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Magic rules.

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Hello, I'm new to this board.

I have a question.  I'm writing a MG fantasy (who isn't these days?).

"It's magic!" seems to be enough to satisfy most readers.  But in my WIP I want my character has to work for his skills.  I don't want him to be the chosen one, the boy who lived, or a son of a god. 

My problem is how in depth should I go into my system of magic without making it seem too rigid and no longer "whimsical."  On the other hand, if I don't explain enough I run the risk of having plot holes and making it appear the skills he has earned are coincidental.

How much explanation does a magical system need?

#1 - September 26, 2007, 12:22 AM

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There's a discussion over here that might help you: Follow the link to Orson Scott Card's site; he has some good stuff on this very topic.

I agree that working in the rules is such a tricky balancing act!! I think it's a matter of trial and error as well. You do the best you can to be balanced in your draft, but some things you can't hammer out without critiques. When your readers ask for more here or tell you it's overkill there, you can get a better idea of how you're doing. But in general, I think you need to establish enough of your setting and rules so the reader is grounded in the story, but not so much that it's exposition overkill. After that, you work in the relevant parts as the need comes up to make the plot progress. Of course you will end up knowing more than what makes it into the story. But for the story, you only need what forwards the plot and characters.

This I disagree with:

"It's magic!" seems to be enough to satisfy most readers. 

Instead, I think you are closer to the mark here:

I want my character has to work for his skills.  I don't want him to be the chosen one, the boy who lived, or a son of a god. 

Even if you are writing about a chosen one or whatever, that character has to make their own choices and overcome their own struggles, or you won't have a book strong enough to compete on the market. But if you are avoiding the whole inherent gift thing, that is probably good, too, because it will be something "different" that will make your book stand out even more.

Good luck!

#2 - September 26, 2007, 01:35 AM

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I agree with olmue!
#3 - September 26, 2007, 01:44 AM
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Thanks olmue.  I've read that thread a couple of times.  My problem is I've sprinkled in backstory through out the first half of my story, but I've treated my magical system a known which I trust my readers to understand.  I've come to a part where my MC is going to take the next step and I'm wondering if I should explain the logic of how he has taken the next step. 

I feel if your abide by the rules you have set for the readers you will earn their respect for not pulling a fast one on them.  In addition I feel once the reader understands the "logic" behind the magic it will up the stakes as the plot progresses. 

I feel the "chosen one," "boy who lived," or "son of a god" angle has been overworked. I also think orphaned farm boys would make horrible heroes...unless they were sucked into a portal into another world to defeat "you-know-who" who is the evil twin of a talking lion in the land called middle-wardrobe. (no offense if this is the premise of your story.)

I'm working a different angle to my MC and to my story in general.  I can't say it's original because every story has already been told, in some form or another. 
#4 - September 26, 2007, 02:32 AM

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Something you might do in that case is to write up for yourself the steps that lead him to this point, and then look back at the ms thus far and see if all of those elements are represented in there. Since it seems to be something that's been built up, you'll want to make sure it's sprinkled through gradually. Then look for places in your text to add in whatever you feel is necessary and hasn't quite made it in yet. Sorry to refer to The Boy Who Lived  ;) but take a look at how Rowling does double duty with planting things necessary for later plot turns into description and small scenes early on. They're not distracting when you first encounter them because you only see the part relevant to the situation at hand. It's only later that you learn the full significance of that bit of information and go, "Oh! I get it now!" I read once where Rowling talked about "being at the stage where I'm looking at my outline and figuring out what innocent chapters to drop important clues into," or something like that. Sounded like good advice to me!

Sounds like you have the right idea already. Making sure that the "rules" are clear might be something where you need a second pair of eyes. I've had readers totally lost where I felt I was beating the point over and over, and other places where I thought I went easy, and they're rolling their eyes and telling me, "I know, I know!" It's so hard to gauge this sort of thing.
#5 - September 26, 2007, 02:44 AM
« Last Edit: September 26, 2007, 02:47 AM by olmue »

I actually think the biggest thing is to stay consistent. I agree saying "It's magic!" really isn't enough to satisfy someone who is big into fantasy (just like arguments are not settled with "'cuz I say so"); but do you need to point out every nuance to the reader? No. What I think you DO need to do is know every nuance yourself, as the author, so all your actions, reactions, etc. come into focus and have a reason.

I'm a fantasy nut and my favorite books are ones that hint at how things work and why, I can even try to figure out the thread, but I don't like it as much when the power works such-and-such way powered by the mighty radio waves of the Giant Flufflenux. ;)
#6 - September 26, 2007, 04:41 AM

Listen to olmue.  She is a great writer. 

Follow her instructions and you will have a better book. 

Don't be surprised if you introduce something as you write the rest of your draft that will create changes earlier in your book. 
And remember that much of writing is revision.
#7 - September 26, 2007, 10:02 AM
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I agree with the others. I like when there are rules and the author actually stays within them instead of going for a quick fix.

Good luck.

#8 - September 26, 2007, 12:20 PM


you may also find this thread useful:
#9 - September 26, 2007, 05:55 PM

Thanks, JustinDono! This is a helpful & interesting thread!
#10 - September 26, 2007, 07:02 PM


I agree.  The most important things have already been mentioned--that the author KNOWS THE RULES and sticks to them, and that the whole book is going to be edited, revised and rewritten a ton of times before it's done.  Write the story how you want it, and if your critiquers are confused or bored you'll change it.  Good luck!
#11 - September 26, 2007, 10:08 PM


in the land called middle-wardrobe.

I just popped into this thread to say how much this made me laugh.  :dr

But seriously, I love the idea of a detailed magical system. Rules, and a character working to perfect his magic would make the magic seem very real to me. I would believe in that world you created.
#12 - September 27, 2007, 09:13 AM

prairie girl

Yes, most definitely you do. One of the key skills in sci fi or fantasy writing is world building. If the world does not have rules, then what are the boundaries?
#13 - March 18, 2008, 10:06 AM


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