Category: Fictionalysis

Fictionalysis – Magic in a Modern Setting

It’s another off-Thursday and you know what that means! Another new out-of-left-field type of post. Fictionalysis is pretty self-explanatory, these types of posts are going to see me looking into various topics regarding the writing of fiction. The first topic that we’re going to be looking at is the implementation of magic in more modern and realistic settings. This was spurred by a conversation on discord that left a lot of thoughts to be fully explored. I wasn’t able to fully lay out my thoughts on the subject there but now I am not limited by the restraints of live interactions with other human beings!

What made this topic so interesting to me is the contradiction in a modern setting like our own but with magic. Trying to make magic a pre-established world element like in the more common medieval-style settings is difficult, because a world like that is not our world. The existence of magic would change the course of development in human societies drastically. In some cases for better and in others for worse, the important thing to take in is that it would lead to something that doesn’t look like our modern day. When trying to accurately determine why, I first looked into what magic does for any given fictional world.

I see magic as adding three major things to any setting; convenience, danger and unpredictability. Convenience refers to the ways that magic can help society or make things easier. Healing magic can help people die less, water magic or weather manipulation could aid drought-ridden nations and compulsion spells could force an accused criminal to tell the truth in a trial. Just a few examples, though even just between these three things there would be some major changes to the worlds. Medical fields would change entirely, more nations would be given the chance to properly develop and flourish and law would theoretically be far easier to uphold.

Danger refers to the ways in which magic can be controversial or harmful. Even among my convenience examples, the use of compulsion spells could just as easily fit into this category. While it could certainly be used to attain the truth, you have to question the morals of using a mind-altering effect to reach it. Who’s to say the caster can’t be themselves corrupt and thus force the accused to admit to a crime they didn’t commit? Or let go a heinous criminal who just so happened to be rich enough or have a high enough status. In terms of effecting the mind, magic has the potential to be far more potent than any drug. However, in the grand scheme, this is a pretty minor example of the kind of danger magic adds to a society.

Conjuration is perhaps the most common form of magic in fiction. This encompasses the creation of elements such as fire or ice from nothing. This is all well and good when it’s being used by a group of plucky adventurers against some Goblins but it becomes less fun in a real life scenario. Everything becomes a lot scarier when anyone around you could just produce a fireball. It practically creates a situation where everyone around you is holding an invisible gun, one potentially far more dangerous than the arms of our modern world. Even defensive magic becomes bad when a serial killer is using it to defend themselves. Terrorist acts become far easier to carry out and war changes completely with these magics in the world.

Just to make this easier to visualize, let’s look at the spell fireball from advanced Dungeons and Dragons. When fireball goes off, it detonates into a 20ft radius sphere. The description of the spell also claims that it “melts soft metals such as gold, silver, and copper”. From this, we can assume that fireball could melt a 20ft radius hemisphere made entirely out of gold. Gold is the best to use for this calculation, since it has a very high density. Assuming a successful melting, this would mean that fireball has a yield of 0.235 kilotons of force. This is nuclear levels of energy. This fireball is over 900 times more powerful than a shot from a tank. It’s also worth noting that in the D&D setting, this is a fairly low-level spell.

Lastly, we have unpredictability. Magic tends to be an unknowable force with origins left unexplained. Some settings will create sources of magic in the form of a deity or patron or a powerful object but a great many stories just won’t touch on the subject. Regardless, magic retains an enigmatic air and exactly what it can do is left vague. Because of this, a writer can just use magic to explain away elements of their story. Why did that world-scale reality warping happen? Magic! Why did everyone just forget about it immediately afterwards? You know, I got the feeling that it’s probably magic. Unpredictability, for better or for worse, is the safety net when writing a setting with magic. No one can call it an inconsistency if you never said magic couldn’t do it.

In terms of our real-life scenario, unpredictability would likely manifest in two ways. First would feed into the aspect of danger, since people are more likely to fear magic if no one is fully certain of what it’s capable of. Second, it would create new curiosities in the world. It would be an entirely new field of research, perhaps even several fields given all the kinds of magic that there are. The yield of such research, even in just unlocking the secrets and potential of magic, would mold the future development of our species. Since magic can produce energy from seemingly nowhere, it could lead to discoveries such as infinite energy sources. It’s unpredictable, the only certainty would be in it being something major.

From these three points, we’ve determined that our present and future would be changed completely with the presence of magic. Because of this, it would be nigh-impossible to create a realistic, modern setting while retaining it as a world element. While you could create a realistic what-if, you couldn’t make a world that’s just like ours. I’m far from the type to try and shut down creativity, though. It’s my belief that modern-magic settings are something that haven’t fully been explored to their potential. It’s the same story with historical non-England based settings. Creative solutions exist to these issues with implementation and we get nowhere without trying to reach them.

The most commonly used solution is the hidden world route. These are the settings that take place in our world but beyond the norm there is another, more mystical society. They’re meant to be believable in the sense that magic is real, it’s just that any mundane person isn’t able to interact with it. Harry Potter is a well-known example of this type of setting. To an extent, Bleach also fills this criteria. These settings are built such that magic can exist in the world without effecting it. Even if it does, there are those with the ability to cover up the phenomena. Commonly, these stories will have major story elements revolving around keeping magic a secret from the mundane world.

