A Guide to Writing Awesome.
Everyone loves magic (and if you don’t you should be ashamed!). I mean who wouldn’t want to be able to turn into a dragon, shoot flaming spaghetti noodles from their eyeballs or teleport their car instead of sitting in traffic? I know it sounds awesome, but in order to do these things when writing a story you need to have some ground rules. Just like any other concept in your world, you need to figure out how it works. It doesn’t have to be an exact down-to-a-science kind of explanation, but it should at least be plausible.
So, how does magic work?
Born with it – Well aren’t you lucky? Your special self was born with the ability to use magic. A lot of the ‘born with it’ magic users are often of a certain race or bloodline. For instance in Harry Potter the ability to use magic was tied to blood. A lot of fantasy stories tend to have the token magic race, like elves.
Gift from God – You were given the ability to bend reality to your will and turn fearsome monsters into puppies by a higher power, usually some special deity. Dungeons and Dragons uses this concept for the Divine Magic classification regarding magic that clerics can use.
Got it from an artifact – You found an ancient magic item that seems to be a great source of power. Using or wearing this artifact grants you the ability to use magic.
Static power source – Your world gets its source of magic from a mysterious and ancient power source. This can be things like: power crystals/gems, a dimensional breach, an ancient well of power that possibly taps into the core of your world, the life energy of your world/realm/multiverse, an ancient (possibly holy) structure that may or may not have served as a tomb for a dead deity, and the list goes on. You can really make up anything as a static power source as long as it’s explained well enough to make sense in your story.
Power of souls/will – MAGIC IS MADE OF PEOPLE. You can tap into your own soul, the souls of others or even manipulate your will to manifest into a physical spell effect. Depending on your power, you may be able to cast magic by thought alone.
Book learning – Magic primarily exists in hefty tomes that require years of study to even begin to understand. Magic may exist in text, symbols or a mix of both. Spell scrolls, rune casting, magic tags and spell circles all fit here.
Use your words – There is power in language. Magic may be instilled in the very words we speak. The language may be common use or it may be hidden. Magic may be cast using a single word, a phrase or a lengthy incantation that has a lot of prep time.
Fire burn and cauldron bubble – Magic in your world is primarily cast from potions. You can mix together any number of ingredients for a specific effect on either yourself or an opponent.
Science is magic – It is possible to do this. Some say that when you have incredibly complex science, it can do so many amazing things that it may as well be magic. Adventure Time introduced an idea like this. Princess Bubblegum is a science genius and knows the forces that govern the world all have a scientific basis. She makes a comment regarding the magic users of Wizard City that their magic is science, but they just don’t understand it.
Feel free to combine any of these to make a system that works for you or come up with your own.
You don’t have to classify your magic, but there are some classifications that are commonly used when talking about certain spell types. References: D&D and The Elder Scrolls.
Abjuration – Often refers to protective spells like barriers, walls, shields, wards and circles. Magic dispels, enchantment breaks, and curse removals also fall into this category.
Alchemy – Some fantasy worlds define alchemy as being a kind of magic and some don’t, and those that do have incredibly broad definitions. Alchemy can be used to create potions and longer-lasting elixirs in order to modify the conventions of a normal world. Alchemy can often do anything that the other schools can.
Alteration/Transmutation – This is magic that alters the properties of a target. Buff spells (like increasing a person’s strength), weakness spells, spells that turn your mom into a cat, water breathing and spells of the like belong here.
Conjuration/Summoning – Want to summon a demon to fight for you? Or perhaps you want to be able to make your own magic weapons appear out of thin air? Well, that’s what this spell school is for.
Divination – Focuses on learning information. Example: Detect Magic. You can be pretty creative with this one, as it’s the spy school of spells.
Enchantment – In D&D these types of spells affect the mind and emotions. Sometimes this is also defined as enchanting weapons and objects to give them magic properties (instead of alteration).
Evocation/Invocation/Destruction – This is where all of the fun, energy based spells go. Things like ice spears, lightning bolts, water cyclones and fire balls are in this school.
