Tuesday Ten: How to Make Magic Real

You want to write a book with magic in it. When you imagine your story, the world is beautiful, the magic system seamless, and you’ve got all these cool twists that will make this story UNIQUE, in a big, fantastic way.


And then…you start to write. And somehow your beautifully-imagined world feels flat, the magic forced, and all those cool, unique ideas that make your story stand out? Not so much.

You need chocolate. And wine. Pronto.

If you’re anything like me, the above scenario feels a little too familiar—no matter what genre you write. It’s enough to make you crazy! How do you figure out what makes one story world complex and believable and yours…not?

My strategy? I go back to the books I love and try to figure out how those authors created magic on the page.

I’ve collected some favorite techniques from my recent reads—I like to think of them as lenses that I can look through, to help me see my work-in-progress from a fresh perspective. If your story is feeling a little flat, try these ideas on for size. Maybe one will help you see what you need to change!

Magic*: Things to Consider

1. Write the Rules: Rules—even if you’re the only one who knows exactly what they are—provide a framework for what can and cannot happen in your world. How does magic work?

City of Bones For example, in Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, Shadowhunters gain power from tattoos inked on their skin; different symbols give them specific abilities for set periods of time. In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, the “Mistings” (magic users) have to ingest small amounts of metal reagents in order to activate their powers. Two very different systems of magic provide the framework for two very different stories.

2. What’s the cost? In the fantasy writer world, the “rule” is that every power must have some sort of cost—in time, energy, strength, materials, and so on. The cost of magic balances out its power and keeps things from becoming too easy for your protagonist.

According to fantasy writer Hilari Bell, Magic must cause more problems for your characters than it solves.  (Check out the link for a great article on her three rules of magic.)

3. Does magical power depend on innate skill, study/knowledge, or both? What are the consequences for a character who tries to use her gift—or uses it accidentally—without training? What can a trained magic user do that someone untrained cannot?

mistbornIf your protagonist begins as a novice, think about what he will study (or learn by experimentation, if he’s on his own). Sanderson does a lovely job of this in Mistborn, where it’s relatively simple for the main character to learn to activate her new-found power, but she must study and practice in order to gain the physical, mental, and perceptual skills for more complex applications. (This opens up lots of lovely opportunities to complicate her life with failures, near-misses, and potential disasters!)

5. What happens if character makes a mistake or tries to do more than she’s ready to do? For the author who is trying to make the characters’ lives more complicated, this question opens up lots of opportunities for plot twists, escalations, and increased tension. Consequences for a mistake can range from simple failure—your character does not fly over the wall—to the catastrophic—your character falls from a hundred feet in the air, is severely injured, and is captured by the city guard.

6. What are different facets of magic? JK Rowling built an entire secondary school curriculum around different magical disciplines. In Mistborn, (can you tell I just finished reading this?) most magic users have only a single skill. You might think this would make them less interesting than the main characters who can use any of the ten skills, but instead Sanderson depicts experts in each different area. He creates characters who understand even the least sexy of abilities with depth and nuance.

He could have skipped the details and layers of ability associated with the different skills—but his world would have been less rich, less believable. It’s kind of like the real world: you can view that math teacher (or boss or the guy with oily hair who teaches Driver’s Ed) as a flat stereotype, or you can look deeper. It may turn out that the math teacher has a passion for fractals and can explain the Fibonacci sequence, making you see beauty where you never saw it before.

7. What is the down side of magic? Not the cost—but the flip side of whatever benefit the use of magic might impart. For example, In Mistborn, the main character can use tin to magically enhance her senses. It’s great for seeing in the dark—but when someone shines a light in her face, she’s blinded. Another metal gives her super strength and endurance, enabling her to continue fighting even when severely wounded—but when the metal runs out, the injury may prove fatal.

