Magic, but make it hidden. Let it stay in the background, never fully revealing what it can do. Keep it secret, keep it safe. That’s right, this week we’re talking about mysterious magic. What even is mysterious magic, and how is it different from the non-mysterious variety? What benefits does it offer, and what are its drawbacks? We talk about all that and more, plus a fun time trying and failing to remember a Star Wars character’s name.
Generously transcribed by Raillery. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro Theme]
Oren: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is…
If you keep a careful eye on the podcast, you might notice something unusual. Does one of the hosts have silver eyes that they hide under sunglasses? Do we always arrive precisely on time no matter how bad the traffic is? Do we have an ancient book hidden in the attic that describes the loss songs of far Arcadia?
This week we’re talking about mysterious magic in storytelling.
Chris: I think it’s good to note that mysteriousness is also a requirement for something to be creepy. Creepy is defined partly by being mysterious and maybe vaguely threatening, but in no direct way that you can identify. Wonder also requires mysteriousness. It’s just lighter in mood.
Oren: There are a bunch of ways you can use mysterious magic, but like Chris mentioned, horror is a big one. A lot of horror depends on the magic being mysterious. But what is mysterious magic? What is it?
Chris: It’s a mystery.
Oren: Ooo! It’s magic that isn’t explained, at least not right away. Magic sometimes starts off mysterious and becomes less mysterious as the story goes on.
Chris: But I would say: explained to who? That’s also important here, right? Because it’s not just the audience that we’re talking about. It should not be explained to the audience, but at some level, it shouldn’t be explained to the protagonist or just the world in general. People should not fully understand magic if you want it to be mysterious.
Oren: For example, you could have a portal fantasy story where your protagonist is thrown into a world where everyone has magic, uses it all the time, and it’s just out in the open. The protagonist wouldn’t understand how that works, but like everybody else would. And if it was in the open, it wouldn’t stay mysterious for any length of time.
Chris: If it’s part of everyday life, then it’s not mysterious anymore. It becomes mundane.
Oren: Sometimes you can get away with having one person on the main cast who understands the magic, as long as it’s not the protagonist. This is the Rogue One approach, where it is probably the first entry in the Star Wars franchise in a long time where the Force has been kind of mysterious.
Chris: Right, but there also isn’t really much in the way of Jedi in Rogue One, is there? So that’s a good thing to point out: when we have people who are on-screen, who can call the force at will to do things with it, and use it whenever they want to, it’s not really mysterious anymore. But then when we switch to a movie where now it’s something that people can’t just use whenever they feel like it and they have to pray or whatever and then maybe it’ll come, now it’s mysterious.
Oren: Yeah. The Stick Guy (I can’t remember any of the characters’ actual names in Rogue One)…There’s an implication that he knows more about the Force than the other characters, but he definitely can’t just call on it at will. So even if he does know more, it’s still feels very mysterious.
Chris: I do think it’s very helpful if the person who knows about magic is themself mysterious. We don’t really know how much Stick Man knows, just to continue calling him Stick Man.
Oren: I don’t remember his name, I’m sorry.
Chris: There’s other stories like that: The Red Lady in Game of Thrones. She herself is pretty mysterious and she’s the only one who understands how to wield magic.
Oren: Magic in Game of Thrones is pretty mysterious in any case. The Others are not something that anyone really knows anything about, so the characters have to discover how they work as the story goes forward. They have to discover how obsidian and Valerian Steel work. That isn’t something that’s known to them at the start of the story.
Chris: Basically, if you present it as a normal thing… We’ve seen this in books like Mistwick, this mystery school of magic, which is based on music being magical. But it doesn’t feel mysterious, which is too bad because music and magic based on music definitely has the capability to feel very mysterious. For one thing, it works just like normal music does. It’s just that music happens to be spell casting in the setting. Unless music feels mysterious to you and musicians are mysterious to you-
Oren: Very strange creatures.
Chris: -we already understand completely the methods of spell casting. People just use it everywhere all the time. It’s like magi-tech.
