Magic is a wonderous force that is used in nearly every Fantasy book out there. It can exist in any way, shape, or form because magic is anything without a scientific explanation—even science can be magic if we don’t understand how it works yet.
This seems like a big topic, so I’ll try my best to break it down into sections, discussing how I’ve seen magic being used in books I’ve read, different kinds of magic systems and how they work, and the importance of consistency. This is the third part of my “In Fiction” series. If you want to read about Vampires in Fiction, click here, and if you want to read about Werewolves in Fiction, click here.
I won’t name any specific books because then we’d be here all day, but I’m sure you can come up with some examples yourself. Here is a link to a Screenrant article listing a few. Any book involving an element of something that we can’t explain is considered magic. This means spells, talking animals, enchantments, and more. And for every book that introduces a magic system, it can be one of two types: hard magic or soft magic. These terms were originally coined by Brandon Sanderson and are widely used by writers today.
A Hard Magic System
This kind of system has steadfast rules to which all magic abides. In any given scenario, a reader should be able to predict what kind of magic needs to be used to solve a problem because this magic is easy to understand and follow along with. The reason rules are important is because magic is important to the plot. The protagonist needs to use magic in some way to defeat the antagonist, and thus magic needs to make that possible without being completely overdone. If the protagonist can just wish away all their problems, there is no story.
An easy and reliable way to include these “hard rules” is for the protagonist not to know any magic at the beginning of their journey. That way, if they don’t know certain spells or practices, they’ll have to improvise. That way, it’s the character’s ingenuity that becomes their true power.
- Magic works in a very specific way, like science or math.
- The magic is very important in moving the plot forward; it helps the protagonists.
- Magic has set limitations that cannot be overcome.
- The reader is able to understand the rules of magic depending on the information provided by the writer; most often the reader has the same level of understanding as the protagonist.
A popular set of limitations for magic involving witches, wizards, or mages, is that they may be born or acquire magic energy, they must learn spells (either incantations or otherwise), they most often need some sort of conduit like a wand or staff, and it takes certain concentration or willpower to make spells work.
With a hard magic system, consistency is of the utmost importance! I probably don’t have to tell you how confusing it would be to a reader to hear that one spell does one thing, and then later is does another, or if a magic creature is given two conflicting power sets, or if sometimes there are limitations to magic, and other times there are not.
A lack of consistency—or a disregard for the magical rules—is mostly a problem in the case of plot-related issues. When something ignores the rules for plot convenience, readers tend to notice. A protagonist is not strong enough to defeat their overpowered enemy? Here comes the power of friendship!
For a story to be enticing and satisfying to a reader, it needs to be consistent all the way through so they can follow along and become immersed.
A Soft Magic System
Oftentimes, a soft magic system will be working against the protagonist. As you may be able to guess, these systems do not have set rules, and magic flows more along an arbitrary line.
Another big thing about soft magic is that it’s not necessary for the plot. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf, of course, can use magic, but as the protagonists must complete most of their journey without his help, the reader never learns exactly what he can and can’t do with it.
- Magic adds an element of wonder to the story.
- The protagonist and/or the reader does not understand the rules of magic.
- The plot moves forward with or without magic; generally, magic creates problems rather than solving them.
More commonly, soft magic is used by the antagonist. Immense power with unknown limits makes for a dangerous opponent and an exciting story. With this, the author must be careful that they don’t make the antagonist too powerful; there must be a way for the protagonist to still defeat them.
With soft magic, consistency is less important. It’s still vital that the magic still doesn’t contradict itself in a way that’s distracting to the reader, but overall, there is more freedom in what it can do.
How to Keep Magic Rules Consistent
Whether you’re using a hard system or a soft system, it’s hard to keep the rules straight. A separate document for Magic Rules is a helpful tool that every author should make use of. It can be used to keep track of different spells or verses of magic being used. A timeline of the protagonist’s skills throughout the story is also useful, but not as necessary.
For a world that uses words as magic, an author may even create their own language, or use translations to create their spells. Whether a spell is a single word or a whole phrase—if they are important—they should reappear often so as to help the reader learn them. An author should never skip over magical training if they want the reader to know what’s going on. That is to say, they also shouldn’t be drilled into the reader’s head just for the sake of teaching them new words. In Harry Potter, spells like ‘Wingardium Leviosa’, ‘Accio’, and ‘Expelliarmus’ are memorable not because they were recited over and over, but because the scenes in which they were used were memorable or had other uses. Any fan of the series will never forget Hermione’s snobby attitude in Charms class, or Snape’s snide remark against Lockhart after embarrassing him in front of the students. If a reader is bombarded with dozens of spells in a single book, they’re not likely to remember them, even if there’s a guide at the back of the book.
Likewise, with magic that relies more on chemistry or law or even pictograms, the same rules apply. Keep things in order.
For more tips on creating your very own magic system, visit How to Create a Magic System in Six Simple Steps on well-storied.com, 7 Ways To Create A Spectacular Magic System For Your Novel on writerswrite, and How to Build an Amazing Magic System for Your Fantasy Novel on prowritingaid.
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