Recently, a friend and I were talking about writing a story together, and since we’re both very into fantasy, we decided to write something with magical characters. However, we quickly ran into a problem: there are… way too many stories with magical elements out there. (As you might know from this column.) So what was the best way to build a world that had magic, but wasn’t cliché or boring? And if you’re building a magical system from scratch, what was the best way to set limits for your magical characters? I looked at some of my own favorite genre stories to get an idea of what I was getting into. Some appeared to have pretty concrete magical worldbuilding, and some appeared to have more nebulous worldbuilding. Both worked, but which was better?
A lot of stories have people who have magic. Many of these characters come with limitations built into their species—werewolves can be hurt by silver, vampires fear garlic and stakes, fairies can be killed with cold iron depending on the mythology, and so on and so forth. However, in other stories, it’s harder to give humans with magic the same sorts of limitations. In Harry Potter, for instance, wizards and witches will be at a disadvantage if they lose their wands, but with their wands, they can do practically anything. In the X-Men universe, though it’s not “magic” per se, each mutant manifests their own particular ability. I’ve only seen the movies, and there, at least, it seems like the mutants’ abilities basically turn into deus ex machinae whenever the writers need a bigger baddie and a stronger protagonist. In X-Men: The Last Stand, there’s a cure for mutants made from a mutant who can suppress others’ abilities, and Jean Grey can suddenly resurrect herself and disintegrate people through the handy powers of the Phoenix. It’s a free space for the writers to do whatever they want, without actually needing to put any limits on the power of creation.
Looking further at stuff I’d read in the past, I found that I much preferred humans whose powers were necessarily limited by the narrative. Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy is my favorite example in this category. In these books, there are people called curse workers—people with the ability to work, or manipulate, some part of the human condition. There are luck, memory, emotion, physical, dream, death, and transformation workers, and each of them can only affect the one thing they’re capable of working. For example, a luck worker can only affect someone’s luck, and a dream worker can only affect someone’s dreams. What they do also affects themselves—luck workers who give other people good luck get good luck themselves, death workers who kill someone suffer the death of one of their own body parts, and so on and so forth. We know exactly how the world and its limits work, and the writer is free to create a story within those confines. A character can only have a certain sort of power, and that power can only do certain things. Despite the Curse Workers not being able to make up stronger and stronger antagonists, it’s still very suspenseful and very fun to read. The fact that its world makes logical sense doesn’t take away from the story at all.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is another one of these stories. I’m sure everyone knows this one already, but in the first series, there are four types of benders: fire, air, water, and earth. Each bender can only learn his or her own element, unless you’re the Avatar, who can master all four. It even makes sense that the Avatar is the only one who can learn all four, because the Avatar is the person charged with keeping the peace of the world and making sure that each separate nation will get along with the others. Avatar doesn’t step out of its magical boundaries—no one can suddenly do what the Avatar can do—so instead of building outwards with its mythology, it builds inwards. Throughout the series and its follow-up, The Legend of Korra, people start coming up with and learning more specific types of bending. Waterbenders learn bloodbending, earthbenders learn to become metalbenders, and firebenders eventually learn Uncle Iroh’s trick of redirecting electricity. The series still gives us creative rearrangements of its magic without messing up its own rules.
Good worldbuilding for stories with magic requires strict rules and limitations for how magic works, who has the ability for said magic, and how much the magic can plausibly do. Without these limits, the characters can become more and more absurdly powerful, and the world gets more confusing along with them. Furthermore, having a very concrete magical system makes the world more memorable, as well. For things like the X-Men, which started as a comic series, it might have been easier to keep the definition of magic as something nebulous, so each successive writer could come along and create their own mutants and mutant powers. For other franchises, though, keeping a defined magical system helps shape both the writers’ and artists’ creative vision. Well, I know which one I prefer, but what do you think? Let me know in the comments.