Oren: It becomes mundane very quickly. The fact that the world has basically the same history as the real world, despite having this huge magic change, also just makes it feel even more mundane. Apparently World War II happened basically the same way, despite all musicians being magical.
There are some major advantages that come with mysterious magic. First, you don’t have to explain it as much. Although that doesn’t mean that you should just throw it all to the wind and say ‘Whatever, it can do anything’ as that’s still a problem. But it does save you some time because you aren’t having to explain how it works because the protagonist is constantly using it.
Chris: Yeah. I will say that whether the storyteller understands magic is separate from whether you explain it, which is something that’s hard for some people to grasp. It’s hard to imagine ‘Oh, I took all the time to work out the rules of my magic system, so wouldn’t I then put that all in the text?’ No, you don’t have to; you can keep it secret. Keep it secret, keep it safe.
Your audience doesn’t need to know just because you came up with it. But in any case, it’s mysterious specifically because it’s not explained, which is separate from how well you understand it as a storyteller.
Oren: It creates a feeling of wonder and makes the world feel bigger, because magic could be anywhere. But we don’t know what it is, so it still feels unusual and different. It also can help increase a certain amount of wish fulfillment because it helps sell the you-could-be-living-in-a-magic-world fantasy. It also means that you don’t have to change your world as much to account for how magic would affect it because the magic is all hidden. So you don’t have to be constantly wondering ‘Would World War II still have happened?’
Chris: Yeah, it’s basically a masquerade. If it’s mysterious and you’re using the real world, you pretty much have to have a masquerade.
Oren: That does get into one of the disadvantages: you have to explain why and how magic is hidden. That gets harder to do the more magic there is. In something like Game of Thrones, which has a very good built-in explanation of magic basically existing in cycles, the reason magic is hidden now is because it hasn’t been around for a really long time.
Chris: I think more people should use the magic-is-coming-back explanation. It depends on your setting, but that’s very handy
Oren: There are a few other ways to do it, but it gets really hard when you want to have an entire magic world hidden behind the veil. That’s when you start to get into the inexplicable masquerade. Once your character walks up amd crosses over, it’s not mysterious anymore. Technically speaking, urban fantasy shows like Buffy and Supernatural have masquerades, but obviously once the character crosses the masquerade, now they just know how magic works. It’s not mysterious, right?
The final disadvantage that is important to remember is that your protagonist cannot start off knowing magic if you want it to be mysterious. That sounds obvious, but it’s a thing I’ve seen authors struggle with. They want the magic to be mysterious, but they also want the protagonist to know how to use it.
Chris: Nope, that does not work. What you can do is have your protagonists discover it and then learn how to use it. What’s going to happen is it will become less mysterious the more that they know. But that’s usually fine because you can use the mysteriousness for novelty at the beginning of your story when they’re discovering it. Then as the tension ramps up, that can take over entertaining your audience. So it’s okay if the magic has a little less novelty. Gotta watch the ANTS. They have different roles.
Oren: Yeah. ANTS are very important.
Chris: Should we talk a little bit about how to depict your magic as mysterious? Because, yes, we’ve talked a lot about just not explaining it, as that’s the main thing that makes it a mysterious. But there are also ways that you can embellish and depict it and make it evocative but mysterious.
Oren: I was hoping you could tell me some of those, because I’m bad at this.
Chris: Okay. So it can’t be everywhere. It has to be used sparingly. Less is more, especially with magic effects. We’re always telling people to use the minimum amount of magic that is necessary to achieve your goals. Make it mysterious, or else you’re going to be trying to escalate to make it cooler and cooler with bigger and bigger effects. It’s going to get it out of hand very quickly. Just a little bit can mean a lot. When magic appears, your goal is for it to bring up questions.
This is why subtlety and little bits of magic work so well, because the question raised is ‘Is that actually magic? Or did I imagine it? Or was it just coincidence? Did I only think I’m putting the book back on the shelf only for the book to appear back on the table?’
After the protagonist has put this book away or thinks they put this book away like five times and it’s still on the table instead of the shelf, they start questioning. ‘Okay, what’s going on here? Did I not remember taking it out again? Did I forget to put it away?’ And we have to question whether there’s magic taking place, why it happens when it happens, or where it came from.
