Every now and then I read a book where it’s clear the author has no concept of his own magic system. You, as the reader, are sailing; the story is flowing; and then suddenly you realize that Bart the Mage seems to have unlimited magic ability. Well, that’s no good, because now there is no tension; no great ordeal for Bart to overcome. Bart can do anything–game over–end of story. The book goes into the recycling bin, unfinished and you never buy that author’s work again.
Every author has their own way of doing this, but I approach it from an engineering and scientific viewpoint–I spend time designing the system:
Let’s talk about Bart. He’s a lowly journeyman mage. For a multitude of reasons he has decided that he must rid the world of Evil Badguy; a very powerful, very naughty wizard. Evil Badguy is very strong, and has great magic, and he seems unstoppable! But fortunately for our story, there are rules, so he is not omnipotent. He has a weakness and your protagonists now have the opportunity to grow and develop to their fullest potential in process of finding and exploiting that weakness.
Now let’s say that Bart is a mage with offensive magic – maybe he can cast lightning at an enemy, or perhaps he can set fires with his magic. Can he also use magic to heal people? Can he heal himself? What are the rules governing these abilities and how do these rules affect the progress of the story? When it comes to magic, limitations open up many possibilities for plot development.
Let’s say that Bart can only reliably use one sort of magic. This is good, because now you have need for other several characters with other abilities. They each have a story which will come out and which will contribute to the advancement of the plot. Each character will have limits to their abilities and because of that they will need to interact and work with each other and with Bart whether they like each other or not if they want to win the final battle against Evil Badguy. This gives you ample opportunity to introduce tension into the story. Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world, and conflict is what drives the plot.
What challenge does Bart have to overcome in order to win the day?
- Is he unable to fully use his own abilities?
- If that is so, why is he hampered in that way?
- How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it?
- Are they hampered in any way themselves?
- What has to happen before Bart can fully realize his abilities?
Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for Bart to struggle and no story to tell.
So now, you realize that you must create the ‘rules of magic.’ Take the time to write it out, and don’t break the laws, without having a damned good explanation for why that particular breaking of the rules is possible.
Each world should be unique, and so we need to tailor the magic to fit each unique situation.
- Who can use magic?
- What kind of magic can they use?
- How are they trained?
- What happens to those who abuse their gifts?
- How common is magic?
- How does the ability to wield magic fit into the political system?
I have two worlds that I am currently writing in, and their magic systems are radically different.
The following was my first list from 2009 for creating the world when we were originally designing a game that eventually became The World of Neveyah series.
Elemental Battle Magic of Neveyah
Water: non battle-use can fill water jugs and basins
- Water spout (novice)
- Gully Washer (intermediate)
- High Seas (Advanced)
- Raging River (Advanced)
Earth: non-battle use, putting out campfires, digging holes, gardening
- Square Dance (novice)
- Landslide (intermediate)
- Mudslide (advanced)
- Mountain Drop (Advanced)
Fire: non battle use – can light candles, and ignite fire in fireplace
- Hot Shot (novice)
- Fire Ball (Intermediate)
- Inferno (advanced)
- Hell Fire (Advanced)
Lightning: non-battle use for lightning: creating finish on armor, glazing pottery
- Cat-Zapper (novice) Zippety-Doo-Dah (novice-spell)
- Thunder Fist (intermediate)
- Curtain Call (Advanced)
- Thunder Walking (Advanced)
This basic grocery list has since evolved into a complete curriculum for domestic uses, and the names for most of those spells has changed, but it remains relevant because it shows how I divided it. A game player would have had to gain in strength in order to use those spells, and that is how my characters do in the Neveyah books.
It’s very different in the Billy’s Revenge series which set in Waldeyn, an alternate-medieval earth which is the setting for Huw the Bard. There, the actual environment is magic and Huw’s journey involves his overcoming its inherent dangers. The plants and animals of Waldeyn are shaped by the overwhelming abundance of magic in that world, like radioactivity affects and mutates life here. Many of the most dangerous creatures are born of twisted magic, or as they call it, majik.
Mind-majik, healing, and the ability to imbue their healing majik into a potion or salve is the feminine side of majik, governed by the Sisters of Anan.
The ability to bind the elements into weapons and wield them is the male side, and they are governed by the Brotherhood of St. Aelfrid.
Part of their political/religious power comes from the fact that it has been determined the majik is a God-given gift, and all who’ve been granted that ability must be bound to the church.
There are strict rules, and if a gifted person doesn’t choose to serve the people through being bound to the church, the ability to sense majik is taken from them by the Mother Church.
