Since the release of Restrictions May Apply: Building Limits for Your Magic, I have started work on my next book. I won’t give away many details yet, unless you happen to be on my mailing list, but it has led to some interesting discoveries. One such discovery is the power of perspective when building a magic system.
Perspective may seem like an odd thing to talk about on a magic-building blog, but it is a bigger part of the process than you think. In this post, we’ll go over what perspective is, why it’s important, look at a couple of examples, and discuss how you can use it for yourself.
What is Perspective?
Perspective is the specific point of view you take while building or analyzing a magic system.
It’s really as simple as that. Your natural perspective will be that of the magic system creator… because you are. But that’s not the only perspective that exists. Your audience will witness it from the outside, your characters will experience it first-hand, your world will mingle and meld with it, entire nations will accept or reject it entirely, and so on.
There are dozens of different perspectives for every magic system out there, and yours is no different.
Why is Perspective Important?
When you write a story or build a magic system, you are crafting an experience for your readers and your characters. Understanding their perspective and how they interact with the magic will help you craft the exact experience you want them to have.
You are also giving yourself control over how wide or narrow your focus is.
If you select a perspective that can only witness a small portion of the system, you can focus on the fine details of that section without being distracted by the rest of the system. Of course, you can always set the perspective to capture the entire system at once, or even to include the entire fictional universe the magic lives in.
Knowing the details of your own perspective makes mapping out and building the rest of your magic system easier. A properly stated perspective will clearly outline the area you’re exploring and will help limit the sense of overwhelm that often comes with such a large effort.
The perspectives you choose won’t directly impact the plot, setting, or characters of your story, but it can improve them. When done correctly, it allows you to step into the minds of your characters and fully understand how they view and understand the magic.
At this point, taking the time to set your perspective might seem interesting but not especially useful. Not only is it useful, but proper implementation of perspective is essential to developing a fully realized, three-dimensional magic system. Try mapping out your magic system multiple times using a unique perspective each time and you’ll see what I mean.
Let’s look at some examples and it should all make sense.
Perspectives for the Mistborn Trilogy
Normally, I’d talk about the Creator’s Perspective or the Universal Perspective. I can’t do that in this case because I’m not Brandon Sanderson and I don’t know everything about how the magic fits into the universe. That’s okay because we call still look at one of the most important perspectives of them all.
The Reader’s Perspective
Everything we know about the magic system as readers comes directly from the narrative of the books. From reading the Mistborn series multiple times, I would classify the metallic arts as hard-rational magic systems with low prevalence and high consistency.
Over the course of the series, it exposes the reader to the vast majority of the magic systems of Allomancy, Feruchemy, and to a lesser extent, Hemalurgy making them hard systems. The logical rules and restrictions allow us to extrapolate applications and tricks before they appear in the story itself. That makes them rational systems. The ability to perform magic is rare among the population but is consistent both thematically and mechanically throughout the series.
But all of that is from the reader’s point of view. What does the magic look like if we pick up another perspective?
Vin’s Perspective (Protagonist Mistborn)
As a skilled magic-user, the system is just as hard and rational for Vin as it is for us. She has to understand what it does and how it works to be an effective magic-user. The consistency of the system would be quite high for her as well; it never changes and always performs as expected.
The prevalence of the magic, however, is another matter entirely. Once she learns of her powers, Vin spends most of her time surrounded by other magic-users. From members of the thieving crew to rival Mistborn and mistings, magic fills Vin’s life. To her, the prevalence of the magic is far higher than what the reader sees from the outside.
Straff Venture’s Perspective (Antagonist Nobel)
Here’s where things get interesting. For Straff Venture, leader of one of the Noble Houses, Allomancy is still a hard-rational magic system, but Feruchemy and Hemalurgy are soft and irrational systems. He knows almost nothing about the other two metallic arts, and what little he knows makes little sense to him.
His view of prevalence and consistency differs as well, even when only considering Allomancy. He knows of the magic and interacts with some magic-users, but not on the same level that Vin does.
As for consistency, he has some false assumptions about how parts of the system of Allomancy work. He believes one metal (Atium) to be addictive, even though none of the others are. This is an apparent incongruence in the system. This lowers the consistency from his perspective, even if he is wrong.
Let’s look at one more example.
The Skaa Slave’s Perspective
Most of the Skaa are kept completely ignorant of the existence of the various magic systems, let alone the detailed knowledge of how they work. To them, they are vast and mysterious powers that could prove a threat to their very souls. They don’t see it often, and when they do they connect it to their own superstitions.
To the Skaa slaves, the metallic arts are extremely soft-nebulous magic systems with low prevalence and almost no consistency.
How to Use Perspective
Hopefully, you are seeing how much a chosen perspective can affect a person’s experience. It should also be clear how much it factors into the analysis and building of magic systems. But in order to get the most out of it, you need to understand the options available to you and how to use them.
The first time you plan a new magic system, I recommend you take up the universal perspective. This will allow you to consider the system in its entirety and get a general sense of how it all fits together. Once you know how the magic looks, feels, and functions at a universal level, pick a new perspective and see what changes.
If you only want to map your system twice, the reader’s perspective will help you the most. Writing is ultimately about the reader’s experience. Taking the time to pick up this perspective will help you in more ways than you can imagine.
Once you’ve mapped your system from multiple perspectives, start comparing them and see what they tell you. The differences between perspectives can explain prejudice and hatred between characters or even incite war between nations. The differences between the theoretical audience perspective and the universal perspective can give tremendous insight into what pieces need to be highlighted in the story and how you might do it.
The more perspectives you use, the better you will comprehend how your magic looks and feels and what it represents to various people. This is one of the best tools you have when building magic for a story.
That’s Why Perspective is Your Best Friend
We’ve gone over what perspective is, why it’s important, and even explored my perspective on several classic magic systems. Hopefully, it’s all coming together and you can start using it right away with your own system.
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That’s all for now. Rowenson out.