Building a Marvelous Magic System is just like any other part of writing fiction: Done correctly, it makes the world come alive, ignites the reader’s imagination, and is completely unique. Done poorly or carelessly, magic can cause more harm than good. This is true for most elements of a story, but magic is different in one important way.
There isn’t much guidance on how to do it well. At least, not until now.
Time to drop your cerebral firewalls and prepare for guidance; I’m here to help.
[Queue maniacal laughter]
You Have Accomplished Much
I’m sure you understand the importance of planning your magic and have committed yourself to the time and energy needed to make this all work.
Turns out bashing your head against a computer screen can yield positive results. By now you should have a giant list of ideas for your magic. If not, fear not. Future me shall return to help guide you through the process (future me fixes everything*). Now it’s time to see which parts need to be stripped away and which need to be explored further. Yup, we’re aligning your system.
*Not to past-me: I do the best I can, but you always make me do things at the last possible second. Dick move, Past-me. Dick move.
But, Align It with What?
An excellent question, voice in my head. This stage is all about exploring what your magic needs to be. Some parts won’t make the cut and others will need further development. You just need an appropriate measuring stick to see which is which. And that brings me to my first lesson on aligning your system.
You need a story!
I’ll give you a moment for that to sink it. It’s heavy shit, I know but— You’ve got it already? Oh… alright then.
In order to complete Stage 2, you need to have a story, game, or piece of interactive puppet theatre to check it against. Fortunately, it really doesn’t matter how well developed this idea is. Alignment works whether you have the barest wisp of an idea, a complete outline, or even a completed story that you want to make more better.
It really depends on how integrated your magic needs to be. Personally, I prefer to develop them at the same time to achieve maximum unity between the two. It’s like on Valentine’s Day when you buy that… you know what, never mind.
You can manage this any way you want, but flexibility will be required. The state of your story will determine how much of that flexibility comes at the cost of your magic. Magic affects story and story affects magic. The less you are willing to sacrifice and change one, the more you will have to change on the other. Just something to consider as we get prepped for aligning your system.
Components of a Story
The real work in Stage 2 comes from looking at the core components of your story and exploring how they interact, relate to, and shape your magic. These components are an essential part of every story and odds are good that you already know them: Character/Plot/Setting/Theme/Genre
Let’s take a closer look at each of these and see how they connect with the magic.
I’m not going to say you can’t have a story without characters; the theory of infinite dimensions says it’s happened somewhere. But it’s safe to say that isn’t very common.
Whatever system you end up with, it is going to mean more to your characters than just a way to incinerate their enemies. Magic is another way to define, describe, and differentiate one character from the next. Granted, this shouldn’t be the only way you do it, but it’s another option.
Beyond that, it can become a focal point for the characters personality, a drive for their struggles through their plot, or a goal they pursue at the cost of all else. Magic can be the cause of their tragic past, define their fears, or even reveal the truth they’ve been searching for all along.
The existence and use of magic can become the center of who they are and what they stand for like in The Dresden Files or Harry Potter. It can also be a source of conflict the characters rally against like David Charleston in The Reckoners.
What kind of characters do you want in your story? Can you use the magic to shape them? What does the magic need to do or be to make your characters come alive?
I’m not going to say your story has to have a plot. Hell, I’ve read published books without any semblance of one. I will argue, however, that good stories need good plots.
If you’re going to have a plot and magic, then they must affect one another. Seriously, this isn’t negotiable. If the magic doesn’t alter the plot in some way, if only through the other four components, then it shouldn’t be there!
Seriously, don’t fight me on this! Besides, it’s dead easy to manage.
Just aligning your system with the characters should illuminate the possibilities: The magic can be the center of the plot like in Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. It can be a driving force while remaining a great distance from the main characters as in Lord of the Rings. It can even be like The Iron Druid Chronicles where certain portions of the magic are purely tangential elements creating problems and solutions while others take the limelight.
If you’ve got a specific plot element or twist in your head, examine how your magic can make it so. Just be careful; magic can create plot holes as easily as it can fill them
Change one thing and it changes everything. This is a powerful tenant of worldbuilding; let’s face it, magic is one really big thing.
There are certain variables that alter just how much the magic will affect your world, but it will happen. Your world will be changed, one way or another. The trick is to make sure you understand how and tweak things to get exactly the changes you want.
