Many of my own books feature characters who can use magic of one sort or another. In my worlds, all magic is limited by strict parameters and requires both governing and training.
My approach to designing magic and worlds was shaped by my love of early Final Fantasy style RPG games. Everything was logical and believable. The political and religious systems were concrete, as were the technology and magic systems. The enemies were powerful, but no one had unlimited power. If you worked to build your strength and abilities and acquired the best weapons and armor you could get, you grew strong enough to prevail in the ultimate battle.
Later, I used those principles in writing a storyline, world building, and designing magic for an anime-based RPG. The company folded before the game went into full production, but the experience taught me to look at these aspects of genre fiction with a “God’s Eye.”
Anyone who has raised children knows they are born with a sense of self and an instinct for self-preservation. We come into the world aware only of how we feel and what we want. Those two things are the primary drivers of infancy.
Awareness that others also have feelings, needs, and wants comes later. Each human develops compassion for others at a different stage of childhood.
Some children are bullies while still in diapers. They will push and take toys from the weaker member of a group if they aren’t guided in the right direction or severely limited in what they can do. They quickly learn who they can get away with bullying, and that child gets picked on mercilessly.
These little bullies are strong-willed and could become leaders, so guiding them to learn and understand compassion is crucial for the welfare of society.
Some people, even those raised in good families, never develop the ability to care about others.
Most insensitive people aren’t sociopaths. But if a self-centered person has a superpower or a gift for using magic, could you guarantee they won’t use it solely for selfish purposes?
Thus, laws and a school system that trains them in both the use of these powers and what constitutes abuse is essential. There should be consequences for abuse, especially if others are harmed.
In designing a story where superpowers, super weapons, or magic are key elements, you must understand several things.
Super weapons are science based.
Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writer of true science fiction must know the difference, especially when creating possible weapons.
Magic is not science.
However, it should be logical and rooted in solid theories. For me, as a reader, magic should only be possible if certain conditions have been met. This means the author has created a system that regulates what is possible. Magic works
- if the number of people who can use it is limited.
- if the ways in which it can be used are limited.
- if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every kind of magic.
- if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of 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 damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
- if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
- if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
- if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.
Satisfying these conditions sets the stage for you to create the Science of Magic. This is an underlying, invisible layer of the world. By creating and following the arbitrary rules of this “science,” your story won’t contradict itself.
Superpowers are both science and something that may seem like magic, but is not.
What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield their magic/superpower or super weapon?
- Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
- If not, why?
- How does their inability affect their companions?
- How is their self-confidence affected by this inability?
- Do the companions face learning curves too?
- What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?
Magic and superpowers share common ground in one area–genesis, or how the ability occurs:
Is the character born with the ability to use the superpower or was it imposed on them by a scientific means?
Is your magic spell-based or imposed by artifacts and relics? Or is it a biological/empathic ability? Is it a trait children can inherit?
- If magic is spell-based, can any reasonably intelligent person learn it if they find a teacher or are accepted into a school?
Personal Power and the desire for dominance is where the concepts of science and magic converge.
In all my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, the enemy has access to equal or better Science/Magic. How the characters overcome the limitations of their science/magic/superpower is the story.
“Struggle” forces the characters out of their comfortable environment. The roadblocks you put up force them to be creative, and through that creativity, your characters become more than they believe they are.
I do suggest that in regard to magic, you take the time to create the rules and write a document for yourself that clearly defines what limits characters face when using their magic.
This means that if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school” of magic or science, you might have written two systems into that story. You should take the time to write out what makes them different and why they don’t converge.
You must also clearly state the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.
In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either 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.
An important thing to consider whether using magic or technology: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when it affects the characters and their actions. Write it as a natural part of the environment rather than discussing it in an info dump.
Science and magic are two sides of the personal-power coin. We who write the two radically divergent sides of speculative fiction give this coin to our characters in varying amounts.
My favorite authors explore ambition, the drive to acquire more personal power, and the lengths characters will go to in their efforts to gain an edge over their opponents. They delve deeply into the societal consequences of their characters’ struggle.
The fundamental tropes of science, magic, or superpowers offer your characters opportunities for success. But to be believable, those opportunities must not be free and unlimited.
Every successful author teaching a seminar will tell you that when writing genre fiction, the struggle is the story. Make your characters work for their successes. Make them and the reader understand the personal cost of acquiring power and the dangers of unbridled ambition.
Use magic, science, or superpowers only as a means to tell a powerful story.
Strong, charismatic characters, powerful struggles, serious consequences for failure–these are the stories I want to read.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dommersen_Gothic_cathedral_in_a_medieval_city.jpg&oldid=319795786 (accessed May 29, 2019).
The Green Knight, by N.C,Wyeth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Boys King Arthur – N. C. Wyeth – p82.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p82.jpg&oldid=304597062 (accessed December 9, 2018).