Writing Magic Systems - The Eight Elements - Part 1 - Robert BurneWriting Magic Systems is hard. And it absolutely should be. They take a lot of thought and effort. In looking at creating the Magic System for the Elements Octology (By the way, we’re looking for Beta Readers), I had to do some serious research and come up with some hard rules that I will have to live by for eight books.

The First Element: Magic Needs Rules

Love him or hate him, Brandon Sanderson is a leader in the current fantasy landscape. His incredibly popular Stormlight Archive had sold over 4 million copies by December 2019*.

One thing that people find compelling about Sanderson’s books is his tight grip on his magic systems. He’s even written a series of blog posts lovingly titled “Sanderson’s Laws” and, though he’s very clear that they’re only half-serious, they’re still serious enough to warrant some thought.

Magic Does not Exist in a Writing Vacuum

The fact is, writing magic systems is hard. And it really should be; after all, what is a magic system but the replacement, entire and complete, of our own world’s physics and natural laws. Of course, most fantasy worlds have their own physics and natural laws but, by being in the same world as “Avada Kedavra”, weaving Gateways or absorbing metals, the laws of physics and nature become mere suggestions, led on by an often much more powerful force – narrative.

The fact is, magic systems are and will remain a powerful tool for writing a narrative. They are the foil for the protagonist/antagonist or they make the nonsensical elements of a fantasy world make sense. Have a Dark Lord™ but can’t figure out why he (or she!) is evil? Well, what does your magic system say? Does the Dark Lord want ultimate power? If so, there needs to be a force out of reach, something that he or she desperately needs and will do anything to get. Most often, that’s a powerful artifact, a hidden piece of knowledge/spell or access to a higher plane of existence.

Sauron, possibly the most well-known Big Bad wasn’t always evil. What drove him to plunge the whole of Middle Earth into chaos and warfare? A love of order. How could he achieve this love of order? Well, much better people than I have long and excellent explanations but the deep down aspect of it is power. And, in the world that Tolkien created, power is magical.

So, we’ve established that Magic Systems enhance, explain or break the physics and natural laws – what next?

Magic Systems are Complex to Write

All magic systems are complex. Even the ones you think aren’t. Let’s look at one of my absolute favorite childhood reads – The Faraway Tree series. There are very few stories that are softer than those you find in The Faraway Tree but even they have a core of hard, unbreakable rules which enhance the writing.

The Faraway Tree is the only way to access the magical lands.

We see time and time again that The Faraway Tree is the only “portal” that allows access to the magical lands at the top. This is a hard rule. If you have no access to the tree (for example, if Goblins have taken over your house at the top of the tree), you have no access to the lands.

Once in the land, you must abide by its rules.

In the Land of Topsy Turvy (the first land the children visit), a police officer curses Joe for being naughty. Joe has broken the rules and gets a magical punishment.

Consequences in the magical lands are lasting.

The curse cannot be reversed except by another magic user (in this case, a friendly witch).

A magical land may not stay longer than its allotted time.

Each time a ‘land’ is at the top of the Faraway Tree, it has a specific amount of time until it moves on. This time is inviolate, unchangeable. If you get stuck in a land, that is where you will remain until rotates around again.

You see? Even the Faraway Tree, a seemingly soft set of stories, has a fairly hard Magical System. There may be almost endless possibilities to rescue our heroic (?) children but they still have to abide by the rules.

Read part two of the series “Writing Magic Systems is Hard. And it Should Be.” here.

*We do not speak of 2020.
Writing Magic Systems (Part 1)
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