Making Magic: Questions for World-Builders

When world-building, certain elements grab my interest and focus more than others. Generally speaking, I am not hugely interested in political science or economics. Those who read Hapax may have noticed a distinct lack of court intrigues (though I totally implied that the City is run by councillors—somewhere in chapter 19, I think! It wasn’t hugely important to the story). That’s not to say I have no clue how my characters are feeding themselves, I just tend to spend less time on it than I do on the theological/magical side of things.

And magic is what I wanted to explore today, because I’ve just had to create a new magic system for The Next One. After working so long and so thoroughly with the aither, it’s very strange to say, “Well, actually, now magic works this way.”

But it’s been good to revisit the process of crafting magic systems. Honestly, it seems like most of my process is just asking myself questions and running thought experiments. Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of the sorts of questions I ask myself:

TO START:

  • Is there magic?
  • Where does the magic come from? Is it a natural process of this world that can be harnessed like fire or electricity? Is it inherent to the magic-user? Was it always there and a goddess woke people up to it in a desperate attempt to save the world?
  • To what extent is magic related to this world’s gods? Is it at all?
  • Can magic in this world be explained by natural laws, even if these laws aren’t “natural” as we understand them in this world? If so, what are these laws? (Did you, for instance, butcher a corrupted version of string theory?)
  • What does magic actually look/smell/feel/taste/sound like? If there was active magic around, who would notice, and how?
  • What can magic not do? (And there ought to be something magic can’t do. Otherwise, it ain’t magic: it’s a problematic plot element at best, and a deus ex machina at worst.)

MAGIC-USERS:

  • Does everyone have magic, or just some people?
  • If just some people, what percentage of the population, roughly?
    • If just some people, how do they learn about/learn to control their magic?
  • Closely related: do only humans get magic, or do other species? Does their use of magic differ?
  • Come to think of it, how does the use of magic vary among various magic-users?
  • How do people get magic? Do they always have it? Does it come naturally with other changes at puberty? Do you sacrifice a goat at the Harvest Moon to receive it?
  • How do magic-users view themselves?
  • Can you make a living with magic? Why or why not?
    • If so, how is that organized? Unions, freelancers, guilds, alchemists locked away in ivory towers turning iron into gold?
  • Have the magic-users formed their own unique subculture? Alternatively, is magic so ingrained in the culture that the two are impossible to separate?
  • Can a magic-user lose their magic, or will they have it forever?

USE OF MAGIC:

  • Walk me through the casting of a typical spell. How does it work?
  • What materials and/or equipment, if any, do you need to perform magic? Where does one obtain these items?
  • Is magic more point-and-shoot (i.e. Harry Potter), or does it require hours of special preparation?
  • What is the cost of magic? (HINT: Magic always has a cost. No such thing as a free lunch, especially not in stories.)
  • What sorts of spells is a magic-user most likely to perform?
  • How does an individual magic-user’s traits (age, gender, intrinsic skill, experience, occupation, place in the religious/magical/social hierarchy) affect the efficacy of their spell-casting?
  • Does magic work differently in different locations/at different times, or is it equally accessible at all times and in all places?
  • Do magic-users mostly work in groups, solo, or a mix? What determines this?
  • What could cause a spell to go wrong? What does “going wrong” look like?
  • What happens if a spell goes wrong?
  • Has the use of magic changed throughout history? If so, how? Why?
Apollo-era Mission Control. Not going to lie, this is not unlike how I picture the creation of an MCB. (Source: www.fineartamerica.com)

Apollo-era Mission Control. This tense focus, cooperation, and attention to detail is pretty much how I picture magic in Hapax.  Except without computers.  (Source: http://www.fineartamerica.com)

MAGIC IN SOCIETY:

  • Does magic require years of study to master, or can any idiot mumble some words out of a book and cause some result? Is it an inborn trait that cannot be taught, only refined?
  • Who’s doing the teaching?
  • What impact does magic have on the economy? (See? Even I get to economics eventually…)
  • What impact does magic have on the government? The military? Are there parallel organizations running alongside the non-magical, are they all heavily integrated with magic, or are magic-users too few/weak to make a difference?
  • To what extent has magic replaced science? If you have magic for enough years, will you wind up inventing a magical refrigerator? Transit? Or God help us…magic androids???
  • How does society at large view magic and magic-users? Positively? Negatively? Ambivalently? Better to call a magician than a plumber?
    • Have these attitudes changed in the past? Why or why not?
  • Are there “magic only” institutions? If so, what are they?
  • Is there art/literature/music either inspired or actually created by magic?
    • If so, do we then get into a debate about who’s the “real artist” – the guy painting with a paintbrush by hand, or the girl making colours appear in the air with her will?
  • Are there any industries/areas of life that magic does NOT touch? If so, what? Why?
  • Do magic-users abide by different laws? Either their own separate code, or a subset of society’s laws? Are they considered above the law, unfairly persecuted, or neither?
  • How do you discipline/penalize someone with magic?
  • Are some groups of magic-users seen as “better” than others? Why? By whom?

LOOPHOLES!!!!

  • Can the laws of magic be broken? If so, when, how, and with what consequence? (HINT: you generally don’t want to be breaking your own rules, unless you have a very, very, VERY good reason for doing so.)
  • Are your magic-users unaware of some laws/aspects of magic, and/or have they gotten some things wrong? If so, how and why?
  • Does the nature of magic ever change?
  • Are there any remaining apparent contradictions in your magic system? If so, what? Also, can you resolve them in such a way as to enrich the story?

Again, a good start, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you want exhaustive, check this one out. It may look a bit daunting, but a good rule of thumb? Build what you need, and imply the rest.

– KT

Posted on July 22, 2013, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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