Tag: writing magic in fiction

Writing Magic in Fantasy Fiction

Phantom Spells and Wizard Bells Indeed
Phantom Spells and Wizard Bells Indeed

One of the many problems with my first draft of Shadow of the Black City was the weakness of the desert magic. I hadn’t put enough time into it – and, really, I don’t think I was ready to tackle the issue. I knew this was a problem before I even started revisions, so I’ve had a while to think on it.

As with anything I do related to writing, I spent (and am still spending) time researching various aspects of magic systems, from fiction to folklore to anthropology.

For me, creating a magic system from scratch has been a daunting task for three reasons:

  1. Creating something original is about damn near impossible
  2. Creating something that makes sense and is plausible (as much as magic can be) can turn into a treatise on the mechanics of the system rather than a nice supporting character in the big story
  3. Striking a balance where the magic doesn’t overshadow or subvert the characters is every bit the challenge that creating rich characters is. (I would argue that magic is a character much like setting).

Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn series as well as the latest installment in the Wheel of Time series, The Gathering Storm, describes the presentation of magic as a spectrum (something of which I am always a fan), with unexplained magic where the reader doesn’t know the rules on one end and magic systems where the reader usually learns of it as the main character does.

I found this to be useful, because it indicated that there is no limit to how you can present magic, so long as it has limitations and causes conflict. I can handle that.

After searching far and wide, I put together a list of links that I found helpful in guiding me:

From Writing Excuses podcasts (I recommend checking out their other podcasts as well):

This week the Writing Excuses team discusses magic again, this time focusing on the cost of magic. Whether or not your magic system has internally-consistent rules your readers can follow you need to consider the ramifications of using magic in the worlds you create. Or at least, that’s what we think. Have a listen and find out why.

Wikipedia on magic in fiction (freakin’ love Wikipedia!):

Within a work of fantasy, magic can function to move the plot forward, providing both power for the hero of the story, and power for those who oppose him. The use of magic is often transformative of the character, if not the world.

In order to carry out this function, magic often carries a price, equal to its value.

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen on magic in fiction:

Magic should be magical.  That’s one thing oft-forgotten in the fantasy world.  A spell is much more than a fireball or the summoning of denizens of the deep to do a sorcerer’s wicked bidding.

Tor.com discussion and list of various magic systems from various fantasy works:

I have found that a good magic system makes a fantasy story much more interesting… In fact how that magic works in a key element in both novels and add an element of mystery as the key characters try to figure it out.

Wikihow.com with a handy guide from which to draw inspiration if you are looking for a place to start:

Ever feel that books such as Harry Potter have taken all the good Magic set-ups in books? Despite the thousands of types of magic in books, it’s still possible to make a brand new magic.

Things to avoid in your magic system from Atsiko’s Chimney (There are several good posts here from which you can glean helpful information):

All those little things that authors do to drive the reader nuts, whether it’s avoiding good plotting with magic, or making their mage a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, but let’s just pretend “Mary Sue” is a neuter gender noun for now.) So, in this post, the top ten ways to make your mage hero a Sickeningly Speshul Snowflake:

Fantasy Fiction Factor offers more tips on how to create believable magic:

No matter how your characters use their magic or how it interacts with other creatures and forces, it needs to follow a set of rules. Consistency is invaluable in the magical universe. Without that, magic becomes the miracle elixir that rives wounded plots and rescues poorly developed worlds.

I should say that, while not online, Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy delves into this concept quite a bit as well.

The takeaway from this research is that you must be consistent, magic must introduce conflict and tension and there must be costs for magic. Without these building blocks, your story takes on the tone of an elementary school recess where the oldest kid lays out an ever changing set of parameters to conveniently benefit him at will. Not that I’m bitter. My brother used to do that to me back in the day.

These articles aren’t the end-all and be-all of developing magic systems, but they sure do help to provide a little structure. If you have any additional links or useful resources, please post them in the comments below!