This post is about creating magic. Literally. More to the point, it’s about creating a viable magic system for your fantasy story or novel. A couple of months back I wrote about worldbuilding and might have alluded briefly to magic systems. But coming up with a magic system is not nearly as easy as it looks.
Obviously, every system of magic is going to be different — such things tend to be as individual and idiosyncratic as the authors who imagine them. I think it’s also self-evident that magic is (and ought to be) cool. It is the element of fantasy that takes our collective breath away, that makes us go “Wow! I want to live in this world!!” But as with all things, it should not be overused, and it should not completely take over your world or your story. To this end, I like to keep three general rules in mind as I create a magic system.
First, I believe that a magic system, like a law of nature, has to have rules. It should work consistently across space and time. Conjurers or mages or wizards (whatever you want to call them) will certainly have varying degrees of skill. In some magic systems (including those I have created under my other writing name, David B. Coe) different mages possess different forms of magic: some might be able to heal, some might conjure fire, some might see the future or read the thoughts of others. But while the “flavors” of magic might vary, and the degree of skill might change as a person masters his or her craft, the rules of the magic system ought to stay the same. If your characters can’t conjure on Sundays on page one of your book, they should still not be able to conjure on Sundays on page 475, even if you as the author REALLY need them to be able to at that point. Convenience is NOT an excuse for bending established rules.
Now, there is a bit of a caveat in this, a way out for your characters and for you as the writer. I have had characters learn of aspects of their craft that they hadn’t known before, and as long as these new skills do not violate any rules of your magic system, I believe that is perfectly legitimate. But generally speaking, establish rules and stick with them.
Second, I also believe that magic should carry a cost. The cost doesn’t have to be huge (although it certainly can be) but it should be at least somewhat significant. What do I mean? Well, maybe a spell requires the sacrifice of a life, human or other. That I would consider a fairly steep cost. Maybe a spell requires the spilling of blood. Maybe the casting of spells leaves your mage weakened and fatigued. Maybe your system requires that a mage use a familiar (human or other) in whom all spells are sourced. The point is, there should be some price paid for the magic that is used. Why? Because it makes your magic more interesting. Maybe it darkens the magic a bit. Certainly it makes it so that your mages can’t cast a spell whenever they want to, and that can be a very handy plot device. As an example, conjuring in the Thieftaker books and stories requires some source for the power expended. That source can be as easy to find as water or air for simple illusion spells, or it can be as dear as blood or even a life for more powerful conjurings. That’s one cost. The other potential cost of conjuring in the Thieftaker “universe” is that in 18th century Massachusetts, people still feared witchcraft. Cast at the wrong time, in front of the wrong person, a spell can get my main character, Ethan Kaille, hanged as a witch.
Third, I believe that magic should have limits. This is related to the second rule. Certainly the cost of magic constitutes a limit on its use. But I like to carry this further. I feel that unlimited magic would quickly take over any world in which it exists — and it may be that you want that for your book or series. That’s fine. Then ignore this rule. I would urge you, though, to give some thought to that decision. Unlimited power will very quickly make for a fairly boring storyline. Yes, I suppose a battle between two mages of unlimited power could be interesting. Once. But then what? By limiting the scope of what magic can do, we force our characters to rely not just on their powers, but also on their wits, their physical abilities, maybe even their non-magical friends. And that will make for a far, far more interesting set of characters and narratives.
In short, magic, in my view, is a tool. It is a tool for our characters, and it is a tool for us as we write. It can do certain things very well, but it can’t be the answer to all problems, the fix for all narrative issues. As cool as magic can be, it is not the only trick in an author’s bag. Sometimes a character who is smart in the absence of magic, is even more compelling that a character who can do anything and everything with a spell.
Think about it. And keep writing!