Inventing the Magic, Limiting the Magic

On June 6, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice on how to create a unique magic system? I’m working on a hard magic* system for my story right now, but so far, I don’t think I’ve come up with anything that makes it very unique, which is something I want since the magic is very important for the story.

So far, I know that the magic was given to the people by the goddess of everything good. If you know magic, you can either create or destroy. (It’s one or the other, not both. Magic users have to choose at some point during their training.) You can only use magic if you have specific runes written on one of your hands (hence the reason why most magic users wear gloves). Even though the Magic was a gift, it was corrupted by the god of chaos, so using it is physically painful, and unless you have a familiar (who prevents you from dying unless it dies), you’re likely to die earlier then you would’ve otherwise.

I guess I’m wondering what else to add. I haven’t been able to come up with any limitations that make sense to me, besides the fact you can only create/destroy, depending on which type of magic you choose. I know the amount of time you spend studying the magic correlates to how well you can use it (which goes for most things in real life anyway) but beyond that, I’m not sure. Is there something about magic systems all of you like to see? Do you have any suggestions?

*For anyone who doesn’t know, a hard magic system has specific rules and limitations that cannot be broken. Hello Future Me has some great Youtube videos about hard magic on Youtube if you want to check them out.

A great discussion broke out.

RedTrumpetWriter: I haven’t read magic systems extensively, but I think that some of the “limitations” could come from the reaction of nonmagic, or even magic users. What I mean is, do they admire magic users or are they afraid? If they fear them then they would probably create laws or ways of stopping magic users from practicing. For the magic itself I think if it physically harms users that would clearly be a limitation in not only how much or how often you could use without really damaging yourself and if it leaves physical effects like disfigurement it could cause other problems, especially if magic users are feared and have a limp or something would give them away. Also, depending on your characters, they may have sort of self-imposed limitations because they want to use their gifts for good even though they are corrupted so you could do something like what Gail does in Ella Enchanted and have people refuse to do “big magic” for fear of doing more harm than good.

Writeforfun: I like the explanation behind what you’ve got so far. It sounds pretty cool!

And sorry, no advice – but to answer you question on what I like seeing as a reader, I definitely agree that I like there to be limitations! The one thing I can’t stand is when magic is unlimited, because I never understand why it can’t be used to solve all the problems – for the good guys OR the bad guys.

I don’t know what exactly it is in your world that the magic allows you to create or destroy, but as a reader, I think I’d appreciate it most if it were clearly limited. Perhaps you can only learn to create (or destroy, whichever the case may be) one type of substance at a time – like, say, wooden objects. So, say your magic user has studied and learned to create wooden objects; but maybe at the climax they’re facing a dragon with scales that can only be pierced by aluminum. As a reader, I’m still worried about them – and I’m also not yelling at you, the author, saying “why not just create a really cool aluminum partizan and stab the dragon already!”

Sorry, that’s not a very good example! But do you know what I mean? I think I, the picky reader that I am, would still be fine with some people gaining the power to create/destroy other types of objects through more training (especially if it means they have to become monks, or something, and give their entire lives over to their study – which would require some pretty major sacrifices on their part). I just don’t like it when everyone has that kind of unlimited power – or has access to someone with that kind of power. In those cases, I’m mostly either not worried for the characters, or annoyed by all the plot holes popping up because the author forgot about their own characters’ magical abilities!

Kit Kat Kitty: It’s funny because your two examples- the monks and the dragons- are actually kind of relevant to my story. Dragons are the main enemy and monks are a significant part of the plot! Your idea to make it so they can only create/destroy certain things depending on what they study was very helpful. I’ve considered something like it in the past, and I’ll probably end up using it! Thank you!

NerdyNiña: This reminds me of a Doctor Who episode. The Doctor has his sonic screwdriver that can do basically anything. It opens doors, scans for alien tech, whatever. But it can’t do anything with wood. So in one episode, there are aliens made out of wood. He can’t do anything about it.

Even the Doctor and his sonic screwdriver have limitations.

Kit Kat Kitty: Thanks for giving me some suggestions! You made me think about my world more. I had always figured because most magic users are evil (regardless of which form of magic they use) all magic users are disliked, but I realized that should affect the story more than just being a casual fact. My characters will have to go out of their way to hide the fact they have magic, and wearing gloves all the time probably won’t work. Thanks for the suggestions!

I’m so glad the blog writers’ ideas were helpful!

