Magic Systems and Worldbuilding

There comes a time at the start (hopefully) of any fantasy project where you must tackle the question of magic.  Magic is an integral part of fantasy, and given Clarke’s Third Law, it can be argued that it’s integral to science-fiction, too.  That’s not to say that every author or every story will handle magic the same way.  There are many fantasies with no magic, formal or informal, but which still qualify because of some other fantastical element, and there are fantasies where magic is the only fantastical element in an otherwise-normal world.

Whenever I begin to consider a new story, one of the first questions I ask myself, whether consciously or not, is whether there will be magic (or magic that isn’t dressed up as science).  If the answer is no, well, that’s not what’s I’m talking about right now, but if the answer is yes, that opens up a whole host of new questions.  The presence of magic is, in some ways, just the tip of the iceberg.  Magic can be a nebulous force for which there are no explicit rules, such as the magic in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or it can be very formalized with rules governing its powers and limitations, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels (or just about anything else he’s written).  Somewhere out beyond Mistborn and its like are Dungeons & Dragons licensed properties–books where the knowledgeable and the geeky can identify the exact spell that’s being used and will complain if its effects aren’t in line with the game, and where you can sometimes hear the dice rolling if the author isn’t that good.

Then there’s this sort of stuff, which happened long ago in a fuzzy version of history. [Via Wikipedia]

In case you’re wondering, Harry Potter falls somewhere in the middle–there is a formal-ish magic system, but its rules are not deeply delved into.

No matter where your magic falls on this scale, it is important to do some worldbuilding in advance to keep yourself from running up against problems later, either in your initial drafting or in revision when one of your alpha- or beta-readers asks, “why couldn’t that character just … ?”  No matter how few rules your magic has on the page, you should know its limits from the outset.  Readers are very fond of asking tricky questions, and editors even more so.  Prepare to defend yourself.

My take on magic in stories so far has tended towards the light end of the scale.  I find the idea of building big formal magic systems to be interesting on an intellectual level, and I admire it when done well by others, but at this stage, I’ve not found myself wanting to do any of that myself.  Put me down for a bit of handwavium any day.  That approach helps me not to fall into a common trap I’ve seen when writing magic: the distraction of the cool factor.

While there are many books that balance an interesting, well-built magic system with well-developed characters around whom a plot forms, there are many many others where all those important things fall by the wayside because the author wants to tell you just how damn clever they’ve been with their magic and expect that just because the complicated system they made up held their interest for tens of thousands of words, it will carry you past the flat characters and idiot plotting.

Don’t do this.

If you’re afraid that you’re doing this, take a look at your characters.  Ask yourself lots of questions about them; questions like “what’s this character’s favorite Wawa hoagie?” or “what subjects interested them when they were in school?”  If you can answer this sort of question about your characters, you’re probably doing alright, though if you can ask someone you trust for honest feedback, that’s even better.  You don’t necessarily have to tone down the magic, though you should make a pass to cull all the inessential telling you’re doing, but you should focus more on your characters; they’re hopefully who your readers care about.

There’s more of this subject than I can really cover in one short post, so I’ll probably return to this topic periodically, but until then, I want to leave you with this episode of Writing Excuses, which has stuck with me from their first season (which makes it most of five years old now–congrats, Writing Excuses!).


About Hilary B. Bisenieks

Hilary B. Bisenieks (Biss-en-yex) n. 1. An author of fact, fancy, and opinion based out of Oakland, CA. 2. A graduate of the Creative Writing program at Warren Wilson college and Mary Robinette Kowal's Short Story Workshop. 3. A man unable to be trusted to update basic biographical information with any regularity. View all posts by Hilary B. Bisenieks

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