Magic: Making the Rules, and How to Break Them


My novel is an urban fantasy story, set in a world where magic exists and is a major part of the plot. We’ve all read a lot of stories with magic in them, from Lord of the Rings, to Alice in Wonderland, to Harry Potter. Magic can be mysterious (we never know just how Gandalf does what he does). It can be silly (eating a cake that makes you grow 50 feet tall). It can be structured (half of the Harry Potter novels involve teaching us “how magic works”). How does a writer decide how to make their magic different? How do you make it believable? How do you make it capture the reader’s imagination?


I’ve studied a lot of techniques, and developed a few theories of my own. This post (and others to follow) will touch on several different points that I’ve learned are very important to writing good magic:

1. How to make your magic unique
2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense
3. How to break your own rules (and do it right)
4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic
5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”)
6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)

I’ll provide examples from a variety of genres (fantasy, urban fantasy, fairy tales, and even sci fi) to help show how these techniques can apply across a wide variety of stories.

1. How to make your magic unique

Magic has been done. From the oldest Greek mythology to the newest modern movies, magic has existed in fiction in so many forms that it’s hard to write anything completely “new.” So how do you make your magic stand out as something unique and original?

In his book, “Stein on Writing,” Sol Stein makes a suggestion for how to make characters more memorable. He calls it “using markers.” A marker is some unique trait that makes a character stand out. It can be Gandalf’s pointed hat, Harry Potter’s lightning scar, Igor’s hunch, or Dirty Harry’s big ass gun. You always remember a certain trait about a character, and markers are a good tool to use to make your characters memorable even if they’re not 100% unique (because NOTHING is).

Magic can also have markers. When you think of magic in certain books or movies, there are unique traits that come to mind, even if the magic ITSELF isn’t completely new and original. You’ll always remember Gandalf’s staff, Harry’s wand, or Cyclops’s ruby visor. While any individual magic effect might be something a reader has seen before, the WAY it is done can still be unique.

Consider Harry Potter. 90% of the magic seen in those books and movies has been done before, many many times. We see levitating objects, flight, teleportation, stunning/paralysis, transformation, and divination. Any level 10 wizard in “Dungeons and Dragons” can do everything Harry can, and more. About the only really unique spell is the Patronus.

And yet, Harry Potter’s magic is still somehow very original. How? By use of markers. Wizards have to have a wand or they can’t use magic (a rule NOT seen in many other wizard stories). Each spell has a unique name that you always remember. An instant death spell isn’t D&D’s “Slay Living.” It’s Avada Kedavra. Making an object float isn’t “Levitate.” It’s Wingardium Leviosa. The Wicked Witch of the West (whose name is a marker in itself) just flew on any old broomstick, but Harry flies on a Nimbus 2000.

Adding traits like these to your story can make your magic feel unique and original, even if some parts of it have been done before. Guess what? EVERYTHING has been done before. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it in a different way.

One of my markers is light. My characters use and see magic in the world around them, but they never see someone waving a wand or chanting magic words. Instead they see pure, radiant light emanate from someone’s hands before a ball of fire flies out. Light radiates from one character and touches another, sparking change as the energy infuses into them. There is a line in the book referring to a character as “like the sun” because of the light radiating from her. These markers, along with others, should make my characters, and their magic, seem unique.

So in order to make your magic unique, consider what markers you can use that are different from the norm. What does a character have to do to make the magic work? What does the magic look like? How do people react to it? Is each magic unique to each person (like individual powers in the X-men) or can people learn to duplicate each other’s magic (like going to Wizard School in Harry Potter)? Each of these questions can be used to take an otherwise familiar type of magic and add a unique spin to it.

2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense

Magic has rules. It’s like science. After all, any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. The rules of your magic will be what helps the reader to understand it, and help make sure it’s believable.

The rules can be simple or complex. In a fairy tale, “true love’s kiss will break the spell” is a simple, common rule (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Shrek). “You can’t cast magic without a wand” is another simple rule.

Some stories have more elaborate rules. Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series has very complex rules. Magic is divided into different elements. There are rules for how someone can draw on a magic power, how to block others, and even differences between how men and women use magic. There are various limitations imposed on what can or cannot be done, and ways to bypass those limitations. In addition, there are advancements made throughout the series where people figure out how to do things that have never been done before.

Another good example is “The Matrix.” While it’s a sci fi movie, the characters do things that are essentially like magic. Morpheus explains the rules throughout the early parts of the movie, such as how “That’s not air you’re breathing” (to remind Neo that they’re in a computer simulation). This also demonstrates an important tool in making rules for magic: having someone to explain things to.

You can’t explain things to the reader; that’s a direct violation of “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s often better to show what happens, and let the reader figure things out on their own. With magic, however, it’s sometimes necessary to explain SOME things, since otherwise the reader might get too confused by complex rules. So how do you explain things without explaining them? Do it in character.

Neo starts off knowing nothing about the Matrix. Harry Potter starts off knowing nothing about wizards. Frodo starts off knowing nothing about the One Ring. They need Morpheus, Hermione, and Gandalf to explain things to them. But they’re not really explaining things to them. They’re explaining things to us. As the characters talk, information is revealed to the audience to help us understand things. This is a commonly used way to reveal information to the audience while making it part of the story, rather than by exposition. It also helps strengthen the audience’s connection to the protagonist, but that’s another blog post.

I mapped out the rules for magic in my world before I started writing. I thought about where magic comes from, how people develop magical powers, how the powers function, what they can and can’t do, and so on. I structured most of the plot around these rules, and several of the major plot points are centered around the characters figuring them out. I never explain things to the reader; instead, I show the reader as each character explores and figures out her own power. They bring the reader along with each discovery they make.

What are the rules of magic in your story? Do characters need an object, special training, or magic words to cast a spell? Is it something they’re born with? Can magic be blocked? What are its limitations? Consider all of these questions to develop a more well-structured world.

That’s all about the rules of magic for this post. My next update will continue with tip #3: How to break your own rules (and do it right)


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