The Color of Magic: Details and Consistency in a Novel

“So is magic fire always purple?” my editor asked.

The question caught me by surprise. I’d just turned the manuscript to The Sword and the Sorcerer into her. She hadn’t made it all the way through the Prologue. And yet she already had a question.

If you’ve read the Prologue to the book, you know that, just before Gothemus Draco is murdered, he casts a spell wherein a tiny scroll explodes in purple fire. (If you haven’t read it yet, you can download a .pdf sample here.) Having seen a spell create purple fire, she wanted to know if all spells created fire that was purple.

The reason for the question is as important as it is subtle: consistency. She’s insistent that I emulate J.K. Rowling and not George Lucas. Rowling never violated her established milieu throughout the Harry Potter series. If she wrote a rule for magic or a spell or a mythological creature, it worked the same way every time afterward. She deepened and enriched her fictional universe, but she never changed it.

George Lucas rewrote and altered things almost from the beginning. In Star Wars, Darth Vader “betrayed and murdered” Luke’s father, but in The Empire Strikes Back, Vader claims to be Luke’s father, which Yoda confirms in Return of the Jedi.  Speaking of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader are supposed to be the last of the Jedi in Star Wars, but Yoda is introduced in “Empire.” In Star Wars C-3PO claims to not to be very good at telling stories, but in “Jedi” he tells the Ewoks the story of the first two movies in grand fashion in one of the film’s more entrancing moments.

And so on.

So the question, “Is magic fire always purple?” is an important one. The real question my editor was asking was, “How does magic work?”

Is color really important?

Maybe. Maybe magical fire is purple as opposed to normal, red-orange fire. Or maybe some magical fire is purple and some is green and some is blue. And if that’s the case, why does it change color?

All these are questions I hadn’t thought about, but they’re important, because they define how things work in the fictional universe I’m creating. And internal consistency is the mark of a well developed milieu.

The answer to the question was, “No. All magic fire is not purple. It is different colors depending on the situation.” But now I’m going to need to look at each incident carefully. Do I need to establish a color scheme so that I’m not violating my own rules?

I don’t know the answer to that yet. But that’s why I have an editor. She does more than find typos. She makes me think about the little details, so I’m writing a strong, internally consistent narrative that both pleases and follows its own logic.

Because she’s hoping one day I’ll have a legion of obsessive fans just like Rowling and Lucas do. I don’t know how likely that is, but, if it happens, I want them to be happy.

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4 thoughts on “The Color of Magic: Details and Consistency in a Novel

  1. I still don’t think that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. I had a major league discussion with my High School Nerd friends when Empire came out. I said “He’s lying. He’s a bad guy, that’s what they do.” But Lucas screwed up his own story because he never imagined he would do more than the first one.

    Good post by the way.

  2. I’m with you all the way on Darth Vader being Luke’s father. When I first saw “Empire” in 1980, I refused to believe it. Like you, I figured Vader had to be lying to mess with Luke’s mind. Needless to say, I was VERY disappointed to find out it was true when “Jedi” came out three years later. *sigh*

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. The best lies whole nuggets of truth. 😉 BTW, I think colour schemes for magic can add a nice element of verisimilitude. Heh, I just like to use that word when given the chance.

    • Agreed on how color can have impact on verisimilitude, Dwight. When I get the book back from my editor, I’ll definitely be thinking about this as I go through the narrative again.

      Thanks for the comment and for using the fancy literary terminology! 😉

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