*The following post on the creation of the magic system for The Crown of Stones was originally written in 2014, a few months after I published Magic-Price. As part of the Fantasy Showcase for the Brain to Books Cyber Convention this weekend, I thought it was a good time to pull it out and dust it off.
Someone once said to me: “Writing fantasy is easy. You get to make everything up. Cast a spell, and your problems are solved. It’s magic. It doesn’t have to make sense.”
Thankfully, I knew better. It doesn’t matter how much you ‘make up’, a reader won’t fall into your story if it isn’t believable. If magic is an integral part of the plot, then it needs to be as well-crafted as any of your characters. To make sense, magic needs rules and parameters. To make that easier, it helps to have a foundation in place first.
One of my inspirations for The Crown of Stones Trilogy was a beautiful chunk of amethyst that sat on my bookshelf for many years. I had always been interested in rocks and minerals, as well as anything with a supernatural flare. When I created Ian, a character made powerless by his greatest strength (his own magic), I combined my interests and fashioned my magic system around stones like the amethyst on my shelf. I spent a good deal of time researching spiritualism, holistic health, crystal healing, astral projection, aura readings, and the like. As I learned more about the different gemstones and their properties, my magic system took root and my story idea expanded.
There are many different practices that can serve as a guide for inspiration. Wicca is nature-based. It involves invoking the five elements and ritual altars and tools. Shamanism involves the spirit world and reaching a state of ‘religious ecstasy’. Hoodoo, along with other spiritual and folk medicine, makes use of charms and potions often made with herbs and minerals. Crystal healing and magic draws on the energy generated by what have been called ‘natural batteries.’
Wanting to develop my own, unique system, I took snippets from multiple practices and beliefs. Sticking with the ones I personally found most interesting, I blended them until I had an origin that fit with my story. That was my foundation.
A solid base is necessary for your magic system, but to build on it, you need rules and boundaries. If you set rules and break them, your readers will notice. That doesn’t mean you can’t expand your limits. Your magic can develop and evolve like any character. You can also bend the rules once in a while—you did make them, after all—as long as the reason is plausible and fits with the character, plot, and world you’ve created.
To set your rules, start by asking yourself a few questions.
How prevalent is the magic?
Does everyone have access to it, or only 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.
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 that interfered? At the very least, your character(s) should notice something is wrong. Later on, they can discover a clue to confirm, and explain, their suspicions. If your water-based magic user suddenly sprouts wings and shoots fire from his eyes—something never explored or mentioned previously—have a solid reason why. If you thoughtlessly throw around magic without rhyme or reason, it becomes simply that: thoughtless.
Know your price. Power (of any kind) is never free. It can’t be. Without consequences or limits to that power, the world would be a scary place. In a fantasy world, full of evil creatures, kings, and magic users, your protagonist wouldn’t stand a chance. If he/she is the one with infinite, free power, it would make for a very short story. In The Crown of Stones Trilogy, magic is an addiction that’s suffered by an entire race call the Shinree. Magic is limited to that race and the price they pay for each spell is steep.
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
Shinree spells need energy to be born. All living things near the caster are in danger of being drained. Usually, the process is fatal. But on the heels of that great price, comes a reward: a brief state of euphoria. This pleasure is what feeds the Shinree’s addiction. The guilt that follows adds a layer of depth to the consequences, creating another limit and a source of conflict.
Deprived of breath and awareness, I lay 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. Caught in a phase that amounted to no more than a hairsbreadth of climax, an instant where it was virtually impossible to give a damn about anything.
I drifted in it happily.
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 with 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, when you cast your way out of a corner, your readers will believe it.