The Life of the Magic

By now, most fantasy writers have heard someone tell them about the importance of unique world building. Think of your world like its own character, the advice typically starts. Make it dynamic and have the world engage with the story in its own way. But what about the magic of that world? Is that just a wart on your world-character’s face? I’d argue that, for most fantasy, the magic system is more of a character than the world itself. Magic systems tend to have quirks and limitations, and most have some form of choosing who is better or worse at using them than others.

The thing that sets magic systems apart from other pieces of story creation is that we have tools for world building, for character creation, and for fleshing out characters. We even have tools for structuring and planning a plot (and some of us choose to use those tools to evaluate and edit rather than pre-plan). But we almost never talk about magic systems in this same way. Magic systems are often treated as either a mystical, unexplained pseudo-science that stands in for technology or as a flavor text that serves more as window dressing than a central piece of the story. And yet every fantasy author can pick out the magic system that captivates them years after they’ve finished reading the books. So what makes those systems so unique?

The is a question that many authors have tried to answer, and typically the answers come down the the author in question describing what their readers seems to like about their own magic systems. These answers range from Sanderson’s “A magic system is only as interesting as its limitations” response to several people who point to the sense of wonder in magic systems that create an entirely different world (think Harry Potter) and all sorts of other responses. This was a question I had rarely considered, accepting Brandon Sanderson’s commentary at face value, until I attended a workshop on magic systems at Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference in April.

That workshop was taught by C.R. Rowanson, who is a magic system enthusiast and the author of Restrictions May Apply: Building Limits for Your Magic System, a workbook dedicated to helping fantasy authors create limitations for their magic systems. In his talk, he provided two sliding scales of magic system attributes that combine into four essential types of magic with varying levels of each element. The two scales are hard magic vs. soft magic (one many of us are familiar with) and rational magic vs. irrational magic. C.R. Rowanson has a great explanation of these elements and I highly recommend anyone interested in this look up his upcoming nonfiction book on magic systems. A rough definition of his terms is that hard vs. soft magic refers to how much the audience understands about the magic while rational vs. irrational refers to how much internal logic the magic system employs (i.e., do the individual elements seem to be based on each other).

I’m going to talk about this topic in a slightly different context than C.R. Rowanson does. He focuses on explaining the characteristics which cause a magic system to have certain effects with a goal of helping writers build better magic systems. I want to talk about choosing the effect you want your magic system to have and evaluating how those effects change the type of story you’re telling.

Impact of the Magic

First, let’s talk about the impact of magic on your world and your story. There’s a lot of ways people use magic. Above I listed three: a substitute for technology in a low-tech society, a pure window dressing that rarely effects the plotline, and as a way to add fantastical elements in an effort to create a sense of wonder for the reader. Other authors use magic as a central plot element, often focusing on one or more characters learning how to master their magic in one way or another. Let’s list out a few uses of magic and discuss the effects we’re trying to create with each.

  • Magic is a tool for solving problems. This often fits into my definition of “magic as science.” Typically there are extremely strict rules to the magic system, typically the reader knows those rules, and most of the time those rules relate to each other. A lot of the thrill of these magic systems is the reader guessing how the system might be used within its strict rules to solve a problem which does not, at first, appear vulnerable to that magic. I describe these as “magic as science” because in many of these stories the magic might as well be electromagnetism. The lay-person doesn’t understand how electromagnetism works, but the rules are strict and we use it on a daily basis to create the society we understand today.
  • Magic is a source of problems. This one can go two ways. For option one, we go the same route as above (magic as science) but someone is using said “science” in an evil way or the “machine” has broken and is endangering the world. The danger comes from the characters needing to work against rules they’ve been taught to follow. Option two is actually my favorite for problem-magics: wild magic that no one fully understands. This one needs to be vague to the reader but have enough clear elements that the resolution feels believable. Unlike option one, the threat comes from the character’s needing to figure out what the problem even is, turning the story into a bit of a mystery.
  • Magic is a set piece, adding flavor to the story. This one almost has to be vague. If there is clearly defined magic in your world, then your readers are going to suggest ways to solve problems using that magic and if the characters don’t try they are going to look stupid. The primary exception is if you have a well-defined but very, very weak magic system and never put the characters in a place where that magic can be useful. If all the characters can do is conjure a cup of clean drinking water once per minute and they are never without fresh drinking water then the magic is a set piece. A kind of boring set piece, in my mind, but different readers enjoy different things. With a vague system, though, you can drop interesting bits into the world that never directly change the direction of the plot but build a certain feel for the world… Although now I’m wondering what interesting societal differences there would be in a world that is essentially mundane but never has to worry about clean drinking water. For every rule there’s an exception, after all.
  • Magic is a creator of societal hierarchies. This one is actually rather popular. It’s not that my world has a strict caste system based on arbitrary characteristics, it’s just that the people magic tends to choose are elevated to higher status. My conflict is all about how this lower-caste person is found to have magic and my society has to re-evaluate itself! While the setup here does feel a little cheap to me, it’s also pretty realistic (at least to one way of considering the potential outcomes of magic existing). Most of these stories are “this could be you” stories, which gives us two main types. Wish fulfillment stories where the magic is presented as cool and exciting, or warning stories where the magic caste is found to be terribly corrupt and the magic itself is often addictive or prone to leading people astray.
  • Magic is so prevalent as to create a completely different world. I’m defining this one a bit overly-specifically because any of the other options can have magic that is so pervasive as to completely change the world from what we know. The point with this item on the list, though, is to look at stories where the entire point of using magic is to change the world substantially from what we know. Most historical fantasy falls into this category because a lot of the stories do less looking at magic’s effects on other elements and a lot more looking at how magic would change a specific historical event or time period. The thrill of this magic system is seeing how similar things might be with fantastical elements mixed in while delighting in the changes. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, for example, have flying contraptions that people use for war because, with dragons, why wouldn’t that be a thing? But a lot of the rest of the world is still very similar. That dichotomy is interesting to fans of these types of magic systems. It’s particularly interesting that both historical fantasy books and many high-magic epic fantasy books fit into the same category here. With high-magic epics we’re seeing a completely re-imagined concept of what a magic world might be, where with historical fiction we’re seeing the result of one minor change. But in both the magic functions to create a sense of fascination with the magic while often not relying directly on the magic as a problem solver or creator.

Now, this list makes no attempt to be comprehensive. The goal is to look at a few categories of magic usage and discuss the effects the writer is trying to create. Every piece of magic we include in our work needs to have a purpose, but like our characters and our plot elements, that purpose can vary. No one would ever say that you can’t have side characters that simply flesh out the world without adding to the plot. We often recommend that authors add insignificant details about their world to give depth to the society. And yet we treat magic, with all its complexities and quirks, as nothing more than a tool for our manipulation.

Treat your world like a character? Sure, if it fits. A dynamic world with complex effects is great. But your magic should live, and it should breathe life into the things it touches.


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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