On Keeping Magic From "Taking Over" Your Story

A lot of people feel that magic is difficult to write or even avoid writing it altogether because they believe it will basically take over the story - which is to say, they'll end up with in a situation where their characters can easily solve all of their problems with magic spells. This is of course a pretty bad spot to be in, because then it's impossible to challenge one's characters and create any tension. But the good news is that it doesn't have to be this way - in fact, it's actually very easy to avoid this problem. Read on to find out how.

There is a common belief that magic is by definition something that cannot be explained. And I mean, if you want to use "magic" as a synonym for "something that can't be explained" I certainly can't stop you. However, it must be noted that this definition is extremely new. In times past, magic (or things we would classify as magic today) were given all kinds of explanations. The notion that science is things we can explain while magic is things we can't just doesn't apply to the vast majority of history, and as such, there's no reason you should feel beholden to it, either.

Now with that said, the exact nature of what magic is, really isn't as important as how it works. I mean, you can figure that out if you want, but nobody's really going to notice or care if you don't go over it. Most people just assume that magic is a particular kind of energy that can be directed through spells and rituals anyway.

There are three main things to figure out here:
1. How is magic operated?
2. What affects magic's potency?
3. What can make magic (or at least some forms of magic) difficult?

Let's use brewing potions as an example of this. What constitutes proper potion ingredients? Does the magical power come from the practitioner, or are the ingredients themselves powerful, or is it a little of both? Does brewing potions require any special tools? How difficult is it? Are potions always relatively easy to brew, EG, like making tea or pasta sauce? Or do some potions require special equipment and a lot of technical skill and knowledge to create, like synthesizing chemicals in a lab?

Similar goes for making enchanted items: What kind of base materials can enchanted items be made from? Do different materials affect its power or performance? Does the personal power of the creator make a difference? Are there any special procedures or steps that must be followed; EG, do the stars have to be in the right positions, or does it have to be done at a certain time of day?

And likewise for incantations, or verbal spells: What factors make one more potent? How important is it to use precise language, and to concentrate while reciting said incantion? Can certain hand gestures or tools make an incantation more effective?

Adding steps and specific requirements is also a good way to make some magic more difficult to work than others, and thereby create obstacles when it comes to magics you don't want your characters spamming left and right. Of course, it works out even better when you have a good sense of why these steps and requirements exist, so I'm going to list off some potential reasons:

I think it helps to consider what makes certain tasks easy and other tasks difficult in real life. For example, it's a very simple matter to disinfect and stick a bandage onto a scrape. But it takes a lot of specialized knowledge and equipment to carry out a heart transplant. A scrape is, of course, a surface level injury; there is minimal risk involved. But a heart transplant involves removing and replacing a vital organ, which requires extensive knowledge of the human physiology and extreme care to make sure the patient survives.

Another example - and one that is actually mystical - is alchemy, which is a complicated and difficult as it is because it was basically proto-chemistry. Alchemists were basically spiritualizing their chemical discoveries into a kind of Hermetic framework, but those discoveries were nonetheless chemical. You could make your magic system work a little bit like this, and thereby have pretty good reasons why some magic is much harder than others.

One thing I've seen some people do that I think we should all look at with a more critical light, is essentially equate "advanced magic" with "edgy magic." In other words, so-called "beginner magic" might involve something like a simple incantation or popping a few herbs into a cauldron, but "advanced magic" might require something like human sacrifice.

There are problems with this. For one thing, it suggests that being able to perform so-called "advanced magic" isn't really a matter of skill or knowledge, but rather a matter of being willing to perform acts that most people might find immoral and/or disgusting. This mirrors hateful conspiracy theories that claim modern neopagan practices are a kind of gateway or pipeline to so-called "hardcore Satanism," which itself is a kind of boogeyman that ultimately derives from the fearmongering propaganda of Europe's early modern witch hunts.

It also echoes a very irrational and self-destructive mentality, which is that the more unpleasant something is, then the more potent it must be. In real life, this kind of mentality leads to people believing things such as that "healthy" food must taste bad, leading to many people who believe vegetables taste bad simply because they taste bad, not because they lack the skill and knowledge necessary to make them taste good. It's also led to people who think that because some amount of exercise is good for you, then a lot of exercise must be even better, and therefore intense daily exercise must be optimal; when in fact it's unnecessary at best and self-injuring at worst.

One thing that can limit magic's impact on your story is to limit who can use it. There are many reasons why magic isn't common practice - for example, it might be obscure, or it might be difficult to master, or it might be a controlled resource, or it might only be granted to specific people for some reason. I do want to mention, however, that certain methods of limiting magic have some rather unsavory implications.

For example, a magic-enabling gene will result in a eugenicist subtext, if it isn't just the text. So will making magic an intellectual skill that only those with high IQ scores or "genius-level" STEM skills can use. (Eugenics and an obsession with intellectual superiority vs. mental inferiority go way back.) And the trope of magic being inherently corrupting is literally just recycled witch hunt propaganda. Early modern witch hunters claimed Satan demonically empowered women for the purpose of damning their souls and basically getting them to destroy society. It's worth pointing out that magic is first and foremost generally considered empowering, and claiming that any form of personal empowerment is a path to corruption is some rank authoritarian nonsense. There are, of course, paths to empowerment that are extremely harmful because they cultivate terrible beliefs and outlooks, like social Darwinism. But other paths to empowerment teach us to be more compassionate toward ourselves and others while also refusing to let people walk over us. Developing practical skills is also empowerment, and I can't think of any reason you could possibly make knitting, cooking, or woodworking out to be some kind of inherently evil, corrupting art.

I can't tell you exactly what you should do for your story and its setting, but I can tell you that you should begin by thinking about how you'd like your world to function and what kind of avenues you'd like to explore in it. Think about what you want your characters to be able to do, and what you don't want them to be able to do.

I can suggest that you think very carefully about any effect that is instantaneous, infinite, and/or unblockable, because that's where it's very easy to mess things up. For example, someone who could instantly teleport anywhere could simply just teleport up behind all their enemies and slit all their throats. If someone can just read everyone's minds or remotely view just anyplace they like, then there probably won't be much room for mystery. This is the type of magic that tends to undermine a narrative's ability to create tension, so it's the kind you want to be most cautious about.

I also recommend checking out Phlebotinum-Development Questions. This will help you work out from the very start what your magic could potentially do in the story, and thereby help you figure out how to make it work and where to place limitations on it, and also checking out Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This. In a nutshell, the best way to keep making from "taking over" your story is to give it enough rules and structure that it can't undermine your plot.

I hope you've found this article useful. If you've enjoyed it, please share it with your friends and on your social media, and consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great day!

See also:
So You Wanna Mix Science And Magic?
Keeping Shapeshifters From Getting Overpowered
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Magical & Supernatural Tropes To Reconsider (And Tips To Build Up Your Magical/Supernatural Settings!)

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