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!

Magic Central

On April 24, 2019, SluggishWriter wrote, I write primarily middle grade and young adult fantasy (as well as some science fiction). As much as I love magic systems, I struggle to make them fit within my stories, both plot-wise and scene-by-scene-wise. I don’t want my stories to have a useless magic system attached, but I can’t figure out how to make them important, even if I love writing them in. Part of this is that I tend to feel like special magical objects and such are kind of cliché in fantasy, even though I love reading stories about that sort of thing. My magic can get a little too abstract because of this. If anyone has any tips, I’d really appreciate that!

Two of you responded.

Christie V Powell: Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy author, teaches a university class and has posted all of his lectures online. Here’s his lecture on magic systems:

Melissa Mead: Maybe figure out what’s unique about your world first, and then build your magic system around that? And choose your MC and their dilemma based on something that’s different about them relative to this thing.

Ex: Maybe your world has “Phoenix trees” that burn on the top while replenishing themselves from the bottom.
And magic in this world relates to the trees–eating the fruit, carving the wood, climbing the trees without getting burnt…
And your MC either can or can’t do something that everyone else can’t/can, which causes a problem, bothers them, or otherwise makes them want to change this thing.

I love the phoenix trees ideas! I’d love to see one.

And I’ve watched many of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, which I’ve found very interesting. I marvel at how methodical and rational he is about writing–where as I count on intuition and muddling to get me, eventually, where I need to go.

So here’s a weird question: Does fantasy need magic at all? Please weigh in.

I don’t know if it does, necessarily. Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinners, which I recommend heartily, is a fresh take on the framing story of The Arabian Nights. It feels like fantasy and comes entirely out of fairy tale land, but there’s no magic.

As a child–and to this day–I love to read fairy tales, which I did not get from Disney but from the old versions that I found in my child’s encyclopedia and in the Lang fairy tale books (which are all available online for free, since they’re in the public domain). If you don’t know the original tales, I’d suggest going to Lang. (The books are named after colors: The Blue Fairy Tale Book, The Lilac Fairy Tale Book, etc.–there are lots of them.) I still love the magical apparatus in fairy tales: the flying carpets, the dead horse who can talk, genies. So I’d suggest an afternoon spent reading fairy tales and, if you like, taking notes. Think about how the magic functions in these stories.

Not that I have anything against Disney. But Disney and fairy tale novels like mine and others’ are too filled in. The old fairy tales that you’ve read or are about to read are short. Nothing is dwelt on, so the magical elements aren’t, either. The flying carpet in these stories is just transportation, but what does it feel like to ride one? The dead talking horse merely delivers its messages, and the tale rattles on, but how does it sound? Does it sing? Does spittle fly? It’s in the details that we get away from the ordinary.

Regarding clichés. Sure these old fairy-tale devices have been done before, but readers–and writers–go to them because they love them. There’s comfort in their familiarity. I use them.

I don’t think we should worry about cliché anyway, as I’ve said more than once on the blog. The worry tends just to fuel our self-criticism. If we tell our story as we alone can, the clichés will shrivel up.

What technology does for us today, magic does for the characters in fairy tales, and we can use it that way. Your character needs to get somewhere in a hurry? Bring in the seven-league boots. Your character needs to see what’s going on a hundred miles away? Give her a crystal ball. And so on. We just have to pay attention to the opportunities.

We can complicate things. Our MC has a crystal ball, but it works only when she’s calm–and she needs it only when she’s not calm! Notice also that we’ve introduced two magical elements here. The crystal ball can see into the distance, and it’s psychic, too. And we’re moving into plot as well, because our MC has trouble controlling her emotions, a liability in a hero.

Of course we can’t let the magic solve the story’s problems. We have to limit its power and/or make it a source of trouble.

Magic is part of our world-building, as Melissa Mead’s phoenix trees demonstrate. Hers is a world that accommodates that sort of flora.

An easy-peasy way to introduce magic is to include a magical creature or a species of magical creatures in our world. These can be ogres, dragons, elves, and so on. Or we can bring in a kind of creature never before seen in the pages of a book, as I did with brunkas in my mystery Stolen Magic. As soon as the creatures are in, the world becomes magical. They don’t even have to do much that’s magical. They can live among humans. Broad-minded humans and elves can seek out diversity by living side-by-side. Some ENT doctors can specialize in diseases that afflict pointy ears. We can let our plot make room for a creature or two. If our MC is on a quest, she can bring a dragon along, and we can decide in what ways he’ll make things easier for her and in what ways harder. She can encounter evil gnomes, who stand in the way of her fulfilling her quest.

The problem at the center of our story can be magical, as I made it in Ella Enchanted and Ogre Enchanted, both of which revolve around a fairy’s gift, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which is about a magical illness, the Gray Death. If magic is at the core, it won’t be an appendage to our story, it will be central.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has found a crystal ball in a cave. Inside the ball is a tiny person who is wringing her hands and muttering incomprehensibly. Your MC needs to know if it’s safe for her to leave the cave, and she can’t just go to the opening and peek, because the villain who’s after her may be there. She needs the crystal ball, and she has to figure out how it works. Write the scene.

∙ We’re in the world of phoenix trees. Suppose the tree produces a single fruit every 300 years, and whoever eats it will live until the next fruit ripens. The 325-year-old who ate the last fruit wants to keep it from ever ripening. Your MC wants it for her beloved cousin who’s dying of an arrow wound, and other people want it, too. Write a scene. Write the whole story.

∙ List ten other plot possibilities that center on the phoenix trees. Pick one and write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!