Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 1

making better magic systems lesson 1

The most popular books and movies of all time all have one thing in common: They transport audiences better than other books and movies in their genre. Usually, as in films like Avatar or books like Lord of the Rings or Dune, the tale transports you into another time and place. But the tale also transports its audience emotionally. In short, whatever emotion the audience is feeling at the beginning of the tale is swept away as the audience is transported into the writer’s world and carried through the story.

Understanding the emotions that your audience is hoping to feel is extremely important. In case you haven’t noticed, they purchase books and movies based upon the emotions that they want to feel. Thus, if a person is feeling lonely or underappreciated, she might want to get lost in a good romance. If a person feels trapped in the mundane workaday world, he might look for a good thriller. And particularly with children or teens, if a person is bored, she might look for a story that delights her sense of wonder.

Years ago, if I recall correctly, it was editor Donald Wollheim who recognized that science fiction and fantasy were alike in that they both aroused a sense of wonder, and he petitioned the bookstores to create a new category which he called “wonder literature,” so that books that aroused wonder would be shelved under the category of “wonder,” much in the way that romances are categorized under “romance.” It was a good observation, but unfortunately the retailers chose to ignore it.

In any case, he recognized that wonder is a powerful emotional draw, and that for young readers in particular, it is the single most powerful emotional draw. In short, readers seek out science fiction and fantasy so that they can feed their craving for wonder, and if you write it well, if you satisfy their needs, you can be immensely successful.

But the first point that I want to make here is that most authors tend to fail as writers of fantasy and science fiction primarily because they don’t arouse a strong sense of wonder.

Some writers create fantasies for example that don’t have magic in them at all, or only have a tiny bit of magic. I knew one fine writer years go whose fantasy tales were beautifully written, but in an entire novel, a person might cast one small healing spell. Ultimately, her career kind of faded, I think because her work felt more like historical fiction set in the middle ages, written by someone who wasn’t interested in the real middle ages, but simply created her own fantasy worlds and populated them with imaginary kingdoms.

Editors often rejected her work because her magic levels were “too low.” They pointed out that people who wanted a strong sense of wonder just weren’t satisfied with what she had done. So they begged her to write “high magic.”

What did they mean by that?  They wanted tales that kept the readers mystified and in awe, stories that took the reader to magical places and introduced them to magical creatures and powerful wizards.

What kind of story does that? I’ll give you an excellent example. Back in the late 1990s, when I was writing Star Wars books for Scholastic, the president of the company asked me to look at some books and help select one to push big for the coming year. So I went through about forty novels and found one that I liked a lot: Harry Potter.  It did a great job of transporting the reader into the magical world of Hogwarts, and of catching a wide audience, but as I began to read into chapters three and four, I worried whether Rowling would be able to sustain the high level of wonder that she’d started out with. You see, that’s where most people fail. A lot of them will take the reader into a wondrous world, then get involved in some sort of drama or political intrigue, or even romance, and thus leave the reader unfulfilled.

But Rowling did a great job of sustaining her sense of wonder throughout by taking the reader to magical places, introducing magical creatures, and revealing one intriguing wizard or witch after another, so that she sustained her high sense of wonder throughout the novels.

So what does that have to do with magic systems? Well, I find a lot of magic systems that feel tired and stale. They don’t arouse a sense of wonder quite simply because we have seen them too often before.  In other words, they are cliché.

Here are three things that I see too often:

  • Healing.
  • In every fantasy, there is some character who discovers that he or she has healing powers—usually just when they need it most. To be honest, I’ve seen this happen so often, that I groan inside each time that I see it now. The author very often has a young hero who experiences a heroic demise—only to have his young girlfriend sprout the ability to raise the dead. Yawn. “Let him die,” I say.
  • Prophecy.
  • The literary critic Algis Budrys once pointed out in a talk that among Christians, most of our fantasy tropes are drawn from Christian tradition. Thus, most of our magical powers are drawn from Biblical roots. Since the Bible is by some definitions a book that is unique in that it contains example after example of prophecies that are then fulfilled, it is no wonder that Christian fantasists like to deal with prophecy. It isn’t enough to have a hero, you have to have a prophecy that a young hero will arrive. So every time that I see such a prophecy, I have to yawn.
  • Stock Magic Systems.
  • Most of our magic systems are drawn from the culture that we were raised in. So, for example, if you are raised in a culture where your ancestors believed in enchantments, your magic system will often contain enchanted items. Or if your ancestors believed that the earth itself had a will, you might develop a magic system based on the power of the elements themselves—earth, water, wind, and fire. Again I yawn, despite the fact that I’ve used these myself in fantasy.

I could go on and list more tropes and common failings, but I’m just trying to point out a couple of examples so that you recognize what is wrong.

You see, the problem with creating a magic system that is just like all the others is that it really doesn’t arouse a strong sense of wonder. It doesn’t feel magical. It doesn’t invite the reader to think, to become intellectually involved in your story. Instead of arousing wonder, the tale plays upon our sense of nostalgia. You might think while you’re writing your story that “I’ve always loved elves, so I’ll write about elves,” but in doing so you haven’t set the bar high enough for yourself.

In short, you need to stretch, to push yourself to some new creative heights, and create your own wonders so that you can delight and entrance your readers.

So I’m going to talk about how this is done in a few series of articles.

Thank You!

Click here for Lesson 2


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I’m a New York Times Bestselling author with over 60 books published and I’ve taught some big name authors like Stephanie Meyer (Twilight of course), Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn), and James Dashner (the Maze Runner).  
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