Spellbind Your Readers With Realistic Magic

As an avid, diehard, nerdtastic reader of the fantasy genre, I was super excited to hear about Tal Valante’s post for today. Magic should be easy to write, cuz you can just make up whatever you want, right? Ugh. This is a huge problem with many fantasy stories. For magic to make sense, even in a make-believe world, it has to have rules. To that end, Tal’s come up with some great tips on how to use magic in a way that readers will buy into.

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Hang on, realistic magic? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Not in my book, nor in the books of many good fantasy writers.

You see, the first time I wrote a magical character, I was tempted by the boundless options of magic. With just a few keystrokes, my warlock could levitate elephants or turn raindrops to quicksilver (whatever the use of that is). At first, I was elated. I could do anything.

But then I realized my warlock could click his fingers and turn his Arch Enemy into a dog-chewed slipper. End story.

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Credit: Hartwig HKD at Creative Commons

Okay, so obviously magic needs some limitations, otherwise it all becomes too easy. But what kind of limitations? The trick answer is this: the more interesting (and intuitive!) your limitations, the more interesting your story would be.

For a wide range of suggestions, let’s turn to physics. No wait, don’t run away. I promise it won’t be painful. 🙂 Let’s see how three principles can affect our magical choices.

Conservation of Mass

Without getting into complicated details, this principle says you can’t make things stop existing, and you can’t create things out of nothing. The first part might sound familiar to you. It’s the single limitation on magic that David Eddings enforced in his bestselling Belgariad series.


The second part is often disregarded by magicians, who wish things into existence left and right. Keep in mind that creating stuff from nothing is a huge power, verging on omnipotence. If my warlock can create a loaf of bread, what’s stopping him from creating a god-slaying sword and finishing off his arch enemy?

There’s No Such Thing as Endless Energy

Mortals, at least, are finite creatures with finite energy. That can go for magic, too. A limitless supply of magic gets just as boring as all-powerful magic.

Draining your magic-maker’s supply is simple enough: every act of magic can do it. But what kind of side-effects does that draining have? When we expand physical power, we eventually become tired and sore. What about magical power? How does that cost our magic-makers?

And what about renewing this supply? Does it happen naturally with food and rest? Does it require, like in Brent Week’s Night Angel Trilogy, absorbing sunlight and its like? Can it be renewed at all?

Each answer will shape your fantasy world in a different and interesting way, especially if you think it through to all possible consequences.

Chaos and Order

One of the basic principles of physics is that chaos is the natural state of things. Every form of order, from materials to nations, takes energy to maintain. Without a constant input of energy, it will decay toward chaos.

It’s really like your kid’s room. Unless you put in a tremendous amount of work (energy) all the time, it becomes a hopeless mess. The same can be true for magic. Magic can wear off… and the more complex a magic feat is, the more power it would take to maintain it.

Suppose my heroes are exploring a mine, when suddenly the ceiling collapses. Bam! My warlock conjures a pillar of pure power that holds up the falling roof. Is that pillar there forever? According to the principle of chaos, it only exists while an input of energy is keeping it there. In this case, the input is my warlock’s magic power. And because energy is finite, he can only hold it there for that long… Voila, instant tension!

Recap

We’ve seen how magic would be more realistic and compelling if kept within certain limits. From the three principles above we’ve learned that magic should have its cost and its limits, and that we can treat it like any kind of energy.

This is just the beginning. By giving your magic well-thought-out and consistent limits, you can make your fantasy story rich and vivid. Look to the ordinary world, and extrapolate like we’ve done with the three principles above.

What are your magic tricks? How do you construct magic in your fantasy worlds? Share in the comments below!

Me

 

Tal Valante is an editor, writer, and blogger at The Writing Addict. Visit her blog for some pro writing tips and tricks, and don’t forget to download her bonus article on writing fresh fiction.

 

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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23 Responses to Spellbind Your Readers With Realistic Magic

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  5. :Donna Marie says:

    I definitely agree with the perspective of limitations. No question it’s where things feel more “real” and it feeds tension. I’m a bit confused by chaos being the “natural state of things” though. The way the universe operates, thinking of our solar system specifically, there is order in order for it to operate. Cause and effect, no?

    • Tal Valante says:

      It does sound confusing (and a bit alarming!), but think of it this way: if the sun wasn’t there to capture the planets and hold them in orbit, they would each spiral away into space. So it’s the sun’s mass that organizes our solar system. And since mass is equivalent to energy, that’s energy being put to use to organize things. Does that make sense?

  6. Great post! I’ve been thinking about limitations on magic for my one novel, but haven’t come up with anything satisfactory yet. Fortunately, that project is currently sitting on one of many back burners. I’ll have to refer to this post in the future!

    • Tal Valante says:

      Hello Beth! Yes, finding interesting and logical boundaries for magic is hard work, but it rewards you so richly. Glad to contribute to your back burners 🙂

  7. Tamara Meyers says:

    What a wonderful article. I write historical fiction, not much magic there, but I do enjoy a well written fantasy.

    I guess I’ve never given much thought to the limits magic must reside within, however, while reading your post I found the logic of such restrictions fascinating. Thank you for the reminder that every genre has boundaries that keep even the most farfetched tale ‘real’.

    • Tal Valante says:

      Thank you, Tamara!

      I think the more thought you put into such boundaries, the more interesting your story becomes. There are so many fascinating choices to make! And that’s probably true for every genre.

  8. Lilly says:

    Love the physics angle on this. Stressing the limits of magic makes it so much easier for us mortal readers to identify with creatures who, despite all their coolness, still have things to worry about.

  9. How refreshing to read this. Any fantasy writer who fails to build-in limitations should be banished to the world they created. How sad that those who fail to do so don’t realize that the true magic, the greatest storytelling reward, is in the limitations. You talk about the tension that’s created and you couldn’t be more correct. I have an entire notebook that details how each magic operates (the source, what’s required, etc.) along with the limitations to each and (most important) the limitations that apply to all.

  10. Sara L. says:

    Yes, yes, yes! All of these tips are fantastic, Tal. Limitations are crucial to a believable magic system. Otherwise, your characters are able to do whatever they want. This was something I tried to keep in mind as I drafted my fantasy novel. I decided what my MC’s magic could and could NOT do, just so she wouldn’t be all-powerful.

    Good point about the affects magics can have on its users. I’ve read quite a few fantasy novels that don’t address a caster’s limited energy, and am often wondering why or how the authors overlooked it. So I’ve made a point to include it in my novel’s system as well.

    • Tal Valante says:

      Hi Sara, thanks for reading!

      As they say, power corrupts, and absolute power absolutely messes up your book, unless it’s the enemy that has it and then it could be interesting 🙂

  11. Kessie says:

    Oh boy, good article! I’ve got two different universes with two different kinds of magic. The first is traditional magic–it’s sourced inside you, and you can only work so many spells before magic exhaustion sets in, and you get all weak and shaky.

    The other series, though (book 1 due out in June), the magic is life and death based. The magic users slide the magic up and down the scale, and push and pull magic like the tide to accomplish things. Set against them are the Marchers, who patrol a route which becomes a magical barrier against death magic. This is great in theory, except that my hero is infused with death magic, and my heroine with life. This automatically puts them on opposite sides.

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