Writing — Magic Systems as Characters

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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.

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17 comments to Writing — Magic Systems as Characters

  • Young_Writer

    I’ve never thought of it like that. Going at it like you were creating anotehr character is smart. If only I had known this when I spent a week thinking about how my MC would use her powers and the limits it would have.

  • Stuart, I agree completely with this post. Now that I think about all of the fantasy stories that I’ve enjoyed, they’ve all had “characteristic” systems of magic. You’ve really helped me to look at magic from a different perspective. Thanks!

  • YW — Like I said in the post, I’ve only just started exploring it from this angle. So, like you, I wish I’d known this before. Better late than never, I suppose.

    Lancer — Hope it helps you come up with great magic systems!

  • That’s a good way to think about it, Stuart. Thanks. I need to personalize (or personify!) the system in my current WIP better.

  • Interesting, fresh way of looking at it, Stuart. Thanks. I like this.

    And yes, one of the biggest keys is knowing your characters and world well enough that they can help guide and shape the journey (for both the writer and the reader).

  • I’ve been writing magic systems for a long time now, and never thought to look at them in this way. Great stuff, Stuart. I do know what you mean about the magic system (and the characters using it) surprising you as the writer. That has happened to me with my current book and also with the closing chapters of Weavers of War, when my characters had to figure out how to beat the bad guys who had access to far more power than they did. I didn’t know how I was going to deal with it until the idea came to one of my characters. A very cool moment for me.

  • AJ, Ed, David — Thanks to all of you. I only started thinking about this recently and figured it wasn’t that fresh an idea but that I’d share it in the post just to find out what all you have done with it in the past. Turns out I’ve come up with something newish! :) Go figure.

  • Stuart, yes you *did* discover a new way (so far as I ever recall) of looking at magic systems. I love this. And isn’t it nice when a new vision of our methods and writer-tools opens up new creative doors in our minds.
    That’s a *WHOOT* moment!

  • Unicorn

    So that’s what’s wrong with my insipid magical system. It’s hardly existent. Time to whip it into action and make it figure in the story a little.
    Hey, maybe you can personify your magical system like Faith’s muse… *shudders* not entirely sure about that one, though 😉
    Unicorn

  • My muse does not take offence. He’s having a pedicure today.

  • Young_Writer

    I don’t even want to think about what would happen if Faith’s muse became offended…

    Maybe we should all chip in to get him weekly pedicures?

  • Faith — A pedicure? My image of your muse gets weirder and weirder every day. And yes, *WHOOT* :)

  • Very cool outlook. Thanks, Stuart. This is a perfect lead into Setting as a Character or Magic System Settings (How Magic systems can affect the location, fauna, and creatures in the story).

    I’d love to try to interview my magic system, but I’m scared it may answer back.
    -NGD

  • I think he’d rather have a new cowboy hat. Or a boa…

  • Sarah

    Thank you, Stuart. I’d never thought of letting the system grow organically like a character rather than being built like a machine for my purposes. I think this way will work much better and produce more complex results.

  • It seems this post has touched a lot of brains. For those of you who try it out, please write us at MW and let us know how it works out for you. I’ll be sure to do a follow up post when I get some feedback and explore it more myself.

  • Steve Caunce

    I have found that magic systems are structured in much the same way as speech and art, since they are also ways humans use to communicate and order their world. Too often people think that magic means random or chaotic, but it is as tightly knit a system of thought as religion. I have found the works of Mircea Eliade (The Sacred and The Profane especially) to be excellent examinations of how humans think about magic.