For instance, if you have something mysteriously sliding along the floor and you just don’t know even what the cause of that motion is, that’s going to have a stronger mysteriousness effect than if you actually saw somebody wave a wand. You would know where it came from if somebody waves a wand. If something just happens, that’s more mysterious.
There could be a light moving around the room and things are changing colors and shimmering. What is this? Is this just like a visual effect? Is it opening a portal to somewhere else? You don’t have to do all of these things to make magic mysterious. We can have some things raise questions, but have other things be more obvious. The more you bring up these questions, the higher the mysterious factor is for your magic.
Oren: That’s why it’s way cooler to have someone turn a corner and then not be there when the protagonist goes around the corner than it is to watch them teleport away.
Chris: Of course, you can build up the mystery with some flavor or background that evokes the imagination. The goal here is to come up with possibilities, legends about magic and where it came from, or strange events that happened in the past that might be due to magic. Those are good for this.
Or you can have aesthetics that are evocative. Just being good with your description helps in creating some concrete imagery. If every time magic happens, I can smell the ocean or it leaves green webbing marks on the floor, those are very like concrete things that add some visceral quality to the magic. That can just give it more flavor.
Oren: One thing that I would generally recommend- you don’t always need to do this, but this is a good standby position- is making your magic on the simpler side if it’s going to be mysterious. The whole point of it being mysterious is that your protagonist doesn’t know how it works and is going to need to find out for themselves. That process is usually going to take time and it’s going to need to go through a couple steps.
A problem that I run into sometimes in both published work and in manuscripts is that the magic will be mysterious and cool and the protagonists will be investigating, but then they’ll just run into somebody or find a book that just exposits how magic works. That’s really disappointing. The big reason why it happens is that the author has made their magic too complicated and there’s no way to explain it within the bounds of the story in a mysterious the-protagonist-discovers-things-naturally kind of way, so the author had to throw in an expo dump to catch the character up with where you need them to be.
Chris: Keep it simple and also prepare. Give yourself time to introduce it slowly instead of needing your protagonist to suddenly understand it all at once, so that they can get it one piece at a time.
Even a spell book in itself is just demystifying if you can just open up to your spells and, on command, cast any spell in there. If you’re going to do a spell book and you want it to remain mysterious, you definitely want the spell book itself to be mysterious. For example, you open the spell book, all the pages look blank, and then sometimes, seemingly randomly, one of the pages presents the directions for a spell appear for a limited time. Then the protagonist has to cast a spell before it slowly fades away.
Oren: For a limited time only, 15% off Magic Missile.
Chris: Don’t do that. That’s not mysterious.
Again, make your magic book mysterious and dish out info one piece at a time. For example, magic tends to appear whenever I light this lamp or whatever your metaphysical explanation is. Or the sun has to shine through this lens. Or the planets have to align. One piece at a time.
Oren: You can also employ similar strategies to make one kind of magic mysterious even when another kind is not, as long as they are distinct.
‘I’m a wizard and I cast wizard spells. But oh man, this one wizard spell is mysterious and weird.’ That’s not going to work. That’s just the same kind of magic. But if you, for example, have an urban fantasy setting in which different creatures have their own like innate abilities, and those are understood and not mysterious, but then they start to uncover weird, creepy rituals that have a cosmic horror flavor to them, that can be mysterious. That’s clearly different, a different kind of supernatural.
Chris: I would definitely say in that instance that you want the mysterious magic to be capable of effects that the mundane magic is not.
Oren: Right, it can’t just be differently flavored. It has to be able to do different things and there have to be material differences.
Chris: That way you can still get some wonder about how this happened, which you couldn’t achieve if it’s possible to do that by mundane means.
Oren: Or at least by understood means.
Chris: It would help, again, if they’re distinct so that the audience thinks of them differently. In this case, it’s almost better if the mundane magic is as mundane as possible so that we don’t think about it when mysterious things start happening. That’s another way to make them more distinct.
