Magic lies at the core of many fantasy stories, whether it drives the plot forward or merely builds the world surrounding the characters. Either way, there’s typically some method to the madness of magic. The mages of the story might be born with great powers, or spend decades perfecting their arcane crafts – regardless, there’s an underlying power system defining the rules of magic.
Creating and balancing your own magic power system can be tricky at times. Here’s a few things to keep in mind when making magic a reality in your story.
Who can perform magic?
The amount of magicians in your world depends on the kind of story you want to tell. If the protagonist exists in a world full of magic users, something clearly singles them out as special. So what is it? On the other hand, if only a handful of magicians exist in the world, what happens when they get together? Do they butt heads, or are they a tight-knit group?
Can your protagonist even perform magic? It could be an interesting approach to position your main character at the bottom of the power system. They’d certainly face lots of obstacles on their journey.
Who knows about magic?
Secrecy is a common trope in fantasy stories taking place in the real world. The wizards of Harry Potter exist under the noses of muggles, the demigods of Percy Jackson operate from the shadows thanks to the Mist, and so on. If there’s a group of people who cannot know about the existence of magic, what are the magicians doing to keep it under wraps?
What’s more, what happens if a non-magical person finds out the truth? What lengths will a sorcerer go to in order to preserve their secrets? These can create interesting dilemmas and character conflicts.
What is the source of magic?
Related to the question of who, the font of magic will really define your magical world. Perhaps people draw out a latent magic within them. Other times, a magician will call upon some outer source, like the Force in Star Wars (yeah this is technically scifi, but it’s got some heavy fantasy elements).
Once you determine the source, you should try and figure out what it takes to master the magic. Does magic require years of study? Are some people naturally gifted and require minimal training? How does a person learn new spells or expand their knowledge?
What can magic do? What can’t it do?
These questions should help you find the limitations and boundaries. Magic defies the laws of nature, but to what extent? You can have magic create entire dimensions, or simply pull a rabbit out of a hat. Ask yourself: what’s the most powerful spell or magical feat a person could perform in your world? In addition, you can have different veins of magic: charms, enchantments, curses, and so on. How do you define each type of magic in your world; what differentiates each school?
Determining the limitations might be even more important. You still want your characters to face challenges, so restricting some of the magic can generate obstacles for them to overcome. Even limiting the amount of spells a mage can cast in a day forces the characters to be economic about their magic.
Is there a cost to magic?
Adding a cost adds a limitation. In the literal sense, this means spending money before even starting to learn magic. If your character needs a wand and spell components, they must collect them prior to casting spells. However, you could also adopt the approach that every spell cast has a cost. For example, if you cast a conjuration spell, perhaps something of equal value disappears.
Ethics and morality play a role as well. Maybe your protagonist holds the power to resurrect a loved one, but they must sacrifice someone else in the process. Or, there’s the classic pact: earning a magical favor at the cost of a firstborn child or equivalent item. You can craft a variety of ethical dilemmas with magic. This forces your characters to confront just how far they’ll go to achieve their goals.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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