The Ten Rules of Writing Magic


The Ten Rules of Writing Magic

Magic is ubiquitous in fantasy - much like advanced technology in science fiction - and for good reason. Spells and potions can add intrigue and complexity to an otherwise everyday narrative. When they are used improperly, however, they can destroy reader credibility, erase drama and suspense, and punch holes in your plot. Want to wield magic like a pro? Masterful sorcery begins with these ten simple rules (most apply to technology too, sci-fi writers):

  1. When the good guys have magic, the antagonists must have it, too. Conflicts are not exciting if they are one-sided or if the outcome already seems determined. Whatever skills you give to your protagonists must therefore be countered by equal (if different) abilities in your villains.
  2. Magic, like any other force of nature, must follow consistent rules. Decide how magic operates in your world, including its limitations, before you start writing. Every violation will be just as startling to your readers as a sudden inversion of the laws of gravity in realistic fiction.
  3. Magic takes practice. Could you ride a bike or do calculus perfectly the first time you tried? Probably not. The same is true of magic - to do it well takes practice, and the first few attempts will most likely end in disaster for your characters.
  4. Magical skills should not appear all of the sudden, just when a character needs them. The technical term for this is "deus ex machina," or "God from a machine," and it is among the worst violations of rules eight and nine. If you find yourself breaking this rule, you must go back and at least hint at where such abilities might have come from.
  5. Magic must come from somewhere, even if its origins are unknown to the characters. In Harry Potter magic was inherited, in some stories it comes from Gods or aliens or another dimension or natural materials (similar to radioactivity), but it should never just exist without any explanation (even if you don't include that explanation in the actual narrative).
  6. Magic is not inherently good or evil. This is perhaps the most contended of these ten rules (the idea of "black" or "white" magic is fairly common, after all), and the one for which there is the greatest possibility of acceptable exception. BUT in most cases, it should be the nature of your characters that determines whether their magic is "good" or "evil," not some property of the magic itself (or magic should run a spectrum from good to evil that all characters can access).
  7. Every spell comes with a price. If your characters fought hand to hand, you would not expect them to escape without (at least) a few bruises. The same must be true for magic, whether those "bruises" manifest themselves as physical exhaustion, emotional corruption, or unintended consequences.
  8. Magic should never make a character invincible. The easiest way to draw all of the suspense out of your story in a second is to violate this rule. Now, you can make a character close to invincible (e.g. Dr. Manhattan), as long as you factor in all the mental and physical implications that brings.
  9. If a scene or story line would read better without magic - if it would be clearer, cleaner, or more interesting - take the magic out. And:
  10. The story must still work if you remove every trace of magic from the plot. These two points really go together. Magic should never be more than the "spice" of a story on the "meat" of things like plot, setting, action, character, and moral dilemmas. When so many fantasy stories have magic, it takes more than a pinch of fairy dust to make yours stand out.

Happy writing!