years after Voldemort’s final defeat.  At its core, it’s a story about characters who were marginalized, broken, and ruined by the Ministry in the years after the war.  As I said, it was a last resort, a desperate attempt to get something resembling a story on paper.

In the process of writing this draft, I spent an hour yesterday on a conversation about one character’s view of spell work. He differentiates it into two types – 1). spells that are effective because the person on whom it is used believes that magic has power and 2). spells whose power lies in the spell caster’s ability to shape the nature of reality (requiring no belief whatsoever).  An argument then ensues about whether the former is truly magic or simply form of psychological manipulation and whether or not someone who performs that kind of magic can truly call themselves a witch.

After I’d finished writing that section, I thought “Hmm, that’s interesting. Where in Hades did that come from?”  I haven’t given a lot of thought to the nature of what makes spells stick, because I rarely do spell work aimed at anyone else (the liminal work that constitutes much of  what I do is very different beast than conventional spell work). I realize that the theory above has loopholes that a truck could drive through and simplifies the issue too much, but it does have me thinking about where the power of spell work does lie. Is a curse effective simply because the person on whom it is cast believes, in however small a way, that curses have power?  Or does a curse’s efficacy lie solely with the caster and their ability to affect the circumstances of another person’s life?

For now, I’m just going to agree with the response that was given by another character: “Magic just is. It doesn’t need a theory or a philosophy.   Must you overthink everything?”  Ah, the joys of having philosophical debates in one’s own head.

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6 thoughts on “Out of My Head and Onto the Page

  1. Faemon

    Is a curse effective simply because the person on whom it is cast believes, in however small a way, that curses have power?  Or does a curse’s efficacy lie solely with the caster and their ability to affect the circumstances of another person’s life?

    In my own liminal work, I make a distinction between levels of reality that I call: corporeal (or physical world), sidereal (cultural norms and conceptual), ethereal (otherworld overlaid on the corporeal and sidereal), and surreal (otherworldly journeying.) They dip and overlay like threads of a basket.

    If Person A wants to harm Person B by pulling the trigger of a gun, then the “caster” of that harmful act (given value of a curse) solely determines the curse’s efficacy because of the laws of physics. On the sidereal, a similarly (but less absolutely) calcified agreement can be put down to connect them both, the laws of Words Mean Things. If Person A is literally cursing out Person B, on one end even if they don’t speak the same language, the prosody of anger is generally the same. Add a common language, cultural conventions, social proof, personal relationship and/or the vulnerability of a psyche…there’s a lot of variables between a natural reaction and honestly being able to say, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words won’t break my heart.” Even something as subjective and internal as heartbreak has real effects. It’s a real human experience.

    My guess…is that the ethereal and the surreal are even more tenuous. Sometimes the target can be caught up unawares in an irresistible wave of unfathomable consequences whilst the caster pulls on puppet strings and cackles, sometimes the curse needs the target to believe in it to complete the feedback loop, sometimes the circumstances of another person’s life are sensitive to influence, sometimes the life circumstances and the mind of the target are both set, sometimes the caster can sense it, sometimes the caster just casts until it sticks. Paradigms and methods become pockets of order in a sea of chaos.

    But as for Rowling’s magic system, I took it as basically a science particular to the wizarding world and its people. It’s got Gamp’s Third Law, non-TARDIS items that are smaller on the outside, proper pronunciation of correct spells (that bothers the version of Harry Potter in the fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality), apparation licenses, maybe some mysteries remain such as muggle-born magickal people versus squibs, but the line between life and death appears to be a cultural construct with the ghosts rather than a point of existential contention.

    My own NaNo project relies of a vague idea of magic is life is belief is magic. So, there’s basically a “clap your hands to save this fairy dying from someone who doesn’t believe in her (that is…herself)” moment. But before then I got blocked because one character is doing magic outside of conventional limitations, and the McGuffin that made it possible broke, and another character went, “Well then why don’t you just believe in yourself a little harder, then? Here, I’ll help: I believe in you! We don’t need the McGuffin!” And I just want to go, “Shh! Shh. You’re making the plot wrong. Shut uuup.” But the character was taught the theory of how their magical world works at school, even though he didn’t go to mage school, so I’ve got to find a way to justify the condemnation of that naive suggestion now but allowing that same thing to work later on in the story. Bleargh.

    1. “Shh! Shh. You’re making the plot wrong. Shut uuup.”

      Statements like this frequently come out of my mouth during NaNo. Usually they’re accompanied by several four letter words and a few rude gestures. I always know I’ve done well creating a character when they start giving helpful suggestions.

      Rowling’s magic system does feel like a science. There’s a definite lack of a mystical/spiritual element in it. I hadn’t given it much thought until I wrote a scene in which a character says a prayer of gratitude before a meal. When I reread it, it felt jarring and out of place, something that would not be considered normal behavior. At that point, I clapped my hands and cackled loudly and chased after the fluffy little plot bunny.

      1. Faemon

        I like the way Rick Riordan handled it in “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”:

        “You’re telling me God is real?”
        “Let’s not get metaphysical. Greek gods are real.”

        Most incisive and economic way to handwave the in-world definition of Western civilization so that Riordan can tell the story he wants.

        Rowling’s wizarding world considered witch hunts amusing because they could just make the fires cold with their magic, and then act like they were burning to death when they weren’t, but I wonder where they might have stood during the rise of Protestantism. Maybe prayers are a Muggle thing.

        I heard that Naomi Kritzer’s “Fires of the Faithful” has some really good worldbuilding. There’s magic associated with two different religions, but apparently the way to make that magic work doesn’t rely on piousness, so it’s not so much mysticism as appropriation of a natural phenomenon.

      2. I’ll have to check out Kritzer’s work, sounds interesting.

        Agreed that prayers and probably religion in general would be a Muggle thing. In my imaginings, the Magic/Muggle world dichotomy isn’t universal. I’m making allowances for places where integration has already happened to some degree. I may change that before I’m done, however, as this NaNo is a panster that’s getting made up as I go along.

  2. Good luck with NaNoWriMo! As a writer I have never finished a story, and I think NaNoWriMo would be too much for little oh me. I really like the sound of your fanfic. I think a lot of characters got overlooked in the last two books, and they need a little more exposure. I also like the thought that magic is so powerful because the person it works on believes it will. It’s an interesting concept in the real world as well.

    1. Thank you! Piles of unfinished drafts was one of the reasons I started doing NaNo every year. I knew the intensity of it would force me to focus on one story and it’s worked so far. This is my 9th NaNo. Time flies!

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