Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 5

Spellcasting Catastrophes

When you create a magic system, you want it to be clean and concise, right? You want it to be simple and foolproof. That’s human nature.

It’s also 100 percent wrong!

Many new authors forget to establish rules about how magic spells are cast. In developing a method for your magic, you might ask yourself:

 

  • How does the magic user cast a spell? Does he need to seek the favor of a god, utter a chant, gather and prepare herbs for potions, gain access to a place of power, or find and activate an enchanted object? Does she need to focus her attention or go into a trance? Make your choice and stick with it. Don’t cheat, and don’t let your mage take shortcuts.
  • Ask yourself, what happens if the mage is interrupted before he can cast a spell? How can things go wrong? Make it hurt.
  • Are there cheats for spells? Can less powerful spells be used if the difficult one can’t be used?

 

Most authors don’t want to deal with writing a story if the magic goes wrong. They want things to be nice and tidy.

But you really should want things to go wrong. You want your magic user to have to deal with stress, setbacks, and catastrophes.

If the magic system is totally understood by the mage and the reader, then it gets boring. As George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson have pointed out, the magic system turns into an alternate science, and the story devolves into a race to see whether the hero or the villain will be first to master some all-powerful spell.

Just as bad, a magic system that is too simply constructed, too easy to grasp, actually diminishes the sense of wonder in a story. In short, you’re cheating the reader out of the enjoyment that they pay good money for.

Magic systems become far more interesting if there are unintended or unforeseen consequences to their use. You want the reader to discover that there are hidden depths to your magic system.

Broken magic systems can also help you create a stronger plot. If your hero needs to take a side trip in order to acquire magical charms, herbs, and so on, it gives you opportunities to make the story more intriguing.

In a similar vein, magic shouldn’t be able to solve everything. There need to be real physical, emotional, and moral consequences to the actions of your character. Without those consequences, your story will lack drama. So don’t have healers come out in the third act of your story and start healing the wounded and raising the dead.

Magic systems work best when the magic is breakable. Don’t make magic the only way to resolve your mage’s problems.

In short, as you create the rules of how your magic is used, spend your time figuring out how to break your magic system, give it limitations and rules, and then show how this affects the characters in your story.

 

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