Magic is central to a fantasy novel and knowing how it works is just as vital as knowing how your protagonist feels or what your plot is. It’s one more layer to your story. But if you haven’t developed it enough, it could end up being a problem instead helping you cause problems. The more you understand how your magic works, the better your story can be.
My husband came up with the magic system for my new book. He first suggested the idea to me several years ago, in one of his typical “what if…” statements that almost always give me a new book idea. (You gotta love this guy for that. I could rent him out) At the time I didn’t know what story this magic system might go with, but it was a cool idea and I wrote it down in my ideas file.
Jump ahead a bit and you’ll find me working with a new story idea and needing magic to go with it. And there was that little magic system needing a home. The perfect match.
Because of the odd way in which these two came together (like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups) it made me look at designing a magic system a little differently. Once I knew I wanted to use this system, I sat down with my husband and we discussed the general way the magic would work. Then I began world building my novel, developing my story and crafting my plot. And throughout all this, different levels of things appeared for the magic system.
Not everyone will have somebody to bounce ideas off of, but there are things you can think about on your own as you develop your own magical world.
Step One: General Use
That first discussion was all about how the magic worked. Because my husband knew very little at that time about the book I was working on, he had no preconceived ideas of what the magic should do. It was all about brainstorming and finding mechanics that worked. The magic system was its own thing, free of plot restraints or premise influences.
- How did the magic work?
- Who could use it?
- What were the benefits?
- What were the side effects?
- What we the limitations?
Step Two: World Use
Once we had the general system worked out, we needed rules. These became more story specific because we needed to understand how this system worked in my world. We started tailoring things, seeing how it applied to my world and enriching those early ideas.
- What was the magic used for in this world?
- Who could use it?
- Was it rare or common?
- How did others view this magic?
- Were there different levels of power?
- What were they?
- How well known was the magic?
- How did you learn it?
Step Three: Story Use
Now that we knew how the magic generally worked, and how it worked in my world, it was time to see how it worked in my story. These questions were specific to my story and characters. I needed to know how a magic user in my world would affect things. What I could do with the magic to cause trouble, enhance a conflict, craft a problem.
- Who in my story has magic?
- What do they do with it?
- Does my protagonist have it?
- Does my antagonist?
- What problems might be solved by this magic?
- What problems might be caused by this magic?
- How will I introduce the magic to the reader?
- When does my protagonist first discover it? (if it’s something you discover)
Step Four: Plot Use
And then there are the unique uses for my plot. The real nuts and bolts of the novel. These are things that come up daily as I write. I’ll know I need to have my protagonist do X, and that it involves magic, but I’m not sure exactly how this would work. For example, early on my protagonist finds a magic item. This item needed to have a specific purpose pertaining to my bad guy, and this had to be a clue that would send my protagonist in the right plot direction to uncover some secrets. But I had no clue what this item was or what it did. I had plot parameters only. A) It aided the bad guy in breaking into something. B) Anyone could use it. C) It did something that was slightly different than the magic already established in the world, yet in the same magical vein. D) It had a specific use and purpose.
The next step was to take those parameters and see how it fit into my established set of rules and possibilities. This is where some of those wild ideas you didn’t think you’d need can come into play. Things that fit the magic system, but maybe not the world per se, suddenly click when you need something outside the box.
Specific magic needs will come up as you write, but don’t let them bog your story down. When you find a plot moment that requires magic in some way, look at your notes, your rules, and decide where this plot event fits in. If what needs to be done has been established, use your rules. If you haven’t established that particular thing yet, see how it fits into what you do have, and how you might craft something that works for both the rules, and the plot.