robertburne.comSome of the most interesting stories are ones that involve some or other magical artifacts. Often, this is used by a character to either focus/concentrate their magic or to imbue something *else* with magic. Whether it’s the “One Ring to Rule Them All” or a springy wand with a core of phoenix feather, we’re all familiar with some kind of artifact.

What’s interesting particularly about magical artifacts for me is not the artifact itself – it’s the modifying effect that they have on the world, the plot, and the characters. It’s very easy to create an impressive-sounding magical doohickey, but what is the use of it if it doesn’t do something interesting?

What exactly is a magical artifact?

Well, the answer to this is a very qualified “it depends”. An artifact can be as complex a concept as a single golden ring that somehow has a hold over all other magic in a realm or as simple as a Sorceror’s Stone that produces the Elixir of Life.

Anything can be an artifact. In fact, I would argue that in the world that JK Rowling created, Harry Potter himself is a magical artifact. Why? Because someone has clearly imbued him with magic (spoiler, it’s the magic of love) and he influences the surrounding world and other characters through magical means.

There’s been a lot of conjecture on the internet that Neville could have been the “chosen one” but we all know that’s not true. There was something *other* about Harry that allowed him to fight against Voldemort in the way he did. It wasn’t all about what he did, but what he was.

In the Thomas Covenant books, The Unbeliever possesses a powerful artifact – his wedding ring. This carries both symbolism within the text and in the greater world that we sometimes get glimpses of while Covenant is not actually in The Land. That he hardly ever actually uses the ring for the things it can do but spends time carefully stopping himself, denying its power has no bearing on whether it’s a powerful artifact. Some of the best stories (*cough* Lord of the Rings *cough*) involve people pointedly *not* using the most powerful of artifacts that they own.

When we say magical, what do we mean?

Magical is a very simple term to define when you think about it – it’s anything that causes something or someone to behave differently to how they would ordinarily behave. This is why, in part, we can consider Asimov’s famous saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In a very real sense, once we see an artifact having a defined effect on the people/places/things of a world, we can identify it as magic. Whether the magic is borne of technology or not makes little difference – it’s still magic.

Artifacts as Modifiers of the World

Artifacts can, of course, be powerful modifiers in the right hands. There is also, as we said, a wonderful method in denying oneself the use of a powerful artifact. Frodo spends ages walking through Middle Earth pointedly NOT using the One Ring. He knows that if he does, he will gain invisibility, but he will also pay the price of opening himself up to the enemy and be found. There are a couple of slipups but, in fact, Frodo’s greatest challenge lies in not setting himself up as another Dark Lord by finally claiming and using the One Ring.

Artifacts by their nature, warp the natural cause and effect around us and change the behavior we expect to see into something entirely different.

Artifacts as Modifiers of Characters

When we say that an object has “a hold” on a character, what exactly do we mean? Well, often, we mean the artifact has some kind of otherworldly power over that person. Think now of Boromir, who wanted to take the ring from Frodo. Why would a seemingly honorable man give in to an almost murderous rage and try to take the ring from our friendly Hobbit? Obviously, the message in the Lord of the Rings is not that Boromir was an evil man – it’s that the One Ring had a hold on his mind.

Artifacts have a direct and (usually) measurable impact on characters whether they’re conscious of it. I like to think (and it’s supported by text) that Boromir wasn’t aware of what he was doing when he chased after Frodo. Once Frodo has left, Boromir is struck with grief and anger at himself – knowing now that what he has done was anathema to his normal character and that he has lost Frodo forever.

How are artifacts powered?

Artifacts can be powered by many methods – some are powered by their creators (One Ring) while their construction powers others (Wands, The Deathly Hallows). When we consider and change how we think of the powering of artifacts, we see an interesting side effect – that the user of an artifact can *become* the power source.

Imagine a supremely powerful object – now, imagine that anyone could use it with zero impact/cost. Boring, right? If anyone can have unlimited power, we immediately stop caring about power or, come to think of it, people.

However, if you have an object that can cure an illness through magical means *but* it must be created by sacrificing one or several other people, you now have something interesting. How many people are you willing to sacrifice in order to save someone you love from an illness that will otherwise kill them? Are you willing to sacrifice one? Two? Three? What if it’s someone you know? What if it’s someone else you love?

You see? The powering of artifacts by itself can become a plot point and can, in fact, make the stakes higher and change the way you think about solutions.

Is it a good idea to have artifacts in my story?

That’s a big “depends” again. It’s definitely something worth considering if you’re not yet clear on how your magic system works. Especially if you’re working on the first book in a series or a standalone where you will not have to immediately explain all the various intricacies of your magic system.

