Last updated on January 8, 2020
There’s a reason why I write about fantasy magic – magic is my most favourite thing! And I don’t mean only practical magic as a modern Druid, I mean magic of every kind, real or imagined. Although, to be fair, I do see the magic in everything – nature, science, writing… And I know it’s not just me. The popularity of stories about magic is massive. Of course, if it wasn’t, none of us would bother writing about it, because it wouldn’t interest us, either.
When putting together a fantasy magic system for your story, you want to get it right. Your audience may not understand what magic is or how science could appear magical. They don’t care about that part and you know what? They don’t need to.
What they do pick up on, though, is when you get it wrong.
Even if they won’t understand why, your readers will soon notice when something’s amiss. And when that happens? You’ve lost them. They’ll refuse to suspend disbelief and they won’t enjoy the story. It takes work and thinking it out ahead of time in some cases, but always toward a purpose. I don’t think there’s anything as satisfying as a nicely put together, weighty (as in, it’s so real it has weight) system of magic.
What can make or break a successful magic system? I’m sure I could come up with a few more if I really went at it, but off the top of my head, I can think of 7 points to consider.
Don’t break your own magic rules
A massive pet peeve of mine and I’ve talked about this before (Fantasy Magic Creation – Don’t Break Your Mythology). There’s nothing worse than reading an enjoyable story and something happens that breaks the magic logic. Sure, whatever it is may be cool, but if it doesn’t follow the rules of the system you already created, it’s tough to believe another word written after that.
That connection between ourselves and the reader is always tenuous at best. They give you their trust and suspend their disbelief long enough to let you tell them your story and we’re so glad they do. But breaking your own rules is a betrayal of trust readers don’t soon forgive. You might get away with it once or twice for something small if you recover from it well. But even after that, you run the risk they’ll never trust you to quite the same depth again and it takes work to bring them back.
None of us are perfect.
I’ve done it myself, so I know how it happens. I come up with the most fabulous magical scene ever that’s so cohesive with brilliant dialogue and seamless action and almost break my arm patting my own self on the back for my mastery of language. And then realise it could never happen within the confines of the universe I already created. And then die a little inside.
But then? Hubris makes me temporarily stupid and I want to leave it in. Why? Because I know it’s fucking brilliant! Of course, I know better, but I love it and it’s beyond magnificent and I know I’ll never write another scene like it again in my lifetime. And then I make myself face reality, because I know it can’t stay there. I understand no matter how great it may be on its own, it would kill the whole rest of my story. And that can’t be allowed. So I make myself delete it while I sob like a 3-year-old with a binky in the washing machine.
All right, let’s be real – I never actually delete anything. Goddess forbid! I save for later in case I can make it into something else. 😉
Anyway, the point is, there’s still a mystique to and a wonder about people who write words down and weave stories out of them. Whether anyone says it outloud or not, it’s still there.
That means, readers expect you to be an expert at what you do. They’ll follow you the same way they’d follow the village elder, because their lizard brain tells them you must be wise. Why on earth would you ever want to lose that power position? So don’t do stupid shit just because you can’t get over your own ego. Sometimes? You have to let stuff go to get the bigger payoff.
Attach a cost to using or acquiring magic
This one is pretty simple to incorporate. If your character is born with magic, assign a cost to their using it or maybe even more interesting, a penalty for misusing it. I like that one myself. If they weren’t born that way, then add a rule about something they’re required to pay to gain it. Payment in the form of quests or giving up something in order to be allowed to use it or acquire the magic are great for this.
What’s the advantage of assigning a cost? I know I’m not the only one with the opinion that omnipotent characters are boring. If everything is too easy for them, then there’s no conflict. And lack of conflict? Makes the story a snooze-fest.
Attaching a cost also makes the character(s) more relatable for the reader.
Why? Humans constantly struggle with a lot of things we don’t actively think about. All those things that are the inherent costs of our lives. We struggle with moral dilemmas. And struggle through practice to hone skills in things like the arts or sports. We struggle through working at jobs we often dislike, because we have to pay our bills. And through study to acquire knowledge. We struggle with conflict…
At the end of the day, humans know about conflict. We understand it’s a part of life and we all pay a price for the various things we do in one way one or another. Even when your character is magical and fantastic and entertaining to us, if we can’t relate to them, it’s hard to become emotionally attached. They’ll seem foreign and we won’t care about them enough to be invested in their survival or in what they do.
When your character has to pay a price for using or acquiring their magic, we can understand this situation. It makes them more like us. It makes us want to take their side, root for them to succeed, and feel sad when they get screwed-over. Cost makes them more human and so easier to love.
Give your fantasy magic limits
Who hasn’t dreamed about having all the magic power of time and space at their disposal, eh? And if you say you haven’t, you’re lying. Nice to think about, isn’t it? But even for us, if we had that kind of power bestowed, I’m sure we’d soon grow bored. Why? Because, again, omnipotence is boring!
Set some boundaries for your magical character. The limits on what they can do or when they can do it add to the conflict. We want to root for them, so they need hurdles to overcome, limits to work around to keep us interested. Things should get in their way and make them have to struggle despite possessing magic.
With limits comes the questions we, as readers, need to draw us in: “If he can’t do that, how is he going to save the kingdom?”, “How in the heck is he going to work around not being able to perform any magic at night when the problem only comes up at night???”, etc..
