If there are laws of physics, then there are laws of magic. When you write about magic, you need to develop your own laws and then you need to adhere to them. If you don’t, you risk angering your readers. The following is a mini-guide to help you develop your own magic system. Use this system responsibly, Padawan …
The First Law of Writing Magic: THE PURPOSE
This is something serious to think about. Why are you choosing to have magic in your world? Yes, it’s cool, but really, what’s the point? Think about your overall story, think about your main conflict, your characters, your setting. Does magic need to be included in your story? Will it work without it?
Let’s examine Harry Potter. The overall theme of the Harry Potter books is mortality. All the books grapple with death. Voldemort, himself, is trying to defy death. His name, Vol de Mort, in French translates to Flight of Death. Harry has lost both of his parents, and then later, his godfather. Death is everywhere.
J.K. Rowling started writing the HP books after the loss of her mother. This is why the stories are so timeless. Here, in our magic-free world, we all deal with death. We all have relationships. We all grow up. Therefore, HP is totally relatable. If you pulled magic out of HP you would still have a strong story–a boy trying to grow up without his parents in a world where he doesn’t feel like he belongs.
So, can you pull magic out of your story and will it still stand on its own? This is a heavy question. Take care with this one.
The Second Law of Magic: THE SOURCE
Just like a good journalist, you don’t ever have to reveal your source, but you should have one. For your own piece of mind and to help guide your writing going forward, the following questions should be considered and then answered.:
- Where does your magic originate from?
- Is it a known source? Or, is it an abstract concept?
- Is it finite or infinite?
- How is it bestowed on individuals?
All this information can be trickled out to readers over time, or it can be backstory fodder for a short story/novella/side project/fan blog, or you can keep it to yourself. Just make sure you understand it all before you paint yourself into a corner with your writing. There’s nothing worse than a writer backpedaling to explain something they already wrote about. Midichlorians, anyone?
The Third Law of Writing Magic: THE USER
Who uses magic in your world? Why are they so special? Once you figure this out, you need to define both awareness and allowance.
- Are you born with magic? If so, do you know it right away? Who teaches you how to use it? Does it grow with age or the opposite–does it wan with age? Can you lose it?
- If you’re not born with magic, can you learn/acquire it? If so, where and how does one achieve this goal? Is it a gift or is it a learned ability?
- If an individual can use magic, can they use it everywhere or only in certain places?
- If an individual can’t use their magic, why not? Do societal laws prevent the use of magic? Is there a ban on certain individuals and not others?
- The next question applies to both of the above points–who decides these allowance concepts? Is there a council or governing group in your world? If so, what does that look like?
The Fourth Law of Writing Magic: THE APPLICATION
This is a fun one. As a world-builder, you get to decide how magic is used in your world. Let’s break it down:
You can determine if magic affects the outer physical world and/or the inner mental world of your characters. In the outer physical world, you can set things on fire with your magic. In the inner mental world, you can control people’s thoughts and actions. Or, can you alter both realms?
You decide how magic is summoned. Magic is all about power, so how will you harness it? Common methods are giving power to words, symbols, and/or gestures or a combination of all three. Other thoughts–is a tool needed, like a wand or a staff? Can inanimate objects like capes or boots (think Dr. Strange) have their own inherent magic?
Does location affect the magic? Do you need to be in a specific locale or state of mind to perform magic?
The Fifth Law of Writing Magic: THE COST
Let’s examine Newton’s third law of physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same could be said about magic. In the YA series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott, all humans have auras as a source of magic. A human draws from this aura to perform magic, however, the more you use it, the weaker you become.
If there’s a cost to magic, it provides an excellent opportunity for conflict in your writing, which is always a good thing. Figure out what the cost is, who pays it, and how they pay for it. Consequences could be things like draining away strength, a physical sacrifice, or maybe a punishment. Or it could be less direct. For example, the cost of seeing into the future is madness. Or, altering time could erase someone’s existence.
Good luck with your magic building and remember to enjoy the process–after all, this is supposed to be fun. For more on magic in world-building, click here.