Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Let’s talk about magic.
Many of us disappear into novels because we want to be taken someplace new. For some of us, that might be Papa New Guinea in the 1920s, for others, we need something more extravagant. We need new worlds; we need magic. The trick is to create a magic system that is compelling, logical (to an extent!), and well executed. No small task. But here’s a couple of rules—not the hard and fast kind, the soft and slow kind—that might help.
1. Know how the magic works
Much of writing a novel is like an iceberg. Just go with me. Most likely you know a whole lot more about your characters than you reveal in your novel. There’s a backstory, a childhood, a history beneath the surface that informs the small bit of character that we do see.
Well, the same is true for magic systems. Whether or not you explain in detail how the magic in your world works, it’s safe to say that it is beneficial if you, as the author, know its ins and outs. This will help you keep continuity in your story and prevent contradiction when using your magic (in the story—not real life—put your wands down).
2. Use it right
Now to put the magic into practice. I talk about this a bit in my blog on world-building. The idea is, and it’s simple: if the magic doesn’t do anything to further character or plot, it’s not worth including in your novel.If magic doesn’t further character or plot, it’s not worth including in your novel.Click To Tweet
What this means is, the most compelling systems of magic are intricately tied to character, conflict, or are used to move the story forward in one way or another. So if your character is a werewolf, then you need to show, for example, how he struggles with being a werewolf, how he can’t get close to anyone because he’s a werewolf, or how he’s trying to find a cure for his condition. He can’t just be a werewolf because werewolfs are cool. When deciding if your magic is worth including, ask yourself these four questions.
- Does the magic affect your character on an emotional level?
- Does the magic cause conflict?
- Would the story be the same without the magic?
- Would the characters be the same without the magic?
If your magic doesn’t make a difference to the story or the characters, then I’m afraid it needs to be burned away in the fires of editing. If you want to take this a step further—brace yourself, this isn’t fun—then even if the answer is “yes it influences character” and “yes it moves the plot forward,” ask yourself how much. And be ruthless. It may very well be that while the magic does serve a purpose, it doesn’t serve enough of a purpose. You’ve heard the advice that if you can do anything else other than write, then do it, writing is an arduous process full of failure and sweat. Well, the same might be true for working with magic, if your story can have the same impact without magic, you might want to give that a try first.
3. Know your audience
I’m not a big proponent of writing to a specific audience, or letting your targeted audience change the way you write something. I think you need to write the best book you can and go from there. However, knowing the style of novel you want to write and knowing whether or not you’re writing an adult novel, a young adult novel, or a middle grade novel can help you when creating and explaining (or not explaining) your magic.
Middle Grade – Young Adult
When writing for kids, you might not need as much of an explanation for your magic system. Kids have an extraordinary aptitude for imagination and probably aren’t too jaded to follow you into magical worlds. But don’t let that fool you, kids are smart, they can handle a lot, so you still have to be consistent with how you use your magic, and you still have to deliver it in a compelling way.
Alternatively, if you want to be clear about how the magic works by providing rules, specific guidelines, etc., just be careful to not make things too complicated. If kids have to remember a list of rules or if rules contradict each other, forget it. Kids will get bored of trying to figure it all out. For that matter, so will adults!
When reviewing the novel The Magicians, the New York Times compared it to going to a rave in your 40s: “Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?” And therein lies the problem of writing fantasy for an adult audience. There’s a stigma that adults are too old for a little magic.There’s a stigma that adults are too old for a little magic in writing. Do you agree?Click To Tweet
Let’s separate the adult audience into two categories: 1.) adult readers that have trouble buying in to a story with magic, and 2.) adult readers that are fans of the fantasy genre. The first group of people are hard to win over and will most likely need a magic system that is subtle. They’re going to want a story that first explores character with maybe a touch of magic in the background, or perhaps magic that is used simply to reveal character. If your story straddles that line between literary and fantasy, you might be able to capture this audience.
The second group of readers, believe it or not, may be just as hard to win over. These avid fantasy fans have most likely been reading fantasy for a long time and won’t be impressed with the same magic system they’ve seen time and time again. To satisfy this audience, you need either a magic system that is—at least somewhat—new, a magic system that is executed in new ways, or characters and a story so good that they won’t mind a type of magic that they’ve seen before.
4. Know what you want to reveal
If we go back to the first rule, and we pretend that the magic system is an iceberg, the question is, how much do you leave above the surface? This is entirely up to you, and can be done in different ways depending on the magic. Different types of magic are more conducive to being vague than others.
For example, in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, the magic is deeply rooted in a type of science and therefore benefits from a detailed explanation. On the other hand, in novels like The Lord of the Rings, the magic is embedded into the world and is left unexplained in order to add to the mystery and implied history of middle earth (why does the ring make people disappear?). And then there’s the middle ground. In Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, we know that magicians use magic through spells and extensive study, yet how exactly these spells work is, in part, somewhat enigmatic. Depending on the type of magic you use in your book, how much you reveal can be significant for the type of feel you’re going for—whether it’s an intricate system of hard and fast rules, or a mysterious power no one knows much about. Either way, having a plan of what you want to reveal before going in will help you develop your style.
5. In the end, write your story
Overall, these are excellent things to think about when writing fantasy. Coming into your novel with a game plan for what you want your magic to look like and do can help you get started. However, as I said before, these rules are not laws by any means. Sometimes, the best way to figure out your magic system, your audience, and the size and shape of your iceberg is to simply start writing.
I’d love to hear about the different types of magic systems you’ve encountered in both your writing and your reading. What has worked? What hasn’t worked?Writing Fantasy Fiction: How To Make The Magic WorkClick To Tweet