8. How can magic be abused? In the wrong hands, a gift for healing might be turned on its head to become a means of torture; the gift of strength can create a hero or a bully. Whatever power your protagonist gains from magic, his enemies should gain as well. Brainstorm the implications.

wizard hunters 9. How is magic viewed by society? Is magic common or rare? Are magic users revered or feared or both? Are they hunted and killed? Enslaved, as in Martha Wells’ The Wizard Hunters? Are they the ruling elite? How, in turn, do society’s attitudes cause your character to view herself and those around her?

10. In this society, who will be your character’s allies? If your protagonist has someone who will instruct, share experiences, or help him to understand his ability, what sort of person would that be? Harry Potter gets a school full of teachers, classmates, and even a few friends. In Mistborn, the main character gets a handful of other magic users—who are thieves. They teach her, but they also want to use her skills.

If you want your world to be believable, all the pieces need to fit together. That means that real people need to interact with each other. They need to have attitudes and preconceptions about magic and those that practice it. They need to struggle with its applications, both the good and the bad. When you figure out the answers to the above questions—when you understand the nuances of your characters, society, and magic system; the forces that motivate them; and the rules by which they operate—then, and only then, will your world spring to life.

At least, that’s what I think :-).

What do you think? Any thoughts to add to the list?

*Since I’m currently writing about a world filled with magic, I’ve couched this in fantasy-writer-ese. Truth is, though, that these questions apply no matter what your protagonist’s gift. Is she exceptionally observant? That gift will help her identify an important clue in a crime scene—but it might overwhelm her with information so that she misses the big picture. Does your world boast advanced technology? Consider how it might be misused by the antagonist as well as how it can be used by your protagonist.

You get the idea :).

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  1. Jacqvern says

    Hi :)

    Loved the post, it has great points.

    I would add that even if it's magic (and one would think that everything is allowed), it should make sense. That means, is it believable?

    Magic is beyond our world's awareness, but there has to be a plausible cause or reason behind it, to appeal to the readers' understanding.

    Yes, the character can fly due to magic, but how does he/she fly? Reasoning and a believable one.

    Very interesting points. I'll keep a note. 😀

  2. Jess says

    Cool post! I don't use magic in my stories, but this post is getting me itchy to write something with a fantasy element :)

  3. PW.Creighton says

    Very cool post. Honestly I think there's a bit of a backlash against the Marry Sue of UF novels lately. If someone is 'special' and only they can do it, there's probably something that should be done to balance it. I love the Dresden novels because there's always someone stronger or more talented. The magic has a give and take. Only he can accomplish something with magic not because he's special or the ultimate person but simply because he's too stubborn.

  4. Sarah Pearson says

    I love this post. I can't stand writers who cheat. If this happens whenever x is done, then don't have your mc miraculously getting a different result, just because she's special. They're your rules, stick to them :-)

  5. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Jacqvern–right, magic DEFINITELY has to feel real. I think creating a system, with internally consistent rules, helps with this, but I like your point that magic also requires an explanation. Even if the author doesn't spell out the why's and wherefore's in the opening chapter, I want that information to come out eventually.

    Hi Jess–yay, I hope I inspire you to write fantasy! I think these rules apply to even non-fantastical character gifts/talents. Their skill still needs to have limits, be internally consistent, have some kind of cost, etc. For instance a virtuoso violinist still has skills with which he struggles. He still pays for his talent in terms of time, energy, and the other things he gives up in life. If he spends too *much* time playing violin, he could injure his back and be unable to play for a while. Hmm, perhaps this is another post :)

    @PW.Creighton–great points. Dresden is a terrific example: even though he's got all these cool magical abilities, he's not the only one wielding magic. That means he has to work to win his battles rather than magic solving all his problems.

    @SarahPearson–right! On the flip side, I LOVE it when an author uses the rules she's already defined in some new and ingenious way to solve the story problem. It gives me that great aha! moment :).

    Thanks for all the great discussion!

  6. M.C. says

    What a great read. You make very valid points about writing about magic. I have never tried writing fantasy. I've only dabbled a bit in science fiction. Now I'll have an idea of where to start if I every play with magic 😉