When I was a teenager and a serious fantasy fan girl (I read The Silmarillion twice and wrote epic poems to chronicle its stories), the first book on writing I read was about how to write about magic. It would be twenty years before I became a fantasy author, but as a reader I loved learning about the mysteries behind the creation of my favorite fantasy worlds. This post (originally published as a guest column for Marie Lavender's blog) comes from what I learned both as a writer and as an avid and studious reader of the genre over four decades.
The vast genre of fantasy is akin to a wildly diverse landscape—encompassing vast plains of epic proportion, shear crags of nail-biting tension, dark places where many fear to tread, deep forests of ancient myth and cities of every description where corruption and courage vie for dominance. Still, as enormous as this genre is there is one thing that indicates whether or not a story belongs in the fantasy universe. Fantasy stories contain some form of “magic.”
It may be no more than subtle dreams invading reality in magical realism or it can be a full-blown flying printing press that shoots bolts of lightning in a steampunk/western mashup, but there’s got to be magic.
Magic in this context can be defined as something that cannot be explained purely by science. The line between fantasy and science fiction is under some debate because there is always the question of whether something that can’t be explained by science today might someday be within scientific grasp. But fantasy should generally fall on the side of strange and wonderful things that science isn’t expected to explain.
For writers, the fantasy genre maintains all the challenges that other types of literature entail, plus a few. There is often a lot of work to do to develop settings and to make characters that are very different from us relatable. But the thing that makes fantasy either fly or flop is the design and execution of whatever magic is in the story.
While it may be fun to throw pure imagination at the page and let all things go wild, as in Alice in Wonderland, writers do well to be wary of that path. It can lead to obscure literary praise (if done extraordinarily well), but it leads into the surrealist subgenre of fantasy, where few paying readers venture. And thus it doesn’t generate bestsellers.
If you want to not only write fantasy but have other people read what you write, careful thought on magical systems is mandatory. David Eddings reportedly spent six years developing his magical system before starting the Belgariad. Being less bold than the grand masters of fantasy, I took twenty years to work out my first magical system and it is satisfyingly troll proof. A magical system doesn’t necessarily have to take that long, but some serious thought goes into the good ones.
There are rules you can follow to make the process easier. Good magical systems can be had by rehashing the same themes explored since the dawn of true civilization (ahem… that being in 1911 when J.R.R. Tolkien started writing for school magazines). However, the key to creating a great magical system is in the conflict that arises from a unique premise.
With that in mind, here is my code of magical development:
The author god must know the truth
Problems can arise when a writer is exploring a magical system while writing. It’s fine as far as it goes, but this exploratory approach requires major editing and you shouldn’t start publishing until you know your magical system to its very core.
I’m going to use some examples from my contemporary fantasy series here, not because I think mine is the best or because I want to force it down your throat, but because one can only really write about the behind the scenes methods of an author from first-hand experience. I spent many years, testing out different scenarios in my imagination before writing and this resulted in a logically sound and yet deceptively simple scheme.
In the long forgotten past, a very negative magical work was created and it took over the wills of its human creators. The negative magic itself became a living entity—the Addin. The Addin desires absolute power over humanity and it gains it through usurping the wills of individuals and using them as pawns. Many of the political, economic and social leaders of today’s world are in fact controlled by the Addin. No human being can resist Addin domination for long, if they are specifically targeted. Most people don’t even know it exists and think that simple greed and corruption account for any abuses of power and the destructive tendencies of their leaders.
The world I created for The Kyrennei Series is eerily similar to the real world and that has been the key to its impact on readers who find the Addin frighteningly plausible. That’s part of the magical system of this world and while the main characters don’t entirely understand it even within the first few books of the series, my understanding of it as the author keeps the series consistent and gives the story a connection to authentic emotions.
Know the Source
Magic has to come from somewhere or something in your world. Your characters may not know where it comes from, but you should. Is it from the gods or pulled from the life force around the magic user or from the energy of the universe or from something else?
I never spell this out in The Kyrennei Series but essentially magic comes from primal life force or energy. It operates on another plane of reality that can affect physical reality in certain ways. Emotion is also energy. The intensity that goes into the use of magic matters and the Addin, of course, operates primarily through the usurpation of the emotions of others.
