Sunday, February 20, 2011

Playing by the Rules (of Magic)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In fantasy, anything can happen, but if “anything” does happen, it can leave a reader cold. To make something feel real and seem plausible, you need rules to govern how it works. This holds doubly true for magic.

A great example of magic gone wild is watching a small child play. The dinosaurs are fighting with the GI Joes, and the child is making up events as she goes along. As soon as her hero gets in over his head, she pulls out something that saves the day. “Oh no! Joe is trapped by a deadly force field. But wait! He has a super duper force-field-breaking ring. He’s saved!” If the magic always gets you out of trouble, there’s no sense of risk and no real stakes. Great for playing, not so great for novels.

When you first create your world and its magic system, it’s a good idea to figure out what it can and cannot do. For example, in my fantasy novels, The Shifter and Blue Fire, the magic is based on healing. With such limitations associated with healing, it made coming up with the rules pretty easy. A healer could fix injuries and cure disease, and they had to touch the person to do it. But I also have a dark side to healing, and I wanted to find a way to use something so inherently good for evil. But it still had to fit the rules of healing.

I focused on pain.

Pain is a natural byproduct of getting hurt. It also allowed me to turn a defensive magic into an offensive magic. In my world, pain is put into an enchanted metal and turned into weapons. So my “magic wands” are pynvium rods filled with people’s pain. Trigger the rod, flash the pain, and make someone hurt.

While this worked well for the device aspect of my magic, I still needed people to be able to “cast” it. A regular healer pulled pain and injury into their own body and then put it into the enchanter metal. So my caster had to be able to work around those rules in a plausible way. Enter my protagonist, Nya, the Shifter. She can’t put pain in to the metal, but she can shift it from person to person. So her casting is by touch, same as healing is by touch. She’s still required to put it somewhere, same as a healer needs to put it into the metal.

But this was a little too powerful, because if all she had to do was touch someone to hurt them, she could easily get out of all the trouble I put her into. She needed limits that would hinder her abilities. I decided her shifting abilities needed skin-to-skin contact to work, same as a regular healer. That wasn’t enough, though. There also had to be a downside, or she could just use her ability to get whatever she wanted. I gave Nya two of them. One is that she has to hurt one person to help another. The other is a terrible price to pay, but giving it away would ruin the book (sorry!). These limits gave her a powerful magic, but there were all kinds of ways I could thwart her with it from a plotting standpoint and maintain credibility with the reader.

And that’s really the critical part. 

Readers want to suspend their disbelief when they pick up a fantasy novel. 

They’re looking for the magic, but if you established that magic won’t work in X instance, and you later have your hero succeed by doing exactly that, then your reader loses all faith in you. You’ve lied to them, and they might no longer believe you. It also steals all the tension from your story because they never know when you’re going to pull a wild idea out of the air to save the day.

Breaking the rules takes all the fun out of it. The magic is more exciting when it makes things harder more often than it makes them easier. Providing rules gives the reader what they want, and also makes you work a little harder to get your protag out of trouble. That usually makes the story better, because your protag has to really work for their victories.

There are some basic traditional rules of magic that we’ve come to recognize. These are good places to start when you begin developing your world and its magic system. I’ll also toss in how those rules can help your world building, because the two are often connected.

Who can have magic?

Is it rare? Common? Only among certain races or types of people? Magic will certainly change how a culture has evolved, so who has magic will likely determine how your society categorizes its members.

What is magic used for?

Is it for defense? Healing? Do magic users work as soldiers or scholars? What power is used for says a lot about the culture using it. A warlike society probably won’t have peaceful mages casting beneficial spells. Just as a peaceful society won’t have evil wizards hiding in the shadows. If they were that powerful, and there was no opposition, they’d just take over, right?

What is required for the magic to work?

Is it natural? Force of will? Require components or spells? What is the mechanism for this to operate? People born to magic will probably treat it differently than those who have to study for years to master it. And society will probably regard those magic users differently as well.

What are the downsides?

Magic usually isn’t free. Sometimes it costs the magic user something just to cast a spell, other times it’s a moral price (like my poor protag), sometimes it’s a price that only applies if the magic is abused. In your society, how are magic users punished or controlled?

What are its weaknesses?

Everything has a weak spot. Are your magic users more susceptible to something else in your world? Does the magic itself cause problems? Does it affect those who use it? Knowing the weaknesses of a power might cause others to exploit it, or it could be a closely guarded secret. How do those in your world see these weaknesses and what do they do about it?

The rules you apply to your magic help ground your reader and let them understand what can and can’t be done. It also provides you with ideas on how to makes things worse for your protag, and what areas of their powers to exploit for the sake of great plot.

For a truly compelling world, some rules aren’t supposed to be broken.

Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Liz Writes. 


  1. Strong starting point for what is a big subject, and one that goes well beyond magic into the things the reader actually wants from a story, how much they are willing to accept. The scope the writer has is almost unlimited, but for a positive reception depends very much on the openmindedness of the audience.

  2. Such a great post. I was so happy to have it on my blog. :)

  3. GI Joe's mistake was inadequate foreshadowing. If he'd drawn attention to the energy draining properties of his magic ring earlier, it might work.

  4. Porky: True words for all fiction, really ;)

    Elizabeth: I was happy to be there. It was your topic suggestion too, if I remember right. Great idea!

    James: LOL you are absolutely right.

  5. Magic A is Magic A, as they say. I did some work on this for my new MS, working out exactly what allowed magic to work and how this had an effect on society. I realised early on that, in a modern day setting where magic had returned, if those with elven blood could use magic freely and humans and orcs had to use tools to do so, elves would obviously become integrated into ruling classes of government very quickly.

  6. Paul: That sounds cool. I love when stuff like that hapepns, and you figure out an integral piece of the puzzle and the whole story tightens up.

  7. Creating rules creates plot in a wonderful symbiosis. I've found some of my best scenes when I realized "Oh, hey, I already said that won't ELSE am I going to get the MC out of this?"

    In one of my universes, my MC throws magic about with abandon. I tried and tried to come up with a consequence, a limiter, that would work in the story I envisioned, and I couldn't. Then I realized the consequence doesn't come to HER--at least not immediately. The butterfly effect, when it does come round to her, is going to knock her for a loop. ^__^

  8. I love when that happens. It makes thing so much more unpredictable.

    Very cool consequence :) I love the idea of a ripple effect for magic.

  9. Thanks! This post was very helpful! While I'm not much of a world builder (I prefer to add as I go) I LOVE developing my magic system. Usually, I'm pretty good at following the rules of the system, but I'm trying to find ways to show how those rules work instead of having characters explain it to each other through exposition.