“You’ve got to have limitations for your magic system!”
Sound familiar? Even if you haven’t heard it from me a dozen times over, I’m sure you read in an article somewhere or heard it on a podcast or at a conference. It has become so common it’s nearly on the same level as “you’ve got to have engaging characters.”
Engaging characters are important, and the magic needs to be limited enough that your protagonist doesn’t become an unstoppable god. But actually doing that is never easy.
Fortunately, I’ve got something to help… with the magic, I mean. I can’t tell you how I write realistic characters because I’m fairly sure it’s illegal in most countries, but that’s not the point. The point is, I want to introduce you to sources you can tap to generate unique limitations for your magic system.
Let’s get started.
Source #1: Things Others Have Created
There are already hundreds of books, shows, movies, and games out there waiting for you. Every one of them brings something unique to the table that can apply to your own magic system in some form or another.
There is always a fine line between stealing an idea and being inspired by an idea. If the idea is common enough, you can likely toss it in changing nothing, but where’s the fun in that. Whether you do it to combat plagiarism or laziness, it’s far better to take the ideas you love and transform them into something new.
In those stories, the magic-users need to absorb or generate Stormlight to fuel their powers. Don’t just call it Starlight or Stormdust. Tweak the nature of the limitation. Maybe instead of Stormlight, your magic-users need to inhale pollen from a specific plant. This seems very similar on the surface, but tie that limitation back into a world of sentient plants and violent botanists illegally growing and harvesting the pollen, you have a new monster altogether.
Remember, creativity lies in combinations and distinction is in the details, so take your favorite limitation and twist it, tweak it, and recombine it into something that is truly unique.
Source #2: Reality
I spent my time in college training in the dark arts of chemistry and chemical engineering, so when I need solid limitations for my magic, reality is the first place I look. There are countless rules, theories, and limits that already exist in the world. Thermodynamics hasn’t let me down yet.
If science isn’t your bailiwick, that’s fine. Reality is brimming with rules and limitations you can use. Cultural taboos, legal restrictions, philosophy, or artistic theory can provide as many limitations for your magic system as any field of science. You just need to know how to look.
Pick something you know a lot about. The topic can be painting, dancing, or summoning horrors from the abyssal realms. Whatever area you pick, identify a few common theories, patterns, or rules of thumb and apply them to your magic.
You can now implement the rule directly, spin it around, or turn it upside down and inside out. It really doesn’t matter as long as you end up with something new.
Source #3: Overpowered Characters
Personally, this is my favorite source of limitations because, if you do it right, you solve two problems at once.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to harp on about how boring overpowered characters are, how they destroy all sense of urgency and danger, or even how they weaken the veil between worlds allowing malignant spirits free reign amongst the living. No need to rant about because this is one case where they can actually help us.
Well, to be more accurate, figuring out how to prevent them from existing in the first place is what will help us.
If you have an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, or undying character, figure out what will it take to pump the breaks on their power. Anything that can pull an overpowered god back to earth with the rest of us mortals is bound to be a killer limitation for your magic system.
For example, maybe the big, bad, evil guy can resurrect themselves when they die. What if he only returns if someone else willingly dies in his place? This will force him to keep steadfast allies willing to die for him at a moment’s notice and provide a weak point for the characters to target. Take out or corrupt his “lifelines” and then he will die just like anyone else.
Just like that, you’ve got a great limitation and you get to tighten up your magic system. That’s a “Win-Win” if I’ve ever seen one.
Source #4: Financial Exploitation of the Magic
Have you ever used a hack or cheat code to get infinite wealth in a video game? It’s okay, we all have. Why? Because let’s face it, infinite money is a superpower in its own right. Just ask Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark.
What happens if one of your characters finds a way to create, earn, or steal unlimited reserves of wealth using the magic? Well, now you’ve got an overpowered character of a different kind, and we both know what that means. Fortunately, that’s exactly what makes it another great source of magic system limitations.
Dig into your world, get in your character’s head, and find those paths to riches. Now, start blocking them off. If you can’t or won’t stop the process entirely, at least slow it down, make it more difficult, or decrease the chances of success from a certainty to a long-shot.
Infinite wealth, like overpowered characters, can break your world and your story if you’re not careful. Take advantage of this opportunity to solve a major problem and make your magic system more interesting at the same time.
Source #5: The Things You Want Most
Take a moment and list your favorite parts of your magic system. It’s okay. We all have those pet ideas that we can’t wait to work into the story. Now take those parts… and add enough rules and limitations to make them impossible to achieve.
This is one of my favorite exercises when I’m coaching other writers, and not just because their tear-stained faces give me joy. It is also one of the best ways to develop truly creative limitations for your magic system because there’s a second part of the exercise.
Now that all the things you want most from your magic system are beyond your reach, find a way to make them just barely possible again. Lossen up the limitations slightly, add exceptions or deviations, or just leave that piece of awesome for the villain of the story.
That’s All For Now
Between those five sources, you should find some unique and nuanced limitations for your magic system. If you’re struggling to make it work, that’s totally okay. Developing limitations for your magic system can be tough, especially if you haven’t done it before.
Fortunately, like everything else with fiction, it will get easier the more you practice and I have just the thing to help you get started.
Restrictions May Apply: How to Build Limits for Your Magic is a workbook I put together to help storytellers just like you with this exact problem. In the workbook, I walk you through fifteen different exercises specifically designed to help you get the most from these five sources. I’ve even got blank worksheets you can download, print off, and fill out as you make your way through the exercises.
That’s everything for today. Now get to work on those limitations for your magic system. Rowenson out.