Making Magic | How to create & compile a system that works.
Having your shit together in fantasy writing is essential but not always easy. One thing you'll find in my Scrivener manuscripts is a folder titled, "Rules of the World." Keep reading for my tips on making magic.
I learned lots of organizational tricks from a book called Story Genius, by Lisa Cron and the use of this folder is my fave.
I spend so much time taking inspiration from random places. I have books, in and out of genre, with notes in the margins. I have loose pages of scrawled notes I took while playing a video game. Don't even get me started on the screenshots clogging my phone's storage. Inspiration is everywhere.
For every wandering thought, there is a paper footprint. It gets difficult to track them all down when drafting in an electric file. So, I've gotten into the habit of keeping notes in my draft document in this folder.
Rules of the World.
Writing these rules into play, in the story, is fun and challenging. I've often considered creating a separate guidebook for my series. It'd be cool to showcase all the hard work I put into building this world, and go into depth for readers in a way that doesn't overtake the story's plot.
In book two, I'm including an informal guide for the first time in the series. There's a key for characters, who and where they are. There's also a fun part in the back called Keres' Journal, that serves as her notes. Her world is expanding, her knowledge is deepening.
Last thing I want is for the story to be drowned out by exposition and for the reader to be overwhelmed. In this way, world-building is an artform: balancing the information with imagination.
Getting the creative juices flowing and keeping every drop organized are two skills that go hand in hand.
Making the Magic Happen
The World of Aureum is dominated by a Pantheon of Gods who often bestow powers on chosen mortals. There are castes and dominions, principalities and powers. Magic wears many masks. Book two's over-arching theme is the darker side of power.
Naturally, there will be an emphasis on Keres' magic and abilities. She'll be learning mostly about what makes her character and these books unique: her Death Spirit. The God of Death has blessed her with entropic magic. She'll explore this along with other dark arts like Blood Magic and Necromancy.
Keres has felt conflicted about the grimness of her role in the world. She sees herself as a monster because of her abilities and their price. She's an anti-hero who shoulders the burden of a curse-- to thirst for blood. Of course, this shapes her understanding and use of her power.
In Kings of Stone and Shadows, Keres is forced to make radical decisions and divulge her darkest secrets. She's basically forced to go through a ruthless metamorphosis, to become more powerful.
I'm hoping the world and how it works will be fascinating for readers. That they'll feel just as tempted by power as she is. That they will revel in it. So, there's very little room to fuck this up.
Writing a system of magic takes so much time. It's been almost two years since the publication of book one. I've spent most of this time researching and building this world into one that functions outside of the characters.
The gods, the mortals, the monsters, the force that joins them all. It's a system. I've developed governments and sciences, philosophy and history, religion and politics, culture and rumors. Keres has been ripped out of the forest of the Sunderlands, and caged in a castle full of humans. She'll learn what they eat, how they think, who they truly are. Her prior experiences with racism and war, spirituality and morality... it all basically goes to shit.
This process not only requires research but also rehearsal. Information has to be consistent through conversation and exposition, while remaining digestable. Each character delivers a unique perspective or has something to teach. As the chapters shift through characters' POV, you'll flow through different parts of the world, experience different things.
My recommendation to other fantasy writers is to stay organized. Break down your notes. Document all your ideas, even the ones you're not sure you'll use. I've flagged my physical book in places that specifically have "world-building" content.
Besides having a folder in my electronic manuscript, I also have a binder full of notes that serves the same purpose. I think better on paper, and it really helps to write things out when trying to make sense of a world and then translate it.
How to think like a Magic Maker:
These are the things I'd consider rules when creating a magic system.
- Most importantly, classify the characters with powers. Knowing their limits is just as important as knowing their abilities. Both differentiate classes from each other. For example, in the first book, it was important to explain how Keres differs from Osira. One is an Instrument and the other is an Oracle. Different abilities, different responsibilities.
