Conjure, enchant, shape-shift, or summon—endless possibilities exist in the world of magic. Cast a spell, fight a dragon, wave a magic wand, and don’t forget the ruby slipper, the mermaid, or the unicorn. And then there’s time travel and scrying and divination—the options can easily overwhelm. Luckily, the talented Mark Fogerty, in his GrubStreet class on Worldbuilding, offered six steps to creating a magical system that can help manage all these choices. Here’s my version of Mark’s list.
1. Define the Magical System.
What is your magic and how does it work? Now don’t panic. It’s okay to be vague at this point. Think about the Force in Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi described it as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” 1 This sounds good but does anybody really know what he’s talking about?
According to Rainbow Rowell, it’s okay not to fully understand your magic. In talking about her latest book, Carry On, she said, “I would get stuck and have to remind myself that I don’t really know how the magic works in my favorite fantasy stories. I don’t really know how the Force works . . . I get really confused if I talk specifically about the magic in Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. I try not to get too bogged down about how it works . . . I just try to be consistent.” 2
2. Create limitations and/or weaknesses.
This is where the real work begins. J.K. Rowling, who spent five years creating the rules of magic for the Harry Potter series, said, “The most important thing to decide . . . is what the characters can’t do.”3
Rowell’s main character, Simon Snow, is a good example. He’s the most powerful wizard anyone’s ever seen, yet he screws up the words in spells. He doesn’t know how to summon his magic, and can’t control it when he finally does. He’s like a grenade always on the verge of exploding. He can either save the day or destroy everything in sight, which increases the tension in every scene he’s in.
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, features two magicians, Celia and Marco, locked in a deadly contest. Celia can create almost anything by channeling magic through her mind and body, but doing so drains her energy and ultimately depletes her magic. Marco relies on magical drawings, books, and bindings all carefully set up in a secret room. While this method doesn’t drain energy, Marco’s magic can be ruined if anyone disturbs his objects.
3. What equipment is needed? List and name the items.
Choosing magical objects can be another way of limiting magic. Jedi Knights use lightsabers with blades made of plasma energy and kyber crystals. Both ingredients are very rare. The witches and wizards in Harry Potter need wands created by special wand makers using only hard to find items like phoenix feathers, dragon’s heartstring, and unicorn hair.
4. What is the process of using the magical system?
Are words required? Does pronunciation matter? What is happening internally? Wizards in Harry Potter use wands, spells, charms, and magical objects. In Carry On, wizards also use spells, but magic is also summoned internally and can feel like flexing a muscle or lighting a match. In Star Wars, the Force flows through Jedi knights and is channeled into different magical abilities. In Ursula K. Leguin’s classic Earthsea Cycle, wizards use the true names of things to gain power over them.
5. Who can use the system?
Equal access to magic can decrease tension, so it makes sense to limit who can use it. Muggles in Harry Potter aren’t magical, and neither are Squibs, those unfortunates who have no magic despite being born to witches and wizards. This creates great tension between these groups and their magical counterparts. In Star Wars, only certain people are sensitive to the Force. Magicians are extremely rare in the world of The Night Circus. In The Earthsea Cycle magic is commonplace, but only the most talented can become wizards.
6. How does the system affect the world of the story?
Mark Fogerty encouraged all of us to think about what it would mean to have a world where our magical system was truly a reality. How would it affect the economy, the culture, laws, and social structure? Would it create fear and mistrust or help to eliminate these feelings? And lastly, does the magic in your book help to illuminate characters and move the story forward? If it doesn’t, then it might be time to rethink your magical choices.
Amelia Hill, Star Wars Glossary: The Force, About.com, http://scifi.about.com/od/starwarsglossaryandfaq/a/SWAR_glossary_the-force.htm
Nolan Feeney, Eleanor & Park Author Rainbow Rowell Talks Fifty Shades and Franzen, Time.com, February 19, 2015, http://time.com/3714753/rainbow-rowell-interview/
“World Exclusive Interview with J.K. Rowling,” South West News Service, July 8, 2000, http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2000/0700-swns-alfie.htm