As a Fantasy author, the subject of World Building is near and dear to my heart. If you’re going to build a convincing fantasy world, you may be thinking about developing a magic system. In Necromancer Awakening (now available on Amazon), I went through a painstaking process to build a unique magic system involving “Life” and “Death”.
While I was constructing a magic system based on necromancy, it occurred to me (in hindsight) that there are three things a writer should know before attempting this at home:
1. Know The Purpose
It’s difficult to quantify where ideas come from. I can describe how I develop ideas (and I have: here
), but there is a chance you have a completely different system. And that’s ok. Sometimes we start with an abstract idea and flesh it out until we have a story. Other times we have a solid plot in mind and just need surrounding matter to flesh the world out. Neither way is wrong.
But one thing is certain: whichever way you begin, your system of magic needs to serve your story, not the other way around. That’s not to say you can’t begin by developing a system of magic and work a story out from there. I’m merely saying that your story should dictate what you include and what you exclude. Your magic system shouldn’t exist merely to exist, any more than a setting in your world exists merely to exist.
You’re a writer, not a special effects artist.
If your magic users are casting spells for no other reason than to show off their abilities and your prowess at world building, then you’re being self-indulgent. By all means let them show off their abilities. But do so within the context of your story.
2. Know The Rules
Every system of magic has a set of rules [again, I’m speaking of systems of magic]. If not, the very absence of a set of rules is itself a rule that needs to be spelled out.
Spell out any plot-impacting rules as early as possible.
That last bit is crucial. If you withhold a critical rule/ability of your magic system until it conveniently gets your characters out of a plot jam, your readers will throw up their hands and give up. You need to foreshadow the use of critical abilities, and there’s pretty much only one way to do that: know what is going to be needed and when it is going to be needed. In other words, know your story.
If Johnny is going to confront the Beastly Brigand Bipsbah of the Bipsy Brotherhood, and the only way to destroy the Bipsbah’s Bipsmatic Bippity Bopper is through a clever combination of two magical abilities, it would be a good idea to have scenes early on where Johnny uses those abilities independent of one another. This will allow him to be a stronger, more intelligent hero. It will allow you to take the reader through Johnny’s thought process as he has his “eureka!” moment. And the reader will feel smart as well, because they’ll “put two and two together” around the same time that Johnny does, and everyone’s a winner. Well, everyone except the Beastly Bipsbah and his Bippity Bopper.
Some finer points you might want to keep in mind when considering the “Rules” you’re developing:
- What is the nature of your magic user’s power? Is the power natural, mystical, arcane? Does the power come from within or without? If external, does the magician’s distance from the source matter? Why? Why not?
- Is the magic hereditary or acquired? Is it something that anyone can do with the proper knowledge and training? How does one go about obtaining that knowledge/training?
- Is your magical society hierarchical? If so, how does the magic user advance? If not, are your magic users recluses, avoiding one another whenever possible?
- Society at large will probably have an opinion about this magic. What is it? Is it accepted, rejected? Are magic users exalted members of society or are they pariahs? Keep in mind that people usually fear what they don’t understand, unless they *believe* they understand it, either through religious or academic means. Do your magic users work in harmony with your culture’s religious leaders, or are they at odds with one another?
This list of questions is hardly exhaustive, but it should give you a place to start. You need to ask yourself a lot of questions, not only about your system of magic, but also about its place in your world at large.
Never…EVER…violate the rules of your magic system once they’re established, unless your magic system allows for the exception. If there is an exceptional case, make absolutely certain that the exceptional case is declared as early as possible, and perhaps subtly repeated several times to foreshadow its use.
Did I beat you over the head with enough bold text? If you’re going to change things up, you’d better foreshadow it. If you don’t, the reader is going to call “foul” and throw your book in the trash.
The reader will accept the impossible long before they accept the implausible.
If your magic system declares pigs can only fly on Wednesdays, you’d better not have it flying around fixing your plot problems on a Tuesday without that foreshadowing I mentioned. There’s nothing wrong with the flying pig in and of itself. The flying pig is merely impossible. That whole Tuesday business…now that’s unfair. That’s downright implausible! You cheated, and I’m never buying anything you write ever again, you bait-and-switch artist!
3. Know The Limitations
This is going to give some writers and world builders heartburn, so let me just come right out and say it. The limitations of your magic system are far more interesting than the abilities of your magic system.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Take any situation where your magic users cast a fancy spell to get out of trouble, and I can guarantee it won’t be as tension-filled and exciting as placing them in a situation where their magic doesn’t work.
In Necromancer Awakening
, for example, I use proximity to a power source
as one of several limiting factors. This ramped up the tension in several scenes where my main characters were cut off from a power source, and readers routinely mention this in their messages to me. You want to learn who your characters really
are? Take away whatever super power you’ve given them, just temporarily, and see how they manage.
I said this already, but I’m going to repeat it: You’re a writer, not a special effects artist. Your magic system serves your story, not the other way around!
Was there more drama in Harry Potter when he had his wand and his abilities, or when he was outside of the school and forbidden to use magic? Using the floo powder was a really cool method of travel. But it was FAR more interesting when Harry screwed it up and traveled “diagonally” instead of to “Diagon Alley”!
Limitations on magic are not merely interesting, they’re vital. If your system has no limits, you have no drama. If you have no drama, you have no story. If you have no story, you’ll have no readers.
Gandalf is second only to Merlin in mythology as being a powerful wizard. Yet how many times did Gandalf use magic in Lord of the Rings? I bet you’ll only need one hand to do the counting, and you’ll probably have fingers to spare. But does anyone deny or question his power?
One parting thought before I close: do your world building. But don’t feel as if you have to include everything you’ve built. Your world is rich for what you put into it. But your story is often far richer for what you leave out. Though you leave out a bit of world building here and there, the weight of its presence is still felt, because it’s in your mind as you’re writing. It’s in the minds of your characters as they move through your world and interact with the setting and each other. No, the reader might not know why the world feels so rich and vibrant, but there’ll be no denying the feeling.
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenage son, and mischievous beagle.