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What do I have to consider when creating/inventing magic and magical elements for a fantasy novel?

Are there do's and don'ts? How much do I have to explain to the reader?

Just because I decide as a writer that a certain characters power is stronger compared to others, is there an explanation needed as to why he is stronger? Why does some guy have magical ability and the other guy doesn’t?

How detailed/complex should it be?

  • Hi, and welcome to Writers. I think this question is better suited to WorldBuilding SE, and I've asked the mods to migrate it there. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Apr 3 '17 at 14:55
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    I think the question is more about writing than worldbuilding, it dies state "for a fantasy novel". – Lew Apr 3 '17 at 15:07
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    @LaurenIpsum, that was my first thought too, But actually, this is a question about the role of magic in a novel. For comparison, someone could ask about the role of clothing or food in a novel and we would not send them the Worldbuilding. It is a literary question. It belongs here. – user16226 Apr 3 '17 at 15:10
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    @LaurenIpsum this question would be closed as too broad on Worldbuilding. (It feels too broad here too, but I'm not sure enough to unilaterally put it on hold.) HvG, could you edit your question to say more about your goals? How detailed you should be about your magic system could vary pretty widely depending on whether you're writing YA fantasy, "hard fantasy", etc, and also on how central the magic system is to your story. For example, in Wizard's Bane the magic system is integral to the plot; in LotR it's enough to show a great wizard working magical feats. – Monica Cellio Apr 3 '17 at 21:51
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    @LaurenIpsum Thank You for mentioning the WorldBuilding SE I did not know it existed. – HvG Apr 4 '17 at 11:20
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I highly suggest that you watch Brandon Sanderson's lecture exactly on that topic given at BYU. Someone also linked his blog if you want to read further. I'll try to summarize it from memory. It's basically 3 + 0 rules:

  1. The more the reader understands your magic system, the more you can use it for satisfying problem solving:

    This is basically proper foreshadowing. If you left it ambiguous and use it to resolve the main conflict, it's just Deus ex machina. If you explain the boundaries well beforehand and have the characters use it as a tool in different situations, every instance looks canny. Even more so for important plot points.

    That is not to say you should always explain your magic in depth. For example, you can have a shiny new wizard save the protagonist from trouble early in your story. What it does is introduce a character, establish him as a badass and expand what is possible in the universe.

    In short:

    • Scarcely explained magic can be used to create a sense of wonder and excitement.
    • Thoroughly explained magic can be used to solve problems in a way that the reader will perceive as clever/well thought out.
  2. Flaws and limitations are more interesting than powers:

    A tool that can solve every problem negates any conflict. Stories revolve around obstacles that are hard to overcome.

    Also it's easier to make your magic mechanics look unique by placing some limitations on them, rather than think of completely new powers no one has used before. Mind control is generic and overdone. Mind control that can only be performed by the priests of a given god on followers of that faith that broke their oath can be interesting and reality immersing. Additionally, consider adding some sort of cost to your magic in addition to hard boundaries.

  3. Go deeper, not wider:

    Your tale is not a wizard's text book. There is a limit beyond which it becomes an info dump of ideas in your head, rather than a story. And as per the first rule, you better explore the sorcery you will resolve conflicts with deep enough.

    In addition, it reduces the possibility for accidental plot holes.

  4. Make it awesome:

    Pretty self explanatory. If you are writing an epic fantasy series, it helps if the protagonist's power isn't to be invisible when no one is looking. Though you can totally go that route if you are writing a comedy.

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    Good point. Sanderson's magic systems are ones of the most complex, yet logical among those I have come across in the genre. – Lew Apr 6 '17 at 16:39
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There are two basic uses of magic in literature. One is as a catalyst for a cautionary tale on the dangers of power. Examples of this include The Lord of The Rings and A Wizard of Earthsea. The former is a treatise on the nature of temptation, and the latter on the nature of pride.

The second use is to indulge the reader's fantasies of specialness. Power qua power is not really the point here. It is really all about claiming special status, a reason why the rules that apply to ordinary people do not apply to you, and having magical powers, particularly world saving magical powers, is an obvious source of specialness. Harry Potter is the preeminent example of this.

The latter is far easier to write, especially if you aim is to do a series. BTVS started out as more of a cautionary tale and became increasingly about wish fulfillment after season two.

The point of making this distinction is that the answer to your question depends on it. There is actually remarkably little use of magic in LOTR and none of it is explained. There is a little more in Wizard of Earthsea, and it seems to be vaguely of the knowing the secret names of things variety, but again it is not explained. The operations of magic are not the point in these stories, it is the moral challenge that they present to the characters that matters.

In the fantasy of specialness kind of story, however, the operation of magic seems to matter a great deal. That is because the almost inevitable progression of such stories involves a process of "learning to master your powers". (As soon as someone says "your powers" you know you are reading a wish-fulfillment fantasy.)

The culmination of the story in these works often depends on the correct manipulation of magic (as opposed to the mastery of your moral weakness in the cautionary tale) so again, the operation of magic matters.

These kinds of magical wish fulfillment stories are almost always written as coming of age stories, because they are essentially pandering to a childish wish to be special. How much the details of the magic matters is going to largely depend on how central it is to that coming of age.