This was important for me to understand as an author even though the characters didn’t get into the theoretical basis of magic in their world. It has implications for the way magic works. The Addin steals the power of human beings by usurping their emotions. But there are people that the Addin cannot take over. They are the Kyrennei, a non-human race that lived on earth long ago, but the Addin was able to annihilate them fourteen centuries ago because they were smaller and physically weaker than humans. Still, before they died the last Kyrennei mages set a magical process in motion that hid the genome of the Kyrennei within the DNA of certain humans. When the Kyrennei thus return from extinction after centuries of absence it is their power to resist the Addin and their other abilities with energy and emotion that matter. And the details of this premise fit together nicely because they are rooted in the source of magic itself.
Know the limits
Just as magic should have a source, it must have limits. If it didn’t have limits, there would be nothing stopping anyone with magic from getting everything they want and ruling the world. And that would make for a boring story. Limits equal conflict and conflict is good for fiction.
The limit may be as simple as a Cold War between magic users, such as “I can sense your magic, so if you try to kill me in order to control the world without competition, I’ll vaporize you just as you vaporize me.” There’s conflict there, even if the magic is otherwise limitless, but that would make for a very inflexible conflict.
Here again your characters don’t necessarily know the limits of magic in their world. Or you might have some fully informed magical scholars. But the “author god” should know the limits. What can magic do? What can it not do? Is it limited by space and time? Is it difficult to learn or limited to only some talented magic users? Is it theoretically possible for magic users to read minds, live forever, change anything into anything, bring back the dead, put out the sun or drive the planet like a space ship? If they can’t do these things and much more, your magic isn’t limitless. And you need to know where those limits are.
Often the outer limits of magic will not be firm, however. Some types of magic may be stronger than others, some magic users may be able to do more and certain devices, substances or rituals may be able to push the limits of magic. Again, the “author god” must know what is possible and what determines the abilities of magic users.
As an example, in The Kyrennei Series, the question of why the magic users don’t rule the world is answered. One group of them does rule. They exterminated the other group of magic users partly because that group resisted their control of the wills of normal humans. Even so, the ruling group does not use their power without limit. When they usurp a person’s will they make that person one of the elite group of magic users as well and thus they must share power with that person from that time forward (even though they will be a loyal follower of their patron’s goals). This is why the Addin doesn’t yet control everyone in the world. They are the wolves and wolves need sheep. If they eat all the sheep, they will have no one to rule over and no more sheep to eat. As such, there are certain limits on Addin, power but individuals sometimes stretch these limits. And there can be controversy, even among the Addin about how much is too much use of power.
On the other hand, the protagonists in the Kyrennei Series initially know little about the limits of magic as most of their magic has been suppressed for centuries. A key moment comes when Aranka Miko, the first Kyrennei to take her true form in modern times shows a group of resistance fighters that she has abilities unknown for centuries. Even then, any magic beyond the terrible power of the Addin and the simple power of the Kyrennei to resist the Addin seems very limited indeed. But eventually the Kyrennei find that their physical weakness is balanced by greater magical strength than anyone dreamed.
Apply basic logic and be consistent… mostly
You may hate logic and believe that consistency is for fools (and you may even have a fun plot). However, you are likely to have a lot of unhappy readers (and a few angry ones). Not all readers insist on logical consistency but many in fantasy and science fiction genres do.
As a reader, I’m not a zealot (in that I don’t go to great lengths to try to find logical inconsistencies in books I read). But I am like most fantasy readers in that obvious issues simply distract me from the story and take me out of the “fictive dream” (that state in which you are feeling and experiencing the story with the characters). And whether your genre is fantasy or any other sort of fiction, it’s a mortal sin for a writer to boot the reader out of this dream state. It’s what makes readers put books down for a minute… or indefinitely. Don’t do it.
As long as you keep the reader feeling and experiencing the story, other writerly sins will often be forgiven and forgotten. And an underlying sense of reality and consistency is crucial to keeping the reader engaged.
How does that apply to developing magical systems? Magic is supposed to be illogical, right?
