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Edge Cases

Warning: This blog post will contain spoilers for both Harry Potter (Book 4 and up) and The Wheel of Time

Robert BurneVery often, the most interesting things happen, not in the main arena, but at the edges. If I consider stories that have gripped me from the start and held me there, they always explore the edges of what is possible.

This includes (but is not limited to) the edges of society, what happens when monolithic climate systems clash and what happens when unexpected magic occurs.

Magic is itself an Edge Case

If we go right to the core of what Magic is, we can define it in a few quick sentences:

1. Magic is something that would not normally happen.

2. Magic is something that changes something else.

When you apply these two sentences (and yes, they’re very reductionist and don’t encompass the whole of magic), you see that magic is the ultimate edge case. If everyone in the world could use/perform magic, there’d be nothing special about the group of wizards desperately trying to stop Lord Voldemort from taking over the world. Magic would just be another ordinary thing – like having blue eyes or brown hair.

We build up our magical worlds in such a way as to make sure that they are an edge case, and, to some extent, that’s what the whole of the Hero’s Journey is about. The Chosen One trope is nothing more than aligning someone with an edge case (Against all odds, village boy is saviour of the world) and seeing where the story will take us.

When it comes to magic, what we are intentionally doing is allowing something other to intrude on our mundane reality. We lever the cracks open with a giant magic crowbar, give it to a couple of people and say “Go for it – show me what you can do!”

Edge Cases are all around us

The world is a bizarre place. Even our mundane world has some very peculiar properties that, if considered out of the context of science, seem magical.

And yet, in our world, those are completely normal.

So then, in a world that we create, it’s our responsibility to find the edge cases and explore them.

JK Rowling does this very well in Harry Potter. As we all know, our boy Harry is brilliant in some ways and utterly predictable in others – his go-to spell is Expelliarmus, a fairly simple first-year spell that disarms an opponent. Where other, more experienced wizards would probably NOT have tried this against one of the most powerful dark wizards of all time, Harry has nothing else on his mind.

And, because of a very specific set of circumstances, when Harry’s spell meets Voldemort’s, it threw a bunch of edge cases wide open. It’s easy to dismiss this as casual hand waving but there’s clearly been some thought put into this.

Edge Case 1: Harry and Voldemort cast a spell at exactly the same time

The chances of both spells being fired off at the same instant seem pretty small, but in this case, they come together. We could believe that this is simple luck – certainly, Harry didn’t intend to cast his spell at the same time as Voldemort, he was simply doing something, anything to stay alive.

However, in Harry’s defense, he’s used this spell so often over the course of the books that it must be second nature to him.

Edge Case 2: Harry and Voldemort’s wands happen to be made of the same stuff

This is a little less believable and certainly feels like a bit of hand waving. Early on, when Harry gets his wand, Olivander remarks that Harry’s Wand’s twin belongs to Voldemort. We know little about the inner workings of how the “Wand chooses the Wizard” but we can probably conclude that wands are probably not fully sentient DNA analysis machines.

This is an example of some soft magic by the way and it serves us well here. We don’t need to know the mechanics behind how this happened, just that it did.

Where the edge case comes in is that this is not a big part of anything until Goblet of Fire and that nobody seems to know about Priori Incantatem until it’s already happened.

Edge Case 3: Voldemort’s Henchmen do nothing to stop what’s happening

In a bizarre case of Plot Armour, all the extremely evil henchmen stand around watching as Harry and Voldemort battle it out. And yes, I know Voldemort told them to leave Harry to him but I can’t imagine he meant “Leave him to me even if some freaky things happen and it looks like I might lose”. One well-placed Avada Kedavra from that oily worm, Lucius would have ended the book quickly. Even something silly like a Leg Locker curse would have done it, frankly.

 Edge Case 4: Voldemort hasn’t used his wand for any other, more mundane spells

Possibly the strangest magical edge case. This one has puzzled me for years. The concept that Voldemort, a dark wizard sustained by magic and basically the embodiment of “pure wizarding”, hadn’t used his wand for anything besides the spells that Harry reversed is bizarre.

We know that Voldemort, despite his weakened state, can cast spells – he murders the poor muggle at the Riddle House so it’s not unlikely that he would use magic elsewhere. He doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who trusts underlings to do everything for him. Voldemort holds on to power as hard as he can—it’s part of his nature.

