Rewriting the Script: Kameron Hurley, on Rule-bound Magic

Hello, and welcome to the first in what I hope will be a year-long series of monthly posts on, by, or featuring female authors of note! I’m calling it “Rewriting the Script”, and the general intent here is to highlight authors who Do Things Differently. When I received the guest post you’re about to read, I knew it was perfect to kick things off. So! Read on below the cut and see if you agree…

Writing rule-bound magic systems that break all the rules

When I was in the fourth grade, I picked up a book in the library in the biology section called Unicorns I Have Known. As a kid obsessed with all things fantastic, who still wasn’t quite convinced Santa Claus didn’t exist, this incredible book with its full-color photographs of real!live!unicorns! complete with tracking guide and history, was utterly irresistible. I squirreled it home and paged through it for ages, secretly, because deep down, I knew that if I showed it to anyone, they would ruin it. They would find some way to convince me that unicorns weren’t real, that these photos were just a trick, that the whole guide was a fake.
I knew, deep down, none of it was true, of course. That’s why I hid.

But I wanted to believe.

I wanted to hold onto the possibility of something magic before it was totally erased from my life. Just one moment more. One glorious moment.

When I brought the book to school to read, my teacher asked to see it. She smirked over the photos and pointed out that the horses’ manes were always covering the horns. It was just a trick, she said. A pretty trick, but smoke and mirrors. You know it’s a trick, right?

They tell me every magic system I build in my fictional worlds needs to have rules.

There are rules to the impossible. The improbable.

The tricks, they tell us, should only go so far.

Creating “believable” magic systems and magic users requires a strict adherence to the costs and benefits of magic, a lot of writers say. Like any other aspect of your fictional world, you need to understand what magic enables people to do, who’s allowed or can do it, how society views those people, and what its drawbacks and limitations are.

Well, sure.

But what’s the fun in that?

My first novel, God’s War, is not really science fiction, and not really fantasy. At best, it’s a blend of science-fantasy, or fantasy-with-spaceships, because though I have alien emissaries and human colonists, I also have shapeshifters and bug magic, neither of which I spend a whole lot of time trying to explain or justify, in the same way we don’t sit around trying to justify why our world has elephants and gravity. It’s just the way things are.

Hey, unicorns.

As I considered building a magic system based around the manipulation of insects, pen in hand, paper ready, I realized that figuring out all the tricks ahead of time actually bled all the fun out of it for me. Knowing exactly how I was going to, you know, pose all the horses and affix all the horns was just… not fun.

Instead, I set all my studious fantasy-writer-habits aside, and just started writing the book. I wrote “magic based on insects” on a sticky note, and got to work.

One of the things this did was free me from making up rules ahead of time and then breaking them, or writing myself into a corner with them up front. It prevented me from making limits on the scope of what was possible before I even started.

This made the whole process of figuring out the magic system feel totally organic – I was figuring it out as the reader did, watching the magic unfold.

Need to send a message? Call up a swarm of red beetles. I don’t know how it works. Maybe pheromones. Does it matter?. Ok, now we’ve got the radio. Hey, how about the radio projects misty bug-secreted holograms too! People need to swap organs? Ok, well, how about bugs help with healing and infection, so you spit and crap out bugs as you heal up? And if we’re creating vehicles, how about those run on bugs too…

As I wrote I wove insects into the fabric of the story, into everyday life. They became a form of currency. People farmed them. I had to keep track of which sorts of insects did what. Red beetles powered the vehicles. Locusts carried messages, and acted as drones. Cicadas… well, they were kind of a toss-up. Hornets sniffed out explosives and were assigned to trail after shady characters.

What I found as I wrote is that the less restrictions I put on the magic, the more fascinating and complex and all-consuming it became. It wasn’t that it didn’t have rules… it’s just that I didn’t care to set out what they were until I bumped into them in the narrative.

Freeing myself from those restrictions didn’t, for me, result in a less interesting magic system. In fact, it made the process of writing more fun for me. Every time I sat down to write, it was like opening up that book of unicorn photos again, captivated at every new image, hungry for every tidbit of lore I could scrape up. Every time I wrote something new, the magic felt a little more real.

Binding the magic of fictional worlds too tightly to rules before we even begin is like strangling the imagination of a child too soon, before they get to experience that glorious belief in something impossible.

The world is always looking to bind us to it. The world is always setting down the rules. Magic, by its very definition, is a force that resists being bound.

ABOUT Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod,and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF. 

3 thoughts on “Rewriting the Script: Kameron Hurley, on Rule-bound Magic

  1. I am one of those ones who complain about magic with no rules. But, in my case I mean convenient magic. Abilities that appear out of nowhere just in time to solve an inconvenient problem.

    In this case it is often a combo of too many rules followed by no rules at all. For example, the forest dwellers perform earth magic with a predictable onset of powers in puberty. Suddenly a 3 year old toddler manifests fireballs to kill off intruders, just as they break into her home. Wrong magic, wrong age. Too handy. Has never happened before in the entire history of the forest dwellers.

    THAT drives me batty…

    I haven’t read God’s War but bugs are brilliant! There are gazillions of different bugs so a possibility of a gazillion different abilities. I wouldn’t question that either :>)

    Great post!

  2. Too right. Give me a magic system with strict rules laid out in the beginning, well to start with you probably bored me, but even if I buy it I will be the person who remembers those rules and catches the issues when said rules are not followed.

    But I never once questioned the bugs in God’s War. OF COURSE they should be there. And now I know why. Unicorns.

    Great post, hope this feature is always so interesting.

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