Friday, January 23, 2015

Limits of Magic

(Publishing news will be up for next Friday, as I am without Internet most of this week--yes, this was a prescheduled blog!)

Magic in fantasy can be big or small; it can be the point of the novel, or just a setting; it can be something desired--or something hated. Sometimes it's hidden, sometimes it's something that has always been there for everyone. Sometimes you're born with, and sometimes it's Maybelline created with carefully studied spells and ingredients.

How available is magic in your world? How powerful is it? What can it not do? Who can get it?

In stories, you may not have limits on the magic at all beyond the horrific consequences of using it, or of prohibiting it. Or, magic may be limited to only a few people, and the consequences of elitism. It really depends on the focus of the story.

Determining limits on magic in a book comes down to a game of imagining consequences.

Step 1: What is the message of the story?

Step 2: What limits on the magic will best get that message across? (Only a few people lave it; it's more annoying than helpful; it can't be used without consequences)

Step 3: What are the consequences of those limits? Create limits to prevent undesirable outcomes: (If only a few people have it, it could become an elitist society ruled by the magical. LIMIT: Those with magic can't be in charge; LIMIT: those who abuse magic are hunted down and punished)

Step 4: Create social, physical, or legal supports for the limits that prevent the undesirable outcomes: (If those with magic can't be in charge, they could end up as social pariahs or feared by people: LEGAL SUPPORT: they have a few representatives in the government; SOCIAL SUPPORT: they have a government agency that acts a little bit as union; SOCIAL SUPPORT: to prevent society from fearing them, and to prevent others from policing them, they strictly enforce the rules themselves and provide frequent charity work)

Step 5: Decide if any of your supports affect your worldbuilding. Adjust the world or the support accordingly: (Because magic is used for charity work on such a frequent basis, it doesn't pay as well as regular, non-magical skills.)

Step 5: Continue until your magic system is in the shape you want.

I created the Broken Powers world's magic system with the goal of making magic undesirable. Not taboo, not reviled and thought of as evil, but rather a system where the extraordinary was a part of banal existence, undesirable mostly because it acts as a social handicap. That meant it couldn't be super-powerful, needed limitations to keep it in control, and had to have practical applications.

Thus I created a life-limit of magic: where it is affected by will, and most people who have it cannot do impressive things with it. Only the very, very strongest of magics can kill a person directly; it's difficult to even affect people without their agreement. However, nonliving objects are easier to manipulate, which allows magic to have a practical effect. 

But I did want it to be occasionally impressive and capable of great devastation. Therefore, I decided that some people have more magic than others, and genetics is what determines who has how much. Thus I set up a limit--how many people have it--and a second limit--how it can be obtained.

I needed to control it, so the social limits became cultural mores and taboos, including government bodies focused on hunting down rogues. Because so few people have it, I made it an anti-elitism system: those who have it are excluded from power. And I added the taboo that it shouldn't be used as a weapon, except in war, because even I wouldn't believe a world where people didn't use magic in war. But there I gave the limit that the most dangerous magics were shared by all countries, so even in war, magic fights magic, and the non-magical have a chance at survival.

Limits are parameters you use to define not just the magic, but how the world reacts to magic. It's a fun exercise to create what-ifs and find ways to shape the world to your story need. 

What are some of the more interesting magic limits you've seen in books you've read?

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