June 28, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue
In recent posts I’ve mentioned my concern about how many novels in the Urban Fantasy genre are starting to feel stale because so many authors use the same elements as their peers. Not that there’s inherently anything wrong with using traditional elements of a genre, but I’d like to challenge us to think about what ways we can make our own writing unique and different. Yesterday we discussed setting and today we’re talking Magic.
What’s your system of Magic?
How you use magic in a fictional cosmology can have a huge impact on a novel. Having attempted to develop three different systems of magic myself, my gut instinct says many writers stick to vampires and werewolves in Urban and Modern Fantasy because it’s much easier to define the rules and parameters for their magic because they are magic rather than using it and if they do have “powers” they tend to be limited to super strength, healing, speed, mind control, and telepathy. Once you start adding casters to the mix, things get complicated.
Traditional fantasy writers seem much more likely to go all out and develop new systems of magic. Now, that might in large part be because readers and publishers of fantasy tend to expect longer novels where the intricacies of a magic system can be fully explained. Urban fantasy novels tend to be shorter in length where there’s not as much opportunity to describe a new system of magic.
That doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse not to make our systems of magic unique.
For starters, with self-publishing we’re not as limited by traditionally expected word count for novels in a given genre. Secondly, any unique take on magic will catch the reader’s attention and make them want to know and understand more.
Three Ways to Personalize a System of Magic
1. Create something entirely new- Think about the pure wonder you have as a reader when reading about something you’ve never ever seen before. Think about the mark Brandon Sanderson left on the fantasy genre with his system of Allomancy in the Mistborn Trilogy. Could you do something similar in Urban Fantasy?
Carolyn Crane did. In her Disillusionists Trilogy, she created an entirely new sort of magic user: the Disillusionist. They don’t have wands or spells or rituals, they simply use their own psychoses as weapons. They think crazy unhappy thoughts and then push them into their target, transferring their hypochondria, apathy, or depression onto that person and then using that to neutralize or manipulate them. This system of magic isn’t complex, but it’s absolutely unique. And uniquely memorable because every Disillusionist is a highly flawed character because of their disorders.
In addition to the Mistborn and Disillusionists series, I highly recommend Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer Trilogy for inspiration on highly unique systems of magic.
2. Go deeper- Alright, so your story has witches. But what does it really mean to be a witch in your series? How does the magic work? It’s one thing to have a witch lighting candles with a thought, deflecting bullets with a magical shield, or placing a curse on someone, and it’s something entirely different to explain how it works.
Here, you’re taking advantage of your reader’s natural curiosity and desire to understand. Explain why a witch could light a candle but not cause an entire building to go up in flames. Explain how your witch can conjure something from nothing or if she can’t, why. Explain why some spells can be cast with a thought and others need ritual or magical objects. Explain the metaphysics behind your system of magic throughout the story. And don’t neglect the consequences and risks of using magic.
3. Twist the traditional- There’s probably innumerable ways to interpret this option and I’d list possibilities but I might want those ideas for my own writing. Instead, lets look at a published example.
Take Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series with a main character that is a witch. Harrison borrows much from traditional thought on witchcraft: use of power circles, herbs, candles, potions, charms, and ley lines of power. So her books trigger a certain familiarity in the reader. Then she twists it. You can’t just cast a sleep spell on someone, you have to hit them with the sleeping potion. Enter the splat gun, which is just a paint gun with pellets containing the sleep potion. There are plenty of other examples in the books, but I’ll leave that for you to explore on your own.
Again, what I’m getting at here is the Devil’s in the Details. Resist the urge to shortchange your reader or yourself by explaining everything as, “Hey, it’s magic!”
I won’t go into how to create a fully fleshed-out system of magic, because… hey, there’s Google! Here’s a few of my fave links on the subject:
I once had a link to a Worksheet for creating a system of magic, but it must have gotten lost when my desktop got fried. If anyone has a recommended link, please share with the group!