I love the idea of real magic. Surrounded every day by traffic and buildings, by dishes that need washing and trash that needs emptying, I can’t help desiring a world in which something sparkling and strange could be right around the corner. When I was a kid, I used to wander in the marshes near my home getting muddy and wet (to my mother’s great dismay), wishing the fae would come out and play with me. Now that I’m grown, I find that magic in the fantasy worlds I read and write.
Magic systems are as individual as the writers who create them. Almost every system has a base on which it’s built. Some are based on natural elements, and function best under the open sky. Others are designed in a more scientific manner, with an alchemical exchange required to achieve results. The religious magic systems depend on a deity who’s paying attention and who’s been properly venerated answering the calls of its powerful faithful. Traditionally magic was considered to be overcome by the intrusion of modern technology. Much of this was due to the legends of the fae, who were weakened by the presence of worked iron. Luckily a number of writers threw that tradition aside, and have come up with gorgeous, intricate systems rooted in the concrete, steel and fumes of the modern cities.
So yes, you can use anything to build your magic system, but how do you go about displaying how it works? Of course you can let your character mumble a few words and wiggle his fingers, but wouldn’t it be more fun to introduce something new? A neat way to achieve that is by leaning on the old and familiar magic we all do every day. Some people call them superstitions.
Think about your ordinary day. Most of us have odd little habits or rituals that we do almost without thinking about them. The traffic light changes to yellow just before you enter the intersection, so you kiss your palm and slap the car ceiling to keep the light from turning red before you pass under. Someone at work says, “How much worse could this day be?”, and in response we knock our knuckles against the nearest wooden desktop. Two people say the same phrase at the same time, and one of them quickly calls out, “Jinx!” to avoid…I don’t even know what they’re trying to avoid. Ordinary things no one even gives a thought to in these modern times, but think about it for a second. What if they really worked? Maybe in your fantasy world, calling “Jinx” creates a wall of force around the speaker while the unfortunate slower guy is smacked sideways by a spectral hand. Or if you don’t send a kiss to the traffic light, the traffic deities frown on you, changing the rhythms of the subsequent lights to make sure you stop at every one between where you are and where you’re going, and forcing you to be late for work. How about the old rhyme “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye if I lie”? I bet there’d be a lot less lying going on if this was actually the punishment.
There are a million superstitions, from every culture on the planet. It’s our way of doing minor magic of our own. Doesn’t matter if they don’t work they way we wish. Even if you’re not writing a modern fantasy, the words and motions of little superstitions can lend an air of authenticity to the magical world you hope to create. It will resonate with almost any reader, since we all have something we do for luck or safety. If nothing else, the gestures and words of simple superstitions will provide a solid starting place from which you can build something truly fantastic.