Greetings Storytellers. Diana here today to talk a little about magic as part of the craft of writing. And I’m not just talking about fantasy. Writers of speculative fiction—whether fantasy, paranormal, horror, superhero, science fiction, or religious fiction—are dealing with supernatural or hyper-scientific systems that stretch our reality and knowledge of the known.
Craig recently posted about “Suspension of Disbelief” and he shared this recommendation: “If you write in any of the speculative genres, don’t spend too much time selling the functionality. Describe things and paint a vivid picture for sure, but don’t go into how it works.”
I’m going to shift into a different direction, into Magic Systems. Suspension of disbelief still applies. We all we know that time travel doesn’t exist (at least not yet) and that there’s no such thing as dragons. We suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy those stories. But I’m also going to suggest that there are some basic guidelines that help writers create realities where magic feels natural and integrated into the speculative world.
Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) suggests that magic systems, regardless of the speculative genre, should be cohesive, logical and well-explained in order to immerse the reader. Readers don’t necessarily need the nuts and bolts of how it works, but lets just agree that a time machine functions like a time machine. It can’t turn into a zebra or vacuum the house. At least not without some cohesive and logical explanation.
Sanderson distinguishes between “soft magic” and “hard magic” and suggests that they lie on a continuum.
The far end of the soft magic continuum is full of “wonder” and has few rules. The magic users have mysterious abilities and can do whatever they wish with little limitation. Wizards and gods are good examples of characters that tend toward the soft magic extreme, though they will often be subject to some rules. Rarely is someone with soft magic a main character or they’d simply wave their wands through every obstacle.
Hard magic lies on the other end of the spectrum, and here is where the rules come into play. In this case, the magic becomes an integral plot device in the story. According to Sanderson, an author’s “ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way for the reader depends directly on how well the reader understands the magic.”
So what does the “hard” end of the magic system need for reader understanding?
Origin – What is the source of the magic? Where did it come from? If people have different powers, why? Magic isn’t entirely random, and it needs to make sense within a story’s context. It’s origin may be a piece of inherited jewelry, the bite of a radioactive spider, or the discovery of alien technology. Men and women may have different powers, or certain genetic lines may have more abilities than others. If only some fairies can fly, why?
Simplicity – Some of the best magical systems have very little complexity but a great deal of depth. Think about how “warp drive” impacted space travel in Star Trek. That one bit of hard magic had huge implications. A story’s magic users have to work to make the system fit their needs, as well as deal with its limitations and consequences.
Limitations – What exactly can the magic do and what can’t it do? Be specific. Perhaps it can turn the user invisible, but won’t allow him to walk through walls. Perhaps the car can fly, but only for short distances. A magic system without limitations is too easy. We want our protagonists to face obstacles.
Flaws/weaknesses – These are the holes in the magic. What is its foil? When doesn’t it work? Is there a cost to the user? Remember Superman’s kryptonite? I had a shapeshifter who ended up naked and unconscious every time he changed back into human form, one of many flaws he had to deal with.
Tools/Activators – What does the magic need to function? Does it need a special item, something ingested, an initiation, a mutation? Does the amulet need to be worn? Does the laser beam need to charge up before it can shot through space?
Early introduction – Establish the magic parameters early and foreshadow any change in abilities. Beware of adding a soft or hard magic solution just when it’s convenient (deus ex machina), especially near the end of the story!
Remember that when crafting a magic system, the limitations and flaws are usually more interesting than the strengths (no different than crafting interesting characters). What the system can’t do is more intriguing than what it can, and it’s the system’s deficiencies that create the challenges and obstacles for the characters.
The number of rules an author employs is what slides the magic system along the continuum. But that’s not the only way soft and hard magic can be blended. Some stories will use hard magic to drive the story (space travel), but add little elements of soft magic (alien telepathy) to increase the sense of wonder.
Magic is no small matter! It will have an impact on the world, nations, cultures, governments, and religions. It will impact power hierarchies, livelihood, family, self-esteem, danger, and destiny. Take some time to think about how the presence of magic impacts the overall world. The more your magic system is woven into your world-building, the more real it will feel to the reader.