Monday, September 14, 2015

13 Points for Making Magic Believable

So two weeks ago now I attended the LUW conference. One of the classes I went to was Maxwell Alexander Drake's "Making Magic Believable." Now, Drake is usually there and I try to attend one of his classes because he's such a great presenter and so knowledgeable about writing in general. You're sure to get an hour of entertainment as well as great information that will get you all pumped up to write. I didn't remember ever having gone to this particular class (as it turns out, he'd never taught it before, so that's why :D) but I'm still puttering around with my Dragon Magic script, hoping to have a finished product by the end of the year.

Honestly, the magic system is the thing that's holding me up. So this class was perfect for me, no?

So here are some tips for making magic believable via the wonderful Maxwell Alexander Drake. (Visit his website at for more writing info. He generally has worksheets of his classes you can download under MAD Writing Lessons.)

Okay, so he starts out by saying this: 

If science fiction can be defined as making the improbably possible, then fantasy can be defined as making the impossible probably.

Role of Magic in Fantasy Stories:

  1. It is a distinction of the genre - any genre with magic is automatically considered fantasy.
  2. Adds an expected element - I thought that was interesting. You would think it would add an unexpected element, but nope. Readers of fantasy expect this and will look for it.
  3. Enhances discovery of the story - readers will quickly get to know your world, your characters, and your story through the magic system you present. 
  4. Helps facilitate the narrative - Ditto #3
  5. Is visually appealing - Yeah this is one of my problems. Often my magic systems aren't visual enough. It's something I have to work on. 
  6. Provides a source of conflict - And we can all use more of that in our stories, right?
Warning: Magic general has to do with controlling the elements and/or supernatural powers, but the magic should never be your end game. The magic should only be used to enhance the human elements of your story!

13 Points to Include in Your Magic System:

  1. Magic must fit the feel of your story: so a dark, tragic story should have dark, tragic magic. A happy, fun story should have magic to match.
  2. Choose your magic level:  A. Ambiguous (has no/few rules and can make up a rule any time the story needs one) B. Defined (detailed rules and boundaries and consistent, logical consequences). C. Semi-defined (something in between or a mashup of the two). 
  3. Abilities: decide how you want your magic to affect your plot, then decide what your magic can do.
  4. Limitations: these are things the magic CANNOT do and they're often more interesting than the abilities. They'll be your character's/magic's weaknesses. Having limitations will help to keep you from using magic as a crutch every time you get into a bind with your plot. It will also make the system more believable. The limitations of the magic should force your characters to overcome obstacles. It will keep your characters three dimensional.
  5. Weaknesses: these are things that can be exploited, allowing the story to remove your characters' magic. Be careful not to overuse weaknesses, as they quickly become cliche. 
  6. Costs: a negative consequence for using the magic. Adding this adds dimension to your story. The reader will see real world consequences for things that are happening. The cost should be great enough that your readers either 1) struggle with the character's questionable decisions or 2) they become connected to the characters in a more visceral way. The readers should either love or hate the characters (heroes and villains alike. :D).
  7. Make
    it visual:
    There should be a wonderful, exciting thing to describe each time the magic is used.
  8. Quality over quantity: too much can over burden the narration.
  9. World Building: Extrapolate from the magic. So, "what happens when..." It can help you round out your world. 
  10. World Building: Diversify the magic. Use it in new and different ways (have the characters figure out how because people are innovative and inventive) rather than adding new stuff.
  11. World Building: Interconnect everything. When a magical tool is discovered, it will be used by all of society in any way they can. (Think of how cell phones have saturated our society.)
  12. Define Magic's Origins: even if you never tell your readers where it came from, you, the author, should definitely know.
  13. Don't break your own rules: It actually can be done, but there must be a solid, believable, plot-driven reason for doing it or else you'll lose your readers' trust. 
So I am actively applying all of these to my WIP to flesh out my magic system. I hope this is helpful for everyone else too. 

Anyone have any more tips on making magic believable?


  1. Don't use it as a plot contrivance. That's always annoying.
    Many of those rules I learned playing D&D. Pays to be a geek!

    1. I agree. You can tell when the magic system is done well. And it totally pays to be a geek. :D

  2. I really like the one about making it Ambiguous. Too many people spend too much time working out all the fine details of their magic systems. The magic, like all elements of the story, should serve the story and the plot, not be the structure around which the story is forced.

    1. Agreed. I actually think the best thing to do is find a balance in between. Too ambiguous becomes convenient, but too many details, as you say, kind of forces the plot. Totally with you! :D