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.
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.
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!
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!
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.