rules of magic

As you know, I’ve started working on the first round of revisions on my novel.

You have to understand, this isn’t just a normal novel that I wrote over the course of a few months.  This is something that I have worked on for a few years now.  Each year I would devote a burst of time to it, and then it would sit stagnant for many months until I started working on it again.  It is easy to see, over the course of the book, how my writing style changed and skill level increased.  The first many chapters are horrific.  Those are going to take a lot of work.  I’m excited about this next challenge!

In my final push to finish, I started making a list of things that I knew were going to need some work when I started revisions.  That list wasn’t for things like grammar or even poor story telling early on.  I’m talking about genuine problems with my story.  One of the biggest of those is my magic system.  I love it and I hate it.  I know it needs a lot of work.  Part of the reason it needs so much work is that I didn’t sit down and create a set of rules early on like I should have.  I’ve actually written on this before, but now that my story is finished, I thought I would touch on it again.

Those of you who have read my blog know I am a huge Brandon Sanderson fan.  One of the things I enjoy so much about his books are his amazing magic systems.  He actually wrote a really cool article called Sanderson’s First Law.  It talks about the importance of having real, definable rules for magic systems.

In my story, there are five different types of magic.  Persons who are lucky enough to get magic are selected for one type.  My protagonist ends up with all five, something that has never happened before.  When I first started on this story several years ago, I had never heard of Sanderson’s First Law, or anything like it.  I didn’t take the time to think about limits on magic or consequences for using it.  I jus thought it would be really cool to have a super powerful guy.  But the problem, as most of you picked up on far quicker than me, is that if a guy is just too powerful, it breaks the novel.  There is nothing he can’t do.  And that does me no good.  You can’t ever build any genuine tension if you know the hero can just magic himself right out of every problem.

So, as my story grew and this problem became apparent, I started trying to limit the ways in which he could use his magic.  Sometimes it worked for him.  Sometimes it didn’t, and he couldn’t figure out why.  But, through it all, I still never had a set of rules.  Even I, as the author, had no idea how it worked.  Now that’s not necessarily a shock to me because I do not outline my stories. I write as it comes to me.  But, for something like this, you can’t just wing it.  You have to have a plan.

So this is something that I need to figure out. How do I give my protagonist all this power in a way that doesn’t allow him to just solve every problem and get out of every situation with magic. Do I place physical limitations? In Eragon, for example, there was a physical toll every time he used magic. A great idea, but far too overused at this point. In the Mistborn stories, allomancers had to have an actual supply of fuel (metals) for magic. That is a pretty freaking cool idea because it allows them to be very powerful when they have the supplies, but if they run out or it is taken, they are as weak as everyone else.  And each fuel powers a different type of magic.  Brilliant!

Obviously not every system has rules. Take Gandalf, for example. Tolkien never gives us any idea as to the limits of Gandalf’s power. We know that at times he can be very powerful. But, for some reason, he rarely uses that power. And sometimes using that power creates more problems. And, frankly, it works. But, I’m not Tolkien, so let’s not go there. 🙂

So this is what is going to occupy my thoughts for the next few days. I don’t think I can get very much further into my revisions until I get this figured out because the issue of magic inserts itself very quickly.

For those of you who write, what do you do? How do you define the rules and limits of your magic systems?

Wish me luck…


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