In all my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, the enemy has access to equal or better science or magic. The story is about how the characters overcome the limitations of their science, magic, or superpower and succeed in their quest.
Magic should exist as an underlying, invisible layer of your written universe, the way gravity exists in reality. We know gravity works and accept it as a part of daily life.
Magic should operate with the same limitations that, say, light photons have. Photons can do some things, and they cannot do others.
Your story won’t contradict itself if you establish the known physics of magic before you begin using and abusing it.
As a confirmed lover of all things fantasy, I read a great deal of both indie and traditionally published work. Both sides of the publishing industry are guilty of publishing novels that aren’t well thought out.
Inconsistencies in the magic system are usually only one aspect of a poorly planned world. It’s easy to tell when an author doesn’t consider the possible contradictions that might emerge as the story progresses.
When the magic is mushy, the rest of the setting reads as if they just wrote whatever came into their head and didn’t check for logic or do much revising.
If all the typos are edited out of the manuscript, and the characters are brilliant and engaging, the author might be able to carry it off. Unfortunately, mushy magic or science usually results in a book I can’t recommend.
We have several things to consider in designing a story where magic and superpowers are fundamental plot elements.
First, the ability to use magic is either learned through spells, an inherent gift, or both. Your world should establish which kind of path you are taking at the outset.
- Magic is not science as we know it but should be logical and rooted in solid theories.
As a reader, I can suspend my disbelief if magic is only possible when certain conditions have been met. The most believable magic occurs when the author creates a system that regulates what the characters can do.
Magic is believable if the number of people who can use it is restricted, how it can be used is limited, and most mages are constrained to one or two kinds of magic. It becomes more believable if only certain mages can use every type of magic.
Why restrict your beloved main character’s abilities? No one has all the skills in real life, no matter how good they are at their job.
Consider musicians. A person who wins international piano competitions most likely won’t be a virtuoso at brass instruments.
This is because virtuosity requires hours of practice on one thing, working on the most minor details of technique and tone. That kind of intense focus doesn’t leave room for branching into other areas of music.
Magicians and wizards should develop skills and abilities the way musicians do. Virtuosity requires complete dedication and focus. Some are naturally talented but without practice they never rise to the top.
Magic becomes believable if the physics of magic define what each kind of magic can do.
Those rules should define the conditions under which magic works. The same physics should explain why it won’t work if those conditions are not met.
Are you writing a book that features magic? I have a few questions that you may want to consider:
Are there some conditions under which the magic will not work? Is the damage magic can do as a weapon, or is the healing it can perform somehow limited?
Does the mage or healer pay a physical/emotional price for using or abusing magic? Is the learning curve steep and sometimes lethal?
When you answer the above questions, you create the Science of Magic.
So, what about superpowers? Aren’t they magic?
Superpowers are both science and something that may seem like magic, but they are not. Think Spiderman. His abilities are conferred on him by a scientific experiment that goes wrong.
Like science and magic, superpowers are believable when they are limited in what they can do.
If you haven’t considered the challenges your characters must overcome when learning to wield their magic/superpower, now is a good time to do it.
- Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
- If so, 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?
These limits are the roadblocks to success, and overcoming those roadblocks is what the story is all about. The 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. The reader becomes invested in the outcome of the story.
The next post in this series will delve into powers that are familiar tropes of fantasy: healing and telepathy.