Friday, August 5, 2011

Magic: Making Readers Believe

Wow, it’s been forever since I blogged. Had a busy month, so much that I missed my scheduled date to blog a few Mondays ago. Things have finally started to calm down for the first time today.

So today’s topic is on creating believable magical systems in a fantasy novel. For those of you who don’t know, the term “magical system” refers to the way in which magic operates in a particular story. It’s the rules and limitations that govern the magic in that particular story’s universe. In fantasy, it’s the writer’s job to bring the reader into their world and make them believe what they’re reading so completely that they forget they’re reading a story. We as writers must suspend a reader’s disbelief so that, for the time they hold our books open, when we say that magic exists, not for a moment do they think, “But magic’s just make-believe!”

For those of you who read a lot of fantasy, you know that the types of magic that can exist in the worlds writers create are as diverse as the races that grace the pages of such books. There’s magic like that in Harry Potter, which allows practitioners to accomplish a wide range of tasks, everything from producing light or paralyzing someone, usually by using a wand as a casting device, with the spells triggered by a specific word. In many fantasies, magic is based on the elements, allowing users to control elements like fire or water. There’s also ones like that in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, in which those who have the ability to do magic can burn different metals in order to allow them to do certain things, such as enhance strength or senses, ward off sleep, or heal wounds.  There’s also magic like that in the Wheel of Time, in which channeling a force called the One Power, a force derived from the five elements of Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Spirit allows those who can channel the Power to perform different tasks depending on the particular element from which they draw. For fans of these novels, each magical systems is so well developed and so believable that people the world over talk about them as though they are real, and the laws that govern those differing systems have seeped into the consciousness of the world at large. Every avid Wheel of Time reader knows the five elements or “threads” of the One Power, that only women can channel the Power safely, and that if men do it, they go mad. And because of Harry Potter, every child the world over knows that “lumos” is the spell that produces light at the end of one’s wand, and “Alohamora” unlocks a door. Was it just luck that readers came to believe in these magicks so completely? Well, perhaps it was partially that. But it was also the result of knowing how to create a believable system under which the magic operates on the part of the writer. But what’s the formula for creating such a thing?

From what I’ve read and through experience, creating an effective magical system has five components. Source, Limitations, Credibility, Purpose, and Price.

Let’s start with Source, since it’s the easiest to explain. It’s just what it sounds like, the source from which the magic of your world comes. This can be a person, a place, an object, or other element. Magic should never just come from nowhere, without ever being explained. In every great fantasy, magic comes from a source that is eventually revealed to the reader. When it is revealed later in the story, readers still have a sense, early on, that there is a source for the magic even if they don’t know what the source is. In Wheel of Time, the provider for the One Power is literally called “the Source,” and it’s described in detail in the series. In Harry Potter, magic was carried through a wand, but the sources for the magic itself were various elements that existed at the core of the wand. Dragon heartstring, unicorn hair, phoenix feathers; elements like these embedded in a wand gave the wand it’s magic. Establishing a source for the magic in your world ensures that the magic doesn’t feel random or thrown in without being planned out and thought through.   

Our next component when creating a well thought out magical system is limitation. It’s important to implement limitations on the use of your magic in order to create a “real world” feel. Much like a source, everything we do has a limit. Airplanes only fly so high, humans are only so strong, elastic bands only stretch so far. In terms of magic, limitations run from what tasks a person can perform with which enchanted object or element they use, how much power they can draw on or when, and who can use what power and in what way. Without limitations, things would be too easy for your characters, and it would be impossible to create conflict. Limits are put on us in real life because without them we would not be human and life would be very boring. Along with any other element in a fantasy, magic needs to work the same way. A character who can defeat anyone or overcome anything without struggle or limits has no opposition, and without opposition, there is no conflict. Without conflict, the story has no driving force.

It’s also important to give readers a sense of the limitations that exist within your magical system as early in the story as possible. Rules like, who can use magic and why, how it’s used and when. This helps to establish a real world feel and allows your reader to feel grounded within the story, rather like allowing an alien visitor to quickly see how the world works so that they don’t feel lost. Early establishment of magical rules also lets publishers and readers sense the possibility of a strong conflict in the story, despite the existence of something that, without clear rules, has the potential to wipe out all limitations.

