Some magic systems just don’t make any sense. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be fun, it just means that the audience will frequently be reminded at how silly it all is. When this happens, it reminds the audience that this is “just a story,” and can effectively remove the reader from the tale. As the poet/critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, the magic system violates the reader’s “suspension of disbelief.” Making better magic systems includes making it fit into the story seamlessly and naturally.
Let’s take a classic example: Dumbo. Disney specialized in creating magic systems that were often ludicrous simply to get a fun visual effect. I remember seeing Dumbo for the first time when I was about ten years old, and it really annoyed me. I kept looking at Dumbo’s ears and wondering, Is waggling those big ears really supposed to give that elephant enough thrust so that it can lift off the ground? I don’t think so!
Now, as a child of four, I might have thought the idea of a big-eared flying elephant was cool. I might even have wondered if it could really happen. I might have wished that I could ride a flying elephant. As an adult, I might have been delighted to see my own children enjoying the nonsense. But at ten I was just at the cusp of an age where I couldn’t figure out what to make of it and found myself “outside” the tale, watching it but not really being engaged.
Another magic system that bothered me as a child was Popeye the Sailor Man and his eating of spinach.
As a five-year-old, the magic system seemed to me to be designed to sell nasty canned spinach—as if it were the brainchild of an unusually foolish advertising exec. Now, if you’re creating a magic system for an animated film, and you’re looking just to create a visual spectacle, such a magic system might work fine. It can be lighthearted and fun.
But once in a while, a magic system comes along that somehow feels a bit more . . . realistic than others. It can subtly invite the reader to believe. To me, such magic systems feel more “organic.”
Indeed, I often find that the best magic systems have deeper meanings. They often serve as metaphors for life, and beg the reader to consider the tales they are in seriously.
I think that the first time that I really noticed one of these “organic magic systems” was in Frank Herbert’s Dune, where a powerful “spice,” an organic molecule created by giant alien worms, was found that stimulated a person’s prefrontal lobes so well that the person who inhaled the spice was given almost prescient powers.
The idea of spice worked well for me for one simple reason: There had been rumors of drugs that stimulated the imagination for centuries. In fact, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (mentioned above) wrote one of his most famous poems, “Kubla Khan” under the influence of opium.
Of course, in the 1960s and 1970s many artists experimented with drugs in an effort to increase their productivity and expand their imaginations. I’ve known authors who use alcohol, pot, meth, and LSD for such purposes. Even Frank Herbert is rumored to have written Dune under the influence of mind-altering drugs.
Just to be clear, I strongly warn authors not to try this. I’ve seen too many authors destroy their careers this way.
But my point is that the magic system in Dune suggested the idea that potent chemicals could be developed that might lead us to higher stages of consciousness. As a teen with an interest in medicine, I felt that that was worth thinking about. Magic systems that are based on principles that sound plausible feel somehow more “right” to me, and thus invite me to become more engaged.
Similarly, a magic system might invite us to consider the tale more seriously because it can act as a sort of magnifying glass that helps reveal the world as it is. For example, in a recent story by Andrew Peery called “Useless Magic,” found in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 33, a magician lives in a world where his father, a powerful sorcerer, spends his time humiliating his children in an effort to get them to follow in his footsteps. The only problem is, the young man can’t. He has only one small magical ability, and it’s utterly worthless. In this story, we aren’t invited to wonder at a fantastically crafted magic system so much as to consider the far more human tale that unfolds between father and son.
So, when I’m crafting my own magic systems, I often like to look at the tale and ask myself questions like, “Does this magic system feel organic, as if it is an extension of some natural law?” and “What life lessons does this magnify?” or “Does the magic system invite me to engage in this story on an intellectual level?”
This is what I tried to do with my novel The Runelords.
I spent a year researching and considering various magic systems and didn’t really like any of them. I was interested in dealing with magic at an “economic” level, to consider the underlying morality of how we trade for goods and services, often with both parties trying to get the most possible from the other while offering little in return. I finally came up with a magic system that acted as a metaphor in the way that I hoped. When I wrote the novel, it sold millions of copies, but it wasn’t until it had been out for ten years and the world was going through a huge recession that I began to get fan mail from readers who said, “You know, as I was reading this, I realized that this isn’t fantasy at all: it’s about the real world!”
Yes, as a writer, that’s what I try to do: I search for magic systems that can help me say something about the real world.
It’s not the only way to work, but it’s one that I find fun.
Note: Many people have been asking if I will write a book on How to Build Better Magic Systems. The answer is, yes, these articles are meant to serve as the basis for a larger book. In it, I will expand upon these points, show examples of how it has been done in the past, and give assignments to help you think about and construct your own magic systems.