And I’m with Writeforfun that what Kit Kat Kitty presented us sounded mighty good from the get-go! Original and with limitations!

Of course I wondered if the magic in my fantasies is hard or soft, and I’m not sure. I looked up Brandon Sanderson on magic, and I like what he says. Here’s a link to his first law, and from there you can go on to his second and third:

I think more about magical objects and magical creatures than about magic wielded by humans. But a main character and a few others in the first half of Sparrows in the Wind, my forthcoming novel about the Trojan War, have the power of prophecy, which has a few important limitations that I spell out. I guess that’s hard magic.

The way I work it may be relevant. As in the Greek myth, the main character, Cassandra, and her twin, Helenus, are given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, the god of truth. However, Apollo curses Cassandra’s gift so that no one believes her. Helenus’s gift isn’t cursed.

In examples of future sight that I’ve seen in movies or read in novels, the prophetess or prophet goes into a trance and receives a vision of what’s going to happen at a particularly pivotal moment. Then the writer gets to decide whether it’s a true vision or not. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t, and the decision is all up to us. Too convenient, say I, allowing us to conjure up tension without really having to work for it.

So I went a different way. You’ll see if you read the book.

The point for Writeforfun’s question and any other about magic and world-building is that we always have to have an eye out for out plot, which depends on conflict and character. What magic will support our plot and make matters hard for our MC? For example, everything would fall apart in “Snow White” if the evil queen had a magic potion that made her eternally the most beautiful. Or if she had Dorothy’s magic shoes and no magic mirror, she could be transported to Snow White, but she’d have no reason to harm her. Also, the magic mirror is awful for Snow White because she doesn’t know it exists–and there’s nothing magical about ordinary ignorance though it contributes mightily to the plot, reminding us to exploit non-magic too.

Let’s look again at what Kit Kat Kitty tells us, which is crawling with plot possibilities and, I think, with ways to increase the limitations:

So far, I know that the magic was given to the people by the goddess of everything good. If you know magic, you can either create or destroy. (It’s one or the other, not both. Magic users have to choose at some point during their training.) You can only use magic if you have specific runes written on one of your hands (hence the reason why most magic users wear gloves). Even though the Magic was a gift, it was corrupted by the god of chaos, so using it is physically painful, and unless you have a familiar (who prevents you from dying unless it dies), you’re likely to die earlier then you would’ve otherwise.

Lots of questions pop up:

• Who decides what’s good? Good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander.

• Are the gods and goddesses available? Do they intercede? Can chaos be used for good? What are the possibilities?

• Can creators and destroyers work together? Are they always in opposition? Is one good and the other bad, or not?

• Runes! Omigosh, they pulse with possibilities! Who writes them? Are you born with them? Can you read them? Can you change them? Add to them? Erase them? Do you know what they say? Is the meaning clear? What if the being who wrote them had a bad handwriting? Does it matter if the runes are on the right hand or the left? If the character is a lefty or a righty?

• What kind of familiar? How does the familiar keep you from dying? What kills the familiar? Why does one person have a familiar and another one doesn’t? Does a familiar help you the way you want to be helped or does it sometimes help you the way it thinks you should be helped?

• And many more. We can, naturally, make a list.

Let’s start with limitations. If we dig into everything good, for example, the goddess may, like the fairy Lucinda, have her own ideas about what that is. Or she may not be as dreadful as Lucinda, but she plays favorites or is forgetful. Our characters have to work around her limitations.

Or maybe creators and destroyers can work together in theory, but they can’t be in the same place at the same time. Or if a destroyer destroys something, say elevators, a creator can’t make a workaround, like escalators.

As I’ve said here before, uniqueness in a big way is probably unattainable. We all build on what’s come before, and big uniqueness might be incomprehensible to everybody but us. Originality and surprise, I think, come from our details. Also from the way the magic works in our plot, the ways our characters dream up to use magic–and the way their plans go wrong.

Here are three prompts:

• A brother and sister, separated at birth, don’t know about each other. Both work at the same castle, the brother as an under-butler, the sister as the laundress’s helper. She’s chosen to be a destroyer, and the king’s shirts and the queen’s petticoats are never stained. He’s a creator, and the king never notices when his shoe soles wear thin because they’re replaced with identical new ones before the damage gets bad. Both think they’re meant for better things, however, and they begin to experiment, with troubling results. Write the story.

