So how do you explain magic? Well that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s magic, it is the unexplainable, the fantastic and the absurd. But more and more magic is becoming a quantifiable thing within fiction as more heavily imposing ‘magic systems’ are written into fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good magic system, but surely there’s also a point where you have to say “well, it’s magic.” So this article is going to be about the pros and cons of having a magic system.

One of the first pros for a magic system (and vice versa that this is a con for non-regulated magic) is that it stops the characters from using magic as a get out of jail free card. The reason that I say this is that without explaining how magic works to the reader, or at least showing the reader what magic can do and what it can’t do (after all, the rule is show don’t tell!), you can use it to do anything.

A nice simple example of this is where you pull the energy for magic from. If it’s not defined then it can leave the reader in suspense and make it a lot easier to surprise the reader, but that also runs the risk that the character can always stay one step ahead and away from danger.

Take for example a magic system that define (very loosely) where magic gets its energy from. In Steven Erikson’s Malazan series the magical realms called ‘warrens’ are the source of magic and a wizard can draw on them to perform magical feats. But the more you ‘open’ your warren and the longer you hold it open for the more strain it puts on the wizards. So this sets a limit on the wizard’s use of magic as to how much of a magical battering they can take.

Similarly when we look at Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series magical abilities are gained by ‘burning’ certain metals. Different metals produce different effects and you’re still subject to the laws of physics. So you can’t just stand on one leg and use magic to push a house down. That house is heavy and isn’t going anywhere, you’re going in the opposite direction.

So by having a system in place whereby you can see the limits of the use of magic it means that you can’t (without having a gaping maw of a plot hole) just use magic willy-nilly to save the day. So for Malazan you can’t just keep your warren open for as long as you want to do whatever you need, you’ll get torn apart. And for Mistborn, if you run out of metal then you’re just a normal person.

Of course there is some expectation that something will swoop down and save the day (whether you want to live up to that or not is up to you!) but this will stop you from releasing the tension with: “And with a magical WHOOSH the enemy were all turned into dandelions and our heroes were swept away on a magic carpet made of bacon to forever romp in fields of butterscotch and quaff ambrosian wine! Huzzah!”

Okay so maybe that’s an extreme example, but you get the idea. A tangible limit to magical forces, or how magical practitioners can use those forces restricts how much they can use it as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. This doesn’t mean you can’t push those forces, and push your characters to help them get out of those situations,  but it does mean that you then have a measurable cost for that push.

Another pro along the same line as this one is that a defined magic system that is known to the reader, if used correctly, can be used to build tension in the story. For example, if you have a magic user who finds themselves behind enemy lines and vulnerable but there’s something that the readers know will negate their magic, the story becomes a lot more tense as the readers wonder how the magician will get out of their hairy situation.

However, there are cons that come with a defined magic system of course. It can be easy to get carried away in the costing of powers and place too many limitations on your magic system. Why is this such a bad thing you ask? Well, ultimately because it’s magic! Magic is supposed to need our suspension of disbelief and not have us taking a pencil and paper to try and figure out how it was done. I believe that that sense of mystery and the fantastical is part of what makes the fantasy genre so compelling. Part of that universe is something that you can’t be explained, it can be utilized and you might understand it, but it can’t be explained away and made mundane.

I think that whether or not you want to have an in-depth system for using magic ultimately comes down to how deeply you want magic to be used by your main characters in your books. If your protagonist is a heavy magic user then it probably won’t do to have magic as a completely unexplained phenomenon in your world. That’s why the young protagonist slowly learning along with the reader is a popular model. It develops the character and explains how the universe works at the same time.

But then if you would prefer your magic users on the border, as secondary or tertiary characters then the magical forces do not need to be well defined. It could even contribute to the plot, as the protagonist desperately tries to understand these forces that are being thrown around in a manner generally detrimental to physical health. By having magic without borders, magic is left as a mystical force in the universe. Something barely understood but that is entwined with the forces of life, creation, death and destruction.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog post, and that all you wordsmiths out there are forging prose with great grace and ease!

The Mathematics of Magic
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