In the conversation that spawned this post, these hidden world settings were seen as cop-outs. A lazy way of having magic in the world without there being any consequences. While I would say that creating a magic system in itself is difficult, I would agree that it’s very easy to just say that the world at large isn’t aware of it. It avoids the world-changing issues of magic being a regular part of society without limiting what magic can possibly do. These stories have value in the sense that they make it easier for a viewer to imagine themselves becoming a part of the hidden world, which is why they’re so widely used. There’s good and bad to this solution but it’s overall a decent compromise for the magic in a modern setting issue.

The next thing to talk about are settings that use magic in a limited capacity. Either the magic has hard rules to it or it can only be used by a rare handful of people. In these settings, the supernatural force is rarely referred to as ‘magic’. These are the likes of your superhero comics where characters have very particular abilities that they can use. This takes away magic’s element of unpredictability and limits its potential convenience and danger. Referred to as ‘powers’ or maybe even ‘curses’ in these types of scenarios, the hard limit for what it can do is usually made clear. A character has a power or set of powers and potentially weaknesses and the extent of that is detailed.

Just to clear the mentality a bit, this isn’t limited to just superhero stories. When I say curses, I’m referring to things like vampire or werewolf tales. Generally, when a vampire is introduced into a story, you know what the vampire is going to do and be capable of. It’s this certainty that makes these stories work in our world. The amount of change that these entities can make in the world is entirely tied to their limited abilities. It isn’t something that can be harnessed or researched to be developed further. It’s our world with an addition that’s been made minor enough to not change everything.

On the superhero side of things, this is where a major flaw comes in. Urban superhero stories fit into the above description quite well but when you get into things like Superman, whose abilities can effect the entire planet, things get a bit hazy. At that point, it becomes absolutely ridiculous trying to maintain a realistic world for them to be in. There’s no point, since our world doesn’t matter at that point. It becomes little more than a stake to be put on the line when any given world-ending entity shows up. Even if mundane folks are aware of the supernatural things in the world, they couldn’t possibly do anything about it. In fact, it’s likely the the world would fall into despair, just waiting for the day the heroes fail.

So, to some extent, this approach can work. Magic/supernatural elements can be implemented into our world if it’s heavily limited. This can make for great stories of individuals and retains a level of viewer-projecting by letting them imagine if they were the ones with powers. It doesn’t work as a system, though. Magic isn’t really a part of the world when its elements are confined to a chosen individual. It’s hard to imagine rules for it when your hero was made by [INSERT NUCLEAR THING HERE] happening to them. This issue is somewhat improved upon in vampire/werewolf more folklore-y stories due to the defined ways such entities are made but, again, it only works to an extent.

Since vampires and werewolves only make other vampires and werewolves, it becomes progressively more boring as more of them are made. Vampires suffer less from this issue due to the variety of kinds there are in fiction but there are roadblocks even in variance. If vampires just start spreading and taking over the world then you have something similar to the Superman problem. If they spread but remain hidden then you’ve just transitioned into a hidden world frame. My personal view is that there’s only so far the implementation of magic or the supernatural can go without unpredictability. Without the variance it brings, it’s hard to make magic an intrinsic part of the world. Hard, but not impossible.

I would say that one of the best examples of supernatural elements in a modern setting comes from My Hero Academia. This is a story where each individual has a power without any jarring origin stories tossed in. As with other superhero stories, the supernatural elements are limited to the powers each individual has. However, the element of variance thrives in everyone having their own particular ability. It’s a creative use of the limited frame that opens the way for a lot more realistic elements to be retained than in other stories. While MHA might not be particularly realistic in itself, with its societal balance dictated by the acts of superheroes and supervillains, it reveals this direction.

It’s a way for supernatural elements to come to the world without them being abused quite so badly. One person having a healing ability won’t change the medical field because they can’t possibly be everywhere. Current medical knowledge has to be retained and properly practiced because it isn’t viable to rely on a handful of people with specialized powers. So long as everyone’s special abilities are recorded when they initially manifest, danger cases can be limited. While research would go into figuring out what brought about these abilities, it wouldn’t change the entire direction of society. Things would change drastically but in the end the world wouldn’t be unrecognizable from our own.

In this case, the limited nature of MHA’s quirks work for the better. Because only certain individuals have certain powers, and each person has their own personality and goal, they won’t reliably cause world-changing effects. Sure, there would be a lingering danger factor in those who abuse their abilities, but they can only be as threatening as their power. It isn’t nearly as extreme as everyone in the world potentially carrying an invisible portable nuclear device. The world is altered enough to make for an interesting story but it isn’t a complete departure from the world we know. I think there’s a modern-realistic MHA-like story to be told, without the heavy focus on heroes and villains.

I think I’ve about exhausted the thoughts that I had on the subject but I have no doubts that there’s a lot that I didn’t touch. If there’s one takeaway that I want you to have, though, it’s that there are more stories yet to be told. More ways for magic to be used and twisted and made into fuel for fantastic future tales. That’s why everyone should have their own take, make their own stories. Our world, so hideously mundane, is much more exciting when stuff like this is explored. It’s not a shock why so many try to escape into works of fiction. Perhaps your work could be the next that people find investment in.