My life isn’t easy. Your life isn’t easy. I don’t think characters’ lives should be easy, either. Even when they have magic.
Magical death by over-explanation
The magic is always so cool in your head, isn’t it? When you think up the most fantastic premise for it and it’s unique and no one’s done it yet (that you know of) and it gets you so revved-up, you want to share it. Yes, some of it has to be explained within the context of the story, so the reader can follow along, but they don’t need schematics. Honest.
Look at it this way… Going in? The reader already knows it’s a fantasy story. If they weren’t prepared for a little fairy dust, they wouldn’t be there. They’re going to cut you some slack in this area. They already want to be dazzled by the magic. Don’t kill it for them by bludgeoning them to death with explanations they really don’t care about. If you over-explain? It won’t seem magical any longer and that’s no fun for anyone.
Leave some room for mystery. If it was the real world and they saw that fantasy magic, guaranteed there’d be some awe there. Don’t take that away from the reader. Let them be dazzled by its awesomeness.
Use magic as a story-telling tool
Allow magic to be a tool not only for your character, but for you, as the writer. Use it as part of your story-telling toolkit. What does that mean? If you do it well, your system of fantasy magic will be framed by the culture of your fantasy realm.
That means, certain elements of that culture will be components of your magic system. These subtle cultural elements help build out the backdrop without you needing to lay them out. It saves time and helps keep the interest high by keeping the story moving without you needing to stop the action to add an explanation.
In my story, The Seer, for example, it’s based on Irish mythology and what I know as a modern Druid. The story, however, takes place in a fictional universe. In that fictional world, the type of magic used has components of mythology and Druidry. Whenever the magic is used, it weaves more threads into the fabric of my fictional universe and helps the story have more depth.
This allows me to do things like:
- give subtle clues to the moral compass characters use in their decision-making
- flesh out my fictional world’s history
- explain certain conflicts
- frame some characters’ religious beliefs
- add another layer to the fabric of my fictional universe to make it more interesting
When I make efficient use of my fantasy magic system, I can do all of that without resorting to monologuing, which is boring as hell to read. And don’t get me wrong – I fight against resorting to the big magical info dump all the time. It’s the struggle against it that counts. Wherever you can, look for ways to use your magic system to do more than be merely magical.
Steal, steal, steal from life
As writers, we already get our inspiration from the life around us. So why not use it in your magic system? Fantasy masters have been using this method for ages.
Think about some of the big magic stories you know like Harry Potter. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is just a school. It’s got the same frame, the same challenges, the same familiar feel people can identify with, because everyone’s been a child at some point and most everyone went to some kind of school or has taken some kind of instruction. This makes readers easily able to identify with it. And so care about it.
The teaching of magic in this school follows the familiar process of school children rote. It’s not explained why magic needs to be taught this way. It just is. And everyone “gets” it. I mean, J. K. Rowling could have just as easily chosen to hook the children up to machines and/or have a spell cast on them to dump the knowledge into their heads. Why not, right? She could have, but the story wouldn’t have been half as interesting.
Similarly, we see martial arts repetition recycled in the Jedi Master teacher protagonists of Star Wars.
Why does everyone have to practice so bloody much in this story? If they already have the Force within them (because it resides in everything in the universe), don’t they already have what they need to perform magical feats?
Maybe. But it’d be really fucking boring if every character with the Force came out of the box a full blown Master using Jedi mind tricks like it’s nothing. How can you even get engaged in a story like that or identify with the characters when they don’t need to struggle over anything? It’d be a total snooze-fest. The pain of the repetition is easy for a lot of people to understand. Anyone who’s had to struggle to acquire pretty much anything can identify with that. And so will care about those characters who are like us despite living in a galaxy far, far away.
In that Hogwarts classroom rote is also a struggle, a cost to acquire the magic. And the Star Wars martial arts repetition feels familiar to us as it mirrors the pain to overcome hurdles within ourselves and our lives. And all that makes for great magical story-telling.
As an added bonus, when you steal from life? There’s no danger of copyright infringement. So use anything you see around you and make it your own.
Don’t need to over-explain if you dress it up well
In our zeal and excitement about our own stories, we do have a tendency to over-explain, don’t we? I mean, I get it. We, as writers, have to figure out why everything works the way it does for good cohesion and continuity, including the fantasy magic.
But once we know all the ins and outs ourselves, we don’t necessarily need to explain it all. If it’s a great read, if you’ve made it fun and interesting, no one really cares how it works. Honest. Most of the time? We’re the only ones who do.
If you already understand that knowing all your characters’ backstories influences their dialogue and approach to problems, then you also already know how to do this for your magic system. Because it’s the same.
Having a good footing in your own system of magic will influence the way you talk about it in your narrative.
It will influence how it’s viewed by your characters within your story. It will influence how your characters use it. And all that goes into the reveal. It might not take care of all of it, but should do enough that it won’t need much further explanation that would end up stopping the action.
And in that reveal, have fun! When your characters wield their magic, run with those tropes, dude. It’s a fantasy story and you’re not Tolstoy. Lighten up. You want to be memorable? Give the people what they want and dress it up in a new package. Put your own spin on those tropes. Make it fun.
This keeps interest high and the presentation makes that magic more easily accepted, so no one even stops to question how it works. Because they’re having such a great time, they don’t care. When you’re doing a solid job entertaining? You don’t need to be heavy-handed with exposition.
Check out my other articles on writing fantasy magic and magic systems