Determining Rules of Magic for Writing a Fantasy Novel

The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference

Magic in a fantasy novel has to have rules.  Otherwise, anything is possible.  And if anything is possible, how can your story have tension or conflict?  What would be the purpose of reading the hero’s journey if the hero has unlimited power?  That would be boring.  It would be more interesting if the hero had something to overcome – a foe with more powerful magic, a limited skill or knowledge in magic, or a limit to the amount of magic which could be used.

When I first started to write, I thought the magic part would be easy.  But if I didn’t know what kind of magic the characters would have and how would they use it, then how could I set limitations?

The first thing I did when determining the rules of magic for writing a fantasy novel was consider the different ways that magic has been used in literature and in the movies:  Gandalf’s magic in Lord of the Rings, additive and subtractive magic along with magical symbols of Richard’s magic in the Sword of Truth series, magical spells and magic wands used by Harry Potter, magic potions and incantations of the witches in Shakesphere, magic in the Labyrinth, magic in the various Disney movies, and so on.

Once I got an idea of the different ways magic could be used, I had to decide which way was best for my book.  I had to ask myself the following questions:

  • Who can do magic?  Everyone or just a select few?
  • Is magic only given to a certain race of people, is it inherited, or is it chance?
  • How do people learn magic?  Is it natural, learned in books or special schools?
  • Is magic taken from one’s own personal strength or is there an outside source of magic?
  • Is magic called upon by speaking spells, by one’s own inner thoughts, by magical objects or talismans, by magical potions, or by drawing symbols?
  • Do people have to speak spells out loud?  If so, in what language?  Do they use it in conjunction with an innate ability or can anyone speak a spell?
  • What kinds of things can magic do?  Can magic make things disappear, read thoughts, heal, make fire, help people travel long distances in a short time, change the weather, make objects move, bring the dead back to life?
  • Is there a limit to how much power one person can use?  Does magic get exhausted and have to be replenished?  Does it take effort of the user?
  • Does using magic have consequences?  Does it drain their strength, cause pain, take away memories, take away their sanity?
  • Do different people have different skills and different levels of skills?

These are just a few of the questions to ask.  If you are trying to determine your rules of magic when writing a fantasy novel, start with brainstorming.  Write down all the different ways you can think of from movies and books.  Consider how each story has its own unique form of magic.  Then determine what makes more sense for your story and start making rules.

Here is a good place to start.  Check out this book, The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference.  You will get ideas on different forms of magic as well as a lot of other important aspects in writing a fantasy novel.

Once I decided upon the rules of magic, I then had to consider the names of the people who could use magic.  Would I call them sorcerers or warlocks, witches or entrantresses, necromancers or wizards?  Then would I call it magic or use fancy or made up terms like alchemists or namers as in The Name of the Wind?  Would the people who have magic be leaders, or would they be shunned by society and burned at the stake if they were discovered?  But these questions are for a whole other blog post.

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