What Makes for a Good Magic System

photoDo you believe in magic…systems?  I do.  In fact, I believe magic systems, with rules that govern them, make for some of the best story elements in our books.  How do you write a solid, entertaining magic system?  Like I said: rules.

Rule 1: The magic system should fit well within the story you’re placing it into.  Magic isn’t always welcome in a story.  Consider whether it really fits in the story or if you’re attempting to fit the story around it.  Sometimes, a simple foretelling is perfect, but high magic can often color a good story with detrimental deus ex machina saves.  Make sure that the magic system isn’t there to fix the problems, but is complementary instead.  It’s better if it introduces its own problems into the mix. It’s better if it isn’t the fix-all.

Rule 2: Finite access to the magic makes for better story.  You can create tension in a scene when, at the moment it’s most needed, the character has run out of the ability to use his magic.  Setting limitations like this provide opportunity.  Take advantage of it and try to remain consistent with those limitations.  It’s bothersome when a character is faced with a difficult problem in chapter three that can’t be overcome by his magic, but in chapter five, he suddenly and inexplicably has a new power that enables him to overcome something very similar.  We’re left wondering, why didn’t he just do that in chapter three?  It’s R2D2’s rockets

Rule 3: Avoid power-creep.  Power-creep occurs when the character with the magic system somehow seems to get stronger and stronger, exceeding the boundaries of a true magic system and entering god-like areas.  Sometimes, not knowing the top-end of the magic makes for a sense of wonderment and can be good.  This is true of Harry Potter, where the magic never ceased to surprise the reader.  However, even J.K. Rowling implemented limitations.  Knowledge of the craft limited a practitioner’s variety and ability to conjure magic.  Setting appropriate boundaries is critical.  Some ideas for boundaries: knowledge, finite energy source, proximity requirements, time requirement, physical cost, psychological toll, a trinket, proper setup of self and environment, positioning.

Rule 4: Consequences should be considered as a viable balancing solution.  If Hero possesses the power to summon lighting from on high, then perhaps he suffers from severe pain as he does so.  Maybe our antagonist can see the future, but with each vision, he begins to lose his grasp on the present.  Use consequences as a way to challenge yourself and your characters.  Magic is most interesting when there is a price to pay.

Rule 5: Your magic system should be unique.  Readers have come to expect certain standards for magic in the books they read.  This is okay, but it can get boring.  So, I created Rule 5 as a form of encouragement to seek out a new form of magic for your story.  You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but do give some consideration to how your story could be better complimented by tweaking the magic system.

These rules aren’t hard and fast.  They’re a set of guidelines that can provide you the insights you need to stand out among the thousands of other magic-based books out there.  Do yourself the favor of investigating your personal take on magic.  It could prove to revolutionize fiction and could possibly support the formation of a new sub-genre.  At the very least, abiding by some rules and setting good boundaries will yield unexpected outcomes and great story.

Have you done magic in your writing?  Share in the comments!


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