Nonvisual Manifestations of Magic

A long time ago, I asked a question: why do we always see magic? The answer I originally worked with was that it was easier, since people are visual; I know the English language has more sight-words than sound-words or taste-words or scent-words. But sometimes, it makes sense to make someone’s arcane senses pan to a different sense, and then you need to figure out what they’re coming across as. How does one go about doing that?

First step: choose a sense to appeal to. Hearing is easiest, but there are plenty of other senses to do it with; I’m currently running for a character whose magic sense is tactile, and I’m looking forward to playing one who senses by taste. This might be based on the character’s dominant sense, if the character is nonhuman; it might be something vaguely thematic in another sense: all that matters is that it can be justified, one way or another. Whatever that sense is, I strongly suggest picking one and sticking to it.

Second: Are there subdivisions within the magic itself that you can take advantage of? If so, you can divide types of magic into general classes of sound/scent/what-have-you. The first time I tried this, for instance, I was working off of an ability of someone else’s design, and I divided magic by power-source into general classes of musical instruments (brass, untuned percussion, mallet percussion, pipe organ, voice/birdsong, one group ended up being further subdivided into five flavors of woodwind…) Power source isn’t the only option, though; it might be divided by classical element, by overall variety of effect, by the intent of the spellcaster, whatever suits your fancy and makes metaphysical sense. What this does is give you further parameters, narrowing down what exactly to do for each individual effect. I don’t know about you, but I do a whole lot better when I can use constraints as a springboard.

Now think about what the magical effect itself does, and what aspect of the type of sense you’re using might apply to that. If you’re using an auditory flavor of magic sense, for instance, a sleep spell might sound like a lullaby and a combat enhancer like a march. On the other hand, if you’re going tactile, a sleep spell might feel like being tucked in under a fuzzy blanket, and a combat enhancer might feel like a papercut or the outer edges of an explosion. Thematic parallelism makes an excellent stepping off point.

Last, figure out how to slide this into your description of what’s going on. How relevant is it? Is the character in question actually using the ability? How important is it to be precise; how interested in the readout is the audience? That’s all going to have an impact.

The fun thing about senses like this is that, when they’re used well, they can give the world a unique immersive quality that more mundane descriptions won’t necessarily provide—or at least, appeal to people’s curiosity.


  1. Ronnie says:

    I had never given this any thought before. Thank you for the brilliant ideas!

  2. Michael says:

    I love the way it works in the game, but it does depend on having something like Essence that is there to be sensed. In my story, magic isn’t a thing in itself but is about manipulation of already existing things, so there is nothing that can be sensed except for what is being manipulated. (Of course, I try to make sure I involve all the relevant senses for that….)

    However, it might get more interesting if I continue the series, as I do have one character with a sort of “spiritual” sense that might work a bit like this. She hasn’t been a point-of-view character yet but I may use her as one in the future… I’d certainly like to. We’ll have to see.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Ronnie: Thanks!

    Michael: Yeah, it does require magic as a force in and of himself. I’ve a certain bias towards those sorts of magic systems, since it provides something that’s a bit farther beyond the audience’s view of the world, and that provides plenty of chance for awe and wonder and mystery and all those similar concepts.

    So what people see in your world is just the block floating or what have you?

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