Oren: You can also do this with technology because technology and magic are very similar. A lot of the time, something that is mysterious magic can also be strange alien technology that you don’t understand, or even human technology that’s been kept secret.
The Light Brigade is one of my favorite books and the whole point of that book is the protagonist trying to figure out why and how they are jumping through time. It’s being caused by technology, but it’s technology that the protagonist doesn’t understand because it’s controlled by some bad guys. That’s a very cool way to do a mystery story.
Chris: You can also have mysteries of the world. A book that I’ve talked about is Brandon Sanderson’s Elantras, where the magic is broken and the protagonist is specifically trying to figure out how it works so that he can repair it. That’s kind of an interesting one.
We can go back to the question of whether you need to understand the rules of your magic system. I do think that mysterious magic is a better match for an arbitrary magic system relative to magic that people understand. Because it’s not shown as much to the audience, there’s not as much pressure for you to understand it.
At the same time, there are still some situations where you might want to make rational rules and reason out exactly how your magic works and how those effects are created. It helps you stay consistent and can help it make it feel like there’s something deeper going on instead of making it feel contrived.
This is what I like about the magic in Song of Ice and Fire. I don’t know whether, if you get deep into it, it actually makes sense, but certainly feels from the outside like it has a logic behind it because it has these two opposing elements of ice and fire. So it certainly feels like it has some kind of rules despite the fact that it’s mysterious and really enhances it.
The nice thing about arbitrariness, that is, not coming up with rules but just defining each magical effect separately, is that you can do a lot of effects that you don’t later have to explain why that was in place. If you want people to hold hands and walk slowly in a circle, you don’t have to explain why they did that. Whereas if you’re actually getting deep and down into explaining exactly how the facts are created, now you need a reason why people behave that way, compared to if you just say ‘When people hold hands and walk in a circle and sing a thing, this effect is just created. I don’t know why it’s created. That’s just what happens and they memorize every single spell separately.’ There are definitely benefits to having a good understanding of your magic system, even if it’s going to be mysterious.
Oren: Having it mysterious will give you some some cushion, but there are still going to be points where the audience is going to be like ‘You clearly don’t know how your magic system works.’ If your protagonist comes across a mysterious creature that becomes their familiar and they don’t know where it came from, but in one scene it can wipe out an army and in another scene it’s scared of a bandit, that’s going to be a problem. People are going to ask me, ‘Why can’t it wipe out the bandit?’ Even though technically there might be an explanation, it’s going to feel inconsistent.
Chris: Certainly if you don’t know how your magic system works and you’re just sort of making up each magic effects separately as it appears in the story, you have to work a lot harder to make it feel consistent and to make sure it never gets too powerful and out of hand.
Oren: Gandalf has this problem in Lord of the Rings where his magic is very mysterious and it never really says how it works or what he can do. This is mostly fine but there are definitely some sequences where, earlier in the story, he was able to fight a balrog to a standstill. Therefore, it seems like he could probably get through whatever problem he’s facing right now without too much trouble. Or in hindsight, it’s like ‘How come he was running away from that ring wraith when he was able to fight a balrog? It seems like you could take that ring wraith.’
Chris: I do have posts with tips if you’re going to do an arbitrary system where you don’t want to have to worry about coming up with exactly how magic works and you just want to create magic effects that work for like that one scene.
Oren: Another example of a story that does this very well is The Southern Reach, the Area X books. This is another example where it’s technically technology by the end, but it’s still basically magic. The whole point of The Southern Reach is that nobody knows how anything works, and the story works really well. It creates a lot of really intense mystery with both horror and wonder as the protagonists are wandering through this pristine wilderness where there are weird creatures in the shadows that might kill them. That’s scary, but it’s also awe-inspiring. That’s a really good use of mysterious magic.
The downside is that it’s pretty clear that there was no plan behind the scenes. So by the end, when the story is trying to give you an answer to this mystery of how Area X works, there’s basically just a big set of question marks. It’s never really given a satisfactory answer.
