From Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, Superman or the latest vampire saga, they all rely on magic to add a sense of wonder and the fantastic. Speculative fiction often gets accused of deus ex machina or using magic as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. You need to make sure your magic system has rules to ensure you don’t lose your readers by getting your characters out of trouble with an endless supply of magical solutions, plucked out of nowhere, but always just in the nick of time. And it’s not just wizards who get to have all the fun – superheroes and supernatural beings all use a type of magic and need rules to govern what they can and can’t do. But how do you create rules for magic without taking away the magickyness of it? These three steps can help you create structure for your magic system.
- Limitations: Limitless magic just isn’t interesting because it means your characters can do anything, any time. The things a magic power can’t do are sometimes their most defining feature. For instance, Superman is super fast, super strong, can fly and he has x-ray vision, but he can’t see through lead and it’s this limitation that is often used by his enemies. When it comes to vampires, they can’t enter a person’s house unless they’re invited and they need blood. And both Superman and vampires tend to have to keep their powers secret, which limits when they can be used. Looking at fantasy, Lord of the Rings doesn’t actually have much magic in it and we’re not told very much about it, making it a soft magic system, as opposed to one bound by strict rules. A good rule of thumb is, the more magic you have in your world, the more information your readers will need to suspend disbelief in that magic
- Cost: If your magic system has no cost, then it may as well be limitless because your characters will be able to use it for everything. Usually, magic causes fatigue in the wielder and sometimes renders them unconscious. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the wicca, Willow’s pursuit of more powerful magic takes her on a dark path, which costs her her friendships, people’s lives and it almost costs her herself, as she becomes consumed by power. Vampires and werewolves generally lose their humanity in order to gain their powers. In The Lord of the Rings, the person in possession of the one ring becomes obsessed and guards it jealously and it eventually weakens them, eating away at their inner self. And anyone who wears the ring can be seen and sensed by the evil Lord Sauron. If you have an interesting cost to your magic, this can often become a great source of conflict for your story. The higher the cost, the more tough decisions your characters have to make before they use magic. It becomes something they only use when they have to and as a writer you can force them into those situations to great dramatic effect. But don’t make the cost too high, otherwise they won’t use it at all.
- Weakness: Superman is a very powerful being, but that’s not what makes him interesting. His weakness to Kryptonite gives Superman his strength as a character and over the years the writers have come up with more ingenious ways to have him face this weakness. Similarly, his commitment to doing the right thing is a weakness that can be exploited. Many heroes have someone they love or care about – think Spider-man and Aunt May – and this is their weakness, making them take difficult decisions. Vampires gain their pathos as a result of their weakness to sunlight. Weaknesses make your heroes vulnerable and that means readers can relate to them and care for them, knowing that they can be hurt and that any peril in the story is real and can have consequences. Without weaknesses, your magic is an impenetrable shield that will ultimately kill your story.
Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn series and the final Wheel of Time novels, is highly regarded for his magic systems and has written a series of essays on the subject, so check them out here. This Time article also lists The Top 5 Greatest Magic Systems, making a nod to some widely acknowledged as the best around.