For limitations, I’ll use the Wheel of Time series, since it has the most definitive set of rules of any magical world I’ve read. Set in an alternate-Earth type world, the primary force of magic in the series is the One Power, which I described earlier. Early on, the author, Robert Jordan, established three core rules about the Power.

1)  Based on the five elements of Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Spirit, the One Power comes from the Source, which is divided into two halves, the male half (Sadin) , and the female half (Sadir) Only males draw from Sadin, only females from Sadir.

2)  Only women can Channel the Power safely. If men do it, they go mad.

3)  Women who can channel are born with the ability, and are comparatively rare. Usually they have to be taught to channel or they die, but an extremely small amount are born with the instinctive knowledge of how to do it, and these, called Wielders, can channel without risking death.  

These three facts were laid out early in the first book. With them, Jordan establishes three things. By telling us who in his world can channel the Power, Jordan shows us that the ability to channel is not a common, everyday thing, and there are limits, such as that only women can do it safely. If everyone in a story can use magic, magic is no longer special, and becomes too ordinary. It gets boring. Telling us how it’s used and where it comes from (from the Source, drawn on like water from a skin) he establishes origin, making us feel grounded in the story with the knowledge that the magic doesn’t simply exist because he says so. By telling us that women have to be taught or most often die, he’s offered the possibility of conflict. Early in the story, he also established what each element of the One Power does. Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Sprit. This gives us a sense of cohesion, that the magic has a defined, solid, and consistent formula by which it operates. Later in the story, he allows us to see the complex underpinnings of his system when he reveals that those who channel can perform added tasks if they draw on more than one element at once and weave the magicks together, such as using Water and Spirit to heal. Throughout the series, the magic always works the same way, remaining consistent. Which brings me to my third essential component in developing an effective magical system. Credibility.

Credibility is simply the ability, on the part of the writer, to establish the rules of his/her world and then back them up with action and information that fits those rules. Once rules within a world have been established, you can break them, but there has to be a reason why.

Lets use Harry Potter for this part. Rowling established early in the first Harry Potter book that spells are cast with the use of a wand. She also revealed that Muggles are people who can’t use magic. The moment we saw the spell used, we knew that the word ‘lumos’ lights up the end of one’s wand, a lot like a light bulb. If a character suddenly said lumos to make something float (the word for that is ‘wingardium leviosa’) Rowling would have lost credibility. Similarly, if a Muggle said lumos, with or without a wand, and light suddenly appeared in the darkness, she’d have lost credibility, since we already know that only witches and wizards can use magic.

In the fifth book, Rowling appeared to break the rule at first. A well known Muggle from Harry’s neighborhood suddenly came to rescue Harry and started talking about wands and Muggles and other magical stuff that only a wizard or witch would know about. But then we quickly learned that the woman was in fact secretly a witch, employed to watch over Harry while he wasn’t in the wizarding world. Rowling backed up the credibility of her world and its rules by having the woman use a wand just like any witch, having her know things witches know, and having her familiar with certain people Harry knew to be other witches or wizards. Had the woman failed to use magic the way every other witch does, and didn’t know certain things about that world, readers would have stopped trusting Rowling as their guide through the Harry Potter-verse. They would have been pulled out of the story, no longer able to freely suspend their disbelief enough to take the impossible, that magic exists, as fact, for the time they are reading the stories.

So, onto the forth step. Purpose. When inventing a type of magic for a novel in which fantasy is your primary genre, it’s necessary to create a system as unique as it is interesting. But magic also has to have a purpose within the story. In other wards, you shouldn’t invent magic just because you like the idea, or because it’s fun. The magic has to, if not provide the key conflict within the story, then be elemental to the main conflict in some way. In other wards, if you take the magic out, the plot doesn’t make sense and the story can’t be told. Things must happen in the story that couldn’t occur without the magic present.  

For example, the main villain in Harry Potter was Voldemort, who was an extremely powerful dark wizard. Throughout the series, Harry had to become quite good at magic in order to defeat him. Without magic, there would have been no Voldemort, without Voldemort, there would be no villain, no main villain, no main conflict. Magic was also a part of every facet of the series, in that the main focus of the books was Harry and the other main characters learning how to use magic. Without it, the story would have fallen apart.