Yes and no. Magic is supposed to go beyond science. You can rewrite the rules of science. But you must still have rules. Gravity is a “rule” that keeps us from floating away into space and the rules of magic keep the reader firmly on the ground in your fantasy world.
There are rules about what magic can and cannot do. You make the rules. Then you play by them. Make sure that if magic can’t do something in chapter one there is a darned good reason if it can do it in chapter eight (and visa versa). If you give your main character the ability to magically transport themselves, you’re going to have to give a good reason for how they get stuck in any dangerous situation that your plot requires. Why wouldn’t they just teleport themselves away? Whatever magic you give your characters they have to actually use it when in need, unless there are specific reasons why they can’t.
In addition, if everyone can do magic in your fictional world, there must be a good reason if they don’t use it all the time (perhaps it is tiring or comes at some other price). If magic users can transform any substance or creature into another substance or creature, your magic users should never be poor. They could just transform dirt into gold. In fact gold would be as worthless as dirt. In a world with lots of transformation magic, no one should be hungry. But make sure you know if any magical transformations are permanent or not. Eating bread that turns back into rocks after an hour might be a bad idea.
So, consistency is good.
But… too much consistency can be a problem. If every use of magic always works exactly the same and is always successful, you’ll be giving up a great source of suspense for your plot. It often works best if magical ability isn’t absolute or well understood by the characters and magic doesn’t always work. This adds conflict, suspense and interest to the story. But again, the author must understand why the magic works in some instances and not in others, even if the characters are dismayed and confused.
Another common logical blunder occurs when writers set up the belief that magic takes a lifetime to learn. Magic users are invariably very old in such tales, until the main character arrives (usually an adolescent) who is supposed to learn magic. But the adolescent usually masters magic in a matter of weeks or months and soon exceeds the abilities of his or her teachers. This isn’t just a tired plotline. It’s also a logical inconsistency. David Eddings actually pulled this off in his Belgariad series, but it wasn’t nearly so tired a plotline when he did it (and his version is still among the best).
More importantly, he dealt with the logical inconsistencies. First, the talented adolescent was the answer to a prophecy and expected to be far stronger in magic than everyone else. Second, it did take him a few years (not weeks) to get to be really good. Third, the reason most magic users were ancient was that the talent for magic in Eddings’ world is exceedingly rare, so by the time the main character was born all the other magic users had grown very old. And fourth, even when the amazingly strong adolescent had come into his power, he still needed to consult with his technically weaker but more experienced teachers on a lot of issues, so it was still clear that he was strong but inexperienced.
Magic should not be THE key to the plot
Here’s an interesting irony for you. Fantasy must have some sort of magic to be fantasy and yet it isn’t a good idea to make magic the key to resolving your plot problem. The crux of fiction is a conflict or a problem that the main characters must solve. But fantasy writers shouldn’t just “magic away” the problem.
For example, if you have a young adventurer faced with an evil tyrant of great power in your story and the young adventurer must rescue someone, escape from somewhere, retrieve an important object or win a battle resulting in freedom from oppression (or one of the many other things that such adventurers do in fantasy books), it is inadvisable to simply say that your young adventurer learned a new magical skill and “bam!” the evil tyrant is sidelined or dead. This makes for a boring story and a poor ending, even if the rest of the plot is great.
Unlike most of the other rules in my code of magic, this one is often broken by commercial fantasy writers and sometimes stories that break this rule even have a moderate amount of success. However, you should note that the most successful fantasy does follow this rule. Harry Potter wins through moral fortitude, loyalty to friends and family and inner freedom of spirit, not because his patronus is just stronger. Frodo wins with only incidental use of magical items (like cloaks) by stamina, undergoing hardship and the final moral victory over the temptation of power.
The thing that makes these stories work is that the characters had to change in order to win. If Frodo had to climb Mount Doom on the first day of the Fellowship of the Ring, he would have failed. Harry Potter too. Maya Gardener in the second trilogy of the Kyrennei Series is frozen in fear in the beginning. It is only through many trials and experiences that she comes to choose her own path and stand up to aggression when it counts most.
That’s because magic, as important as it is to fantasy stories, cannot be “the magic bullet” of the plot. Magic is a tool in fantasy, but stories driven by changing characters facing obstacles with inner strength will always win the day.