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.


2 thoughts on “Writing Magic: Point of Reference

  1. SharktoothJack says:

    Considering nonhuman perspectives is difficult, not only because other things might have different languages or points of reference, but also because their conceptions of the world might be different. It’s like the saying we have, that fish don’t know they’re in water. So even if you spoke the fish’s language, if you told it to come out of the water, it wouldn’t understand what you meant, if there even was a word in the fish language for “water.” Differences between human-understanding and Universe-understanding of a world could be interesting and meaningful. For instance, a Universe-view that understands objects purely based on the atoms they comprise might think of emotions as concentrations of brain chemicals. Or, on the flip side, Universe-language might keep referring to some concept that translates roughly to justice or rightness-balance but which is ultimately beyond humans’ ability to understand.

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