One of many great parts about fantasy, is magic! The one thing that can explain everything. Mostly. I actually tend to offer that as my go-to answer when someone asks how I did something or how something happened. A very easy answer. What is less easy is writing magic.
Thinking of fantasy, there are a few stories in one medium or another that ruins the face of the genre. Simply because the magic system wasn’t clearly defined. For example, in The Lord of the Rings (which I love regardless), why didn’t Gandalf send Frodo on a giant eagle from the very beginning? We don’t know what the rules or limitations are for that magic trick, so we find it a bit frustrating. The rings are another question, why is the one that rules them all only makes a hobbit invisible? Why can’t he influence the other ring bearers?
In Star Wars (which I also love), what determines what a jedi can or cannot do? A large part of this system is how in-tune the jedi is with the force. However, there are a few loopholes in this when an action in one moment could have been beneficial in another moment. For some reason, though, the jedi can’t do ‘that’ in this moment. I saw a jedi ‘teleport’ to the other side of the hallway. But then when surrounded, they can’t get away anymore?
Harry Potter is a world of magic. While there are some confusing moments, like how did Harry make the glass disappear to free the snake, most of the rules are there. In general, a wizard or witch needs a wand to perform any spell. Potions can be brewed with precise ingredients and in the correct order. Mostly, the the limit to the magic you are able to use is your knowledge of and practice of each spell.
Another good example of clear magic rules, is Eragon. A magic user has to learn the language of magic and these spells are only possible with focus. But the real kicker about magic, is that each spell takes up energy. The enactment of a powerful spell can put the magic user in a coma, or even cause death. The limitations are very clear and keep magic from being the solution to everything.
Scope and Limitations
With magic being defined as unexplainable, when you write it in a story, there better be some explanation that goes along with it. Scope and limitations are the two things I feel need to be considered. In the above examples, the limitations are addressed, either done well or not. If magic is running rampant with no limitations, there are either plot holes or the story is just chaotic. Either way, it’ll be hard to write. Scope is one way that can help indicate the limitations. The magic concept idea you likely already have will probably include the scope. Magic is only available to one of millions of characters such as witches, certain creatures/characters have certain abilities, and talismans are the only source of magic, are all different scopes or concepts that may be considered.
If the certain abilities scope is taken, then the limitations are that a fire magic user can’t use other elemental forms of magic. The scope defines the type of magic or to whom the magical abilities are available. The limitations are the rules that have to be followed. Additional limitations to the certain ability scope may be that a fire magic user can’t use magic if cold. Or the bridge troll with the ability to climb incredibly fast, can’t climb if there isn’t a river below.
Creating Your Magic System
Clearly magic isn’t a new aspect of a story. But you can create a completely new aspect of magic by the combination of scope and limitations you choose. Hundreds of different ideas can be found for a source of magic; legends, ability boosters, there is literally no limit to the options of magic. Make your concept unique and true to your story. But make it a clear system so that the story is what stands out, not the gaps in the magic system.
A great resource to further develop your magic system is this post I found by Josh Vogt. He starts with a great little mad lib game that makes creating the magic concept easy. You’ll be able to define the scope and the major limitations. Then, the next step is making the magic system a balanced part of the story.