“He will hear my call a mile away. He will whistle my favorite song. He can ride a pony backwards, he can flip pancakes in the air, he will be marvelously kind and his favorite shape will be a star. And he’ll have one green eye and one blue.”
“I thought you never wanted to fall in love.”
“That’s the point. The guy I dreamed up doesn’t exist. And if he doesn’t exist, I’ll never die of a broken heart.”
-excerpt from Practical Magic (1998)
Fantasy is virtually synonymous with magic, all the way from fireball wielding sorcerers to dragons to simple elemental manipulations. It is in our epic tales, slaying wicked villains, enabling bold heroes, creating social divides and protective wards alike. Given how varied in trait and definition “magic” can be, you’d be hard pressed to find a fantasy story that doesn’t touch on the mystical stuff, even if only to say that it used to be a prevalent force.
Writing magic is a lot like writing dragons – it tantalizes and entrances and stalwart fantasy readers love a good magically-enabled tale. And like writing dragons, it’s incredibly easy to mess up. Magic is not and should not be this… um, well… magical solution to everything that goes wrong in your plotline. It shouldn’t be an all powerful thing with no rules, no limitations and no price tags. It’s like everything else you write into your stories; it needs ground rules. They’re just ground rules you can write for yourself.
Consider these when you begin writing a magic-based story:
What are the basic ground rules for THIS system of magic?
This is the first thing you should always ask yourself. Consider questions like how integrated into society is magic going to be?; how powerful and varied is it going to be?; are there going to be deviant users?; is magic going to be part of another institution, maybe religion or government?
Who are the wielders?
You can determine this answer fairly easily in a broad sense. Is magic going to be accessible to even the most common and potentially untalented of people, or is it a discipline you need to either work your way through or be born into?
How is magic acquired/learned?
Speaking of who, go ahead and determine exactly how magic (or whatever you’ve decided to call it) is obtained. Some of the more typical options include magic being taught to a certain group of children, or magic being accessible through certain training and instinctive acquisition.
How is magic executed?
Does performing magic require the use of a scroll or certain words, or is it more impulsive, perhaps based on a user’s intent or emotions? Are multiple users needs for stronger spells, or is the more traditional witch working over a cauldron the way to go? Consider the use of tools vs the use of one’s physical body.
What are magic’s limitations?
Your magic users might be able to cast lightning bolts at a single thought, but the same magic that gives them such destructive power is unlikely to have enough finesse to work the lock on a door. Every system in nature has checks and counter-checks to it, and your magic system ought to work the same way.
What does magic cost?
In the same vein as limitations, you should consider the fact that magic is rarely free. Whether it’s only the price and time invested in getting ingredients for a spell or a part of one’s soul, there’s a natural give and take to magic. Like alchemy, you can’t get something for nothing. And if you think you have, it’s only that the cost will come due at a much higher rate.
What is magic’s history?
This is an important part of your worldbuilding. Regardless of whether you’re utilizing a natural or artificially made kind of magic, it’s no doubt evolved between the point of conception and your story. It’s important to know the ways magic has changed, especially recently, (and sometimes the ways people are anticipating it to change) because not every user is going to be on the same page in that timeline.
How long does magic last?
This is usually an easy question to answer, but magic duration is something you need to establish early on, both for the structure of your magical system and for smoothing along your plot. If you walk your readers through putting up a protection spell and throwing out an illusion in the heat of battle early on, they’ll have an understanding of similar workings later with minimal explanation from you.
What is magic’s social standing?
How is magic – and its wielders by extension – viewed by the non-users? Commonly used concepts are feared, respected, and hated, but you should go deeper than that. Why are social norms what they are, and what would need to happen for them to change? How does one city’s love of healing magic translate to the next city over, where they’ve just burned their last healer at the stake for failing to save a child from disease?
This is of course just a starting list; there are dozen more pieces to put together, though a lot of what you need to know about your magical system will come out as you’re writing. Try keeping a separate document handy for jotting down some of the ground rules and overall ideas for easy reference. The most important part of writing magic though? It’s the same as with writing in general: enjoy it!
Can you think of a story that utilized magic poorly? Why didn’t it work?