Writing Magic: Point of Reference

Last week we discussed invocational magic systems: that is, magic systems that use language to create an effect. Here I’d like to discuss who’s language is important in regards to the system.

The Point of Reference is then the center around which magic revolves. In short, when the caster magically commands a rock to move to the left, the Point of Reference is whose left the caster means.

This entry is likely to be short largely because many systems that use invocation have that invocation be vague or unintelligible. In Fullmetal Alchemist, for example, casters use various rune circles to do magic; however, the meaning of the runes is never discussed, nor why certain circles are needed for particular effects. (This is only exacerbated by the fact the main characters can circumvent the need for the circles entirely). But this concept is mostly me thinking out loud about how magic systems could be written in the future.

Of those magic systems that do have a Point of Reference, that Point is almost always the caster themselves. This makes sense, as casters are generally restricted to affecting the world directly around them. It’s also far easier to write.

But I find systems with an external Point of Reference far more fascinating. In a sense, learning an invocational magic system is like learning an entirely new language (aside from Eragon, where learning magic literally is learning a new language). However, one can’t necessarily assume that the cosmic will of the universe would operate from a human’s perspective. It would have its own cosmic perspective. In this way, learning a spell is learning how to speak your command in a way the universe understands.

I’ve only ever seen one magic system that approaches this kind of awareness, however. In Sanderson’s novel “Elantris,” the primary magic system used is tied to the geography of the region it’s used in. At the very center of this is a city whose architecture is a microcosm of the geography of the region around it, making the city a kind of channel of magical energy. Indeed, not only does the effects of magic fade with distance from this city, but all the invocational inscriptions are shaped in correspondence to the region’s geography.

So this is something I haven’t seen delved into very much, but which I’d love to see some experimentation with. Or at least addressed and analyzed more.


Prayer as Magic

A friend who reads this blog asked me whether prayer counts as a verbal invocation system, which seems to me to be an interesting question worth addressing here.

In a fictional world where any kind of invocational system exists – and as such some divine being exists to interpret those invocations – the key element of this system is that it is a system. That is, magic works all the time, is scientific, whereas prayer allows for the whims of those to whom the prayer is addressed. Magic allows for no such whims.

The key part of any kind of magic system is that it is reliable and scientific: that it performs exactly the same under similar conditions. I’m sure anyone who’s ever prayed could tell you that just because you ask God for something doesn’t mean it’ll actually happen (as my mother says, God has three answers to prayers: yes, no, and later). Any kind of magic system that relied on divine will could hardly be called a system.

On the other hand, I think the opposite question is more interesting: does invocational magic count as prayer?

Writing Magic: Invocation

By all the dark powers, I command this site to rise! Rise!

And we’re back, I guess. I won’t be posting stories on here, but rather personal essays and such. I’ll be focusing largely on writing magic for a while, as my mind’s been there for a while as I’ve been trying to develop one for a novel.

I suggest reading Brandon Sanderson’s essay on his First Law of Magic, which is both really good and really relevant to what I’ll be discussing. Also, reading Sanderson’s books would also help, since 1) they’re amazing and 2) I pull a lot of examples from them, since Sanderson’s done a lot of good, hard magic systems.


Magic systems generally fall into three categories when it comes to activation of magical abilities: mental command, invocation, and physics.

Physical systems refer to those where the fundamental interactions between objects are altered in accordance to magic. Such examples include Sanderson’s Hemalurgy and Fabrial systems.

Mental command systems refer to those where activating an ability requires a thought from the caster, such as in Sanderson’s Surgebinding and Allomancy systems.

But I’d largely like to talk about invocational systems, such as those found in Sanderson’s “Warbreaker” and “Elantris,” Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” and Arakawa’s “Hagane no Renkinjutsushi / Fullmetal Alchemist.”

I personally find invocational systems fascinating. Modern systems feel like they’re based on the mysticism of ancient pantheons and the ability of humanity to magically control their environment through specific words, phrases, gestures, or symbols. And that’s not to mention the base assumption that the universe can even understand the caster’s language.

Ultimately, invocational magic assumes some kind of sentience in the universe. Invocation is inherently divine, a sentience commanding and the command being followed.

The most straightforward example of this sort of thing is the system in Paolini’s “Eragon,” where a specific language has literally become the language of magic, and little (if any) magic can be performed without speaking this language.

But invocation isn’t limited to just spoken language. I can identify three main forms of invocation: verbal, inscriptional, and gesticular.

Verbal invocation, naturally, involves spoken words. We have already seen the system of “Eragon,” but Awakening in “Warbreaker” also counts. In this system, invocational words are far more limited, and indeed only certain targets are receptive to commands.

Inscriptional invocation is also rather common, with examples including the Aons of “Elantris” and the alchemy of “Fullmetal Alchemist.” Here, specific written symbols are required to access magic, attaching a mysticism to writing reminiscent of the Norse myths.

The third, and least used, is gesticular invocation. This is invocation via motion. The only system I can think that uses this is that of Harry Potter, though that has a strong overlap with verbal invocation (and a little inscriptional invocation).

Speaking of Harry Potter, this system features at least two invocational types in tandem, with a number of effects requiring multiple invocations in order to fuction.