Magic systems are essential to fantasy writing. Without some magic element — whether it is magic wielded by people or magical/supernatural beings or magical objects or what-have-you — you really aren’t writing fantasy. Magic is what sets the genre apart. Therefore, having a solid system of rules for how magic behaves is crucial to building a strong foundation for your tale. What many writers fail to grasp, however, (and something I’ve only just begun to understand) is that the best magic systems become a character themselves.
And why shouldn’t they? If the author does the work, the magic has been set up much like a character. When we create characters, particularly main characters, we spend a portion of our prep time working up a character’s history, emotional attitudes, Misty’s secret only the character knows, etc. We try to put in as much detail as we can, knowing that many of these tidbits will never directly come up in the tale, but also that such details seep into the way the character is described, speaks, and behaves. This is why it’s important to do the prep work. Just as with world-building, if the author builds a solid foundation, the reader can instinctively sense it and has a richer experience.
All of this applies to the magic system as well.
Think about how you build a character when you are doing the ground work before you write the tale. Part of it is simply sitting back and letting your imagination play. And part of it is asking questions. How does this character feel about hard work or religion or putting herself in dangerous situations? What does this character fear? What’s this character’s favorite food or color or movie? In fact, the majority of character building can be summed up as asking yourself questions.
Well, I’m sure you see where this is going — the same can be said for building a magic system. The initial part is just letting your imagination go. Let it play a game of “What if?” and see what happens. But the second part is the crucial “asking questions” phase. What does this magic look like? Can anybody use it? What is the cost of using it? What are its limits? Is it something people and/or animals are born with or is it something developed over time? Do you have to go to school for it? What are people’s attitudes towards the magic and those who wield it? The more questions you ask, the better you will understand how the magic works.
And then, just like with a character, miraculous things can happen. With characters that are well thought out, they will often alter the path of a story during the actual writing phase of the process. The writer knows the character so well that the character can “speak” and argue with the choices being made (most often it’s your subconscious rearing its head, but I’m sure some writers actually hear voices). Magic can be the same.
When you thoroughly understand your magic system, then the writing phase can bloom wonderful surprises. One of my beta readers recently told me that his favorite part of my current WIP was when two characters used magic in a way that he never saw coming. Truth is, neither did I. While writing that scene, the characters took over and said, “Hey, since magic in this book works a certain way, it seems like we should be able to do this variation. Can we try it?” The actions were consistent with the rules, but they took it a step further than I had originally intended. I understood the system so well that my characters could show me better ways to use the magic than I had thought up originally. It was a great moment of discovery for me and is proving to be a highlight for some beta readers as well.
So, if you’re finding it difficult to create and utilize magic successfully in your tales, consider approaching the whole thing as if it were another character. The basics tend to be the same. And the results can be . . . well . . . magical.