Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
July 2015

12 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Magic System

This is my most tumbld post, and I thought it would be useful to length and explicate it further in an essay here. You should know that I made up this list after a discussion with the wise and brilliant Holly Black. If you haven't read Holly's books (The Magisterium, Tithe, The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, The Darkest Part of the Forest), you are missing out on one of the finest fantasy writers today.

  1. How is it learned and executed?
  2. How is it accessed?
  3. Does it have a will of its own?
  4. Is it restricted in space and time?
  5. What does available magic do?
  6. How does it relate to the character, plot and theme of the book?
  7. What is the cost of magic?
  8. What can it not do?
  9. How long does it last?
  10. Who can use it?
  11. How do others react to it?
  12. Why haven't people with this power taken over the world?

#1 - How is it learned and executed?

Most books about magic begin with a sequence where the main character learns about how to use the magic. If you're trying to avoid that cliché, you've got to put in a sequence somewhere that explains what these characters were like before they became masters of the magic. Do they learn it by reading books? By apprenticing with a master magician? Are they simply born with the magic and have to figure out how to tame it? Do they use it by saying a magic spell? Do they think about it? Can they accidentally use the magic at night while they are sleeping (which can be dangerous and extremely inconvenient)? Do they need to wave their hands to make it work? Can it be in another language? And of course, all of these imply situations in which they can't learn or execute it, which may well come up during the course of the book's plt.

#2 - How is it accessed?

Is magic something that is inborn in people who use it or is it accessed in some other way, i.e. by sacrificing to it with blood or by making some other kind of exchange? This leads to other questions, like, can you use up the magic? Can it be depleted? What happens then? Can people steal the magic that others have accessed? Does it remain attached to the one who has called it up? Is magic something only demons can use? Do you have to command the demon to get their power? Depending on which of these answers you go for, you are going to end up with a book that has different subtexts. If the magic can be depleted, is your book going to be read as a metaphor for water usage? For industrial countries that use up oil reserves? Think about it. It matters.

#3 - Does it have a will of its own?

I think making magic its own entity with a mind and will of its own can make for a lot of complications (a good thing for making plot). If magic has its own will, what does it want? Is it mercurial in its desires? Does it hate humans who use the magic? Does it love them? Is it like Doctor Who, who is always trying to help humans, whether they want him to or not? Is it kind or is it evil in nature? What power does it have to press its will onto those who use it? Is it like a wishing well, always trying to turn the magic wish to one side? Does it just like to cause chaos? Is it mischievous? Does it have a personality depending on which magic you are using? Or does it act different depending on what you were like when you first met it? Does it have periods of time when it's nicer than other periods of time?

#4 - Is it restricted in space and time?

I like this question because it makes you as the writer start thinking about the full extent of the use of magic. It makes you push your worldbuilding skills. So think about this: Can magic move back and forth in time? Can it be transferred from one location to another? If not, does it have to be used once it has been summoned? If you can give it to someone else, who do you give it to? What are the consequences of doing that? If it can be sent back in time, what limitations are on that?

#5 - What does available magic do?

Does the magic available exist in a static pool or does it spill out over the top? What happens if there is too much magic? Or too little? Does it interact with the other kinds of magic? Does it simply stream out? Is it inert or not? Think of it as a chemical substance, and you may find some interesting twists and turns in your story suddenly emerge. Problems with magic are always where plot comes from, not from the direct forward motion of the plot toward a particular goal. So, the more complications, the better.

#6 - How does it relate to the character, plot, and theme of the book?

This is one of the most important points that Holly makes about magic. Your magic system isn't just magic. It reflects who you are and what your worldview is. Once you examine the magic system you invent to begin with, you may want to reconsider what that magic system reveals about your default settings. For instance, is slavery part of your magic system? Is that really what you want? If your magic is born to people, then what are you saying about a class system? If you have a magic system where men and women have different kinds of magic, are you being sexist? If you have a magic system where no one ever needs to eat, what does that mean? Just because you don't see the subtext you are writing when you first work this out, doesn't mean there isn't one. You may want to ask other people what they think of your magic system. You don't have to have them read your whole book. Just explain it to them and see if anyone has useful objections to your assumptions. Also think about what lessons the magic will teach to the main character of the book. Are these lessons you will find interesting to talk about?

