We've all read books where everything is going along according to the rules set out by the author and then BAM the main character – or the bad guy – does something not only unexpected but distinctly against the rules as they've been established and the book goes flying across the room. Maybe your main character has no magic and then, just in the nick of time, he does and he manages to save the day – this usually happens with no foreshadowing that his powers are growing, etc. Just a form of deus ex machina in the shape of magic to solve a plot point the author couldn't or wouldn't take the time to solve by following the rules.
So, what are the rules, you ask? I wish I could tell you there is this magical little rule book that sets it all down for you. But there's not. The one rule I try to abide by is that it must follow the rules of your world, ie your worldbuilding. To do so, I ask myself the following questions:
- What is magic in my world? This seems simple enough, but think about it. There are still places in our world where technology seems like magic. So, do inventions such as steam-powered engines or electrical lights and telephone-like communications count as magic? Or is it more along the line of potions and rituals and spells? Maybe it's something else. It is up to you to decide.
- Where does magic come from? Simply put, are your characters born with magic, do they learn it or is it a "gift" from the gods?
- Who can perform magic in my world? Basically, does everyone have it or only some of the people.
- If only some of the people in your world have magic, how do those with magic look at those without it and vice versa?
- If you have a hybrid system of "natural" or god-given magic and "learned" magic, how do the practitioners of each view the others? Is there a hierarchical system involved?
- How does the magic manifest itself, ie what magical powers exist in your world? Remember, these powers have to fit the rules of your world, so you have to take into account religion, economic and social rules as well. Depending on the storyline, you also have to look at military and technological factors.
- What does it cost your characters to use magic? Magic has to cost the user in some form. In other words, there is a price to pay for it. Magic is energy – yes, there are a multitude of books out there where magic is a divine gift with no cost to use for the Hero. However, ask yourself if that really is no cost. There usually is, even if it isn't in the form of personal energy/health. The cost is in becoming a martyr or forever questing in the service of the god involved. Think about it this way -- how likely is it you can ride a horse at a gallop for hours on end without stopping? You can't without killing the horse. So if there is a cost for magic, you have to show it, whether it is by having your mage (or whatever you call him) be ravenously hungry or exhausted. It can even be something as simple as, to borrow from Stephen King, if you use your abilities too long and too frequently, you have nosebleeds and worse.
- So, how does the user power the magic?
- If by ritual, what is that ritual?
- Finally, and in many ways the most important, how does magic fit into your world? I asked earlier if everyone in your world has magic or just some of your characters. There is a corollary to that. If not everyone in your world has magic, do they know magic exists? If they do, what are their feelings about magic, notwithstanding what they think about the magic users.
Here are a few links with more information on magic in worldbuilding:
So, what questions do you ask yourself when you are writing magic? What pitfalls do you see and try to avoid?