Last time, I talked about keeping it real in your fantasy and sci-fi works (and really, anything). But this week, I want to look specifically at magic.
Writers sometimes think that because their book is a fantasy, or it deals with magic, they don’t have to worry about the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers who love those genres WILL know if you break the rules. More importantly, the agents and editors you send your manuscript to will know it – and they won’t think twice about rejecting your work.
So remember the rules from last week (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/keeping-it-real/)?
All these rules apply to magic, too!
According to the presenter at this year’s OWFI conference, here’s the Top Three Things you MUST know about your magical system:
- How much magic is there? (Is it everywhere, and the only trick is to know how to find and use it, like The Force? Or is it very limited, and impossible to find?)
- Where did it come from? (Earth magic? The gods? Artifacts/talismans? Magical creatures? A birthright?)
- Where is it located? How can you access it?
Other questions you will need to answer include:
- How does this society structure itself around the magic?
- What changes and adaptations has your society made to it, if it’s widespread?
- Can everyone use it?
- If not – how are those with magic treated? Are they in charge? Enslaved? Outcasts? Paid for services? Hated? Treasured? (Or, do they go create a separate little world and leave this one to the Muggles?) 🙂
- If not – how are those without magic treated? Are they enslaved, or in charge? Peasants, perhaps? How do they manage without magic (what adaptations do they make)?
- If everyone can access the magic – can some people access it more easily than others? Do certain families have certain powers?
- What powers can the magic grant, and what are the conditions of its use?
Most important of all: You must create rules for your magical system, and follow them to the letter. Always. No new loopholes. No new powers.
I know! It’s not fair! It’s MAGIC! You should be able to do whatever you want!
But here’s the thing: magic is not a – well – a magic pill for your MC. If your magical system can fix everything, with no repercussions, then it’s going to make for a very dull story. There have to be repercussions. There has to be a price to pay. Does it weaken your MC to use the magic? Is there a finite amount, and with each use, the amount shrinks? Or does it change your MC in other ways – by siphoning off his humanity, driving him insane, etc? (Think about Dean, fighting the Mark of Cain on Supernatural – literally turning him into a demon. Now there’s a price.)
In the MG novel All The Money in the World by Bill Brittain, the young protagonist captures a leprechaun and wishes for all the money in the world – and gets it. The novel deals with the fallout of that. He can’t spend the money – it returns right back to him. He can’t give the money away – it returns to him. When cities and countries attempt to install new currency systems, guess what? He gets all that money, too! Having all the money in the world was supposed to solve all his problems – but it just creates more than he can deal with. It comes with a price.
Or maybe your magic is an end-all-be-all. Maybe it can solve all the problems, and using it causes your MC no problems. Then what’s the plot? How are you driving your story forward? Remember the number one rule: Start with the story. What if using the magic is illegal, punishable by death, but your MC is forced to use it? There’s your conflict!
So you have to spend some time thinking about your magical system. Look at how intricate a world J.K. Rowling created for her characters. A magical world, accessible only to those born wizards or witches, and accessible only by a few points, like Platform 9 3/4. The Ministry of Magic creates the laws and enforce them. While smaller spells have little repercussion for the person using them, larger ones – like Apparating – are dangerous if you don’t have enough talent or training. And most spells are almost impossible without a wand – and as we all now know, the wand chooses the wizard or witch, not the other way around. 🙂 But within that world, she has created myriad chances for conflict. Her characters have ambition, greed, envy. They are selfish. They are deluded. They are bullies, and they are heroes. They stand up for the rights of others, and they treat others like dirt. Magic doesn’t make them any less human.
Setting your novel in a world with magic is the same as setting it in the world of corporate America, or the halls of Oxford, or 14th century China. You need to do your homework, and build a world that the readers can trust. And the most important part of that is creating the rules by which your magic is governed and used.
And then, as stated before, you have to follow the rules. If you say that only children under the age of 13 can use magic, and your MC turns 13 during the final battle withe the antagonist – that’s it! No more magic! You can’t break the rule. But what you have done is set the stage for a final battle to end all final battles – your MC is without their greatest advantage. Now what? Figure it out! I read a book once in which it was stated, over and over, that humans could not become angels – end of story. The human MC died at the end, and was brought back to life by her angel lover, as – you guessed it – an angel. If that hadn’t been on my Nook, I would have thrown that book as hard as I could against the wall! I felt cheated. I felt lied to. The author had broken her own rules, and I will never read another book by her again. Follow your own rules, even if characters die as a result, damn it!
Just like when I said history is an infinite sandbox to play in, so is magic and fantasy. The more you dig and research and create and write, there more there is to research and create and write. Have fun – but remember the rules. 🙂