Making Magic Work (in Books)

WritersdontcryMagicdesignMagic has fascinated me ever since reality first smacked me down. Flush with disappointment, I started wondering, like most children, what it would be like to be able to break the rules. What if, instead of a bruised nose and a messy closet, I had found Narnia? What if I could stop time, turn invisible, or make the sun come out on a cloudy day? What if I could fly--instead of fall? 

That’s the kind of wonder and willful belief magic should evoke. Magic should be so solidly thought out, so detailed and consistent, that you could almost believe the author a wizard. It should make you want your own wand—and look for the signs of enchantment in found objects. It should make you concentrate really hard on a couple of twigs wound with grass, willing it to turn into a flower. And it should make you open doors and hope, just for a second, that you’ll emerge in another world.

But to do all that, you’re going to need to think seriously about exactly how magic works in your world. Sure, you can make things up in fantasy, but consistency is what gives your story the elements of surprise, tension, and believability. And having magic in your world has a much bigger effect than just allowing you to have a wizard. Magic opens up whole new worlds of possibility—and with those, possible holes in your story. And that doesn’t even get into the effect of magic on society!

How you handle magic impacts how readers react to your book. I’ve broken down the elements of making a magic system into five basic questions. If you can answer these, you’re well on your way to creating an enchanting magic system to call your own.

What Makes a Wizard?

Wizards are born—not made. At least in most books. How about in yours? Mages can be special snowflakes, defined by rare, inborn talents they got courtesy of mutations, genetics, and accidents of fate. But mages could also be anyone—with the proper application of elbow grease and a few other reagents, that is. One book even pitted both schools against each other, with one school adhering to talent alone, and another, to education. Which one sings more to your soul?

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Comments (4)

Excellent post.

My WiP is a futuristic fantasy where magic is outlawed. The magic users are born with their skills but are talented in different kinds of magic. They learn within their families and communities. Some study to experiment with and improve their magic. Others are so naturally gifted and powerful that magic is completely intuitive. The limit is their belief that what you give out, you get back, so the majority of them do not believe in violence or harming others with their magic.

Posted by: Fi Phillips | Monday March 12, 2012 at 2:43 AM

Thanks, Fi!

Making magic outlawed is great way to make it exclusive and limited. You sound like you have a really well-developed magic system.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday March 12, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Good article. Brandon Sanderson (author of Mistborn series and the final Wheel of Time books) created his own law regarding magic (Sanderson's First Law of Magic). To sum it up, the amount of magic needed to resolve the story is directly proportional to how much the reader understands the magic system. In LotR, Gandalf runs around doing magicky things in the background and as readers we get a sense of the immense power and struggle he faces but it never becomes an issue of magic really resolving the story, only providing a little assistance or guidance here and there.

In D&D, the system is far more detailed and needs to be so players can understand how to interact with the world using magic and this is reflected in the novels that go with the system.

Sanderson really has something when it comes to truly fleshing out this concept for your own stories and it makes sense. Thought you'd, and any readers of these comments, like to see his article about it.

Posted by: Epheros | Monday March 12, 2012 at 8:37 AM

Hi Epheros,

Thanks! I agree, Brandon Sanderson's article is really well done, and it was one of the first I read while doing research for this article. Highly recommended.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday March 12, 2012 at 12:10 PM

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