Welcome to the final (for now) entry in our Twists on Tropes series. Make sure to check out the previous installments on Chosen Ones, Dark Lords, Wise Old Mentors, Sidekicks, and Love Interests. This week, we’re jumping away from characters and looking at the shiny new thing that brings the flash to every secondary world…
Whether literal magic, superpowers, or sufficiently advanced technology, the fantastic is a genre staple. You could argue that fantasy without magic is historical fiction. For the purposes of this article, we’ll define magic as any system or power that allows characters to break the normal laws of physics.
Well-executed magic systems invoke a sense of wonder. They draw the reader into the fantasy world and make them never want to leave.
Magic systems come with narrative risk, however. A poor magic system may break the reader’s suspension of disbelief by seeming inconsistent or arbitrary. If the reader cannot clearly see on the page why magic cannot solve a problem, they’ll always expect it to do so. The story quickly has its knees undercut because it lacks tension.
This is why good magic systems need consistency. We need to know what fuels it, long with its limitations, drawbacks, and risks.
Let’s break down the different styles of magic systems. Some of these suggestions focus on the effects of magic, while others are concerned with the source. For best results, mix and match to taste.
A source. This magic system is most analogous to sci-fi tech. After all, what is the mechanical, storytelling difference between magical crystals and batteries? Not much. This is a simple way to limit your magical system and drive conflict if the characters are low on resources or have reason to conserve them. The possibilities seem self-evident; on to more nuanced options.
An effect. Elemental magic is for your standard blaster-caster. It is the foundation of both Avatar series (benders, not blue people) and of most Aes Sedai magic in the Wheel of Time. Anything relating to the classical elements of fire, water, earth, and air is fair game, but it most often boils down to putting a world of hurt on your enemies.
Elemental magic can be powerful, but it comes with a built-in set of rules. There is no mind control in elemental magic. There are no dreamscapes, other dimensions, or teleportation. You can even set rules that worked elements – chemicals, cut stone, lumber etc – are not valid magical targets. You could argue that pure elemental magic should not affect living creatures at all (Last Airbender fans, ignore that blood-bender behind the curtain).
A source. Ritual magic has an obvious narrative benefit over other magic systems – it is complicated to execute. The author is free to realistically impose all sorts of restrictions. Mages might need the right words, time of year or day, physical components, motions, allies, so on and so forth. If magic takes this much prep work, it cannot be used instantly to resolve all conflicts. It is easier to write believable conflict in settings with ritual magic.
As a bonus, parts of these books outline themselves. You can have whole plot arcs dedicated to learning the correct ritual for the desired effect.
A Source. Genetic magic usually appears in a world where inherently magical creatures exist. The stories are either about these creatures or humans that share their DNA. The nice limitation you can place under this magic system is to clearly define the specific magic inherited through a certain bloodline. For example, Marissa can manipulate plants because she is part dryad. She can’t light fires or turn invisible any more than a normal human can fly. Those abilities are not in her nature.
When it comes to costs, do hybrid genetic mages lose some of their humanity when they tap into their magical lineage? Might casters of this ilk feel like outsiders among humans? Do they consider themselves human at all? How does that tension affect their relationships and allegiances?
As a source: Emotion-driven magic is a tried-and true genre staple. There are many variables you can play with under these magic systems. Who among us can really control our emotions – the actual emotion, on the inside, not just our outward reaction? Do those who master this discipline for magic get the same benefit in other aspects of life? Does it help or hinder? Do they have a difficult time connecting with others?
Does the specific emotion matter, or is it only a matter of magnitude? Are certain magical effects tied to specific emotions? Can you fake the emotion chemically, with drugs? What are the consequences of taking that shortcut? In almost all emotion-based magic systems, it is difficult to cast spells under stress. How do your characters overcome that challenge? How does using magic change the user’s personality over time?
As an effect: Similar to elemental magic, you may choose to tightly limit the possible effects of magic to manipulating thoughts and emotions.
A source. In many stories, magic comes from a certain energy within living things. These tales tend to be either very positive, or extremely dark. On the positive side, you get systems like The Force in Star Wars. It binds and connects us all and makes us feel good.
On the negative side, when you get life-driven magic in a setting where living things have 1) a finite amount of magic in them, and 2) you can completely drain that magic, you get blood magic. These are the magic systems with the highest physical cost. Is magic painful? What is exchanged or lost by performing magic? Is all magic inherently evil, or are there non-destructive disciplines?
A source. Also known as faith or pact magic, spells in these systems are gifts from powerful supernatural sources and do not stem from anything within the user. Are the patrons knowable? If yes, are they benevolent or malicious? Can the caster seek this power on his or her own, or do the supernatural forces choose champions? If they choose, by what standards? What is the cost or criteria for gaining magic? Can the gift be lost or used up? Are the mages required to follow a code or practice? Once chosen or gifted, do magicians have the option to give up their power, or is their fate sealed?
Patron magic can, perhaps more than other systems, facilitate exploring themes of fate, faith, and redemption.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as I have. Perhaps we’ll revisit it one day. I hope this article in particular jogs your thinking the next time you design your magic system.
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