How to Make Imaginary Things Work

How to Make Imaginary Things Work

We have to learn how things work in order to write about them. But what if we’re trying to write about imaginary things – like magic – or things that haven’t been invented yet? I like to use the same approach for both scenarios; ask all the relevant questions and fill in the blanks. For the imaginary, what can’t be obtained through research can be acquired via imagination instead.

As an example, here is how I create my magical systems:

What does it do?
When it comes to magic, it might be easier to list it’s limitations. But it’s always good to have an idea what you want magic to do, even if the answer is everything. Magic can make the impossible possible; how far do you want that to go? Can a mage level a mountain? How about create objects out of thin air? When I wrote Island of Lost Forevers I started big – with the ability to traverse dimensions. Sentomoru can rearrange the appearance of his island home at will. He can flash-grow plants and disperse rainstorms. But you can start anywhere.

Many of my magic systems start with Healing; the ability to accelerate the healing process for wounds or diseases. Others focus on applications in combat, such as lobbing magical bolts of energy or conjuring demons. If you don’t have a specific focus, magic can do just about anything. Or it can be limited to charms and rituals, depending on your setting. And there are tons of sources for magical inspiration. Dungeons and Dragons and similar tabletop game settings are a fine example; not only will these games tell you what magic does, but how the caster puts it together. You can also look to religion or mythology to find rituals for more primitive magical uses. Way of the Wyrd, by Brian Bates, is an excellent resource for magic rooted in mythology.

What are the limitations?
Unlimited power sounds fantastic (especially if you say it in the Emperor Palpatine voice), but it makes for a boring story. Everything should have limitations, and your characters should run into them regularly. In Island of Lost Forevers Sentomoru was only capable of great acts of sorcery because he had the island’s power behind him. Any normal sorcerer would be hard pressed to oppose him, as our protagonist, Damian, quickly learned. In some ways, Damian’s magic used an entirely different set of rules, which kept him at a constant disadvantage.

For me, the funnest part of the process is limiting magical abilities. For example, I built one magic system around the idea that Healing is time-limited. Meaning, if a person started to heal naturally, a sorcerer couldn’t just waltz in and finish putting them back together. The wound ‘sets,’ making magic healing almost impossible after a certain amount of time (usually three days). So someone mortally wounded may be in luck if a skilled Healer is close by, but someone who has to wait for treatment to a horribly wounded limb may still lose it. I didn’t want my characters running into dangerous situations knowing any damage was easily reversed – we must have legitimate peril, after all.

Some magic systems are limited only by the caster’s imagination. Others require enough energy to fulfill the desire, as is the case in Island of Lost Forevers. Perhaps magic only works if the caster knows a proper incantation or possesses a proper instrument or focus. Details here can add a lot of layers to a setting.

Where does it come from?
Do you have to be born with talent to use magic? Or can anyone pick it up with enough study? Does magic live only in man-made objects or does it flow through the earth and air? Does the energy to fulfill a spell come from within the caster, or do they draw it from an outside source? This is another place where RPG settings can be a great source of inspiration.

It’s worth noting that you can do a lot with energy transfer – especially if you maintain the law energy can neither be created nor destroyed. What happens to a source when its magic is depleted? What happens to a person when they deplete their own energy source? Can the world, or an object, regenerate its magical energy? Or is there only a finite amount of magical energy available in the world?

What are the benefits?
What does the world gain from magic’s existence? Faster communication? Instant healing? One of my settings uses magic as a power source. Magic is generated in much the same way we generate electricity, and is then used to power lights, computers, phones, everything! But how does magic benefit a world where it is less abundant? Perhaps the inhabitants save it only for dire need. In Island of Lost Forevers, the benefits of magic are nearly limitless, but acquiring the skill to access them is difficult and requires a great deal of sacrifice. I have created other settings where magic has begun to fade, increasing the benefits offered to magic users by their societies, but this also increases the risks and consequences of using magic.

What are the consequences?
Magic can have negative impacts on the world as well. Perhaps the use of magic damages the ecosystem. Or perhaps magic only benefits the rich because the poor are unable to afford the skills of a sorcerer. Perhaps wars between all-powerful mages has blighted and destroyed a continent.

On a smaller scale, consider the personal cost of casting a spell. Can using too much magic damage the caster? Perhaps a caster must prepare their spells ahead of time and can no longer work magic when they run out. What happens if a sorcerer loses their magical focus or forgets a spell? What happens if their magic backfires, and can other casters interfere with their attempt to cast?

It’s especially important to know the rules for a magical system, so that you know what happens when a caster attempts to break or exploit them (as is so often the case in fantasy stories).

What makes your magic unique and different?
Perhaps the most important question when you create any kind of setting is; what sets it apart? What makes it different from all the other magical systems I’ve read about? This is what will keep the reader interested. For the Mystical Island trilogy I used the concept of travelers; sorcerers who gained enough knowledge to move between dimensions unassisted by the island. Sorcerers in that setting have diminished, causing those who remain to jealously guard their secrets. Sometimes they hide these traditions when they pass them on, using rituals and myth to perpetuate spells they hope to keep alive.

Take a look at your favorite magic system and it will be easy to identify these unique twists. David Eddings used ‘the will and the word’ to define his magic system. JK Rowling used wands, stating that wandless magic is very difficult and rare. In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, misuse of magic could cause horrific storms and even blight the land.

And as with all world building – be sure to have fun!

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