There seems to be a common misconception, from those who do not read/write fantasy, that authors who write fantasy have it the easiest. That we can create worlds where anything is possible, that our ideas aren't as refined or our plots lack complexity because magic can, and often does, save the day.
But just as in many other genres, realism is vital in fantasy. Yes, we create worlds were dragons exist, where spaceships cross the galaxy or a mystical pool can grant you immortality. But within those concepts we always aim for the balance of realism. Because without it the reader feels cheated, may lose interest of find plot holes -- nothing that we want.
In this series of blog posts, I will be exploring how I create realism in a completely fake world.
What would you guys like to see next? Realistic land/maps? Realistic beasts? Making names that sound real? Societies? Travel? Injuries? I'm open to suggestions... Let me know what you want to see in the comments below or on Twitter.
Magic is awesome. It can inspire awe and wonderment, and just as easily bring terror and despair. It is the tool of both hero and villain alike. So how do we get magic to seem real?
A realistic magic system is based on - - yup, rules. But not just any rules. They have to be logical and clear rules. The fastest way to kill believably is to make system with no rules. There is no point in a plot if someone with unlimited magic can just wander in and deus-ex-machina all over the place. There is no tension when a reader knows that your protagonist can just Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo their way out of the problem. Magic without limits... you could even destroy the whole earth, create a new one... *hands flailing* it just makes no sense to leave it so open for no reason.
If you are giving me side eye and groaning "Really, Mel!" I get it. A lot of people feel that rules make magic (and everything else) dull and lacking wonderment. But that's not true, magic is a tool. What you do with it inside the rules can be just as wonderful and beautiful as before, but now you have the added bonus of believably. Even "wild magic" needs rules through which it operates.
To make this a little easier, I came up with a system for myself. The 4 C's. Each magic system (if you have varying magics within races/species you'll probably need to do this more than once) will be more realistic if you even just briefly examine the confines, cost, competence, and consistency of your magic system and its users.
Confines: Magic needs a limit. Limitless magic is neither believable nor helpful for your plot.
Main questions: What can magic do? What can it not do?
To create limits you need to understand what people might want that is beyond the powers of magic, is it to raise the dead, create love, form something from nothing, spawn life or new life forms?
Once you understand what people want that is out of reach, you need to think about why they can't have the things they want. What has imposed these laws: God/s? Cost of magic is too great? The wrong race/species or bloodline? Imbalance unleashes a swarm of magic leeching ticks on the world? There has to be a someone who has attempted to gain something outside of the limits and it went horribly wrong. Their story should persuade others from trying to push the limits of magic.
Okay, so you know what is can't be done through magic and why it can't be attained... congratulations you've just set limits to your magic system. Go you.
Cost: The idea of getting something for nothing doesn't sit well with people, we eyeball it with suspicion looking for a catch. Because there always is a catch -- granted not always a negative catch, but there will be a consequence to the action. Magic should be the same. There should be something that limits the way in which people use their magic. Some cost for the creation of magic.
Main questions: What does a character lose when using magic? Is the impact worth it?
There are four types of cost that I can think of, I am sure you guys can think of some amazing consequences for your magic system. The four costs:
Physical (long/short term): this often presents itself as a loss of energy (mana/essence/spirit/etc.) and will give the characters exhaustion or fatigue. Use too much magic and they are unable to function, use even more and it could actually drain the character to the point of dying. It will make magic battles tense as people have to calculate how much power and when. (e.g. Use too much too soon and you are vulnerable.)
Mental (long/short term): this one could be that the magic uses joy, remorse, or even sanity to operate. The purpose of this would be to drain your character of something inside of them. Perhaps addiction plays a role in the cost of magic. While there is no obvious physical impact, it could create an interesting relationships between how the character feels about magic and the reasoning for why they use it. This cost usually plays into the character arc rather than creating tension.
Sacrifice: maybe this is a limb, some blood or a goat; something must be given in order for the magic to manifest. This presents a bunch of issues about how magic would be used in your world. While letting blood might work on a battlefield, a goat would not (imagine all the goats with tiny battle helmets fainting in fear - poor fellas). This cost brings up mountains of issues around morality (is the cost of a life/limb worth the magic received?). It calls into question the likability of the character performing the magic. And also raises limitations based on availability.
External: This usually involves taking something from somewhere other than the person wielding it. This could be potions, alchemy or even just killing the living things around the caster. Like the previous cost it can bring up question about morality and availability. This cost also raises issues for magic wielders working in groups/teams. How do the team members feel about having their energy taken, things dying, having to collect and carry stuff. Do they feel that it is worth it?
If you are really feeling like diving in, you could mix and match theses costs within your system. Just remember that the cost should match the outcome (lesser spell = lesser cost, greater spell = greater cost).
Competence: Usually magic, whether skill based or inborn talent, has levels of ability. There are casters who for whatever reason have more magic at their disposal. This uneven power adds layers to the realism of your magic system. In the world, not everyone has the same strength, intelligence or ability to eat ice cream. So add diversity to what the magic wielders in your world can do. This will also add tension for battles if there is the possibility that others are better at magic than you main character/s.
Main questions: Is everyone on a level playing field? How do you become more powerful?
Levels of competence often spring from various causes. Here are a few that I thought of:
Education: Do you have to learn and memorize spells, ingredients or dance moves in order to activate the magic? How easy is it to gain more complex levels of learning? How many years until you are considered competent? Is there a period of learning where you can't actually use magic yet?
Age: Do you become more powerful as you age? Or do your powers fail as you get older? Are you able to control your magic during puberty; or does it do wonky, embarrassing things?
Stamina: If you work out (mentally or physically) are you able to do more magic?
Blood lines: Does being born of a certain family mean that you can do more magic? How does this affect their social standing? Are people interested in them (romantically) in order to strengthen blood lines? What happens when someone of a lower and higher blood lines get together, is the baby stronger/weaker? Do certain magics run in certain lines? What happens when you mix two powerful lines?
Species: Do certain species have more power than others? Why? Are they immune to some of the costs? How?
Consistency: A confused reader is a reader that is no longer immersed in your book. While surprise is a good thing in your novel, confusion is not. Confusion means that the reader has imagined your world one way, with rules as to how it should function and you've gone and pooped on their ideas. Readers don't like that: its not nice to be pooped on.
Consistency gets rid of the pooping (I need to stop writing poop). If you have established a rule; for example, making a koala magically appear gives you an Australian accent for a month, then your protagonist start throwing magically appearing koalas at the antagonist, but with no accent, people are going to be suspicious of all the rules you have created.
Usually it is the protagonist that breaks the rules. The chosen one is above the rules... no they aren't you have just made a walking, talking dues ex machina. This character now has zero believably and the reader has zero reasons to care about their "plight".
Main questions: Are any of my characters breaking my limits or rules? Have I foreshadowed this?
As the question above states, you can break the limitations or conventions, it just involves letting your reader know that your rule isn't really a rule, it's more of a suggestion.
Rule: Magic can not bring a person back from the dead
Suggestion: It is believed that magic can not bring a person back from the dead.
Suggestion: Our records show that humans do not possess magic
A simple change of your phrasing changes a confused "What?" into a delighted "Oh!"
Remember that rules are meant to be twisted and ignored in the right circumstances. These are just what worked for me. If you know that you are breaking them for a reason, it is more effective than just blundering in blindly.
That's it guys. Sorry for the late post. I hope you've enjoyed it. Until next time: write stuff that is real - - especially when it's made up.