Wands at the ready writers because it’s time to talk about magic — more specifically, three tips on crafting and writing your own unique magic system.
Okay, for the sake of this post, I want you to think of limitation in context to the people in your world — not the magic itself. Does everyone have the same abilities, connection to magic, talents? If so, what does it limit them from doing? By thinking of limitation in this context, it will encourage you to craft unique characters or other worldbuilding elements (political systems, magical professions etc.) that will help make your magic system feel more unique.
Wonder or Satisfaction?
If you haven’t watched Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on writing magic systems, I highly recommend you give it a watch as he gives some great tips (it’s free here). In this class, he discusses how magic should be used to either give a sense of wonder or a feeling of satisfaction. When wanting to create a sense of wonder, the rules need to be limited or non-existent. Yes, I just went against the number 1 piece of advice given when writing magic systems. Do not write rules. I know, I was sceptical at first, too.
In the lecture, Brandon uses Gandalf as a prime example of ruleless magic. From reading the books alone, it is not explicitly explained how Gandalf’s magic works. Though there may be some hardcore Lord of the Rings fans that are well versed in these rules, in the books they are not explained. This magic is not understood by the Hobbits, through which we experience this story, and thus the reader is also kept in the dark. This creates a sense of wonder, amazement and, in some cases, anticipation when reading Gandalf magic scenes.
In contrast, you will need to make clear and concise rules for your magic if you want to elicit a feeling of satisfaction each time magic is used to help your character cheat death, escape danger or solve a puzzle. Why? Because giving your reader a solid understanding of how the magic system works will give them the opportunity to anticipate how your characters will use the magic to overcome obstacles – and if they don’t, they will be excitedly exclaiming ‘I should have seen this coming! It all makes sense now!’
When there is an action there is a reaction. It’s a rule of life, storytelling — and thus also applies to magic systems.
In Star Wars, for example, tapping into the power of The Force, puts the trainee Jedi (sometimes Jedi) at risk of abusing it and ultimately turning to the dark side. Giving the use or practice of magic consequences is a great way to raise the stakes and create tension in your novel.
Many of my favourite magic systems are made unique by the consequences attached to them. In the Black Prism series by Brent Weeks, the use of magic shortens your life, creating some interesting conflicts when the characters must weight out the risks against the costs of using magic.
Activity: Write down a list of potential consequences. They can be wacky (become outrageously hungry each time a character uses magic) or more costly. Build upon your favourite ideas with rules, limitation or both.
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