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[GUEST POST] Jeff Somers on Magic and Morals

jeffsomersJeff Somers was first sighted in Jersey City, New Jersey after the destruction of a classified government installation in the early 1970s; the area in question is still too radioactive to go near. When asked about this, he will only say that he regrets nothing. He is the author of Lifers, the Avery Cates series from Orbit Books, Chum from Tyrus Books, and the Ustari Cycle from Pocket/Gallery, including We Are Not Good People.

Jeff’s published over thirty short stories as well; his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight, published by Berkley Hardcover and edited by Charlaine Harris and his story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006. He survives on the nickels and quarters he regularly finds behind his ears, his guitar playing is a plague upon his household, and his lovely wife The Duchess is convinced he would wither and die if left to his own devices, but this is only half true.

He has published his own zine, The Inner Swine since 1995, once in print and now in digital format only. A few hardy fools still read that rag, believe it or not. So can you!

Today, he makes beer money by writing amazing things for various people. Favorite whiskey: Glenmorangie 10 Year. Yes, it is acceptable to pay me in it.

Don’t Touch the Concentrated Evil: Balancing Magic Power without Good

by Jeff Somers

When you decide, as writers often do, that your characters in this nifty new book you’re writing will have magic powers of some sort, and hey, why not, who’s the writer here, you or your old high school English professor who scoffed at the sword-and-sorcery books you were reading as trashy and surely to lead to your demise? You are, that’s who, and so if you want your main character to be able to turn people into toads, the nation as one rises up and shouts GO FOR IT.

And then you have to ask yourself: Are we talking about Good Magic, or Black Magic, or both? If you’re me, and I am me, then the answer will always be: Black magic, and the blacker the better. Need to slaughter whole populations to fuel your spells? That’s my ballpark. Actually, my ballpark is built using the bleached bones of sacrificial victims, and I am on the pitcher’s mound gaily typing away as I make the magic in my books blacker and more horrifying.

Good = Dull

This is because good magic is, in a word, dull. Good in general is pretty dull; it’s like The Wizard of Oz without the Wicked Witch: Dorothy lands, Glinda the Good Witch dusts her off, hands her a cup of tea, then wiggles her nose or summons a spare bubble or something and sends her home. Good witches floating in and distributing spare bubbles is pretty much why good magic stinks, in a nutshell.

Black magic, on the other hand, is conflict incarnate. Black magic instantly sows chaos, puts kittens in danger, and makes it difficult for your heroes to survive the story, and those are all good things. Some writers have a disturbing tendency, however, to go the whole Star Wars route and ensure that there is a “good” side or a “light” side as well as a “dark” or “evil” to their magic system, as if their novel is some sort of political ad and they’re afraid of offending all the Glindas floating around in bubbles. Balance appeals to people, of course, but binary systems of good and evil are zero sum games and that also makes for some incredibly boring stories.

The Balance of Boredom

Why does there have to be a Good Wizard, a Force of Light, or whatever else you want to call the good magic in your story? We don’t have good electricity, after all. There’s just a force or form of energy in the universe, and the good or evil is entirely in how you use it. Use that electricity to build a still in your basement for alcoholic experiments? Good. Use the electricity to shock anyone who rings your doorbell until they resemble a cartoon character, complete with scorched hair and white smoke trailing up from their heads? Evil. But amusing.

The point is, treating magic as a force that has no moral quality enriches your characters, because it means that every time they use magic in your story, you learn something about them. When your characters bring the moral quantity to the magic, their every magical action informs them, shades them. When they’re simply declared to be using the “Light Side” or “good magic,” then it says nothing about them except which Magic User Manual they decided to use.

And having your magic system simply be a force instead of a moral choice also means that characters are free to evolve and develop in increments, subtleties, and more realistically than simply being Evil or Dark one second and Good or Light the next. After all, I didn’t go from Evil Cult Leader to Awesome Writer overnight. It was a journey of baby steps, not to mention decades of legal battles. Your own characters’ evolutions should be similarly complex, and a binary magic system makes that much more difficult.

Then again, Good Witches dressed in prom dresses floating around in bubbles are kind of cool, so I totally get it if you want to ignore this advice.

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