To continue on yesterday’s theme of worldbuilding and fantasy, I thought it would be appropriate to talk a little about magic. Or Magick as the kids like to spell it sometimes. But whichever way you prefer to label your spells, it’s pretty much a given that you’ll be including them in your fantasy novel.
Spellcasting in fiction is one of those things that writers may often take for granted and just throw into their story without any real thought. Much like some of the other elements in fantasy, so much of it is derived from Tolkien’s work or Dungeons & Dragons (and similar RPGs).
Sometimes that works. Having elves do minor healing spells, wizards launching fireballs, and clerics turning undead are easy plot devices, but other times you’re going to need more. If magic plays a central role in your novel and your world is built around it, it just might be in your best interest to create your own magic system, other than rip of the existing ones.
But whatever choice you make, here are a few things you should consider about the magic system you use in your novel.
Where do you get your magic?
You can’t just have everyone show up using magic. I mean, I guess you could, but if you’re writing a longer novel or a series, at some point you’re going to have to explain the source of the magic in your world.
From the environment
As a fan of Magic: The Gathering since 1994 (and do I ever wish I still had the cards from back then) I’ve always been fond of that idea of “tapping” the energies from nature and somehow using them to cast spells (or summon monsters.)
This opens up the elemental possibilities too. Water spells, earth spells, fire spells, and wind spells, and the conflicts between them.
From a mystical item
A trope, sure, but it’s still a valid source of magic to include in your novel. A character finds a magic sword, a cryptic book, a ring of invisibility, a lucky coin, etc. This is especially effective if you want to keep magic use to a minimum, or are writing in a more modern setting where magic use is not prevalent to the majority of society.
Is ESP a type of magic? Good question, as it could be a natural and mostly unknown part of natural phenomena, or it could be a supernatural ability that few have been able to acquire. If it exists at all. But in the context of your world, telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance and all the rest could be as natural as the other five senses.
From “magic words”
Abracadabra isn’t just a bad song by Steve Miller. It’s also a mystical word dating at least as far back as the third century. And while it certainly sounds silly to use today, the idea of using sounds and phrases to cast spells isn’t. At least not in the context of fiction.
From a god or goddess
This is a pretty simple one. You have a priest, priestess, or cleric in your novel. They pray to their gods and if the gods are in a good mood (or if whatever requirements you set are met) the spell is cast. In traditional RPGs, clerics are usually masters of healing spells and taking out the undead.
Who can use it?
Does everyone have a little bit of magic in them? Or is it just a select few? Is it something anyone can “learn” or a skill set that only certain characters are born with? Is it hereditary? Is it random? It helps to think this out in advance.
If you only have one wizard in your novel, you may want be able to explain why he’s the only one. And if your answer is the same as mine would have been a few years ago (“I only had one wizard in my party in Ultima III“) then you might need to put a little more thought into it.
What are the consequences?
This may be the most important question to ask yourself. If there are no “consequences” or a price to pay for using magic, then the result is infinite power or mass destruction. Say you can shoot fire out of your fingertips without limits. Eventually you rule the world. Now say everyone can shoot fire out of their fingertips. Sooner or later a fight breaks out and the whole thing burns down.
There are all sorts of consequences for using magic in mainstream fantasy already. The typical RPG might use a gimmick like magic points that are spent with a spell, and replenish over time or with rest.
But there are a few other easy ones out there. Perhaps the using the magic ages the spellcaster. Or causes physical harm if overused. Or simply tires him out and he has to “rest up” before using magic again. Or you could say that a person or magical object has a certain number of “charges” that can spent and then the magic runs out, either temporarily or permanently.
Be as creative as you see fit, but make sure you do this, otherwise you’ll end up with an invincible magic user and a story full of holes.
That will do it for this post. Incorporating magic in your novel can be one of the most challenging parts of writing it, but it can also be one of the most interesting.
So have fun doing it, keep it “real”, and if you’ve got anything you’d like to add about magic in fantasy (or in gaming) feel free to leave a note in the comments section.