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I'm writing a fantasy novel, in which the story progresses over a number of years. Throughout the story, I want to display an evolution of the magic, much like technology evolves in our world.

The speed of the magic evolution would begin slowly but would eventually progress very quickly, due to reasons to do with the plot and the main characters of the story, therefore there will be a great many more things that the magic allows close to the end of the story than the beginning.

One of my worries is that it may seem as though I'm making up additional rules for my magic as I go along, due to the fact that it will seemingly appear from nowhere (the protagonists contribute some of the magic evolution, but the majority of it is done by the antagonist behind the scenes).

How can I foreshadow, or introduce early into the story, that the magic in my world will advance quickly in the future, and entirely new realms of my magic system will eventually become available, without it appearing as though I'm making up new rules for the magic system as I go?

For reference, imagine that the technology equivalent would begin in a medieval - flintlock era, and progress to basic robotics in a span of years (not necessarily in the same order as in our world, there will be some steps missed out, as the robots will be built using magic and not technology, therefore computers will still not exist).

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All you need to do is establish the idea of progress in magic.

You need to introduce the reader to the magic system as it stands at the beginning, sure. But for this case, you also need to demonstrate that magic is something that can be investigated, innovated with, used in new ways for new uses.

A simple example would be: early on,make some mention of a discovery or an evolution that has already occurred.

It can be relatively minor, but any magical discovery has potential to have impact and cause conflict. That should be plenty to find a small story hook. And in that little arc, you tell us what we need to know:

  • That magic is not "complete"; it progresses and evolves.
  • That breakthroughs have happened before, and will presumably continue to happen.
  • What the pace and dynamics of "magic science" are in this setting. (Are there magic-scientists? Are there geographical pockets that have technologically advanced far beyond other areas? How disruptive have advances been?)
  • What does a real discovery look/feel like?
  • What's necessary to succeed at innovating in magic?

...and so on.

The point is, a solution is to show that magic-tech is fluid, evolving.

Establish that, before the setting starts to calcify into something set and unquestionable, and the reader won't think "whoa, they're breaking the rules." If you tell us "Listen, this setting is still figuring out the rules," you should be fine.

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    Dungeons & Dragons and subsequently Harry Potter used schools of magic to foster and evolve the endpoints and limits. I have to say, developing a Cleric for AD&D until 13th level and being able to cast Resurrection was a highlight of my childhood. – Stu W Jun 2 '16 at 22:00
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Show a little preview.

Pick one thing which is small and easy to do: call Fire. So your character can light a cooking fire. But Fire can be used for a lot of things: a lamp, a furnace, a hot air balloon. Once you have charcoal, you can use that to heat a boiler, which makes steam, and now you have a steam engine... and this all progresses in one district in let's say a month. (or whatever your accelerated timeframe is)

This shows the reader, and more importantly the characters, that if you topple the right domino, you can knock down a ton of other dominoes. This will encourage people to master a lot of small magics and start experimenting with them to see what the next Fire will be.

As far as the rules, follow the rules of physics, or whatever your magical physics are, throughout the book. The reader will see that your characters are just discovering how magic works, very fast.

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Find a story of a magic system that evolves and see if you can follow that pattern. In the "Goose Girl" series, the characters discover long lost magical abilities, so their power grows as they learn more and try new things over time. In the book ”The Rithmatist" the power is changing in ways that were never before known. Is the magic changing? Are new rules being invented? We don't yet know, but I bet Brandon Sanderson knows.

I think a good distinction to make in your own mind is this: you should know whether the magic system itself is evolving, or whether the magicians are simply getting better at it and discovering new things based on established magical patterns. Is the magic new, or is it an innovative way to use the magic?

I think the distinction is important because it changes the way you talk about the magic system. Ancient knowledge rediscovered had one tone. Innovative ways of using existing magic has a different tone (and discovery arc). Making up new magic is still a different tone and arc.

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Another really useful tool here is foreshadowing and buildup.

This is your first defense against the feeling of "awww, he just made that up": make it clear that the elements surprising the reader deep into the book, were present and significant right from the start. The reader only realizes that when he reaches the twists and surprises, but when he does, you want his reaction to be "Ohhhhh, now it all makes sense!" rather then "Where the heck did that just come from?"

If there are elements early on which we understand as not quite fitting, or there just being something weird about them, these can click in to place later as the system is fully uncovered.

That will make it feel much less as though you're "making it up as you go," and much more as though you're making exciting new discoveries and answering long-standing questions.

  • For instance: A wizard is the first to learn how to levitate a few feet off the ground. All he can do is go up and down. He looks up and sees birds flying, looping, soaring, and thinks "Someday..." – Shawn V. Wilson Feb 2 '17 at 9:01
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There's an excellent Sanderson essay on creating believable magic systems that has been posted here several times. The core of it is this (paraphrased): Magic feels contrived when the author leans on it to solve plot problems, or problems that the characters face.

This applies to your situation as well. It won't feel like a cheat to your audience if the rules change, as long as that doesn't help you or your characters out too much. If they suddenly discover a new magic that solves all their problems, that feels like the author getting lazy. But if they suddenly discover a new magic that makes things tougher on them, that feels like real life (unless the rules just change every time you, the author, need a new plot conflict!).

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    The irony of Sanderson writing that...to be fair, I feel he's come a long way since Mistborn (I struggled through the second and third novels because they felt rather contrived and formulaic - enjoyed the Stormlight Archives somewhat more). – Thomo Jun 6 '16 at 5:52
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You can have a minor effect of a particular type of magic being there all the time and taken for granted, but then the characters maybe discovering why it happens and using that to push the evolution along.

For example, we've always known that we get light and heat from the Sun. But only (relatively) recently did we discover electromagnetic radiation and what it exactly is and how it works, and now we have X-Rays, radio , Gamma Rays, Microwave ovens, Wi-Fi, Infra-Red, and so on.

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It probably depends on the protagonists. Are they themselves magic users? Or even magic researchers? Is there actually a separate magic research (like the science research system in our world), or is magic research something that is done in magic guilds or magic schools that guard their knowledge from competing guilds/schools? All that affects how your protagonists would learn about new magic (and in most cases you'd want them to learn about it before it becomes a story changing element).

If they are not magic users themselves, they can learn about it e.g. from rumors ("have you heard, they say that in the evil empire Adolfia, they developed new magic that lets big things fly through air at very high speed; they call it rocket magic") or from travellers ("I've been in Wizard City last week, and I've attended a demonstration of the Great Mage where he showed of his new fire ray magic."), or they may actually witness some new development themselves ("As Tom travelled towards Sometown, he passed a field where a sorcerer did his experiments. Trees were growing out of the ground and reaching full size within minutes. Tom had never before heard about that type of magic; it was common knowledge that magic only could manipulate inanimate objects. But that sorcerer apparently found a way to circumvent this rule.").

If the protagonist is a wizard himself, but not a researching one, he might actively seek out other wizards to learn from them ("John looked forward to visiting Nocastle, as it was the home town of William Wandman, a wizard that was known to always be well-informed about new developments in magic. John hoped that he could learn some new spells from him.") Or maybe there are shops selling the newest magic ("The shopkeeper offered him a strange green liquid: 'That's the newest development in magic potions. It allows you to increase your eye's resolution twenty-fold. Just fifty grains for you, a real bargain.'").

If the protagonist is a magic researcher himself, it's of course the easiest: You can just describe how he performs his newest magic experiment. Or maybe he's visiting a wizardry conference, learning about the newest developments.

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