Thoughts on Developing Magic Systems: What I Didn't Know I Needed - Travis Senzaki

Thoughts on Developing Magic Systems: What I Didn’t Know I Needed

I spent last weekend writing through a nasty throat cold and a hangover. I know, you’re thinking that if you’ve got one, you really shouldn’t put yourself in a position to get the other, but it’s not like I didn’t try to talk the cold into going away, first! Anyway, on top of feeling like crap, I had set myself up for one of the most difficult scenes I’ve had to write so far in my novel: a duel between magicians. Suddenly, I realized that my magic system was woefully underdeveloped when it came to its uses. Not a helpful place to be, mid battle.

The Scene

I had set this scene out to be the climax for one of my character’s arcs and its sequel (when another PoV character learns what happened) is the climax of his arc. Another PoV character is one of the mages in the battle, though the effect on his arc is rather less than the other two. So, I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to get this right. I wrote the chapter from the perspective of the non-mage PoV character, who hates all things magical in general (though she is somewhat conflicted by recent events), and the mage character in particular (no conflicting feelings there). She has the most riding on its outcome and I need to shield the mage’s thoughts from the reader for now. So, I have a non-magical character describing a duel between two people that represent everything she hates, with the lives of people that she cares about hanging in the balance. Great recipe for tension- for me.

I try to write with the “allow yourself to suck” mentality so I can get the words down without worrying too much, then go back to polish during the edits. This time, whether it was the colld, the hangover, the pressure, or all three, I was so uptight, I had trouble getting words on the page. Part of that was the usual desire to make my first draft spring from my brain fully-formed and perfect, a temptation I think we all feel at times. Another part was that, for the first time since I started my new detailed outline scheme, I ran into something in the narrative that I had never thought of describing before: What does magical combat look like?

Planning my Magic System

I’m really proud of the magic system I developed for this series. I spent a lot of time thinking about how mages draw their power and their limitations, so as to avoid the Gandalf problem. I won’t explain it here, because that would take away from the novel, and there’s a chapter or so where I work an explanation of the system into conversation (clumsily, but I’ll fix that in edits). Anyway, the system has realistic limits on mages’ powers, but also has a mechanism by which they can overcome those limits, to some extent, because if there was no potential for excess, there’d be little potential for conflict.

On the other hand, I did not think to develop descriptions of how my magic is used. I had subconsciously ruled out material components to spell-casting, but are there magic words? Gestures? Do mages hands glow while they’re gathering power, a la World of Warcraft? How do casting practices and spell strength differ in my established fields of magic? As usual, sensory description is my weak spot, and that’s a problem when you want to describe a battle from a non-magical point of view! Apart from the mages’ physical movements, what does a curse look like or smell like? What sound does a deathbolt make?

To get through the chapter, I had to make these up as I went through, but before I start the rewrites, I’m going to have to sit down and describe magic from a sensory perspective, at least the magic used by each of my characters in this novel, and probably more. This book is low-magic, but my rough outlines for the sequels demand high-magic in places, so I think I’m going to need to tackle the topic on a broad scale so that I don’t find myself with an unforseen limitation later. Or, perhaps, it’s better to be minimalist now, to achieve that same effect. Hmm. Have to think about that.

Progress Report

I have seven chapters left to outline and 13 left to write. I’m working on Chapter 55, now- a standard battle chapter to follow the magical duel, above (though in a completely different location). I’ve started the series of climaxes for my characters’ arcs, which should continue for a few more chapters. The novel is almost to 140k words and it feels like the finish is almost in sight. I have a weekend business trip to Vietnam later this month that should afford me several hours of writing time on the plane, so I may just be able to finish my rough draft within a month. My plan is to set my WiP aside for several weeks to get some distance, once it’s done, and to work on a different, unrelated story in the mean time. That means another outlining project is looming, but that’s ok. I’m learning more about outlines every day!

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