In either type of story, the magic is a McGuffin. It does not matter in itself. It matters because it fulfills a function in the story, either as a source of temptation, pride, or danger in the cautionary tale, or as a sign of specialness in the fantasy of specialness. You need as much or as little magic, and that magic needs to be as vague or as specific as it needs to be to fulfil its role in your particular story.

  • So the whole fantasy genre can be packaged as either cautionary tale or a wish-fulfillment one? Where does Wheel of Time belong? – Lew Apr 3 '17 at 15:35
  • @Lew Never read it, but from the Wikipedia description it sounds like a typical fantasy of specialness (which of three youth is the "dragon reborn"). – user16226 Apr 3 '17 at 15:54
  • Never read the Wikipedia description :), but to me, WOT falls equally under both labels, for there is a severe penalty for using magic under certain circumstances. Same with Robin Hobb's world of Fitz and Fool, Sanderson's Steelheart and many others. – Lew Apr 3 '17 at 16:21
  • @Lew, it would not surprise me if there were elements of both. The cautionary tale is really hard to spin out to a series. Maintaining a series depends on maintaining either no development or very slow development of the characters. The cautionary tale usually results in the central characters growing up (or dying) at which point it is difficult to tell another story about them. But with a specialness fantasy you can just go on making them more and more special, making it much easier to create a series. So to continue from a successful cautionary tale you might have to switch to specialness. – user16226 Apr 4 '17 at 11:37
  • For pure argument sake (through the magic classification lens): "The cautionary tale is hard to spin into a series ... because the characters grow up or die". Unless it's Song of Ice and Fire, BKA Game of Thrones (clearly a cautionary tale magic-wise), where the characters die easily, but there are many to spare. "...a series depends on maintaining ... no ... or very slow development of the characters" Ofter true, but then the specialness magic does not apply, because, it is a story of development. What I am trying to say is that the two-kinds-of-magic classification does not apply... – Lew Apr 4 '17 at 13:14
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While some might not resist the temptation to immediately classify and categorize your magic system as though it is a real and already existing thing (which in fact you are only about to start developing), I will do my personal best to try.

Mr. Baker is absolutely correct then he says

...it matters because it fulfills a function in the story...

and I agree wholeheartedly. I'd go even further:

Anything you choose to put into your story has (or should have) a function.

Else it is not necessary and better be left out.

Whatever are your reasons to write your story in fantasy genre, I assume, that the choice is made and there is a dragon somewhere which needs slaying, or a unicorn waiting to be captured, or something else which required to put your characters in a secondary world (or augmented existing one) and arm them with magic, or the opposite–have to battle someone who has magic and does something bad with it. Or any combination of the above and then some.

The point is: if magic is not important for your story, it shouldn't be there. If it is, it better has rules and logic, just like any other element of your story.

Just like a rock-paper-scissor set of rules lets us play the game, there should be one developed for any element you invent, of there will be no game to play. The rules do not have to be detailed (or better yet, they can be as detailed or as simple as you wish them to be), but they have to be set.

One of the funnest parts of writing fantasy is that you do not have to explain magic, and that can let you get away with a lot of things, but, regardless of whether you explain the rules of your magic system to the reader, they have to be set, and you have to follow them.

If you just employ random magic to get out of a dire writing block, it will be immediately noted as cheating and will hurt your story.

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Here are some questions that you could use to prompt / guide you when inventing a magic system:

  1. Does magic exist?
  2. What constrains it?
  3. What can magic not do?
  4. Do people believe in one God, many or none?
  5. Do people make sacrifices to Gods?
  6. Do an elite control religion / magic or is it accessible to all?
  7. Are there any magical creatures? Describe them.
  8. To what extent is magic a learned skill or an innate talent?
  9. Is magic a specialist, elite skill or is it used easily by commoners?
  10. What is the price / cost of using magic?
  11. Do magicians need to meet any specific criteria? Be celibate? Go through a ritual?
  12. Does magic requires tools and props?
  13. How is one magician stronger than another?
  14. Can magic be combined to increase its strength?
  15. What defeats magic?
  16. Is magic admired / respected / feared / something else?
  17. Is any magic illegal?
  18. What is magic generally used for?
  19. What are magic temples like?

These questions are from the 'magic' section of a larger world building questionnaire that can be found here: https://www.novel-software.com/theultimateworldbuildingquestionnaire (full disclosure - the above is my site)

  • While that is an impressive list, it is a worldbuilding answer -- how to construct a magic system -- not a novel writing question -- the role of magic in the development of a story. – user16226 Apr 4 '17 at 11:27
  • It is also a shameless plug of a proprietary software. – Lew Apr 4 '17 at 13:02
  • @Lew the site hosting the article sells software, yes, but the article itself, from which this was excerpted with attribution (as required if you're going to quote something), doesn't seem particularly spammy. I skipped right past the product stuff without even noticing it until I came back, saw your comment, and looked again. – Monica Cellio Apr 5 '17 at 0:51
  • @MonicaCellio I'd say it's borderline. The user's handle is the site's domain. – Lew Apr 5 '17 at 1:43
  • @Lew oh, I missed that. But to be clear, relevant, disclosed self-promotion is ok on SE. TheNovelFactory, you should edit your final paragraph to say that's your site. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Apr 5 '17 at 1:53

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