Here, what you want is called a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a very simple concept – it’s an artifact (in the form of a thing usually but can be a person) that solves a problem. You don’t have to have a mechanic for it, and you don’t have to have a huge world history explaining its use. You can simply have it plop into the plot, solve the problem you’re having and then fly away again.

If you’re clever, you might have spotted one of the minor problems with using a MacGuffin in your story. Got it? Of course you do – it’s very similar to what we know as Deus ex Machina or “Machine of the Gods” which was a literal plot device in Greek plays where a god would swoop down and save the hero at the last minute. That might seem very unsatisfactory to us, who have grown up with twists in all our movies and complicated plotlines, but it worked pretty well to wrap up some of the great classics.

So usually, there’s a simple check to see if you need an artifact – ask yourself: “Is there any way my character can solve this problem *without* an artifact?”

If the answer is “yes” then you can use an artifact. If the answer is “no” then you can still use an artifact but you have to be very careful how you use it unless you intentionally *want* to introduce a MacGuffin to the story. There’s nothing wrong with doing that by the way – some of the best stories out in the world have a magical thing that solves problems. It doesn’t diminish the story as long as you compensate for it.

Show me more!

I know, I know, it’s been at least three paragraphs since I’ve given you a practical example. So, let’s look at one of the original storytellers and users of magic. C. S. Lewis.

Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” is one of the foundational texts that almost everyone has read. It’s simply written and enjoyable, if a little heavy on the allegory.

In the books, there are several artifacts that we need to know about:

  1. The horn given to the children
  2. The healing drops that Lucy receives as her gift
  3. The Stone Table that Aslan lies upon

There are many more if you care to look for them, but those are the ones that crop up the most.

Briefly then, here we go.

The Horn

It is said that whenever this horn is blown, help will come to whoever sounded it. So that’s an interesting mechanic, isn’t it? It’s clearly not a MacGuffin – the horn won’t magically make your enemies go away, but it *will* ensure that somebody comes to help, even if it’s not someone you expect. We know it has limitations – it won’t solve your problems.

But, we can also recognize it as a powerful item – after all, how does a horn know who is good? How does it summon the right people? How, in fact, does it tell those people that it somehow reaches where to go and who to help? These questions are never answered in the books, but that doesn’t stop the horn from being very cool.

The Healing Drops

Lucy has some magical healing drops that can heal “almost anything”. That sounds great, doesn’t it? Unlimited healing power! Except hang on, why’s it in such a tiny bottle? Oh. C. S. Lewis recognized that unlimited *anything* is no use to anyone, so he placed a limit on it.

Lucy may have the power to heal almost anything, but she’s got to think carefully before actually using the drops, or she may find herself with none left when she really needs them. Again, the mechanic is very simple – put drop on wound, wound heals. But if we look deeply into it, we get all kinds of questions – how do the drops know what to heal? What would happen if I had a cut on my finger, smeared a drop on myself, but I also had cancer (but didn’t know it)? Do the drops choose something to fix? Or do they fix ALL things? Again, the books don’t answer these questions because there’s no need to.

The Stone Table

Possibly the most powerful of objects in Narnia, the Stone Table is everything that represents the old magic. The things that have come before and will never come again (if Aslan is to be believed – and who doesn’t believe Aslan?!). The White Witch tries to use the Stone Table against Aslan, to bind him using the old magic but she is not wise enough to know that he was around when the Old Magic was born so can turn it all against her and rise again.

What’s interesting about the Stone Table is that it influences the entire history of Narnia, but we only know this if we question its existence. It’s only really ever mentioned twice – once when we see Aslan taken up to it, and again when it’s broken. However, the impact it has as a modifier on both the world and the characters is immense. It restores the children’s faith in Aslan; it restores the Narnian’s fighting spirit, and it ultimately leads to the downfall of the White Witch. That’s a lot of work for a bit of stone to do, don’t you think?

Again, we have questions that are never answered. Who created the stone table? How, exactly, did it have such a huge anchor in the Deep Magic? Why does Aslan allow himself to be tied to it?

Of course, none of this gives us a definitive answer for anything to do with Artifacts. Why? Because there *is* no definitive answer – there can’t be because there are so many permutations.

Writing a magic system is hard – even if you have MacGuffins on your side, you still need to consider the ways in which your artifact is going to affect your characters, world, and plot.

Come back next week for Part Four in the series – Types of Magic Systems!

If you’ve missed them…

Part 1: Writing Magic Systems: The Eight Elements (Part One) – Rules

Part 2: Writing Magic Systems: The Eight Elements (Part Two) – Writing Magic Systems is Hard. And it Should Be.


Writing Magic Systems (Part 3)
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