Our magic series continues its journey into hard magic systems, as KnowHow editor, Eleanor Pender explores how they can impact your worldbuilding.

So far, we've looked into soft magic, and we're examining hard magic. In Part I, we looked at predictability and limitations. Read more about this here

Now, we're going to take a closer look at two more areas that can affect your magic system. 

3. Weaknesses 
4. Costs 

Weaknesses in magic systems can lead to interesting dynamics in the story. For instance, what might make a character a lot more powerful than those around them. 

Maybe your character can transform into a wild animal at will, but this makes them vulnerable to a certain kinds of weapons. These are limitations on your magic, or magical elements, and we have well known examples from fairy tales and stories to look to for inspiration. But the beauty here is, that you are in control and the limitations can be anything you want them to be, so long as they follow any other rules you have laid out. For instance, you can play around with what makes your characters so good at something, or the power they can access, while leading them into a situation where this will lead to their downfall. Being powerful does not always makes a character the hero. 

If you have many different powers or abilities in your novel, you might explore how these can be kept in balance. Does using one of these abilities render another useless, or make them vulnerable in some way? If so, your character would have to be cautious or plan ahead to make sure that they were protected. 

In Victoria Aveyard's latest YA novel, Realm Breaker, there is a race of immortals. How can you give immortals weaknesses? They've been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Here, Aveyard is clever and uses a lack of knowledge against them. In her world, the immortals have stayed separate from mortals, and as such, are very clueless about the simplest things.  For instance, if you have healed from every wound you have ever had, what's to stop you pulling out a blade from a stab wound? Even an immortal might bleed to death...

At its heart, it is always good to think about how a really good magic system or magical world will affect the way your characters think or act or change the way your world operates. If how they use their magic has little affect, how well is it integrated into the worldbuilding?

Lastly, we have what is considered by some to be the most common way that people create rules for their magic system. This is through the use of magic coming with a cost. 

Looking at abilities and how the magic works, magic causing fatigue is a common narrative device. It makes it easy to show the strong from the weak. Maybe you're read a story with a powerful magician who doesn't flinch as they vanquish an army, while a weak one faints testing spells in a classroom. 

This sliding scale can give wiggle room for the author, making it so you can have your protagonist use just the right amount of energy to perform an impressive spell without needing more a bit of training. Do be careful here though, as you need to make sure your characters can't suddenly do new spells from nowhere. And their level of exhaustion needs to be consistent, otherwise the idea that this is a price, a cost they are paying, will not come across. 

In Katy Rose Pool's There Will Come A Darkness, her character Ephyra has the ability to heal, but she kills to save another instead. (You learn this is Chapter 1, I promise no spoilers.) If you took up this idea, how would this affect your character? Are their physical signs? Or is it about the mental toll of living with this act over time? Here is another example of a magical ability interwoven with the narrative and how the cost can take various forms.

 Play around and look for unique ways to make your magic cost, if you want to distinguish your magic system from others. Maybe manipulating the ground around you causes the plants to die. The effects of this could be widespread and fascinating to explore. And if this kind of magic was common, would it be outlawed to protect the crops and forests?

We've looked at how hard magic systems require a level of predictability and consistency, and costs can challenge this predictability, which in turn can impact the suspension of belief. Now, take a moment with your characters and your world. What kind of magical elements do you think would fit in best? 

There are, of course, many, many ways to use these ideas as guidelines. And they are, of course, guidelines. If you're looking for ideas, I recommend you read as much as you can. See what others have done. Maybe the next time you're reading a book with magic or magical elements, try to see which magic system applies more. It can be an interesting experiment! 


Based in Bristol, Eleanor Pender divides her time between lecturing in digital communications and talking about literary and arts projects. She lived in Edinburgh for six years where she worked for Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and discovered her passion for young readers, going on to chair at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She is currently working on a young adult fantasy novel. 

Do you have any suggestions for KnowHow? If there's something you'd like to know how to do or know more about, do tell us! Email KnowHow editor, Eleanor at knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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