Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings. The Belgariad. The Wheel of Time. The Hollows. All of these influential series have something major in common: they take place outside the realm of “normal” human life.
Magic. They’ve got it.
For all of us over here at Spellbound Scribes, magic is an integral part of writing fiction, whether it’s in small doses or large. Here’s how I go about making mine.
Make Some Rules
Magic could just run around willy-nilly, but it’s kind of hard to write a story when literally ANYTHING could happen with no rhyme or reason to it. What are the basics that form your magical system? Is it earth based? Spirit based? Blood based? How do the practitioners access it? Is it inborn or can it be taught? Does it necessitate ritual or does it come from within a person?
Once you have your groundwork laid, stick with it. Make sure that if your character has to perform a ritual to do something, you don’t just have them poof it into existence later without the chanty-chanty abracadabras.
Another thing to look at here are taboos. Do most practitioners use earth based magic but abhor blood magic? Or the other way around? Taboos and forbidden corners of magic are fun to play with, especially if you can force your protagonist into using something she doesn’t want to touch. A perfect example of this is Rachel Morgan in the Hollows series by Kim Harrison. She starts out a die hard earth witch, but after a couple books, she dabbles in ley lines and then into what is essentially blood magic. Her transition causes her character to seriously question her morality. This sort of thing can be a phenomenal character developer.
Set Some Limits — Then Push Them
Everything has limits. Your bank account. Your patience. Your ability to tolerate Jersey Shore. Your magical system should have them too.
In David Eddings‘ Belgariad, death is one of those boundaries. The sorcerers in the books can do pretty much anything with the Will and the Word, but they have some limits that draw back on that seemingly endless possibility. One of those is bringing someone back from the dead.
One point they make with that is that if someone’s dead, they’re probably dead for good reason. Like…a sword in their heart sort of reason. Bringing them back won’t heal the wound, and they’ll just die again anyway. What does Eddings do? He pushes Garion to fight this barrier to save the life of a newborn colt.
Eddings is a great example of magical limits, because not only is death a hard limit, but in this world, doing things with sorcery is almost as physically exhausting as doing them the normal way. Find limits for your magical system, then use them to create obstacles for your characters. Magic’s great and all, but it can’t be a cure-all.
Mix Together that Black and White
The most fun thing about getting to write magic is that it opens up a whole other level of allegorical possibility and chances for your characters to explore their morality. Sure, maybe they can get their annoying sister to stop talking just by waving a hand, but should they? Magic is something that can be clearly abused, but sometimes it’s at its most powerful when your character has to abuse it herself — and justify it.
While I’m not a huge fan of the “magic is addictive” trope (and I think fellow Scribe Kristin will agree with me), there are plenty of gray areas to explore with your characters in the magical world you’ve created for them. The best part is that you’re God of your own world, and you get to control what happens.
Kind of like a magical power, isn’t it?
What do you think about when you’re creating your magical systems? What limits do you like to set?