Post NaNoWriMo World Building part 1 – creating the physics of magic #amwriting

I read fantasy novels as much as I read in any other genre. In reading five books a week, I come across both indie and traditionally published work in all genres. Many are books I cannot recommend. A sad truth is, both sides of the publishing industry are guilty of publishing novels that aren’t well thought out.

How the written universe works magic and superpowers1Fantasy is and always has been my favorite genre. I became a fan when I first read the Hobbit at the age of nine. I have read countless works written by people who understood how to construct a plot and set it in a believable world. These classics trained me to notice contradictions in what I read, whether in a magic system or elsewhere in a book.

Inconsistencies are usually only one aspect of a poorly planned fantasy novel. One can see how an author was unaware of contradictions as they emerged during the writing process. They wrote the story as it came to them and didn’t check for logic or do much revising. They wrote the first draft, edited it, and published it, trying to keep to the three or four book a year schedule that many gurus tout as the way to gain readers.

I believe keeping to this kind of schedule is unreasonable and wish some of my favorite traditionally published authors weren’t contractually obligated to produce that many novels a year. It results in shallow, throw-away books written by people whose first books were brilliant, thought-provoking novels I wished I had written.

For me as a reader, the struggle is the story.

I like fantasy novels where the author has taken the time to devise a science of magic. When magic has limitations, story is forced to become character driven. It details how the protagonists develop the skills to overcome the roadblocks in their path 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.

I use the physics of light photons as an example of how magic should behave. Photons can do some things, and they cannot do others. Magic is not science as we know it but should be logical and rooted in solid theories.

Several things to consider in designing a story where magic and superpowers are fundamental plot elements:

First, you must decide if 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.

magicI can suspend my disbelief when magic is only possible if 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 to only a small number.
  • the ways it can be used is limited.
  • most mages are constrained to one or two kinds of magic.

It becomes slightly less believable when some mages can use every type of magic, but if the author explains that exception well and limits that kind of power to only a chosen few, I will keep reading.

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.

Expertise in any field requires practice and dedication, working on the most minor details of technique.

  • 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 when the author defines what each kind of magic can and cannot 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?

scienceSuperpowers 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. These limitations provide excellent opportunities for plot development.

If you haven’t considered the challenges your characters must overcome when learning to wield their magic or superpower, now is a good time to do it.

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • Why are they handicapped?
  • How does their inability affect their companions?
  • How is their self-confidence affected by this inability?
  • Do their companions struggle to master their skills too?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?

I want you to understand that these are only my opinions as a reader, and I employ these theories in my own work. The limits an author places on magic, science, or superpowers are barriers to success, and overcoming those roadblocks is what the story is all about

magicWhile an ordinary life is comforting to those of us who simply long for peace and stability in our daily lives, we read for adventure. The story must take an average person, someone who could be your friend, into an extraordinary future.

The struggle must push the characters we grow to love out of their comfortable environment. It must force them to be creative, and through that creativity, our favorite characters become more than they believe they are. I become invested in the outcome of the story.

The next post will delve into powers that are familiar tropes of speculative fiction and fantasy: healing and telepathy.


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9 responses to “Post NaNoWriMo World Building part 1 – creating the physics of magic #amwriting

  1. I couldn’t agree more.When I was writing my urban fantasy where the MC becomes an Alchemist, I spent a lot of time working out what the rules were. Not only to make the story seem more real to me, but also to keep the MC from being over powered.

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  2. My current WIP is futuristic, but there isn’t any magic involved. Nevertheless, your question/statement: Why restrict your beloved main character’s abilities? still applied. Perfect characters make for a boring story.


  3. Coming up against having to define my magic a little more rigidly as I come to start my third story in my universe. Internal inconsistencies are popping up all over the place, having come up with most conditions as and when needed.

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