Once magic enters your story, you must do some foot work, or your premise won’t be believable. It’s critical that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works. If your magic rules are too elastic, or you imbue too many amazing abilities into your main character, you will make them too good to be true. Readers won’t be able to relate to their story.
When I sit down to write a fantasy story, there will be magic, and I will have planned carefully for it. I have three worlds with three radically different systems of magic.
- In my serial, Bleakbourne on Heath, sorcerers use incantations sung to certain melodies.
- In Huw the Bard people can purchase magic (majik) amulets and potions.
- In the Tower of Bones series, magic and religion are intertwined. Aeos, the goddess, has decreed that all children who begin to show healing-empathy, or the ability to use the magic of the elements must be brought to the Temple and trained, for the protection of society in general. There are rules, certain things which can and can’t be done. As in real life, there are certain exceptions, but they too have limitations. No one is all-powerful.
Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Remember, conflict drives the plot.
First, you must consider who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:
- if the number of people who can use it is limited
- if the ways in which it can be used are limited
- if not every mage can use every kind of magic
- if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
- if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
- if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal
What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield magic?
- 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 anyway themselves?
- What has to happen before your hero can fully realize his abilities?
Even if this aspect does not come into the story, for your own information, you should decide who is in charge of teaching the magic, how that wisdom is dispensed, and who will be allowed to gain that knowledge.
- is the prospective mage born with the ability to use magic or
- is it spell-based and any reasonably intelligent person can learn it if they can find a teacher?
Magic and the ability to wield it usually denotes power. That means the enemy must be their equal or perhaps their better. So, if they are not from the same school, you now have two systems to design. You must create the ‘rules of magic.’ Take the time to write them out.
In creating both social and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within your magic system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.
Another important point to take note of is this: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when they affect the characters and their actions. Dole this information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.
It is a fact that sometimes books that were outlined to a certain storyline sometimes go off in their own directions, and the story is better for it. I haven’t experienced the sudden influx of magic into the story as that plot twist is always planned for, but I have had other random events throw a curveball at me.
Portions of this post have previously appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy and also in my column on writing craft for the Northwest Independent Writers Association (NIWA).