My magic knew nothing of sides. My spells fed without discrimination. They were selfish, heartless. They didn’t care who was right or wrong, who was strong or weak. To create themselves, they would drain friend as easily as foe.
—The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price
Power is never free. It can’t be. If there were no consequences, no limits, the world would be a scary place. So would my fantasy world.
In building a magic system like the one I created for The Crown of Stones, rules are a must. If the writer doesn’t stick to them, the reader will surely notice. That isn’t to say the rules can’t be bent now and then. Your magic system can develop as the story does. The reason has to be plausible though, and fit with the character, plot, and the world you’ve created.
Once you have a foundation and you know where your characters will draw their magical power from (spirit world, natural world, the caster’s will, enchanted objects, etc.), certain parameters need to be set.
Start with a few questions. How prevalent is the magic? Does everyone have access to it, or just a rare few? How hard is it to practice? Does each spell require some scarce ingredient that can only be found on an island in the middle of the ocean, during a full moon? Does it take years to master this magic, or does it instantly roar to life when your character touches some magical rune? Is it used sparingly, or freely, and what impact does it have on society? How is it received by those who don’t practice magic in your world? What does it cost? The more detailed your answers, the easier it will be when you’re 150 pages in and need to refer back to them. Remember: if the magic doesn’t make sense to you, it probably won’t make sense to your readers.
Be consistent. If a spell that has worked time and again suddenly fails (your character uses magic to start a campfire to cook his dinner and sets the whole forest ablaze); explain the cause. Is he inexperienced? Was there an outside factor/evil magic user that interfered? At the very least, your character should have a suspicion that can be confirmed or rejected later on. If your water-based magic user suddenly sprouts wings and shoots fire from his eyes—something never explored or mentioned previously—have a good, solid reason why. If you thoughtlessly throw around magic without rhyme or reason, it becomes simply that: thoughtless.
Know your price. In The Crown of Stones, magic is owned by one race, the Shinree, who are born with an addiction to casting. A Shinree can sense the energy, or aura, inside a stone. They have the ability to pull the aura inside themselves and direct the energy back out through their bodies. Actual written spells are used to focus their minds and shape the magic. Some are more adept and can cast with intention alone. The stones, while powerful, lack enough energy for the spells to be born. A measure is taken from the caster, weakening them or rendering them unconscious. More is taken from the caster’s environment. Plants, animals, people; whatever is nearby is at risk of being drained to the point of death. This is the Shinree’s magic-price.
My protagonist, Ian Troy, is a flawed, tortured man who has renounced his magical heritage. Throughout the book, he struggles to accept who and what he is, as well as his people’s place in society. I wanted his to be a difficult journey, a crucible to come into his own. Yet, with such a hefty price to keep him in check, I also needed a reason for him to keep casting.
If the price is high, set an equivalent reward. Immediately following a spell, the Shinree enter a brief state of euphoria. The larger the spell, the more energy they channel, and the longer they’ve gone without, the more intense the pleasure. This is what creates not only Ian’s internal conflict, but a conflict among the races that exist in his world.
Deprived of breath and awareness, I lay helpless and trembling in the mire, as my body became a furious cyclone of energy. It was unbearable. Yet, I was smiling. I’d surrendered myself into the grip of a well-trained whore and I was reveling in her touch, letting her do as she willed to me without regret.
Regret would come later, without fail. Now, I was magic-blind.
Ian learns more about his magic as the story moves forward. His range of spells and abilities grow. His knowledge of his people increases. This allows me some flexibility and permits the rules to evolve—but always within the same parameters.
A magic system can be complex, or simple. It can be unique, or share common elements with existing magical beliefs around the world. Be creative. Lay the groundwork. Set the rules. Have fun with it. The more thought you put into developing your system, and the more you understand it, the better it will come across in the story.