Classic fantasy spellcasting wouldn’t be the same without incantations, but they’re challenging to work into a magic system. First, you have to create incantations that sound mysterious rather than silly. Second, language is so variable that it’s difficult to pin down how a specific phrase will affect a spell. If you’re interested in including incantations in your magic system, let’s examine your options.
What Language Should Incantations Be In?
Your choice of language will determine what you’ll need to do to make your incantations feel mysterious and believable.
A Magical Conlang
Like many other fantasy stories, you could invent your own magical language. This approach makes it much easier to explain how speaking the incantation produces a magical effect. So, if you’ll be putting a lot of focus on how magic works in your story or you want to make your magic system as rational as you can, this is a good choice.
Of course, you’ll have to make up a fictional language. Creating a few invented words just to use in spellcasting doesn’t have to be that time-consuming. However, it can be difficult to ensure your invented words don’t sound silly to your audience. You don’t want your incantations to feel like the ones in Eragon, in which the Shade shouts “Garjzla!” to shoot red bolts from his hands.
Thankfully, you probably don’t have to invent specific words if you don’t want to. In many stories, you can summarize magical speaking instead of writing it all out. For instance, you might describe how a character’s speaking the language of water elementals speaks words that sound like a bubbling brook. If you have lots of long incantations, this will also be less boring to readers than seeing a bunch of words they don’t understand.
However, this could become weird if your story makes exactly what magic casters are saying feel important. For instance, a story about a magic school may have the protagonist spend much of the story learning how to speak a magical language. In these cases, the audience may expect to hear some specific words.
Another option that makes avoiding spoken words easy is to express the language through something other than spoken word. Maybe it’s composed entirely of symbols, movements, or music. It’s much easier to draw mysterious-looking symbols, and readers of a narrated work won’t expect to know exactly what symbols or movements look like.
Latin or Another Dead Language
Using a real language that your audience doesn’t know avoids the risk of picking words that look silly. Because Latin in particular has been used for magic so often, it also sounds magical to Western audiences. This means they won’t look as closely at your incantations or think too hard about what their purpose is.
However, using a real language also comes with downsides. For one thing, a few of your readers will inevitably know the language. If you don’t know it and you aren’t careful, you can expect those people to tell everyone else that your incantations are laughable nonsense. But on the plus side, reference materials are available for Latin and many other languages, so looking up a few key words related to your spell usually isn’t difficult.
If you’re not using Latin, you need to examine whether using the language might come off as appropriative or otherwise disrespectful. Latin works great not just because it’s a dead language, but also because it’s the dead language of a powerful Western empire. Pretending that Latin is mysterious and magical doesn’t harm anyone.
With another language, you need to do some homework. Even if the language is dead, there could be living people who consider that language part of their heritage. Depicting the language as magical could exotify those people. This doesn’t mean that only Latin is okay, just that you need to double-check that the language you’re using isn’t sensitive.
Unfortunately, real languages also aren’t a good fit for a story that encourages the audience to think about how its magic works. If you’re using an arbitrary magic system where you specifically define each spell and its precise effect, you could be okay. But once you call attention to spell invention or engineering, audiences will start to wonder why magic only works in Latin. Unless your magic is powered by a Roman god, you’ll have trouble explaining that.
This becomes an issue in Harry Potter, which has arbitrary spells as mentioned. For readers who don’t know Latin, all is well until book five, when we see some records from a student inventing spells. The idea of a student inventing spells feels unbelievable because the mechanics of Potterverse spells don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason, and the Latin incantations are part of that. Somehow, other wizards can repeat a short phrase they don’t understand and get the same newly invented effect. Is inventing a spell just a matter of saying a random Latin word and seeing what happens? If so, why don’t students do that more often? And again, why Latin?
English or the Audience’s Language
If you’re fed up with mysterious languages, you can just write the incantations out so audiences understand. Naturally, the downside of this is that your incantations will be less mysterious, and with the lack of mystery comes more scrutiny. Your incantations could sound silly just because audiences think your wording is awkward or cheesy.
That means that you’ll spend proportionally more effort futzing with the exact wording of each spell to make it sound appropriately magical and avoid embarrassing yourself. If you love writing poetry, this may be a great use of your time. Otherwise, it could be a lot of pressure.
However, your incantations don’t have to rhyme. There are other poetic devices you can use with less effort. Besides poetry, prayers and other ceremonial language are also good inspiration for incantations.
You can also reduce the number of incantations you have to write by reusing phrases. Maybe there’s one phrase that’s always used with fire magic, and another that’s used with water magic. Just keep in mind that this could get repetitive for readers, so summarize these incantations when they’re used frequently or when the spell isn’t as important to the plot.
What Role Do Incantations Fill in Spellwork?
It’s impossible to quantify everything someone could say. That makes incorporating speech into a rational magic system – where the effects of magic can be extrapolated and anticipated – difficult. However, storytellers still have options for doing so.
If you’re using a magical conlang, you can say that the language inherently has power over reality. Speak it and it becomes true. Generally, this should come with an explanation that the language was used by the gods to create the world or something similar.
However, you’ll also need to severely limit how much of the language can be used or what it can be used for. Otherwise, you’ll have a system where magic can do literally anything. This freedom may seem fun at first, but people rewinding time and bringing back dead characters will break any plot.
One option is using a true name system like in Le Guin’s Earthsea books. In these cases, the magical language only includes the names of nouns, and these names allow the mage to target that item with magic. Other limits can be placed on what magical effects mages can use on their targets. The downside is that incantations are just one word, which may not be what you want aesthetically.
Magical effects can also be limited by what small portions of the language are known to people, but once your protagonist learns more, it’ll be hard to go back. In all likelihood, you’ll need limits on your magic besides the constraints that come with using the magical language.
Communicating to Magical Beings
If your magic is implemented via an outside intelligence like spirits, demons, elementals, or gods, your spellcaster could simply be speaking to them. In this case, magical effects are based on what those beings can and will do on behalf of the spellcaster. That means that the full range of the language can be used without complicating the magic system.
However, your incantations can still be plot important if your magical beings are finicky about how they’re addressed. Maybe they take everything literally, so your spellcaster must word all their directions carefully. Malicious beings might look for loopholes, and prideful ones might get angry if their proper title and full name aren’t spoken with perfect pronunciation. Perhaps your magical beings still need to be spoken to in a ritualistic manner, allowing you to reuse some of your incantations.
Aiding Concentration or Maintaining Tradition
If you like the aesthetics of incantations but you don’t need them to be plot important, you can also use incantations that don’t influence magic directly. In that case, you’ll need another reason why spellcasters use them.
If the magic requires a lot of concentration from spellcasters, the incantations might help them focus. Perhaps speaking the effect the spell should have helps them imagine that outcome. Alternately, they might come from a long line of spellcasters with traditional incantations, and the repeated association between the incantation and the effect helps. The spellcaster might also have a mantra that helps them enter an altered state of consciousness.
If spellcasting is a religious exercise, it will also feel natural for the spellcaster to speak prayers as a sign of devotion. These types of incantations would probably be skipped if the spellcaster is in an emergency situation and short on time, but otherwise it should be believable.
Sometimes, using an arbitrary magic system is easier. If you create a specific list of spells whose inner workings aren’t revealed, then you can put anything in there without explaining why it’s needed. But then you also have to carefully keep track of spells, plan ahead, and teach your audience about each one. Using a rational system takes care of those problems, and you can still depict witches that chant over a cauldron as they add eye of newt to the brew. You just have to think harder about why they are doing that.
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