If you want a setting filled with the dark foreboding and state of fear so well developed in Uprooted by Naomi Novik, you can do that. Or the magic can become a cornerstone of the culture, language, and technology like in The Alloy of Law. Or, if you’d rather, you can take a leaf from Mary Robinette Kowal’s book Ghost Talkers where the magic was critical to the local setting but didn’t alter the course of history.
What’s most important is making sure the magic is appropriate. Sand magic in a desert is perfect but plant magic not so much… unless, of course, you make it work anyway. Just make sure you consider it.
Depending on who you ask theme is the vital ingredient that pulls readers into your story time and time again. Don’t let misalignment between your magic and your theme ruin things.
Awareness is key. Just like with characters and setting, the magic can be used to meld with the theme, giving it more power and gravitas. Or it can be made to reflect the message, thereby highlighting it and increasing it’s power even further.
In my own novel Small Changes; Bloody Choices, the magic becomes the perfect metaphor for the character’s struggles and growth. In the end, her control and acceptance of the magic reflect a new control and acceptance of herself.
Even in just the first novel, The Wheel of Time uses the magic to provide a counterpoint to the character’s strengths while driving home the theme in a variety of ways.
Take some time and think about your theme. Does your magic support or contradict the theme in any way? Can you make the relationship stronger? What facets of each tie together the best?
This brings us to the topic of Genre. I saved this for last because it carries a bit of contention with it. There is the “Genre” whose exclusive purpose is to decide where a book goes in the bookstore, and then there is “Elemental Genre” which identifies the core nature of your story.
Full disclosure: this isn’t my creation. I was introduced to the concept in the eleventh season of Writing Excuses. They did an entire year on the topic, breaking everything down each genre into their purpose, tropes and uses as the main and sub-genre. Their list of elemental genres includes: Wonder / Idea / Adventure / Horror / Mystery / Thriller / Humor / Relationship / Drama / Issue / Ensemble
If you can identify the genres of your story (hint: there’s likely more than one), you can learn a lot about what your magic needs to be. Certain genres carry inherent promises and tropes. By aligning your system will make sure your magic supports your chosen genres.
We will talk about this more in the future; for now, take a look at the genres you choose and explore how the magic can enhance your favorite aspects of each.
But Wait; There’s More
Those are your traditional five story components. I know it’s a lot of information to take in all at once, but there’s just one more thing we’ve got to talk about.
There is, in fact, a sixth component to your story.
Component #6: The Magic
This really shouldn’t be too surprising. I mean, what do I always bring it back to?
This comes from your decision to include magic in your story. Or specifically, from your decision to include good magic in your story. Getting everything right will involve looking at the heart of your magic, how it functions as a whole, and just how well it aligns with itself.
That might sound stupid, but it’s a common problem.
You spend so much time coming up with all these great ideas, you don’t always want to let them go. Sure that one piece doesn’t fit real well with everything else, but it’s cool right? Well, it can cause serious damage and disrupt the entire system.
Hey, I’m not judging. I’ve done this my own self. The point is, your magic must receive the same scrutiny as everything else. The other five components affect the magic as surely as the magic affects them.
There are several different types of magic systems, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. At some point, not necessarily now, you will need to know exactly what kind of system you want.
Do you want a hard or soft magic system? Will it be rational or irrational? Is it more primal or more intellectual? Will your magic grow or will it remain static throughout the story?
All things to consider while aligning your system with itself. I’m aware how confusing this can be; I’m still figuring things out. My best recommendation is to trust your gut. If things get too tough, don’t sweat it and move on to Stage 3: Defining Your System.
Summary of Aligning Your Magic
Aligning your system is an important step that many authors skip. Sure, you can skip it too, but your magic will be weaker because of it. It is vital to make sure your magic works smoothly with all six components of your story.
- Elemental Genre
You’re Ready for Stage 3
Assuming you don’t have any gut-wrenching feelings that something is wrong, that is. Even if you do, there’s nothing wrong with moving on. Anything you miss will be resolved in the fourth and final stage of building marvelous magic. Find what works for you, as long as you aren’t afraid of putting in the work.
Is anything unclear?
There’s still a long road ahead of you, but I plan on staying by your side for every step of the journey. Teaching something like this isn’t easy and requires lots of communication.
Is anything unclear? Are you having a completely different problem with your magic? Do you need help hiding the body of your last proofreader? Just let me know. Helping you is the entire reason I started this blog.
I’ll see you again in two weeks. Rowenson, out.