Today we welcome back to MW Joshua Palmatier, who also writes as Benjamin Tate. Joshua/Benjamin is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf and a few short stories, and is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies. As Joshua, he has written the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy—The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne. Now, as Benjamin Tate, he has written Well of Sorrows and has just released Leaves of Flame. He has short stories in several anthologies and has co-edited After Hours: Tales from the Ur-bar and (soon-to-be-released) The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity (March 2012). Find out more about his work at www.joshuapalmatier.com and www.benjamintate.com. Please join me in welcoming Joshua to MW. [Wild applause]
Magic. It’s the heart of every fantasy, in some way or another, and if it’s removed from a true fantasy novel, the novel should fall apart. It’s what draws me to a novel, and if the magic isn’t interesting, I generally feel the novel falls flat. Coming up with a cool magic system is essential for the success of a fantasy novel in my book.
So how do you do that? How do you come up with a magic system that is cool enough to draw the reader in and make them believe, while still allowing a story and characters to develop around it?
My answer is to keep it simple.
Your magic system doesn’t need to be complicated with tons and tons of rules in order for it to be cool and interesting. All it needs is a rock-solid base, a good foundation, and some room to grow. I’d like to talk today about both of these aspects, in particular the growth aspect. Because the creation of your magic system is going to play off of the world you’re building and vice versa, and as a writer you need to put some serious thought into how the two will reinforce and enhance each other to create that unique world that your readers will fall in love with.
But first, a word or two about my process: I’m an “organic” writer, meaning that I sit down to write first and allow the world—magic system and all—to grow and change and morph as I write. Any inconsistencies that arise from this writing process regarding the world and the magic system are taken care of during revisions. This is the process that works for me, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Some people need to plan and outline and such before they can sit down to write. They need to have their world and magic system figured out ahead of time. Both processes are equally valid methods for a writer, but this post if written from the “organic” perspective, because that’s what I know and understand. So take that into consideration while you read this; my suggestions and thoughts may not work for your own process.
OK, when I sit down to write, I already have the foundation of the magic system in my head. The foundation is necessary to make the reader comfortable, and this is the part that needs to be simple. You should be able to state the magic system in a simple sentence or two. For my current series, starting with WELL OF SORROWS and continuing this month with LEAVES OF FLAME, the magic system is based on a network of Wells that contain the Lifeblood. This Lifeblood gives the drinker immortality (as far as the characters can tell) and the ability to manipulate time. That’s it. That’s the foundation for my magic system. Of course there are rules and limitations to this, sometimes blatantly obvious and sometimes subtle. Finding those rules and limitations is what the growth is for, and that’s what happens for me as I write the story. I place myself in my world and within my characters and then I start writing to see what happens. As I write, I ask myself questions about the world and the characters and the magic, and the answers to these questions are how my world and its magic system get developed.
For example, in WELL OF SORROWS, I have the characters being forced into exploring the newly discovered continent in wagon trains due to political, societal, and simple population pressures. They have no idea what they will find as they head out into this new world, but I know that they will run into one of the Wells that contain the Lifeblood. One of my characters, Colin, drinks the Lifeblood, which I know makes him appear immortal and gives him powers over time. But as soon as he drinks the Lifeblood, I begin asking myself questions: How does he feel? Does it change his body in any way? Does he have any inkling that something has changed within himself and that he has these powers? Assume not. How is he going to find out about these powers? Will he discover them on his own, or will he need someone to explain them to him? How will he react once he knows he has these powers? Will he resent them? Revel in them? Abuse them?
All of these questions are essentially character questions, exploring how this character will react/change based on the magic I’ve introduced. The answers don’t necessarily reflect on just him, though. If I say that Colin resents, but finally accepts these powers and attempts to use them in a beneficial way, I can have another character revel in them and abuse them for his own ends as well. So thinking about how the magical power will affect others is part of the process of figuring out how it will affect Colin.
In Colin’s case, I had him figure out that he’s “immortal” by having him resent his powers so much that he tries to kill himself. When he survives, he realizes he’s going to have to live with these powers and turns his thoughts on to how to use them. He learns he can manipulate time from another character, one of the mysterious Faelehgre who saved him by having him drink the Lifeblood in the first place. Once he knows he can manipulate time, a whole new batch of questions arise: Can he go back and change past events? Can far back in time can he go? What are the consequences of manipulating time for him? Does it drain him? Could it kill him when more general methods don’t work? What are the limits of this manipulation—could he travel forward in time and see the future? As I answer each question, I ask further questions. Let’s say he finds he can’t change past events. How will this affect him as a character? When he discovers he can’t save his parents, will the fact that he can travel back and see their deaths over and over again torture him? Will it destroy him? If he can’t change past events, what can he use the power for? In fact, how will he use this power in the long run? How will it affect the events transpiring in this world at the moment?
Every magic system will impact the world, and that’s one of the main questions every writer must ask themselves when they introduce their magic. How will it affect society? How will it affect individuals? Every time a new piece of technology is introduced into our own world, it reshapes and reforms how we interact with each other and the world. Magic will do the same thing. You have to ask yourself about the mundane ways in which the magic will be used. Or will it only be something used by the elite, by those in power? Even then, how will THEY use it? Humans take advantage of every shortcut in their everyday lives that they can, and they’ll do the same with magic. If you can heat or cook with magic because it’s cleaner and easier than using wood and fire, then you’ll use magic over fire. So you have to take into account how resourceful people will be when magic is available for use. If you don’t want people to use it for such every day, mundane work, then you have to introduce limits or significant consequences for its use. If it costs more monetarily to heat/cook with magic, people won’t use it; if it requires a blood sacrifice . . . well, some people would probably still use it over wood and fire, but you get my point.
All of these questions—how the magic will affect character, how it will affect society, what its costs and limits are—all of that and the answers I come up with as I write are the growth elements I mentioned earlier. As I answer those questions and implement them into my world, that world grows and becomes more complicated and rich and deep. Characters change, the society in which they live takes on nuances, and the magic system morphs as they all interact with each other. For me, it’s an ongoing process, even through an entire series. My magic system is changing even now as I write the third book in the series, following the same rules I set up in the first two books, but growing as the characters and the world explore their boundaries and edges, as they push their limits. This ebb and flow, questions rising as characters, plot, and setting interplay is what makes the writing interesting to me.
Those who are not “organic” in their approach to the same extent I am do the same thing, I think—ask questions, answer them, allow those answers to alter their world and setting—but they do this before they sit down to write to a much larger extent than I do.
So when you’re creating your own magic system, keep those two things in mind, no matter how organic of a writer you are: ask yourself if your magic system is simple enough to be stated in a few short sentences, and then ask yourself if there’s room for you to explore and grow from that simple foundation. If the answer to the first question is no, then you’re probably making the magic system too complicated. It doesn’t have to be complicated at the start; it can become more complicated as you explore and grow from that base, asking those questions. And if the answer to the second question is no, then your system may be too constrained to keep the reader interested and to keep their imagination alive. If there’s no room for growth, no creative boundaries to explore, then what are you going to use to keep that fantasy novel interesting, not just for your reader, but yourself as well?