#7 - What is the cost of magic?

If magic doesn't have a cost, I'm not sure it's very interesting. I suppose this reveals something about me and my assumptions in the world, but I think every power in our world costs something, so when I write magic into a world, I make sure there's a cost there, too. For instance, in our world, fame has a price. It means loss of privacy. Power has a price: intense scrutiny. Being smart means that you are often easily bored and that you may not have many friends as you grow up, especially in a small town. So if you have magic that can make you travel quickly, what kinds of new accidents have you just invented? If the magic can transform one substance into another, what substances might become rare as a result? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? If your magic allows people to change time, think about time paradoxes. If your magic can make someone fall in love, can it make someone fall out of love? Would it be terrible if everyone were in love with you? Think about the consequences to everything. Think about how things could go very, very wrong. Because they will.

#8 - What can it not do?

This is often as important as what magic can do. If magic can do anything, see #12. It can feel too powerful and not as interesting or as human as if it has limits. Think of what limits it could have. Can magic not force people to act against their own will? Can it not change the past? Can it not change the path of the future as is set out by some higher power? Can it not give you talents that aren't yours naturally? Can it not make you smarter? Can it not make you taller, more handsome, more beautiful? Can it change what you look like, but not who you are in your deepest self? Can it move around particles, but not change substances on some atomic level? Must magic follow the law of conservation of energy or mass? Can it travel faster than the speed of light?

#9 - How long does it last?

Are there time constraints that mean that you have to wait to say the spell until exactly the right moment? This could certainly add to danger. If the spell only lasts for a second, then that takes away a lot of the power. But there are variations on this. Maybe it lasts for one year. Maybe it lasts until the one who casts the spell is dead. Maybe it lasts until someone says a counterspell. All of these things are going to change how much power the magic has and who has the power over it. Maybe it only lasts until someone notices it.

#10 - Who can use it?

If people are "born" to magic, then is everyone allowed to use magic they can access? Or are there situations where some people have the magic, but because of social stigmas aren't allowed to use it? Or would there be families where it's forbidden because of some terrible thing that has happened in the past (the Nazis in Germany, for instance, where there's no freedom of speech about Nazism there, because of the past)? What would happen if someone has the capacity to use magic but isn't allowed to use it? Would they become angry? Stunted in growth in some way? Would they never know? Would they use it and not realize they are doing so? If someone is supposed to have magic, but doesn't, what would they to do pretend they have it?

#11 - How do others react to it?

Do some people hate magic, even people who might be born to it or have the capacity to use it? Why would that be so? Where would their prejudices come from? If people don't have magic, would they be afraid of it? Would they mock it? Why? Would people with magic become the new nerds? Would they rule the world, but still be belittled in public settings? Would there be plays and movies about people with magic? What stereotypes would be prevalent?

#12 - Why haven't people with this power taken over the world?

This is meant largely as a check to writers who don't think of any balances to the magic they have created being too all-powerful. My game-playing kids would describe this as the problem of being "OP" (over-powerful). It's just not that much fun playing a game where your character is OP because you win too easily. Make sure there are various other groups of people who have power of one kind or another. You can have different groups of magic people who act as a balance for each other. You can have people who know about magic and have some strong remedies against it. You can even have a world in which magic people simply don't care that much about the world of non-magic people (or Muggles), so they leave it alone. But think about it. I personally tend to prefer smaller magic than larger magic because it makes the characters with magic feel more human to me.

One other thing you may want to ask about your magic system is: are there rules to the magic? I know that many writers assume that there are rules to magic and that you have to learn them to use it, an assumption based on our understanding of science. But what if magic isn't like science at all? What if it has another system, either one based on witchcraft or sacrifice or some older human belief system? What if magic is based on whim? What if magic is based on an ancient poem? What if it's based on the person who invented it, who has gone into it? What if magic only makes sense to certain people and not to others? Really, what I'm getting at here is that there are a lot of questions to ask about a magic system. Don't stop with these twelve. Keep asking questions and keep following where they lead you. The best fantasy books are the ones that make the readers ask questions because the author asked them, too.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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