You’d expect he’d have cast something as simple as Lumos or Makus Toastus in between murders but, because we need this for the plot, it created an edge case that JK Rowling could exploit to keep Harry alive.

By our Powers Combined

Taken by themselves, all four of the edge cases we looked at in Harry Potter are bizarre and make little sense. Mung them all together and you’ve got something interesting. This is something it took me a long time to bring together as a concept in my mind: Edge Cases are only powerful together.

When you combine the four rather silly plot devices above, you get a special form of edge case. The kind that makes a story work.

We’re quite prepared to believe that all these magical aspects came together to form something greater than the sum of their parts. In fact, as readers, we usually demand it. The Chosen One trope along with various other aspects of the Hero’s Journey mould and shape the world into something we expect to see.

Of course Harry’s wand reverses Voldemort’s spells – how could it not?

Harry is constructed to be the polar opposite of Voldemort at every point. He is there to create an ultimate end for the evil guy and so, the narrative finds ways for him to do that.

Combining edge cases makes everything make sense, and it helps us to explore the world we’ve made.

When Worlds Collide

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is the behemoth in the fantasy room. At fourteen books, it’s pretty much the Simpsons of Fantasy. You know the popular phrase “Simpsons did it!”–well, when it comes to writing magic systems, it’s almost always “Jordan did it!”

It’s an inescapable fact that your world and your magic system will borrow from others that have gone before it. Harry Truman said “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” and, depressing as that is, it’s mostly correct. There is very little in the world that is new. What makes new and interesting things is when you deliberately collide worlds.

Take Jordan’s magic system in which magic users called “Channelers” use “threads” of power to “weave” complex patterns that cause something to happen. There’s nothing particularly new about all that—but, crucially, it’s never been combined in one world before and not in quite the same way that Jordan did it.

When you’re sitting down to write your Magic System, remember that you are very likely going to be deriving aspects of it from other systems. That’s fine—in fact, since you’re going to be doing it anyway, go out and do it deliberately by looking at and analysing the edge cases of the Magic Systems you love.

Let’s do a quick practical example. 

What would happen if we transported Hermione to Randland?

There’d be some pretty surprising effects, let me tell you. It might be tempting to write off the children wizards in Randland but consider some of their powers and then explore the edge cases that come up.

  1. Would Hermione be able to use Saidar? After all, she’s magical in her world. Why not in Randland?
  2. Would Hermione still be able to use her wand? Randland may not have the same magical “source” as our world.

In this scenario, let’s assume that Hermione can use Saidar. Let’s also assume that she’s still able to use her wand.

Now, we can build out a magic system or set of plot points that revolve around her being able to combine both weaving and wand work and having an effectively unlimited power base. Wizards in the Harry Potter universe don’t get tired like Channelers do—their magic never runs out.

Hermione is almost instantly one of the most powerful people in Randland and is probably a threat to almost everyone evil since she looks small and innocent but packs a helluva punch.

Just like that, we have a unique and interesting Magic System (or at least, the beginning of one—there are a lot of other considerations to make this feel real and/or useful—see my previous blog entries.)

It’s not one I’d personally like to explore—Harry Potter and Randland are both well-established universes and there are, of course, a lot of logical holes in colliding these two worlds. I could, however, easily see a story that combines the two concepts and deals with the fallout of the sudden arrival of a powerful witch/wizard into a world that already employs a type of magic of its own.

Explore all the Edges, use the best

There’s almost no downside to exploring as many of these as you can find – the odd Edge Case would enhance any story but be careful to not get dragged into the weeds. It’s tempting to keep creating as many avenues as you can manage but it’s equally important to keep to your central Magic System themes and rules. While Rowling certainly explored many strange magical combinations, she also left many of them tantalisingly open to interpretation, allowing readers to fill in the blanks themselves and opening the gates to all manner of fan fiction.

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.

Part 3: Writing Magic Systems: The Eight Elements (Part Three) – Artifacts

Part 4: Writing Magic Systems: The Eight Elements (Part Four) – Types of Magic

Part 5: Writing Magic Systems: The Eight Elements (Part Five) – Lying

Come back next week for Part Seven: Power Corrupts.

Writing Magic Systems (Part 6)
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