I have always been a big reader of fantasy in all its forms from epic sagas to contemporary wizardry. I also like science fiction (also in a multitude of genres), and while more scientific based, this post can relate to those as well. Actually it can relate to many genres, but we’ll stick with fantasy for simplicities sake.)
The one thing that can really pull me out of a story is when the magic doesn’t make sense. I have often frowned at a story and been completely thrown out of a good plot by this. Now i live with someone who reads history and true crime and aside from the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the stories by Dashiell Hammett has no interest in any sort of fiction. (although given his large collection of Bigfoot, UFO and Conspiracy Theory books, I often argue that point with him). So. when I tell him that something in a fantasy story doesn’t make sense he generally laughs and points out that it is fantasy and then goes back to his book debating whether Bigfoot is or is not an interdimensional being.
I have learned many Bigfoot theories over the years. I used to just think that the debate was whether Bigfoot was real or not, but it turns out that is just the tip of the iceberg. Who knew?
But for now, we’ll let Bigfoot go.
If you are wondering how fantasy can fail to make sense, it has to do with the suspension of disbelief.
When reading a tale where magic is an integral part of the story (or a piece of new technology for that matter) it has to make sense.You as the author need to establish the rules of your magical system and then stick to them throughout the story. I know that sounds easy, but sometimes it is very hard to do. Sometimes you will be knee deep in writing a story and realize you need tour spell caster to do something that uses a skill that doesn’t quite fit with the system that you laid out. This is the moment that can jar your reader out of the story.
“When did he learn that spell? It wasn’t on the earlier list.”
“I thought they couldn’t do that? Didn’t they say that was impossible.”
These are the things that you don’t want going through your reader’s mind. Unless it is part of the story line. Perhaps accomplishing a task requires your spell caster to do something previously thought impossible. Of course if you do that, you have to explain how and why it wa done then and why it was previously thought impossible. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
To the Systems!
Now there are a multitude of magical systems, some you will no doubt invent. I won’t be covering them all. The trick to making it real for fantasy, is that it has to seem logical within the world you create. And it has to go along with the story you want to tell. If you have a world ruled by guilds, then you are going to want to think about whether or not your magician is a part of a guild, or working outside of it or if magicians are forbidden to have a guild as it will n doubt be part of your magician’s story. A few things to consider when thinking about magic…
- can anyone holding a wand and memorizing the correct words create magic or do they have to have a ‘something within’ that lets them do it? Is it an innate talent only a few possess or in theory can anyone do it?
- Where/ how does your spell caster learn magic? Can the books be picked up in a local book store, are they jealously guarded by a guild? Do you need a permit or a license to purchase them? Is your spell caster apprentice to an older mage or do they go to a school?
- what are the limits of the magic? Can they only learn a certain number of spells or can they learn an infinite number (you might want to think about memory here and if a memory charm helps or if all mages come with a photographic memory) Can they read the spell out of a book or does it need to be memorized? what happens if they get the words wrong? Does the magic just fizzle or do they get strange results?
- Is there any effect on the spell caster? Head so full of spells he can’t remember anything else? Energy drain?
- How are mages and magic thought of in your world? Are they revered? Hated? Hunted? Pitied? or even hidden?
- Are there different laws for mages? Are they required to work for a king or are they independent agents? Do they have a guild or are they solitary?
All of these (and a boat load more) are things you need to think about when building your magic system. Some of the same questions apply to various forms of magic, but thinking about magic and how it operates within your world is just as important as characters and setting. It will govern the actions of your magic user (and any situation where magic is involved) just as much as a king sitting on a throne directs knights or a massive flood dictates evacuations and possibly ruined crops.How your story uses magic will help shape the story so you need to think about how someone learns it, who can learn it, the effects it has on the person using it as well as how it fits into your world. You can have a sorcerer king or make magician’s beggars. You can have a story that has both. As long a you explain the system behind magic in your world. In fantasy it is one of the elements that is more malleable. Because you try to create your fantasy world with some degree of realism, rain will be rain, storms at sea will be storms at sea. Governments will follow the set rules for the system you choose whether it is a monarchy republic or something else. Magic and the system in your world can be whatever you decide it needs to be. You have the ultimate control over the system. It is why an ill-thought out system can cause a story to tumble down and a well thought out system can reshape the entire world. So when you are writing, give a little extra thought to your magic, even if your sorcerer is only someone your sword wielding hero has to defeat, the magic has to make sense.