Thoughts on Creating Magic Systems

I’ve written before, on other blogs (including http://magicalwords.net, a site I maintain with several other fantasy authors) about creating magic systems and what I feel such a system needs to read as “real.”  In recent months, though, I’ve been thinking about magic a bit differently, in part because I’m now writing historical fantasy and contemporary urban fantasy rather than the alternate-world epic fantasy I’ve published throughout my career.  Why does this make a difference?  Well, I’ll get to that.

Let me start by saying that I approach the creation of a magic system with a fair amount of rigor.  I think that slipshod magic can doom a fantasy novel or series faster than just about anything else.  I believe that one of the reasons so many people look down their noses at fantasy and science fiction (and all of their associated sub-genres) is that they assume the speculative aspect of the narrative — the magic or the underlying scientific assumption — is an excuse for “anything-goes” plotting and a replacement for careful development of character and setting.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Magic systems, when done well, will follow certain rules and remain consistent throughout the story.  (And the same is true of the science elements of SF, but I’m going to focus my post on magic and fantasy, since that’s what I do.)  Magic may make possible occurences and plot twists that couldn’t occur otherwise, but it does not replace plotting or character work or ambiance.  It enhances them.

Over the years, when I have created magic systems, I have followed three basic rules.  First, I have tried to make my magic as internally consistent as possible.  Just as the physical phenomena in our “real” world have laws that explain how they work (think gravity, inertia, etc.), so magic should be similarly governed.  As a writer, I don’t want my magic conforming to my narrative needs, as convenient as that may sound.  That leads to contrived stories and ticked off readers.  There are times when I’m writing and figuring out plot points and I run straight into walls created by the rules governing my magic system.  And that’s just too bad for me.  If I can’t get past the rules, then I have to reconfigure my plot.  But I will not sacrifice the internal logic and consistency of my magic system.  Second, I try to place limits on the power of my magic.  This is related, obviously, to that first point.  But I believe it’s crucial from a storytelling standpoint.  A magic system that can do anything, that is limitless in its power, is fated to take over the world in which it’s located, and thus any story about that world.  There are exceptions to this, of course.  I’m sure a fine story could be written about magic that conquers everything.  Once.  But after that one time, that story is going to get pretty boring.  Better that magic should be a tool, but one that, in the end, is no replacement for wit, perseverance, and strength of will.  And finally (and also related to these first two rules of making magic) I want my magic to exact a price from those who use it.  Clearly, this ties into the limited nature of my magic.  But again, magic without cost is, to me, too easy, and thus boring.  I have written magic that weakens and shortens the lives of those who use it.  I’ve written magic that is sourced in a familiar who stays with the sorcerer (and weakens that familiar if overused).  I’ve written magic that is powerful, but that slowly drives the user insane.  Consistency, limits, cost:  Not everyone takes these steps when building magic, but I always have, and I think they make my magic systems more interesting than they would otherwise be.

Recently, I have come to recognize one more component of a successful magic system.  Magic, I believe, should fit in seamlessly with the time and setting in which the story takes place.  This seems like a no-brainer, right?  Certainly, I always took this one for granted when I was writing alternate world fantasy.  Magic systems were inextricably bound to my worldbuilding, and so there always seemed to be an organic connection between the setting and the magic.  But as I have turned to historical fantasy and contemporary fantasy — in other words, as I have brought magic into our own world — I have come to see that this organic relationship isn’t always easy to maintain.  Grafting a magic system onto a real world setting, without making that magic feel anachronistic or like something that was, in fact, simply grafted on, has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as I shift to new subgenres.

For my contemporary fantasies, I have tried to create magic systems that draw upon existing elements of our world.  My most recent book (as yet uncontracted and unpublished) uses Celtic mythology as the basis for its magic system, but those who are rooted in myth have adapted to modernity, turned technology and popular culture to their purposes.  This way, the magic system can be consistent and limited, it can feel like it “belongs” in the modern world, but it can also seem plausible to my reader that many in the world don’t know or believe that the magic exists.  In my historical fantasy, the magic is tied to seventeenth century witch-scares in ways that blend with the mechanics of the system, but that again give those who don’t have magic a way of understanding phenomena they couldn’t otherwise explain.  I realize that these descriptions are a bit vague — the historical fantasy isn’t out yet, the contemporary fantasy isn’t under contract.  I don’t want to give away too much about either.  The essential point, though is that regardless of where your book is set, the magic you create for it should feel as much a part of the world as the food, the politics, the history, the landscape, etc.

Those are the things I’ve been thinking about recently when creating magic.  What about you?  What elements of building a magic system do you think are most important?  Which ones do you struggle with in your own work?

I’ll be away from my computer much of this week, but feel free to discuss this in my absence and I’ll check in when I can.

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://www.davidbcoe.com
http://www.sfnovelists.com

 

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There are 6 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. jm

    I think the key for any magic system is that no power can come without a price. Just like real life!

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    “But again, magic without cost is, to me, too easy, and thus boring.”

    This is fantastic and should be tattooed on the would-be fantasy author.

    In my ignorance, I avoided fantasy for a very long time due largely to the idea that the employment of magic would undercut the relavence/gravity of the larger world/story. I think of it as the Superman/Green Lantern trap.

    Superman’s omnipotence makes the character tedious to me. I want a sense of peril, of all-to-finite power. Like a science nerd in a sky-line battle, or a woefully-undertrained farm boy in a inter-galactic conflict for freedom.

    Similarly, the spear and magic helmet bit in Green Lantern makes me nauseous. A better use of the McGuffin, is the map in “Time Bandits.” Tremendous power, limited application.

    Jacqueline Carey’s Master of the Straits can shake kingdoms but is bound to his island. He can bind water to his will but even that power is proximity dependent.

    “Magic, I believe, should fit in seamlessly with the time and setting in which the story takes place.”

    I find this especially intriguing. There are aspects to this idea I’ve liked and didn’t like about Jim Butcher’s work and I’m excited to read other comments view points.

  3. 3. ralpheal

    I agree with everything you said. Thanks for the input.

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David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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