A magic spell by any other name

I fiddled with the Aligare world for several years before I had something I was confident in. Our human society didn’t spring up in a day and most believable fantasy worlds don’t, either.

One concept I took great pains with was the idea of magic. In the Aligare world, every living thing has magic that is as necessary as their blood (or sap, or whatever). Whether the being casts their magic outward on a daily basis or not, they need magic to live. In my scrapped first novel, this vital energy was called simply “magic”. Fire magic, plant magic, and so on. Call a spade a spade, I always say.

That first novel manuscript had a lot of problems. Early beta readers refused to believe that my “talking animals” were intended for anyone other than children. That was, erm, the exact opposite of what I was trying to do, so I began renovating the proto-Aligare world to make it more nuanced. There were many things that needed consideration and, although no one had pointed this aspect out, I thought the word “magic” might be part of the problem.

Why? There are plenty of weighty, dramatic fantasy stories that talk about “magic”, aren’t there? Yes, but those stories have their weightiness and drama to skew the word “magic” in the intended direction. “Magic” can refer to grand and mystical forces we don’t understand, but here on modern Earth, we also use “magic” to refer to sleight-of-hand tricks on a stage. We can also sarcastically reference “magic” to explain a convenient event, or a clumsy plot twist. “Magic” is a broad term. Sometimes an unflattering term. If adult readers weren’t taking my non-human characters seriously, I thought “magic” might be one more sandbag dragging the work down.

I felt that I needed a less well-tread term for magical powers. Something less obvious. But I already had a whole non-human society to introduce, without any human characters for familiarity, so I didn’t want to use a foreign-seeming word for a relatively simple concept. My term for magical energy would need to be simple but meaningful.

Because of the intrinsic nature of my world’s magic — its connection to life itself — I considered rooting my magic terms in Earth ideas like “chi”. “Magic”, after all, used to be a term associated with religious followers, priests, and wise men. Maybe I just needed a term that hadn’t collected so many modern meanings. But I soon realized that existing meaning was my real issue. Even if I could work “chi”/”qi”/whatever into my writing in a respectful way, I’d be pitching my work to Western readers who might not be well versed in other cultures’ ideas of esotericism. I’d be right back to the problem of a “magic” term that needs to be explained. No good.

Not everyone sees why this sort of detail is important. Some say to just call magic “magic” and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. But the thing is that picking which word to use doesn’t always mean changing the root concept. It’s a matter of accurately pinning down nuances. Match up all the undertones and the word will simply feel right. And frankly, if a writer doesn’t care about the subtleties of phrasing, I say they should stop trying to write. They might as well try to construct a high-rise building out of balsa wood because it’s basically the same thing as steel, right?

Anyway, while working on my second book, Remedy, I settled on “casting” as a root term. My characters have different types of elemental casting — firecasting, plantcasting or electricasting. Sometimes they learn watercasting, brightcasting or darkcasting. It’s not overused nomenclature like “magic”, but it’s still a concise term that’s easy to associate with “casting a spell”. That way, when I mentioned Peregrine charging firecasting inside his chest, or Tillian bristling with electricasting as a response to fear, I trusted that the average reader would get the gist of it.

So, I have a word that meets all my criteria. I’m satisfied with how “casting” fits into the world of Aligare. And my average reader still doesn’t comment on the magic terminology: I hope that means I did it right this time.

2 Comments on “A magic spell by any other name”

  1. […] invoke it, how to control this possibly destructive force once you’ve invoked it. The magic might not even be called “magic”, if that’s what the tone of the story calls […]

  2. […] (Casting is the noun, to cast is the verb. It’s named after the common fantasy genre act of casting a spell.) Some creatures actively use their casting energy to change their surroundings, and some […]

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