• The evil magician in Aladdin creates evil robot genies who are activated only by his ring and his lamp. When Aladdin, a destroyer, comes into possession of both and starts making wishes, they all go awry. Yes, the genies make him a palace and he wins the princess, but their new home isn’t anywhere you’d really want to live, and terrible things happen inside it. However, he doesn’t realize what the source of the problem is. He adores his wife and sees that they’re both in danger. Write the story.

• The runes on your MC’s hand start changing. When she casts familiar spells, she gets unfamiliar results. The problem is, she’s physician to the king who is desperately ill. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. i💜writing says:

    Really great post! This happens to fall exactly in line with some worldbuilding I’m doing at the moment…I think I also have a hard magic system going. I love it when posts match up with my WIP!

  2. Brambles and Bees says:

    I’m currently having trouble deciding the time period for my book. It’s not placed on earth, but I’m basing a lot of the clothing style and technological and architectural advances on a time period in the world, but I’m struggling to choose because there are two very different periods that offer very different and amazing aspects. I’ve also thought about having different places in the world be based off one time period and then another based off a different one because of the different cultures in the kingdoms. The only problem with that would be the very big gap in technological and architectural advances. Does anyone have an idea on making the best choice for choosing a time period to base your book in.

    • Even in our current world, there are big differences in technological level depending on where you live. I think you can have all kinds of cultures, as long as you know the reasons for the differences.

    • Lysander Grey says:

      I think for choosing the time period you should look at what best fits the story you’re trying to tell, but if you’re looking at blending various cultures from our world I recommend doing some research on Treasure Planet. It’s a superb animated film where they took (forgive me if I get this wrong, I can’t fully remember) 80% Victorian era inspiration, and 20% science-fiction to create a dazzling steampunk vibe. Even the soundtrack is primarily a “classical” sound, with a couple rock songs thrown in to fit the percentage tradeoff between historical and futuristic.

    • For what it’s worth, I used two time periods with my DreamRovers trilogy. The historical story I wanted to use as inspiration took place in the 1840s, but the way the story lined up in my fantasy world, it needed to take place in the early 1600s (or my fantasy version of that era). So I had to do a bit of combining and figuring things out.

      I think a lot of this will depend on your genre. Fantasy and sci fi readers are often forgiving if the historical-ish setting takes some liberties. Historical fiction has to be a lot more precise–especially Regency. Those readers will grill you!

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      *Some spoilers for Avatar The Last Airbender ahead*
      In Avatar The Last Airbender, the Fire Nation is significantly ahead of the world technology-wise. Because of their natural resources, bending, not sharing their knowledge, and because they have been fighting a war for a hundred years. They had steam-powered ships, air balloons, an airship (based on the air balloon design), and even a tank-like machine capable of taking down a large city wall.
      Contrast that to the Southern Water Tribe, which really has almost no tech beyond basic tools, and ships they built. That is mostly because of fire nation raids, wiping out almost the whole water bending population, (and many others, I’m assuming). Because their society was built on Water Bending, by the time the series starts, the Southen Water Tribe appears to have been mostly reduced to a dozen or so igloos, and the women and children who live in them (the men being out fighting the war.)
      Anyway, after that long rant, my point is, the Fire Nation has technology comparable to the technology of the early 1900s, and the Southern Water Tribe has technology hundreds of years behind that. It is easy for two different places to have very different technological advances, they just need different resources, desires, ideals, advantages, etc.
      Sorry for the long rant, but I hope it helps!

  3. FantasyFan101 says:

    Awesome post!!! I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and the help is definitely welcome. After the reference to hard magic, I immediately thought about the magic from Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. He has very specific rules around the magic, and it makes the characters stretch to their limits to get around the problems and think of clever spells. I really enjoyed it.

  4. StoryBlossom says:

    Thank you and Kit Kat Kitty for this post and question! Considering how important magic is to my current novel, this post made me realize that I haven’t really thought about giving my magic specific limitations. I know where magic comes from (godlike beings) and that there are many different types of magic. Each type of magic has its own limitations, but I don’t know if my godlike beings have any limitations. This post really got me thinking. Thanks again!

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      No problem! I always love coming to the blog and asking questions, and I love it more when the questions I ask help other people.

  5. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Does anyone have any advice about how to nail down what you want the plot of your story to be? I’ve been wanting to write a Spy Thriller for a really long time, (since about November 2019). I started the first draft for NaNoWriMo, but gave up and moved onto different projects (as evidence in this post.) Recently I had another idea for one, which would take place in the same world and country but involve a different main character, and take place a few years before the one I started in 2019. However, I’m having a lot of issues deciding what I actually want to happen. I really like espionage, fun action scenes, secrets, dark pasts, many things that are staples of the genre. But every time I try to say “This is who my main character is, this is her main motivation…” It all feels wrong. I’ve tried making lists but I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities. Some advice would be great. Also, sorry for asking a question on a post about another one of my questions being answered. I’d hate to take up anyone’s time.

