Inventing Spells: Words - The Art of World Building
May 062021

The mystery of magic is often the viewers’ inability to understand what a wizard is doing, or how, and finding out that the words mean something unimpressive ruins this. So we may not want to decide them for every (or any) spell. But we should still decide what they’re for.

The words might be the “ties that bind” bringing everything together. Without the words, do we just have gestures and materials? Words can be what makes magic work, from the gathering of energies, to the merging of this with any gestures and ingredients, to the channeling of those elements. Seen this way, words serve as the control, with gestures assisting in any stage of this. They’re a kind of “on” and “off” function for spell casting, words at least beginning if not ending the casting. Some spells could still be manipulated with gestures once the speaker goes silent, though there’s likely a time limit on that. Does a wizard have five seconds or thirty to manipulate the energies he’s collected?

If we invent a magic language, this implies that those words grant access to magic so that the same words spoken in another tongue have no effect. Whether we show this magic language or not, working out what must be said can distinguish one spell from another. A generic pie spell might only have a single word different (rhubarb vs. blueberry) in a placeholder sort of way, or the entire spoken lines could be different. If we have an invented language, it will be less effort (and cheaper if someone must do it for us) to just replace a word than the entire contents.

Let’s say these are the words:

“Oh god of plenty, hear my prayer,

Make this joy of many layers,

A scrumptious treat of apple pie,

Without which I shall surely die.”

This generic spell is specific only once, the word “apple,” and can be swapped with blueberry, cherry, pumpkin, or whatever. This is not only easier for us, but for the wizards in our world. If we have two types of magic, we can decide that one type uses this simple word substitution, allowing for wizards to quickly learn a range of only fractionally different spells. Contrast that with another magic type where the spells are so different that it is more difficult to learn. What if this is what was required just to switch to a blueberry pie?

“In the land of Kingshire grows,

A fruit that cures all hunger woes,

Blue and berry it rightly be,

Till baked as pie and had with tea.” 

The length of the lines should be kept short for simple spells and lengthened for more complex. We want to avoid similar phrasing, unlike those examples. We can use names of places and individuals as appropriate, making some almost like prayers. We can decide the lines are a bit like recipe instructions, where we tell the magic what to do with the ingredients, how, in what order, and what the result should be. This can take the place of gestures, and if we’d like spells that don’t feature a motion, then perhaps the spell’s words are what impact this. For example, a spoken “strike down those behind me” would take the place of needing to turn around and wave an arm.


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