My A-Z Blogging theme is to cover 26 touch-me-not categories of fiction writing. These are frequently the trouble spots which can be useful components of the story if handled properly, but when rushed through, can cause all kinds of trouble. While the genre is fantasy, the tips can apply to anything, from romance to literary fiction.
While exploring the ruins of an old castle, Mordekai and his sister Monique accidentally destroy an old tower only to find themselves in a different place, or time, entirely. Then a giant goat crashes through the wall and carries Mordekai off, leaving Monique with the unpredictable Princess Mural. They begin their journey to a nearby abbey while Mordekai is taken to the villains’ fortress. There, he meets a group of goats intent on killing him, who are only prevented by the heroics of Brisbane the Bumblebee.
Mordekai was amazed at how fast the goats moved down stairs. Before he knew it, he’d been shoved into a stone chamber and the solid wood door had been closed behind him. There were no bars in the door. No windows. Just a pile of straw in surprisingly clean array; perhaps goats didn’t like wet hay and such around in case a little one tried to eat it. There were no chains on the wall, and he was free to roam the room, but when he tried the door it didn’t work. There was no knob and it would’ve swung out, but clearly, something was holding it in place.
Magic, or a wooden bar? He hoped it was the latter, but he couldn’t be sure. After all, the goats were convinced he was shielded by some magic, and Mural had been subject to some kind of spell before he’d…
He paused. He didn’t want to call it a kiss, but it was hard to discount the opinion of the bee who’d saved his life. So…I can kiss by proxy. And there’s magic. He pushed against the door again, but it still didn’t move. If only I knew some, I might be able to fly away to wherever Monique and Mural are. He wondered what kind of magic it was. Magic spells by words or potions? As a chemist, he could appreciate the latter, but it wouldn’t help him at the moment. Not unless one can do something with straw, he thought as he glanced around the room, hoping to find something else useful hiding in the corner. But there wasn’t so much as a mouse.
Magic can play a large or small role in fantasy stories, depending on the world you’ve created. The whole story can hinge on the characters learning to master their magic and discover their powers, or it may be almost nonexistent, used only for opening doors and hiding treasure and other, side efforts rather than major battles. Here are a few things a writer should consider before adding magic to your story:
- Who can use it? Some magic is restricted to a certain race or people group or even gender, and once you set the rules up, you’d better have a good idea of what you’re doing if you plan to break them (i.e., something happened to enable other groups to use it, too).
- What does it do? Magic shouldn’t be the “get-out-of-jail-card” of your world, or readers could become frustrated as nothing permanent happens. As long as you’ve got a good magician, nothing is impossible…which can lead readers to wonder why it takes an entire book to do whatever it is the heroes are trying to do. If they have a special power that would beat the villains, why aren’t they using it? You can make it cost something physically or emotionally, require certain objects, or just have certain boundaries (things it cannot do), but magic needs restrictions if it’s going to give your characters yet another thing to overcome and struggle against.
- Who knows how to use it? Just because magic exists in your world doesn’t mean everyone knows about it or is equally a master in it, and unless your magic is somehow intuitive and instinctual, there will be things that your characters just won’t know to do…and this isn’t a bad thing. It can add to the limitations, as it does here. For all we know, Mordekai could use whatever magic is in this world, but he doesn’t know how, and since Brisbane, who knows the world, is gone, he’s stuck and has to use a non-magic means of escaping (or stumble upon the magic required by coincidence, but that can make readers skeptical as to the likelihood of such a thing happening).
- What keeps the villains from using it, too? If you have this fabulous system of magic, what keeps your villains from knowing it and mastering it? What keeps your heroes from overcoming him instantly? You shouldn’t “stack the deck” too much, so you have to decide if the magic differs in nature, quality, power, or restrictions when used for good instead of evil.
- How complicated is it? Some readers might find it hard to keep track of who can do what, when, if your magic is too complex (i.e., she can destroy anything with a silica base on the first day of the month, but on the second day it has be to carbon based for her magic to work; she can thus cause earthquakes on the first day, but the range varies depending on the phases of the moon and whether she’s wearing wool or linen shoes).
Some complexity can be a good thing, as it makes magic that much more limited, and it can give you an opportunity to remind the reader, as the characters are likely to have to check books or ask questions to the resident expert as to what they can or can’t do, but it can make the reader give up on your series, especially if there are a lot of main characters and the way magic works varies with every character. It can create too many cases of “wait, I thought they couldn’t do that” and “when did they learn to do that.”
Ultimately, your magic needs to be guided by the sort of story you want to tell. The closer you want it to be relatable to “real life,” the more restrictions and the simpler your magic should probably be. If you want a very fanciful story, though, by all means add magic…but keep in mind your readers’ limitations, as they haven’t spent the same kind of time contemplating and learning the peculariaties of your world and might not remember all the details.
Until the next letter,
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo courtesy of gratisography