Geekdom Come, World Building 101

World Building 101- Magic

And now we’ve come to the sexy bit. That’s right fellow world-builders, gods of the imaginary realms, after meticulously planning out our world’s geography and mythology, painstakingly creating an ecosystem in which the distinct plants and animals of your creation can thrive it’s finally time to indulge ourselves a bit. In this edition of World Building 101, we finally cover Magic!
Let your imagination run wild. If you can dream it you can build it. Wizards who can summon talking rhinoceroses, no problem. An Adept who lights apples on fire with his mind, why not. Women warriors whose limbs can become water, whatever floats your boat. Whatever you decide there is only one hard and fast rule and that is that your magic system must have rules.
What do I mean by that? Well, magic is a pretty powerful force. And I don’t just mean that in a fictional sense. Narratively it can be very tempting to use magic to get yourself out of any number of sticky situations. However repetitive use of the Deus ex Mage will undermine your characters agency and rob crucial scenes of tension for your reader. To avoid this it’s important to establish some sort of ground rules for the magic of your world. Even if you don’t take the time to explain these rules to your reader at least you know they are there and can use them as guidelines for what your characters can and cannot accomplish with magic.
There are three very common approaches to this in fiction. The first is to treat magic like an academic endeavor similar to the sciences. There are laws of magic just like there are laws of physics. This gives you a framework from which to build out what is and isn’t possible in your world. I can’t fly because of gravity; maybe I can’t conjure a mansion because of the law of conservation of magical mass. You get the idea.
The second approach is to establish the law of unintended consequences. Magic is too unpredictable and therefore depending upon in it foolhardy. Your character tries to win the lottery and inadvertently gets themselves drafted into an ogres war instead.
The third approach is that Magic has a price. Your characters can summon, conjure, and hex to their heart’s delight but they or someone close to them must pay and pay dearly for their spell casting. A life for a life kind of stuff. Or if you wish the draining of one’s internal energy or soul. In some versions this can be restored through meditation, in some it is simply gone for good. That choice is up to you. Whatever kind of magic system you decide to set up remember that it is a system and treat it as such.
I leave you with a notation of what I think are some of the cleverest magic systems I’ve come across. Nico of Marvel’s Runaways (the comic not the series) has the Staff of One that can cast any spell but only once. This leads to Nico carry a thesaurus with here at all times and some pretty creative spell casting. Brian Sanderson’s Mistborn universe uses a really cool magic system based on metals and alloys that is incredibly inventive. And of course the very grim, gritty, grounded in reality of the wizards and their magic in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files will absolutely get you hooked.
Well Wizards, I hope this was helpful for you. If you take nothing else away from this post its that MAGIC HAS RULES. Until next time this has been World Building 101.

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