Chris: I will say that in Area X, what was happening within was set up as the throughline for the book, to a large degree. That was the central mystery. If you’re going to do that for a story, the bar is very high for coming up with an answer that is both unpredictable and makes sense. So you really have to plan things out if you want to pull that off. Or revise a lot, obviously.
If you have mysterious magic in your story and you have another plot happening that is providing most of the tension, then you don’t necessarily have tons of pressure to show what’s happening behind the scenes.
Oren: The mysterious magic doesn’t necessarily have to be your plot. But in Area X it was, and that created an issue.
Chris: Similar to Lost, right? We just have these random things happening. We’re creating all of these plot hooks and not thinking about how we will create satisfaction when we actually reveal what’s going on in the end.
Oren: We’re over-promising. We’re like ‘Hey guys, we promise all of this will make sense.’ In Area X’s defense, the things that happen in Area X are way more in-theme than in Lost. In Lost, a whole bunch of random stuff happens and it doesn’t feel in-theme at all. Sometimes the island is weird and magical and sometimes there’s a mystery of why a guy brought like five extra guns on the plane. Those are not the same. Those are different. At that point it, doesn’t really even feel so much mysterious as I’m just making things up and promising we’ll tie it together later and I clearly can’t.
Chris: In your story, you could have mysterious magic and the protagonist needs it to solve a big outside problem. They figure out just enough of it to invoke some magic at the end to help solve that problem in a clever way, but they still end the story not really understanding fully how magic works or where it comes from.
A good example of escalating magic so that it’s still mysterious, but less mysterious is actually Lord of the Rings. In Lord of the Rings, we start in the Shire and that setting establishes what is normal. We have no magic happening in the Shire, it’s just these little hobbits and they’re having their meals and having little family squabbles and having a great time. That’s there to set up that when the hobbits leave and encounter wondrous things, those things actually seem wondrous.
But the more time that we spend in the rest of the world, the less wondrous those will seem, but it’s still a way that we can make magic more mysterious. It still did depend on elves being a little coy with her magic though. I think you were going to give an example of in which you wonder into another country or you go through a portal and everybody’s just using magic all the time and it’s nothing, I think that would have ruined the effect.
Oren: That’s an issue with a number of stories that I’ve read and that I’ve worked on. A protagonist will be looking for a secret book that details a long-lost rite and that this is the first they’ve heard of magic. They’re like trying to figure out if it could possibly be real and then they just meet somebody from like the magic country and it’s like ‘Hang on, a minute.’ Not only does this ruin the mystical effects, but how did we not know about magic if it’s so common? Lord of the Rings definitely has that problem where nobody in Lord of the Rings travels.
Chris: Yeah, it’s surprisingly isolated.
Oren: Which is ironic because it’s an entire story about traveling, but Lord of the Rings acts like everyone just stays in their bubble constantly so there’s no cultural interchange. That makes the magic premise work, but it also makes the world less robust and less likely to stand up to any kind of examination.
One story that I never get tired of saying good things about that has a really interesting set of mysterious magic is the Curse of Chalion. It’s a great book in general, but also involves the protagonist trying to figure out how this divine magic system works where no one really knows how magic works because it comes from the gods and the gods can’t communicate with you. They can’t have a conversation, so you have to try to figure out what they’re doing and why. That was very interesting. It created a cool mystery and it felt wondrous because nobody in this setting can call down lightning bolts. The magic doesn’t have that kind of control.
A big part of the story is trying to arrange things properly so that we can figure out what the gods actually want in this scenario. It walks a tightrope that a lot of stories fall off of. If gods exist in the setting and they want things, why don’t they just tell you?
Chris: It’s one of the few examples of a good divine magic system out there, because gods are basically super-powerful wizards hanging out that can do whatever they want. So then you’re struggling to find out why they don’t do everything they want and have everything go their way if the gods are so powerful as Curse of Chalion sets up. There’s like a limit to how much the gods can affect the world and that works really well. And again, it’s slowly introduced and the protagonist slowly figures it out. That’s what enables it to be mysterious.
Oren: So with that last example, I think we will go ahead and call this episode. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Closing Theme]
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