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How to Write Magic and Powers: Making (and Breaking) Your Own Rules

By on March 12, 2015 . Category Column

If you’re writing magic (or other kinds of supernatural abilities), you want to make sure you know the specific rules and parameters for your magic. All magic has its own laws, and to ensure there’s consistency and realism in your story (even if your story is about space squirrels fighting an evil wizard-raccoon overlord on the planet Zeptron). Your readers want to know that the world they’re reading about—no matter how wild and outlandish it might be—has its own set of rules and sticks to them.

 

1. Know Your Rules

Everything has rules. Physics has rules, and as far I’m concerned, “magic” in all forms is just “science” that we don’t quite understand yet.

But guess what? As the god of your fictional little world, you not only get to understand the rules, you need to.

The rules don’t have to be complex. Take bending in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. There are rules for everything:

 

- Powers are limited to control over one of the four main elements (unless you’re the Avatar, who can use all four)
- Powers are inherited biologically—you’re either born with them or born without them, and someone in your family must have also had the bending power (though not necessarily a parent)
- Powers must be trained to be utilized properly (a pretty common theme in most stories)
- To use your powers, you must utilize martial-arts like movements of the body, which help to control and direct the flow of your abilities

 

There are others, but those are the basics. There are also the things that can intensify or diminish one’s powers—waterbenders, for instance, have heightened abilities during the full moon. A comet passing by the planet had the same effect on firebenders, but alternately, the firebenders were rendered powerless during an eclipse.

 

2. Breaking the Rules

The main reason to have rules is to keep consistency in your story. The second reason is so you can break them strategically.

A broken rule adds power and depth to your story. It can build suspense, or create a sense of surprise. If you’ve established that there’s a rule about something—like, some powerful individuals can hover, but no one can fly—and then one of your characters manages to actually fly, then it will wow your characters and readers alike. That’s deliberate rule-breaking, and it shows the remarkable qualities of that character.

This can be a protagonist, but it can also be your antagonist—it’s a great way to show how outmatched the main cast is. Which brings us to our next point…

 

3. Different Levels of Power

In Harry Potter, there are muggles (no power), students (limited and unpracticed power), ordinary magical folks (standard magical power), and people like Dumbledore, Voldemort, and the wizards of legend who operate at a much higher level of magical ability.

Or to go back to the Avatar example—first, the show establishes that all the airbenders are gone. So when Aang starts airbending, it’s remarkable. Likewise when Toph uses earthbending to “see” despite her blindness; this shows how powerful and skilled she is. Later, when she develops metalbending (which was previously unknown), it’s impressive, but still fits with the capabilities of this character.

Being able to do something no one else can do—or do it better—is a great way to show the specialness and unique ability of the characters you want to emphasize.

At the end of the day, though, you need to make sure certain power levels aren’t surpassed, or if they are, there are some kinds of consequences.

For instance, in Marvel’s X-Men series, there are different classifications of power that each mutant is sorted into. This might be helpful for you, so here it is for you to consider:

Zeta Level. These are just people who carry the mutant gene, and could pass it on to a child or grandchild, but don’t have capabilities of their own. (This is debated, as some say they do have some abilities, but that is neither here nor there for our purposes.)

Epsilon Level. These mutants have low-level powers, and their “abilities” are often considered a burden that interfere with or completely impede their day to day activities. It’s almost more of a disability for some of them than it is an ability, and many mutants at this level are unhappy with their mutation.

Delta Level. While not all that powerful, Delta level mutants are at least not hindered by their mutations. They can function as normal members of society, with only simple powers that can almost be passed off as normal human abilities that have been heightened beyond the usual human level. Approximately half of all mutants fall into this category.

Gamma Level. Mutants here are also often unable to pass as regular humans, but their capabilities are much more powerful than Epsilon level mutants. They have abilities that are certainly above and beyond what normal humans can do, and these powers can sometimes be dangerous or harmful (to themselves or others).

Beta Level. Only minorly hindered by their abilities, Betas are quite powerful, and cool characters like Mystique, the blue shape-shifter, fall into this level—they can do a lot, but they have a physical or other kind of drawback to deal with from their power. Cyclops is also sometimes counted in this category, because of his inability to control the beams that shoot from his eyes most of the time.

Alpha Level. Now we’re getting into some serious power. Only 10% of mutants fall into this category, and they are very powerful. While these mutants can have disabilities, they are not hindered by their powers themselves (Think Professor X—he’s in a wheelchair, but that’s unrelated to his vast telepathic abilities). Mutants in this category can control certain elements, manipulate energy in its various forms, or read minds/influence others’ thoughts and behaviors.

Omega Level. This is a rare category. I mean rare. Of the hundreds upon hundreds of mutants that exist in the Marvel Universe, only thirteen fall into this category. These are pretty much the mutants that are so extremely and outrageously powerful, they can actually exist outside their physical bodies (turning into pure energy or something like that).

Knowing the power levels of your characters will help you classify them, know their limitations, and work around those. Don’t create all-powerful characters unless you’re going to have some kind of rules or agreements they’re entered into that prevent them from waving a magic wand and fixing everything. Which brings me to the next point.

 

4. Keeping Things Interesting

What do you do in a world where magic can resolve all your issues? You get creative.

This is where your rules will come in handy again. Does magic only work at certain times, or in certain ways? What are the limits? What are the impossibilities? Even if you break a couple rules here and there, make sure there are some rules that are maintained through the story.

The rules will help you create problems for your characters—just look at what they can and can’t do, and create issues.

So in the case of Harry Potter, while they have fantastic magical powers, only a very small number of the most powerful witches and wizards can use that magic without a wand—everyone else is completely cut off from their magic if they drop or lose their wand.

My favorite series as a kid—Animorphs—featured a group of children who were given the power to turn into animals. There were limitations, though: They had to touch the animal to acquire the DNA before they could morph into it, they couldn’t morph from one animal to another, and they had to change back to their human form within two hours of morphing, or they’d be trapped as that animal permanently. This even happens to one of the characters, and it’s a great plot point.

There were also these two virtually omnipotent characters in the series who sometimes aided (or worked against) the main cast. They did not, however, directly influence the events of the stories. According to the Ellimist (the one who was “good”), the last time these two beings warred directly, they destroyed a huge portion of a galaxy.

They had agreed that fighting directly was too destructive and counterproductive to their aims, so they elected instead to wage their war subtly—creating teams or groups and giving them limited amounts of power to engage in fights on their behalf. This explained why they weren’t able to just swoop in and wipe out the main characters’ problems.

So when you’re writing problems for your characters, look at how their powers can be a hindrance, rather than a help. Our strengths are usually our weaknesses, too, and so look for ways to trip your characters up with their own abilities or magic systems—that will make for some interesting story telling.

Being familiar with the power systems used in your story is an important part of writing, and making sure you have your rules, know how you’ll break them, and have your characters sorted out into what they can and can’t do, you’re all set! Just remember to use their powers against them sometimes, and have fun with it.

 

What kind of magic or superpowers do your characters have?

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  • http://robertbloom.net/ Robert Bloom

    Any tips on creating a system that either integrates different types of supernatural abilities, or is a blend of them, rather than just being “magic” or “superpowers” (or any other type I’m not thinking of off the top of my head) but isn’t just a hodgepodge either? The bending in avatar isn’t quite either of those, but I’m interested in something broader than just the four elements. Are there any examples that do something like this well? There probably are and I’m just not aware or drawing a blank. Thanks!

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