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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?

No matter which way you go, there’s a lot to be said for making magic exclusive. This can be done by limiting the number born with the gift or by making magic as difficult to master as Advanced Nonlinear Dynamics. Not only does this make magic feel special and, well, magical, it also helps limit the effects magic has on your world to a manageable amount.

How Common Is Magic?

Magic is a tool. A very cool, very shiny, very multipurpose tool. Like duct tape—only cooler. Which means that if everyone had magic, they would use it—not only to fight supervillains, but also to cook dinner, to get to work, even to do work. And those without magic would be pitied as though they were missing something integral to society. Like being allergic to technology. It would change the world.

If magic is uncommon but known—like something that takes an advanced degree or something that takes genuine genius—it affects the world less and the characters more. In a magic-poor world, mages may be elevated, employed by kings, acting as kings—or feared and burned as witches. Or both, depending on where you are. If magic is secret on the other hand, a whole new world opens up . . .

Is It Secret (Is it Safe)?

Based on your answers to the last two sections, you should have a fair idea as to whether magic should be secret or not in your world. If magic is learned, common, and secret, for instance, then that means there’s a whole secret world out there of wizards. That is not only terribly exciting, it also means they must have ways of keeping it secret, which adds tension and plot hooks. If magic is learned, common, and a known science, on the other hand, then you know you have to develop a high magic world, with all its many wonderful ramifications.

This also has a huge impact on how magic is learned. Students of magic can be self-taught, school educated, or apprenticed. If magic is secret and uncommon, self-taught and apprenticed make the most sense. If magic is secret and common, on the other hand, a secret school makes the most sense—and has its own, well-known appeal.

What Makes Magic Work?

Wizards generally come in two kinds: they’re either really good at memorizing spells, or they will their magic into being out of sheer cussed stubbornness. Sometimes, it’s even a combination of the two, taking concentration, willpower, and applied knowledge. But when it comes to the way magic looks—there are as many expressions of magic as there are made-up words in fantasy books. Witches and wizards have cast spells by: wiggling their fingers and noses, reading off scrolls, carving runes, waving magic wands, speaking magic (sometimes rhyming) words, begging fey creatures, carving magic tattoos, dancing magic dances, sprinkling around bat guano and unicorn poop, and holding magic beads. Just to name a few. Pick one that goes with your story and that you won’t regret having on the cover of your book or acted out by cosplayers—just in case.

Pro Tip: After the fireworks are over, consider whether there’s a cost to your magic. “To obtain, something of equal value must be lost,” is a common ideology as it reinforces our notions of how the world works, making magic seem more real. But if there is a cost, how is it paid? In the correct materials? In energy? In pain? (Does it burn a lot of calories?) Without a cost, there are few limits on what magic could accomplish—something that should be considered fully in its own right.

What Are the Limits?

Limits sound like such a downer. But they’re really the basis of most of the tension and excitement in your book! Limits mean that your character’s gun holds six bullets, and they’ve already used five, so they’ve only got one shot left. Limits make characters resourceful and lead to creative problem solving. And limits mean that readers know magic isn’t always going to save the day—that sometimes it takes real human qualities like courage, loyalty, and hope.

Limits can come in many forms. There can be a price for your magic, depending on how it’s powered. If magic is memorized, the spells are easily limited by your library and your memory. If it’s based on knowledge, it can be limited by comprehension. But no matter how you do it, it’s useful to set down what can and cannot be done with magic. Little things like raising the dead, teleportation, and mind control tend to have a big impact on a book.

The Magic-System Maker Cheat Sheet

Here is a cheat sheet for those of you interested in making magic systems. If you’re the especially curious sort, try playing around with the attributes below to make different magic systems, thinking about what you like when you’re reading, and the worlds that would fit each one.

  1. Magic is Inherent or Learned
  2. Magic is Common or Rare
  3. Magic is Secret or Public
  4. Magic is learned in School or in Apprenticeships or Alone
  5. Magic is based on Memorizing Spells or Willpower and Higher Understanding
  6. Magic has a Price or is Free
  7. Magic is Limitless or Limited


Happy Writing!

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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