Science is the lifeblood flowing through every science fiction novel. You can’t have good sci-fi without a solid foundation of science in which to build. The fantasy genre is much the same, except in place of science, a much more fluid foundation exists, namely magic. Whereas science in sci-fi draws from real world techniques and practices, magic draws from the author’s imagination. However, just because magic performs differently than science, this doesn’t mean magic can act all willy-nilly. In fact, when magic acts outside a solid system of rules, it breaks the suspension in its believability within its fantasy world.
What Is Magic?
Magic functions differently throughout the many fantasy worlds. It may be a rumor, or it may be a reality, possessed by only a handful or by many. The power of magic takes many shapes and forms, ranging from simple abilities that augment a person’s senses to god-like abilities of creation and destruction. What sets apart a good magic system from a bad one is the time and thought that goes into it. Because magic takes the place of science in fantasy, and because it cannot act any way it wants, an author must define the boundaries within which their magic works, and they must write within those boundaries.
Developing a Magic System
Figuring out how a magic system works is an exercise in imagination. Keeping track of it can be an exercise in futility, which is why making sure you have notes is important. Normally, I can go either way on note taking in writing (although I am a known plotter), but where magic systems are concerned, I firmly believe a good one must be written down rather than remembered. Unless you’re Sheldon Cooper, you aren’t going to remember all the details about your magic system. Here are some things to consider:
Time changes everything, and just like science, the power of magic can change in time. Be aware of this when developing a magic system. If a magic system draws power from belief in its use, where will it be in a hundred years? If magic can only be used by a certain race then what happens to half-breeds? These are all things to consider even if you have no plans to expand into the future of your fantasy world. Knowing where magic comes from and where it’s going is all part of a magic system. It enables the creator to understand the system on a deeper level, which in turn adds depth to the fantasy world.
Creating and maintaining a magic system all comes down to imagination, and pushing the limits of imagination. Magic should be fluid and exciting. It should take a basic idea and push it into the fantastic. Don’t let magic control the direction of a story. It should work within the story. Therein lies real magic.