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Real Magic: Creating a System of Sorcery for your Fantasy Novel by Dave Rudden

Dave Rudden © 24 April 2017.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Children & Young Adult · Interviews ).

The Source. The One Power. The Gift. The Eight Winds of Chaos. The Sympathy. The Han. The Force.


Magic is what brings us to fantasy again and again.  The idea of reaching out and changing the world with your will and a word is an attractive one – as escapism, as fuel for imagination . . . or as comfort for readers who might be feeling powerless themselves.

Fantasy is a crowded market for any age level, and to stand out, you need to interrogate your world-building the way you interrogate your prose and plot – treating every detail as a form of communication between you and your audience. Nothing can be random. Nothing can be ill-thought out. Using clichéd details or lazy because that’s why logic will stop an agent or publisher in their tracks.

This isn’t to say there’s a right or wrong way for magic to look or sound or feel – the joy of writing fantasy is that you’re only fettered by your imagination. Nor am I saying every single rule of magic needs to be plain as the schematic of a circuit board. Even authors with long-running series of doorstopper tomes have to be circumspect with what they show to the reader – what matters is narrative unity, a sense that even if you don’t see all the moving parts, you know that the machine itself makes sense.

(Note – when I say magic system I don’t just mean wands and witches – I mean Superman’s powers, the chameleon circuit and Chief O’Brien’s replicator. Each of those communicates something about character and the world. Superman’s invulnerability informs his character – he can afford never to throw the first punch. Star Trek is a utopia that could only have been built on the ability to ask a hole in the wall for crisp sandwiches)

Below are some questions to keep in mind when creating a system of magic. It is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a useful place to start.

How do you learn this magic?

We read stories to watch characters change and evolve and grow, not just emotionally, but in their skills and how they navigate the world around them. This is especially important in novels full of action and adventure where finally mastering a skill might mean the difference between life and death.

Who has this magic? Who does not? How is it learnt or mastered, and does this teaching method tell us something about the nature of the world? Is it taught kindly, is it only reserved for the rich, does everyone learn it all in one place, throwing characters of disparate backgrounds and personalities together? Is our character navigating these skills alone or do they have allies? Are they inheriting a power or an entire culture, and the enemies that might come with it?

Who can use it?

Like a lot of these, this is very much connected to plot. Is the main character’s ability a product of their birth? Is it something they’re exposed to? Are they chosen or is random?

Amazing Spiderman & its sequel were criticised for making Peter Parker genetically prepared for that fateful spider bite from childhood. Making him special, when previously he was just a kid, a nobody, an anybody. People want to think they can become heroes. And prophecies are a common way to artificially induce tension into a story by giving the reader a glance at your plot shopping list, but the right person in the wrong place can be just as much of a hero.

How does it relate to the character, plot and theme of the book?

In my novel, Knights of the Borrowed Dark, the Order’s first weapon in the battle against their shadowy enemies is the volatile fire magic lurking in their bloodstream. Fire is a natural weapon against the dark, but this magic comes with a terrible Cost – the more they use it the more it turns them to iron. I chose this limitation because living in a constant state of war changes you, separates your patterns of thought from those of the people you’re trying to keep safe.

My monsters are called Tenebrous – extradimensional shapeshifters who build a body from the world around them. I chose this firstly because children are already familiar with existing mythological monsters and I wanted to do something different, and secondly to tie into my theme of the cost of battle. The Knights can never get used to their enemies, because their enemies are never the same twice. They must live in constant readiness for something they cannot be ready for, and that changes them just as much as the iron.

What does this magic say about your world? What does it say about the main character? What will mastering it tell them about themselves?

What are its limitations?

It’s hard to manufacture tension if magic can do everything. Limiting factors are crucial to keep your characters grounded and human. In the Discworld novels, magic is soaked into the very firmament of the world but, like this world, energy cannot be created, only moved around. Giving to one situation only takes from another.

Also there are Things. Things that watch. And using magic is the equivalent of trailing your hand in a piranha tank.

Give your magic weaknesses. Things it won’t work on. Iron. Free will. The colour yellow. (Green Lantern comics are weird) In K. J. Applegate’s Animorph books where the characters can only assume the form of animals for two hours so every use of their powers comes with a tension-building tick of the clock. You can make your characters capable of incredible things, but have the reader always aware that the tables can turn.

How do others react to it?

There are few greater sources for conflict and tension than haves and have-nots. You can’t simply tack magic to a civilisation – it’s a fundamentally world-changing idea that will ripple down through every part of society. Even if you’re writing a world where the majority of inhabitants don’t know magic exists, there will still be places where the two cultures intersect.

People don’t like people with power. People with power don’t like people with power. Where do your magicians or wizards or adepts or Aes Sedai fit into society? Are they the majority or the minority, a caste society, controlled or lone wanderers Mithrandiring their way around trying to make things better? Some of your best plot points or story ideas will come from this. Public opinion of the Avengers tends to be great when they’re saving New York and terrible when they’re dropping pieces of New York onto other pieces of New York.

You’ll probably notice some overlap between these, but that’s because narrative unity is essential. Everything in your story informs everything else and, though this might sound daunting, you don’t have to get it right on the first draft. Details can be tweaked and polished and removed and enhanced over many drafts. Often you’ll need to have written the end before you can properly write the beginning. Like magic itself, it’s not magic. It’s work.

Good luck!

(c) Dave Rudden

About The Forever Court (Knights of the Borrowed Dark Book 2):

The second book in the brilliant Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy, perfect for fans of Skulduggery Pleasant.

Life is returning to normal for Denizen Hardwick. Well, the new normal, where he has to battle monsters in quiet Dublin bookshops and constantly struggle to contain the new powers he has been given by Mercy, the daughter of the Endless King. But Denizen may need those powers sooner than he thinks – not only are the Tenebrous stirring again but the Order of the Borrowed Dark face a new threat from much closer to home…

Order your copy online here.

Dave Rudden enjoys cats, adventure and being cruel to fictional children.

He has worked in the Dublin theatre, spoken word and storytelling scene since 2010, performing at such nights as Milk & Cookies, Bang Bang Forty Coats, The Monday Echo, Shore Writers’ Festival, Electric Picnic, Culture Night and RTÉ’s The Works. His short fiction and poetry have been published in journals such as Bare Hands, the Quotable, Minus 9 and Poddle, and anthologies such as Damn Faeries, Under The Stairs and Shoes, Ducks & Maids Of The Sea. He is the author of the tenth novel in the Nightmare Club series from Little Island – BRAIN DRAIN BABY.

He has won the Fantasy Book Review Short Story Prize in 2013 and was short-listed for both the Hennessey New Writing Award and the Bath Short Story Prize. Dave was awarded a Literature Bursary by the Arts Council and serves on the committees for both IrishPEN and the Irish branch of the International Board of Books for Young People. Graduating from the Creative Writing Masters in UCD, he was signed in November 2013 by Clare Wallace of the Darley Anderson Children’s Agency.

The Forever Court  is the second novel in the Knights of the Borrowed Dark series.

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