Illusion – This is exactly what you think it is. Illusion spells can be cast on an individual, a group or an area to make something appear to be what it really isn’t. You can create hallucinations of one or all of the senses here.
Necromancy – Feel like waking the dead? This school is responsible for the creation of undead armies from either existing bodies or the creation of a new being. These spells often involve death and the manipulation of life energy.
Restoration – Healing magic meant to mend wounds, replenish energy and relax a troubled mind. It can also be used against undead.
Here are a few questions you should ask yourself when you think about how you want magic to be cast:
Oh Yes, There are Consequences.
Like balancing the traits of a character, you must also do the same with magic.
As a general rule of thumb, magic should cause just as many, if not more, problems than it solves. Don’t get me wrong, you can use a spell to solve a problem in your story, but don’t get used to doing it all of the time. Magic is not easy street. Magic is an untamed force and sometimes, that untamed force gets pissed and strikes back.
Location, location, location – Perhaps that firestorm spell wasn’t the best idea to use inside of that shopping mall… Where you cast your spell will tend to help determine what you cast. You’re probably not going to use something that causes a lot of collateral damage in a high population area. You’re also not going to use a loud spell in a situation that requires you to be sneaky and quiet. Also consider the world and whether or not magic is known and commonly accepted. If it’s not and you fire off a lightning bolt in a busy intersection, then you might have a bit of a problem with the local police, or the National Guard.
Casting above your level – You need to figure out the level of magic you’re able to use. It depends on your experience usually, unless you’re gifted by God and can use high level spells right out of the gate. Magic can be unpredictable. If you try to cast a spell that’s far beyond your level, it’s going to blow up in your face and you, or other people, could get seriously hurt.
A price to pay – What does it cost to cast magic? This is something you need to figure out quickly and probably depends on your source. Maybe using a spell will deplete so much energy from your power crystal? Maybe spells require certain materials and running out of those materials will stop you from casting? Maybe using magic takes a certain amount of time off your life? Maybe there’s a spell that will automatically kill you? Maybe it requires more than one sacrifice? Maybe spells cause bodily harm to the user? Maybe you slowly start to go insane? Whatever the price, you need to be sure that it balances out the power of spell. Simple spells, like casting floating lights, may not cost much but something like warping space and time needs to have a terrible cost. There are exceptions, of course, if you’re working with a cast of characters that are god-like in nature. Then you can have those kinds of powers and can instead counter them with a character of equal power.
Magic vs. technology – How does magic fare against advanced technology? Can technology be disrupted by magic (like in the Dresden Files) or vise versa (anti-magic shields in Final Fantasy X)? Can your magic stand up to guns, tanks, aircraft? How do you fare when you run into someone who is an adept gunslinger or a master of blades? If your story has some sort of technology, this question needs to be answered. It’s always bothered me that Harry Potter never brought up what would happen if a gun was introduced into the wizarding world. The Harry Potter Puppet Pals suggested killing Voldemort with Uzis, which to me makes sense because it was never addressed in the books whether or not bullets could go through magic shields.
Spell weakness – What spells or types of magic are weak to each other? Magic can be equated to looking at a Pokemon type chart and figuring out what’s super effective and what’s not. Example: fire can melt ice but fire gets put out by water. When creating a new spell, always ask what type of spell it is and what possible counters it could have in a real world setting. For instance, I have a character who uses magic to give himself super speed and he gets trounced on by another one of my characters who can control ice because ice = no friction = no traction for running = a lot of sliding around.
Magic weapons – Magic weapons are pretty awesome but when you make one be sure it’s balanced, just like spells. If it has a special power, then make it one of kind and incredibly hard to use and/or acquire. Also be sure to give it a counter, whether it’s another weapon or a spell. Counters make things interesting and no one likes seeing a weapon that hands you the victory every time you use it.
A Final Word
When designing your magic, make sure it suits you and your story. For every cool, creative ability you make up, there needs to be some sort of drawback. Using magic as a tool to solve every single problem is boring and readers will tire of it. No one likes to read a story that has no complications and no struggles, especially if it uses magic. Remember that magic isn’t an answer, it’s a massive question.