In Wheel of Time, the entire series, and every event that occurred in it, brought the main character, Rand Al’Thor, closer to the Final Battle, a confrontation with the Dark One. The Dark One is trapped in a prison in a place called Shayul Guol. The series isn’t finished, and the Final Battle hasn’t happened yet, so we don’t yet know what it is Rand will have to do in order to defeat him. But, it is clear Rand will have to use all his abilities and strength with the One Power in order to destroy the Dark One when he finally escapes his prison, all while avoiding the Madness that worsens every time Rand uses the Power. Though the Dark One can’t actually walk the living world or attack Rand directly, he does find other ways to hurt him, such as through dreams, usually making the use of the Power more and more dangerous. Rand’s only advantage against, not only the Dark One, but also other minions who serve him, is the One Power. So, like with Harry Potter, without magic, the story would make no sense. In both stories, magic is not the main conflict, but it’s the primary weapon with which fights are won and battle is waged. The magic isn’t there to pretty up the story, it has a purpose, one which another form of weaponry could not accomplish without completely changing the plot.

This leaves us with the final component necessary for an effective magical system: a price, or put another way, a drawback. This probably sounds like it falls under the category of limitations, but this is a little more definitive. What I’m speaking of here is the price those who use the magic pay for doing so, the drawback that comes with using it. Why is this important to have in a magical system? Well, in this sense, the price works the same as other limitations. Without a drawback, your characters would be using magic all the time and things would become too easy.

For the example here, we’ll go back to Wheel of Time. When using the One Power, the price men paid was the Madness, which caused not only the implied insanity, but also a wasting decease that eventually caused slow and painful death. In addition, this particular type of insanity caused the man to kill everyone around him. So it was pretty easy to understand why men didn’t want to discover they could channel, which, if they could, happened usually without them even meaning to do it. In the case of both men and women, each time they channeled, they felt an irresistible urge to draw more of the Power. The more one channeled, the more one wanted to channel.  For men, this meant the Madness came faster, death sooner. For women, if they drew too much, they ran the risk of “stilling” themselves, which basically meant they permanently cut themselves off from the Source, never able to channel again. Once that happened, the woman would long to feel the One Power coursing through her all the time, a longing comparable to the grief felt after a loved one’s death. So women had to learn to ignore the temptation to channel without need, and to fight the urge to draw too much. Plenty of conflict there. There were other prices imposed on the use of magic in this series, depending on the situation, but the aforementioned were the constant ones that permeated all facets of channeling. By attaching these prices on the uses of the magic, Jordan accomplished several things. He established magic as something that couldn’t be used as an easy way to solve conflict, he avoided characters becoming too powerful to create problems for, and he established a real world feel to his magical system that made it easy for readers to feel they were a part of the story.

Save God alone, everything in this world comes from something, all things have limits, everything is there for a reason, and nothing that produces easy solutions ever comes without a price in real life, so why should readers expect less of your worlds?

These days it’s becoming increasingly rare to read a fantasy without a form of magic that doesn’t feel overdone, or which doesn’t make things appear too easy. What about you? If you could choose to create any type of magic, what would you like to see? And what do you see writers doing that ruins an otherwise great magical concept in a story? Tell us!

Until next time everyone, write on!


  1. I tried posting a comment but my browser went bonkers so if you get two that's why. Lol. I'm bookmarking this because it's too much info for me to remember or even attempt to memorize. Loved it and it's something I needed to read. I don't like Wheel of Time (too slow and wordy) but I get the examples you used. I don't read too much fantasy these days because sometimes authors make magic way too unbelievable. Or the plots are so intricate I'm confused beyond words and it kills the story. Lol. I'm hoping my stories don't do that to ppl. This is def a big hellp. Thanks!

  2. I might have to reread this again but this was definitely awesome. Thanks!
    ~Samantha Tillis

    *btw, glad you guys are posting again. Wondered what happened.

  3. @Cherri Anderson, Nope, only one comment here. lol. I know what you mean about the way fantasy is. I'm hoping the magical system in Shadowsword is believable and easy to understand, though it can get complex, and that my plots aren't too hard to follow. These days, I notice fantasies from new authors tend to be fairly simple, because readers have become impatient when absorbing a new world. Thanks for reading.

    @Samantha Tillis, yeah, we at FTLOW have apparently been really busy these last few weeks. The last week and a half for me has had me running around with hardly anytime for writing anything, including blogs. I've been talking to the other authors on this blog, and they've been the same. Must be the summer. LOL

  4. Awesome post. I love how you broke down how a magic system should be and that is should have a price. For whatever reason a lot of magic systems just don't have that.



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