We’ve been discussing magic in our Saturday Setup posts the last few weeks, and this week is no exception. This time around, though, we’re going to talk about extent of magic use and some tips for how you can determine that. Figuring out how much magic to use and how many characters can use it is a bit of a daunting task, so hopefully, this will shed some light on that for everyone!
Consideration #1: Sub-Genre
Before you do anything else, stop and think about the sub-genre you’ve chosen to write. If you don’t know much about it, do some research and learn about the different common elements, such as magic, in the sub-genre. I’ve posted quite a few articles on different sub-genres of fantasy on my Sunday Sub-Genres section of the blog, so if you’re looking for somewhere to start, you may find something helpful there.
Regardless of where you do the research, you need to understand how much magic is incorporated into your sub-genre. If there’s not a lot, you’re already starting at a less intense starting point than you would with a sub-genre that throws it in everywhere! Key takeaway here: know your genre.
Consideration #2: Consequences
Okay, when you built your magic system, you probably built limitations into it. If you didn’t, see my post on building magic systems to gain a better understanding of why you should! But, assuming you have limitations and rules in place, these are a great place to start in determining how much magic use should be involved.
If you have a system that is built on the premise that everyone has magic, then magic use is going to be quite high. Almost everyone, if not everyone, will be using some form of it, and there won’t be a ton of dreadful consequences for normal magic use. For instance, in the Aurelai universe, most types of magic don’t exact a high price. There is regular magic use, and no one dies or loses something precious to them just for using their magic in a responsible, every day manner. In a system like this, magic can be expected to be seen everywhere.
But if you created a system where magic requires a high price even if one can wield it… Well, your protagonist, at least, and maybe even your antagonist, are not going to be so keen on using it. For example, in Pathway of the Moon, there is a way that those trying to perform extremely high-powered magic can gain the energy they need to do so from other people to avoid draining their own life source. But you have to pay an extremely high price: your own sanity and physical health, depending on what the magic chooses to target. You don’t get something for nothing. So, most people aren’t willing to perform that kind of magic. It’s a powerful deterrent for those who are sane and even a little bit concerned about their own health, if not that of others. While this doesn’t limit my whole system in this series’ case, it certainly does place a limitation on the extent of magic. It means that certain kinds of magic aren’t so likely to occur on any regular basis.
Consideration #3: Likelihood
This sort of goes hand-in-hand with the previous point, but take a minute and think about how common magic is. Does everyone have it? Only a select few? Does everyone know it exists or is it something that’s kept hidden? The answers to these questions and others like them end up determining if it’s likely that a character could use magic to solve a problem or in every day life. Sure, it might exist, but if the likelihood of use is low, then you’re probably not going to see magic everywhere in the book. On the other hand, if the likelihood is high, you’re likely to see it everywhere.
Consideration #4: Usefulness
Let’s face it. Some magic just isn’t all that helpful on a quest to save humanity or when facing down a man-eating, fire-breathing dragon. And in those cases, characters probably won’t be using their magic to help themselves out. The extent to which this consideration affects your story really depends. If it’s limited to certain types of magic a person might end up with, then it might not change how often magic is used or the extent to which it is used. Of course, if this extends to every kind of magic, then magic, while it may exist, is fairly useless for the purposes of the characters, and it will end up sidelined unless needed to heat a can of soup. You get the idea, hopefully.
Consideration #5: Society
One other major thing to consider is society itself. While there might not be a limit on what magic is capable of doing, there may be a societal stigma against it or a ban that prevents it. Or, the opposite may be true. Perhaps society ostracizes those who aren’t able to use magic of some sort, so those who can’t must find a way to pretend they possess it. The possibilities are pretty endless, but if you have a society like this, it’s going to affect the extent to which and the way in which magic is utilized in your story.
There are, of course, many other ways in which magic can be limited or expanded in its extent and use within a book. But these are the main things I’ve seen and used in determining the extent of magic in my books. Really, you have to tailor your approach for each series or each novel/story. No one story will be the same as another, and some may call for more magic than others, even within the same series. It all depends on the focus of the story or series and what you’re trying to accomplish. However, these key considerations should help you get started.
Have other considerations that have helped you to decide how much magic is enough? Feel free to drop them in the comments below! If you have a suggestion for a future discussion topic on Saturday Setups, please don’t hesitate to either email or leave a comment!