Today’s post comes to us thanks to my good friend Stuart Jaffe (of “The Eclectic Review” fame) who emailed me a few days ago to discuss the creation of magic systems. This is something I’ve done quite a bit, and it’s one of the things I enjoy most about writing fantasy. Magic is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of works in our genre. Yes, I know: We often say here at MW that character and plot and voice are the most important elements of good storytelling. But the fact is that fantasy wouldn’t be fantasy without magic. And besides, making up magic systems is really fun to do.
But contrary to what some people think, creating a magic system is not an anything-goes endeavor. It takes serious thought and careful planning, not to mention a good deal of imagination. There are, of course, a thousand different ways to use magic. I’ve had magic systems that are based in a psychic bond between a mage and a familiar, usually a bird of prey. The power actually flowed from that connection and was focused through a third element, a crystal. I’ve also had psionic (mind) magic. Power was basically as immediate as thought. I’ve used spell magic, blood magic, sacrificial magic. There are endless possibilities. When I’m working on magic systems, though, I like to keep three things in mind.
1) A magic system has to have limitations. You don’t want unlimited magic because then your story becomes a contest between mages (wizards, sorcerers, insert your favorite word here) with near God-like powers. Magic should be taxing in some way. It should tire the people who use it, or it should have some other kind of cap that keeps it from being used all the time, for everything, without end. That said, as with everything we talk about here, there are exceptions to this “rule.” You can, of course, write an effective story in which your mages have unlimited power (others have done it), but you need to make certain that you pay attention to the ramifications of this decision. If there are members of your society who don’t have magic, they’re going to be second-class citizens in nearly every way, unless your magic-wielders are uncommonly (and perhaps unrealistically) benign. Call me a cynic, but I believe that unfettered magical power will lead to unfettered political, social, and military domination.
2) In my opinion, magic should have a cost. For me, it’s not enough that magic be limited or bounded in some way. It should also have repercussions. In the Forelands books, for instance, the Qirsi who use magic shorten their lives with every conjuring. The book I’m working on right now has a kind of cool, different system that I’m not ready to discuss in detail, but those who use magic eventually go insane. In my thief taker series there’s no real physical cost, but there is a social one. Conjurers are outcasts. They’re hated, feared, and persecuted, and so they have to be careful where and when they use their power, lest they be arrested, tortured, and put to death.
3) And finally, (this is pretty basic) a magic system has to be internally consistent. You have to establish rules and then those rules have to be as iron clad as the physical laws of our natural world. I know that sounds self-evident, but you’d be amazed by the number of writers who don’t get this one, who allow their magic to work as deus ex machina again and again. Once you set up your system of magic, you have to write around it. As soon as you start messing with it to fit the needs of your characters or your plot, you undermine the credibility of your world. Just as you wouldn’t start changing your world map in the middle of series to fit the travel needs of your characters, you shouldn’t change the rules of your magic system.
As writers of fantasy, we ask our readers to suspend their disbelief every time they open one of our books. We are saying, in effect, “This couldn’t really happen, but I’m going to create a world that feels so real to you that you’ll come to believe that it actually could.” Magic, of course, is part of the fiction we create, and it has to be every bit as “realistic” and believable as the rest of our worldbuilding. You want your maps and your histories to seem credible. Your magic should, too. It shouldn’t be a perfect, boundless, painless tool. It shouldn’t stretch and bend to meet the needs of your characters or your plot. That’s too easy, and it will make your work less interesting. Limitations, costs, consistency: In my opinion, these are the hallmarks of a workable magic system.David B. Coe