    • No worries on taking up time. People don’t have to answer unless they want to :).
      Here’s some scattered thoughts that might help:

      You might try Brandon Sanderson’s method. He starts by writing down a couple of the goals for the plots and subplots that he wants (character A learns to trust, the villain is defeated, this element of the magic world is discovered…). Then he writes down what steps would be needed to reach each one (so, for “learns to trust”, he might list character A mistrusted someone but was wrong, A is taught a lesson by someone, A likes someone but is held back by her mistrust…). Then, as he writes, he looks at his lists and tries out what comes next. You might try that with your list (espionage can be what secret your character has to discover, the action scenes can be how to bring down the villain, etc).

      I actually don’t do lists right. I usually only get to item three or four, and then my brain latches on to one and decides that This Is The Way. Sometimes I can get a few more on the list by building off of the previous ideas instead of coming up with new ones–for example, if idea #3 is “Perrin meets two mages”, then idea 4 might be “Perrin meets two mages who help heal his friend” or “the two mages have ulterior motives”. I think I would get overwhelmed by possibilities too if I forced myself to keep listing all brand new things. Maybe you could try out building on old ideas instead of coming up with new ones?

      When I’m coming up with a new story idea, I start by scribbling down some of the things that I’d like to include. Then I use those ideas to fill out a “beat sheet”, moving them around from spot to spot and filling in new things until it feels right. I wrote a blog post about the story structure/beat sheet I use, if you’re interested:

    • i💜writing says:

      Assuming I’m interpreting your question correctly, I would start by figuring out if you’re more of a plot-driven or a character-driven writer. If you feel more plot-driven, then I’d (this is what I personally would do, this might not work for you) come up with a vague plot summary, like the description on the flap of a book, and try to take notes and plan things out from there. If you feel character-driven—which it sounds like you might be—I would try Gail’s character profile tool in Writing Magic. I’ve used that for my characters a lot.

      Aaand this is kind of random, but if you like espionage and action and everything like that, I’d recommend the Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs. It’s definitely younger middle grade, but it’s really hilarious and the way he writes the action scenes are done really well.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        Thank you for the advice! I do think I’m more of a character-driven writer, as half the reason I really enjoy most books is because of the characters. Thank you for the book recommendation!

    • My writing is very character-based, so I tend to use Lois McMaster Bujold’s advice: Figure out the worst possible thing that could happen to this specific person, and do it to them. (Then have them deal with it.)

      Think “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

      Because you’re not afraid of mice, Indy! 🙂

  6. Love this post!
    Does anyone have tips on staying motivated? I love the story I’m writing, but I just don’t seem to be able to find the motivation – or inspiration – to write. Inspiration is a big problem for me. Any tips?

    • Here’s some things I’ve done:

      Give yourself a reward. I told myself that I finished a scene from my work in progress, I could work on something else, even if it’s something that I’m not “supposed” to work on yet (such as a new project, or designing a cover for a book I haven’t written yet). You can use other rewards, too, from a small treat to playing a game to reading a new book… whatever gets you excited.

      Get feedback. I have an awesome writer’s group where we submit a chapter every week. Seeing their comments makes me feel like I absolutely have to work on the things they’ve said (especially if it’s something small like a typo). I can use that momentum to keep going.

      If it’s a shiny new idea that’s distracting you, give yourself permission to jot it down. I have a file folder for random ideas. Usually scribbling down the idea, with all the little details that it came with, is enough for my brain to let it go.

      Take a break. If your brain just refuses to work on a project, give yourself permission to take a break. Take a day off, or a week (probably no more than that).

      Ask what the problem is–it might not be the writing itself. Lie down and see if you need a nap. Or get a snack. It’s much harder to write when you’re exhausted and low on blood sugar. Are you super stressed about something else in your life? You might need to take a break while you deal with that.

  7. i💜writing says:

    Quick question about cliches—or one in particular—the MC of my middle-grade novel meets her love interest by literally crashing into him. They both fall over, she gets a look at him, stammers her way through an apology, and walks off in a pleasantly surprised daze. Is this a super-cliche way for two love interests to meet?

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