Fantasy and magic are pretty much synonyms of one another. Whenever someone who hasn’t touched a fantasy novel ever says, “Oh you’re into fantasy are you? What with all the magic and fairies?” Usually said with a smirk. But Magic is perhaps one of the most integral parts of fantasy, what sets it apart from other genres. Where physics can go away and sit in the corner and logic can jump out of the window. This won’t be me talking about how I wistfully wish that I could hold the destructive powers I need for world domination. But my opinions on magic in fantasy. What makes some magic more interesting than other or more believable.
Magic and it’s Limits
(Ooh I used underlining and purple there, first time for everything I guess.)
Magic needs limits in the same way that ballistics do. If I stood up in front of a crowd of gun smiths and physicists and told them I had invented a bullet that could fly forever, not be affected by weather, fly around corners and whose cartridges are recyclable after use. I’d probably be told to go away and think about what I’d said and why it was stupid. Not to mention what John Wick could do with such bullets, the world would be a safer and greener place in days.
Like my Wonder Bullets if magic can kill a man from a thousand miles away, transport thousands of people in a second or spy on the neighbour who lives in a nuclear bunker. Then anyone who has the ability to cast magic at their whim is potentially a god. With powers such as that no man or woman or elf or super intelligent beagle could stand in their way. So if magic for example has the limit of only being able to harm people who have previously harmed you, then that adds an entirely new twist on how magic works.
Imagine that because of this limitation warlocks stealing weapons belonging to an enemy to cut themselves with, a convenient loophole for any warlock who isn’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. Or a witch looking to test her new fireball incantation goes picking fights with gang members. Maybe your wizard has contacts in the criminal underworld of your city, hiring professional torturers to help them in their pursuit of destroying their enemies. If anyone who reads this and uses this idea in their writing, please let me see because as I write this I feel inspired myself to go and write something in this vein.
How much does that
doggy magic cost?
So for anyone who has played the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will know anyone who plays as a wizard is pretty much playing the wrong class. But will also know that that blue bar in the bottom left hand corner of the screen is an absolute nightmare for those times when two Frost Dragons decide to attack you in a chicken infested village. The blue Magica bar indicates how much or how little the player has to use when shit hits the fan. Whether you’re using lightning or fireballs it’ll eventually come to the point where you can’t do it any longer. Because when that blue stuff is gone you’ll have to wait till it recharges.
What makes this system so good is that if I can throw innumerable spikes of ice at my enemy in a magical machine gun style then why would anyone ever decide to use a sword? But by adding a cap on the amount of lethal snowballs I can throw around at one time it balances the world out around me. There’s a reason why so many people play as the swordsman or two handed brute, its because no matter how many necromancers you charge at. There’s only so many skeletons to be resurrected and only so much magic they can expend in one battle, unless of course they cheat and use potions.
An example could be that for your character to defeat Evil McEvilface in your epic fantasy novel he needs the blessing of a deity. Then he must get on his knees and pray to gain their patronage. But lets say your character, lets call him Hero, is a worshiper of one of the lesser Gods in the pantheon then does that mean he’s more at risk from certain spells than others? Should Hero’s best friend be a priest of the High God, God of God’s, he should be nearly untouchable by most human magics, right? Something for you to play with in that brilliant little brain of yours.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Examples of good magic systems, in my opinion of course, are ones such as the Powder Mages in the Powder Mage trilogy. Men and women who are reliant on gunpowder to perform their art. Whether that’s exploding it at a distance, which becomes progressively harder at further ranges. Or if its controlling the flight of a bullet over extreme distances, which requires reserves of powder to do. The rules of the magic system have rules, limitations and is overall fun to see the characters experiment with. That’s not even touching on the Knacked.
An example of a bad magic system is C.S.Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. Don’t get me wrong I love these books and will cherish them forever, but as I get older I feel its so easy to notice the holes in the plot. Although I do realise that Narnia is essentially a retelling of the Bible but for those of us who are children or atheists, teaching us the fundamentals whilst leaving out the jargon. The problems I have with this magic system is that it appears that there are no limiting factors to magic use. We’ll use The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for examples now as it’s the best known of all the novels. But if you haven’t read it please say you’ve seen the film. The main problem is that of the Witch (I won’t put a spoiler warning here, you’ve had over half a century) can turn anyone to stone at will. This appears to take no effort from her, or anymore effort than pointing her wand at the poor soul. Anyone would think she could do it an infinite number of times and then who would be left to stand against her? No need for her wolf secret police, army of Minotaur’s and dwarves or the need to leave her stylish ice castle. Keeping Narnia in check through fear of being turned to stone and being able to turn Sons and Daughter of Adam and Eve into statues. Realistically, I use the world loosely, she should be unstoppable.
This of course is only my opinion on the subject, feel free to cite me as a source, I’d feel honoured. These aren’t the rules though for what you’re writing but simply my recommendations as to how to make a magic system I can enjoy and understand.
I’d like to thank Dark Monday’s who helped with picture selections, ideas and recommending more books to me in the process of discussing this post. You can find her at: https://darkmondaysblog.wordpress.com/