I don’t have any main characters in Waldeyn who are majik wielders, although one side character in the forthcoming novel, Billy Ninefingers, is a member of the Brotherhood of St. Aelfrid: the Fat Friar, Robert DeBolt. However, many times these characters are in need of healing. (Heh heh.)
Because of my characters’ frequent tendency to bleed, gaining and acquiring good healing potions and salves is important.
In the World of Neveyah, which is where the Tower of Bones series is set, the situation was different—The Tower of Bones grew out of what was originally the walk-through for a computer-based RPG that was never built. Thus the constraints of magic are quite strict, but as you saw in the list above, they are game-based.
In the forthcoming prequel to Tower of Bones, Mountains of the Moon, a mage is either a healer or a battle-mage. Healing is building and preserving, battle-magic is death and destruction. It is thought that one can’t be both, because on the rare occasions that a dually-gifted mage is born, they go mad. There is a strict system in place for controlling magic and those who are able to use it, and this creates the conflict.
Once again, there is a governing body for mages–in Neveyah it is the Temple of Aeos. Children with the gifts are taken to the Temple and trained in the use of their gifts until they are adults. They are sworn to serve and protect the Goddess Aeos and her people, or die doing so.
But forty years after Wynn Farmer’s tale, during the time in which the Tower of Bones takes place, the clergy has been decimated by a great war that took place twenty years before. The goddess Aeos is in danger of losing the battle with Tauron the Bull God. She slightly changes the way her magic works. Wynn’s grandson, Edwin Farmer, is the first to be born with the ability to wield both sides of the magic who also has the force of character to survive the learning process. His biggest problem is there is no one who can teach him how to use his dual gifts—his teachers only know how one side or the other works.
That learning process forms a huge part of his story. Yes, Edwin has access to power, but so does the antagonist, Stefyn D’Mal, and he is completely mad. Even so, he has rigid constraints. These constraints create the conflict.
Remember, unlimited power in a mage equals unlimited boredom to the reader. Magic without rules is tiresome and unbelievable, and no one wants to read that story.
11 responses to “Worldbuilding part 3—Magic”
Thanks for the “cheat sheet” for winning in Neveyah! (Mwah hah hah!)
heh heh–now if only I can interest Square-Enix in making it into a game!
Great post, Connie. I agree 100%. It was the key aspect of my books too, where I had to construct the parameters for the magic system, and stay within them thru all the books. Without them, the magic would have been worthless to the readers.
Best regards to you!
Thank you Dean! For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dean’s work, his book Black Numbers is one gripping epic fantasy, with elements of horror. I couldn’t put it down!
A fascinating post on magic systems, and their engineering. I think magic is such an integral part to epic and heroic fantasy that a coherent approach within a series is vital. Too often magic is used as a Deus ex Machina, to compensate for bad plotting. I particularly liked your system in Tower of Bones, as I’m a big fan of RPGs and their ordered systems.
Thank you Ross–one of the things I loved the most in your book, Darkness Rising 5: Broken, was the way the magic was limited. Not everyone has it, and those who do are not all-powerful, in fact in some cases they are severely limited by virtue of having it.(I’m thinking of your character, Marthir)
One option for RPG folks who aren’t sure where to really start is to borrow from your RPG system of choice. You can’t use the same names and effect descriptions, but you can use the system to give you an idea of how magic can be stratified into power levels, or restricted by endurance, or whatever method the RPG uses. I write books with a D&D background, and that’s where my sense of magic comes from. Though my characters never cast Magic Missile, you can kind of feel the intent and fellow gamers pick up on the hints about how power works. This sets up expectations that you can then either use as a sort of cheat or destroy for effect.
Lee–that is a really awesome point. I think gamers turned author generally do this to a certain extent. And I’m pretty sure that my Final Fantasy penchant comes out in my World of Neveyah series–my characters level up, so to speak. Characters can’t stagnate so it stands to reason their skills grow too. I love D&D, and so does Ross Kitson, or so I believe!
Once again, great post. I have been very sketchy with my magic system in my current WIP. Not giving all of the details to the reader does not seem to have hurt the story thus far. I’m not sure it’s necessary to lay it all out for the reader. Fantasy readers, in general, are accepting of magic without a lot of detail providing, as you said, it does not get out of hand and become all powerful.
Absolutely they necessarily don’t need or want to know the mechanics unless for some reason the mechanics form part of the tension in the plot–but YOU need to know what’s going on so the slings and arrows of inadvertent fate don’t creep into the ms. I sense that you do have it nailed down, Dennis!
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