Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Why Harry Potter Is Useless Without a Stick of Wood – Magic and its Pitfalls by Subtle Kisses

Hello. You bored of me yet?

When I was little (not that long ago, I suppose) my brother used to collect Warhammer – to those uneducated in ultimate geekness, think plastic model armies. He used to collect the Orks and Goblins, who had an amazing magic system. If my brother rolled poorly, the mage’s head would explode.

No kidding. I loved magic ever since :D

Magic is the staple for so many Fantasy novels and can come in hundreds of varieties. Magic is limitless, ultimately powerful and exciting, but if the author doesn’t control it, it can destroy the novel. The honest truth is that magic can’t be limitless or ultimately powerful; otherwise there would be no need for the novel. Magic can help overcome the bad guy, or some sort of obstacle, but it needs to be controlled. Like physics, it needs rules, and there are no exceptions to these rules. Imagine what life would be like if suddenly, gravity ceased to work. We’d all float off into space, and die rather abruptly of suffocation. So when your resident wizard is about to blast an army of 50,000 warriors into oblivion with one fire-ball, think about how painful it is asphyxiate.

From the beginning, you should give your magic clear rules. I’m going to use Harry Potter as my lovely example today. (I’ve had enough of bandits and fat merchants)

Harry Potter is a wizard. (Duh…) If you stick a wand in his hand, he’s deadly. But where does his magic come from? Is the wand necessary? What can magic not do? Are there any taboos when it comes to magic? Is Harry weak to anything? Is he strong against something else in return?

Let’s look at this one question at a time. Where does magic come from? Well, it can come from anything you wish. A popular explanation is that it just ‘exists’ like air exists, and certain people can manipulate its existence. This is often called a ‘mana’ based form of magic. But this isn’t the only form. What about magic that comes from inside someone, based on their strength of will? What about magic blessed by the gods, or magic done by spirits at the command of a single individual? How about magic is simply manipulation of elements, and only psychic humans can do it? Think about where you magic should come from. If religion plays a large part in your novel, maybe it should be a blessing from God. If your story is about someone’s spiritual growth, then maybe magic coming from inside someone is a better idea.

So Harry Potter waves his wand and casts a spell. What does the wand do? Well, it acts as a focus. Is the wand necessary? Well, yes, otherwise something bad could happen when Harry loses his hormonal temper. The wand acts as a focus: it’s not the wand itself that matters so much (although it helps). Harry has to wave it a certain way to cast magic. But what other things could a magic system use, rather than a wand? A staff? A spell book? Does the magic system even need a physical focus? Could a wizard not create the same effect through dance, singing or concentrating? Does a wizard need a sacrifice to cast magic? Does he need to see and speak to spirits? Think about it. You know where magic comes from, so now work out how someone casts a spell. Who knows, maybe dancing naked on a table singing a song about Jelly Beans is the most effective way to cast a spell in your fantasy world.

What magic can’t do, and what magic should not do come hand in hand. In Harry Potter, magic can’t bring someone back to life, and magic MUST NOT be used to kill. A good magic system works on the same principles. It shouldn’t be able to everything, and some things should not be allowed. Maybe your magicians can not control the weather, because it’s too powerful. Maybe your mage is forbidden to create love spells by the law of the land. Maybe your apprentice can’t summon fire because he has allied himself to the element of water. Play with limitations, weaknesses and taboos and see what you come up with: there is an endless scope of ideas here.

And magic doesn’t stop there. What do you call your magic-users? There are hundreds of names out there: mages, magi, wizards, sorcerers, summoners, shamans, priests and alchemists to name but a few. If you use one of these ‘generic’ terms, think about the connotations of it. Alchemists bring up images of crazy scientists mixing chemicals to create potions and other substances, whilst priest gives a more holy, pure and inherently ‘good’ magic feel. Think about how you want your magic-users to be seen, and how they use their magic before picking a name for them. And if you want to be new, what’s to stop you calling your magic-users Ak’lanihik? (Apart from pronunciation of course)

As soon as you’ve named and created your wizards, you have to think of other things. How are they ordered? Are they ordered or are they so rare they’re singular? Are they so plentiful that every village has a wizard to sort out domestic disputes? Are they a source of authority or reviled for their differences? Are there rival factions of magic that fight constantly and their wars make the world tremble with fear? Or are they all one big happy family? Do wizards have to give something for their powers? Does magic slowly eat their minds so they go mad? Maybe they have to chop their finger off each time they cast a spell, so they can only ever cast 10 spells in their life time. Think about some of these questions, and some more if you think of them. The more depth your magic system has, the better.

Magic creates a world of opportunities, as long as it is consistent and not all powerful: remember that there must be a difference between magical intervention and divine intervention, otherwise there would be no need for the two different institutions of religion and magic. And please, try to keep the amount of ultimately powerful wizards running around to a minimum.

Finally, here’s a link if you want to know more: