I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.
Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.
Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.
I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.
Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.
Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.
Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.
This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.