This is the fifth and final part to the Magic Systems 101 presentation notes. The original presentation was given at the Eagle Mountain Arts Alliance Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.
Want to read the rest of the series? Here are some handy links:
- Pt. 1 – Why Write Good Magic?
- Pt. 2 – Hard Magic vs Soft Magic
- Pt. 3 – Sanderson’s Laws of Magic
- Pt. 4 – Literary Magic Systems”
More presentation notes are coming soon! Make sure you like and subscribe either here at WordPress or on Facebook so you don’t miss out.
If you’ve been following along for the first four installments of the Magic Systems 101 series, then you have learned lots about the different types of magic systems and seen examples of how magic has been used. Now for the fun part! Creating a magic system.
Who Gets to Use Magic?
The first task of creating any great magic system is deciding on who gets to wield it. There are several ways to approach this. In many books only a specific race or species can use magic. In others, humans can use magic if they are lucky – or unlucky – enough to be born special. A third consideration is that any human/sentient being can do the magic if they have the special object or book.
Once it is decided who gets to use magic, then the big question is why? Why are certain beings granted this gift, and others not? The answer to this question can be simple. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider. Or it can be extensive, like the genealogies of different magic characters in Lord of the Rings. Either way, choose carefully how you share this info with your readers. Unless it’s a crucial part to the problem your main character is trying to solve, you might not need to go into detail.
Other things to consider is how having this magic affects your character. How are magic users seen by the rest of society? Are they cast out as devil-worshipers or idolized as gods? Does having a greater power bring a better standing among magic users, or do they have to prove themselves by doing great deeds?
Often, the true price of having magic isn’t realized until it is no longer an option. What would happen to your main character should the magic be taken away? Would they fall into a depression? Would they be happy?
What is the Cost of Using Magic?
There are two things to consider when discussing the cost of using magic. The first is where does the energy come from to perform magic. Many systems drain the life force of the magic user, while others need the presence of certain elements to draw from. Elemental systems, such as the Last Airbender, draw on air, water, fire, and earth. In this type of system the magic user will have an affinity to one element over the others and might only be able to use the magic associated with that element.
The second cost is much more personal. How does using magic affect the user? Do they risk insanity should they use too much? Do they live longer? Shorter? In the Wheel of Time, men who used the power went insane, but the women didn’t. A large portion of the plot revolved around cleaning the power so it would be safe for men to use.
What can the Magic do?
It is very tempting to have magic that can do anything. However, like the genie’s wishes, limitations must be set. Why? Because if magic can do anything, then it doesn’t allow your characters to struggle to solve their problems. The one exception is when the magic requires certain items and the characters must quest to find them. (By the way, the quest for magical items story has been done enough times that I caution writers to stay away from it or find a really unique twist.)
When we discussed the magic system of Harry Potter we talked about how the characters were limited by their knowledge of spells and their proficiency at performing the right gesture with their wands. In other stories where the magic comes from books, the magic user would be limited by his access to different spell books.
Those with internal magic, where power is drawn from the life force itself, the first obvious limit is if the magic user uses too much, it kills them. In addition to this, they may be limited to only specific uses depending on what kind of world building has been established in the story.
What does the Magic Look like?
This is where fantasy has the chance to shine. Magic is unusual and therefore very interesting. People read fantasy to escape into a world where the impossible is only a breath and a wish away.
You, dear writer, are charged with making your magic look cool. You owe it to yourself and your readers to come up with a unique way for your story’s magic to looks and feel. Does your character need to learn spells or create symbols to make the magic work? Is the magic visible in the air as it performs its function?
Depending on the story, the magic can be beautiful or terrifying to behold as well it should be. What it shouldn’t be is boring.
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