- Since all forms of magic come from one of the gods in the pantheon in my books, I wrote out an explanation for the origins of these gifts. Each god represents a facet of the physical world, and magic is what binds this physical world to their spiritual realm. The magic will have attributes of the god who gifted it. That's why Keres' death magic is... more like a curse than a blessing. Her strikes are almost always lethal. She's terrifying and forceful. She can steal breath and stiffen bodies. Etc.
- For my series specifically, it's important to showcase the relgious practices or cultures of beings with powers. Keres' upbringing with Ivaia involved a ritualistic hunt, like a sacrifice to her God. When Keres and Darius meet three apostates in their travels, they debate doctrine and exchange metaphysical gifts. There are religious texts and temples or shrines that different characters value.
- Another thing to think about is how the spiritual aspects of magic physically alter the characters. Some powers will set mortals apart as "Other" than what they are and it shows in their appearances. Keres, born an Elf and remade into an Instrument of the Divine, is considered less mortal than others. Her black hair changed to white when she received her powers. Keres and Liriene are described as having claws and fangs when in a heightened spiritual state. Keres' eyes are blackened, she speaks the language of the Gods, and so on. Mages, whose gifts come from the God of Wonder, are a minority, but can be of almost any race. Some characters have colors in their eyes that relays their powers. In fact, use of color is probably the easiest way to show-case power.
- Behavior alters as well. You saw Liriene enter a trance-like state when her powers first possessed her. Throughout book two, her powers make her more detached from the reality non-magic characters live in. Keres usually goes into a berserker-like mode. She becomes more impulsive, attacking nearly without discretion. Her magic is intricately tied to her emotional state. Use and understanding of power is also usually shaped ideologies.
- Another thing to consider is how beings with power relate to one another. In book one, Osira is able to "channel" Keres through a fever-dream. Two characters are able to infiltrate Keres' mind, and communicate their thoughts to her, which she can reciprocate.
- Of course, you cannot overlook how beings with power interact with the physical world either. In book one, Osira needs help interpreting the messages she receives from the Gods. Keres slays a monster and uses its bones to make a broth that Osira can drink. In the way a potion might enhance abilities, this brew enables Osira to decipher her visions. Keres also discovers a tree inside a temple that dies when she plucks one of its leaves, and revives when she waters is with her blood. The apostates mentioned above, gift Keres and Darius things to use from nature that would enhance their abilities.
- A very important detail to account for is the cost of magic. Some common terms in fantasy writing are "mana" or "willpower," and both are typically tied to a kind of spiritual energy of the mage/caster. Physical or mental exhaustion are results of spending this energy when wielding magic.
- An interesting thing to play with is the opportunity for characters to "unlock" new abilities through experience. Much like in a video game. Magic takes practice the same way wielding a weapon would.
- Give attention to the "lingo" used by beings with power. Do abilities have names? How does a power translate in an action scene?
- Ever thought about Magic dynamics? Consider how one character's power might add to or detract from another's. Or how one ability might be combined with or flow into another.
- Magic in relation to the "normal stuff". Magic in combat, magic in sex, magic in the day to day lives of your character. Is it commonplace? Is it rare?
- In book two, a conversation is opened about philosphy and magic. Because of the religious roots of power in this book, of course, you have anti-theistic schools of thought. Or anti-magic thinking. Ask- What opposition or conflict can be created because of magic? What is working against the system you've built? Are beings with power reveared and worshipped, or feared and ostricized?
- Magic and morals... I think the age-old battle of dark vs. light... needs no explanation. But it makes for good writing material.
- Magic and settings in your world. Are some places hidden by magic? Are their magical tools a character can use to access these places? Which brings me to my next point.
- Magic and objects. This system should encompass more than nature and gods, or mortals and monsters. Objects are overlooked opportunities to weave more into your story. You can't have all these vivid scenes and dialogue sequences, and completely forget to put things in your characters' hands.
That's the bulk of my thinking that goes into this aspect of world building. If you can figure these things out, you can compile. As you compile, organize. Soon, you'll have a system that works!
I hope you're looking forward to experiencing the magic of book two!