DIY MFA: The Limits of Magic

If you are writing fantasy, chances are your story has magic. A few of the questions that arise should include: What kind of world are you building? Does your world have magic? What kind of magic is available? Is the environment permeated in magical energy? Or does the magic only work under certain conditions? Does the magic have a cost, and if so, what price does the user pay?

My imaginary continent of Adaran is magical. I use many of the concepts and ideas found in a Dungeons & Dragons game, and a variety of video games and novels, and shape them to fit my world. Sometimes the magic is tied to the history and lore of a place. After almost thirty years of imagining the landscape and peoples that inhabit the various regions, my characters still uncover new chronicles and facts as they relate their adventures. Frequently, a story is chained to a historical event or myth that has lasted through the ages and was thought to be an exaggerated tale. Our world has its own myths and legends that we no longer believe as truth.

What types of magic exist?

The use of “magic” is well-known throughout history and, until recently, considered real. Chronicles of alchemy, witchcraft, and prophecy permeate our past. The story of King Arthur features a magic sword that can choose the King of Britain. The local “hedgewitch” could brew a “potion,” most likely a tea, that would cure a cough. The Oracle at Delphi would make a prediction for a petitioner.

“Magic,” as most of us perceive it, is anything we don’t necessarily understand. For example, a mobile phone would be “magic” in an underdeveloped society. Other real-world examples include enchantments and curses as another class of magic. Even today, some people will approach a known “witch” to ask for a potion to make someone fall in love with them, or an effigy to cause harm. Finally, we have spells. You know, where a person mutters a few words, gestures with their hands, and makes a seemingly impossible thing happen.

Now, your magic can be a free-for-all where everyone has infinite power, and the outcome depends on which character can make the most of that power. Or, your magic can be limited to the point that it will only do one thing, and one thing only. Most systems, I have found, are somewhere in between the two extremes.

How does the magic work?

The answer depends on the system you decide for your magic. Suppose your magic is a lot like science. In that case, your character will likely be spending a lot of time studying and experimenting to learn how it works. Of course, your protagonist could have been born with the inherent ability to shape the energy around them. What if a deity takes an interest in a particular character or they have a divine calling?

Does your magic have limitations?

There again, it depends on how you build your magic system. In her Valdemar series, Mercedes Lackey has made the cost of magic bleaching of all color from the user’s hair. If a Chosen’s hair was black when they started using the magic within a few years, it would be white. In her Septimus Heap series, Angie Sage’s protagonist is the seventh son of a seventh son—his magic is innate. I’ve read many more novels in which an energy drain on the user is the cost. How your world uses magic is up to you and the world you create.

Many forms of magic can co-exist in a world. And the price the user pays is subject to the rules outlined in the world. Just like our real-world must adhere to the Laws of Physics, so must a fantasy setting adhere to its Laws of Magic (as defined by the author) to be believable to the reader.

As for me, I will keep the magic generic as I learn how it works. The cost depends on the magic, of course. And I’m learning as much as my characters.

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