IMPOSING LIMITATIONS UPON MAGIC

I encountered a problem with my main character, Aura Lockhaven. She was too powerful. Her magical ability seemed to have no limitations. Let’s face it. That makes a boring character! If a character cannot be defeated, much less killed, then there isn’t any real drama. There are times when a main character needs to say “I don’t know how to do that, but I do know how to run away!”

It is important to establish the strengths and limitations of any type of fictional power: magic, supernatural, fencing, martial arts, military combat, scientific knowledge, and even craftwork such as blacksmithing or mechanics. Those strengths and limitations must make sense and they must be consistent. Otherwise, not only does the story quickly become boring, but a Mary Jane character can be created. One of the best dramatic elements is when a character encounters his or her own weaknesses and limitations and tries to overcome them or bypass them. Even if they are defeated, they grow as characters. Even Superman has his weaknesses and self-imposed limitations.

We can’t get carried away with those strengths and limitations, however, or we create an equally boring story in the other direction. In fact, that can be worse.

Let’s focus on magic here. In the Aura series, I’ve tried to root the use of magic to how it is practiced in the real world, to give it a sense of gravity and realism. Yes, magic does exist in our world. How would you like it if I walked you through a quick spell? I shall do that.

Find an item near you that isn’t heavy, say a pen or coffee cup. Look at it. Pick it up. Hold it in front of your face. Congratulations, you just performed a magic spell! That’s because magic is visualizing a desired outcome, putting your will behind that desire, and taking the necessary action to make it happen. That’s all it is. You saw the pen. You desired to pick it up. Even if you were not aware of this part of the chain, you visualized yourself picking it up and holding it. You put your will behind your muscles. It happened. It ceases to be just physical action and becomes magic when the outcome is something we can’t do with our minds and hands alone, and we have to use herbs, rituals, prayer, angels, etcetera to get it done.

Magic is slow. It is very slow! No one can snap his fingers and start a fire, not that there is any need with readily available matches and lighters. When most people cast a spell, they walk away from it and let it “bake.” It can take days, months, or even years to manifest. For magic to work in my series the way it works in reality, it must be slow. There are places, however, where I can speed it up without violating the sense of reality. Then, there are places where I had best speed it up. Slow magic is fine for real life, but imagine that in a novel. A character casts a spell in chapter one. By chapter thirteen, the characters are still sitting around the fire, playing poker, and waiting for a manifestation! That is as equally boring as having a character that is too powerful.

So, for the sake of the story, especially considering that it’s an adventure, some level of instant magical results must be allowed in certain situations. For everything else, magic takes time. Both instant magic and standard (slow) magic follow a set of rules that Aura adheres to, whether she likes them or not.

I wrote all these rules down. I wrote down Aura’s personal powers; those of her own personality, and those for which she has a natural talent. I wrote down her weaknesses; those of her own incompetence, her own fears, and things she thinks are distasteful. Then, I wrote down the strengths of her order; what they do better than anyone else, and the powers granted Aura by membership in the order. I wrote down the limitations of her order; what happens when they use their strengths, what they absolutely cannot do, and what they will not do by their own vows. I also set the rules for the other magical orders. Aura is not the only magician in her world and will encounter others who have to work within their own parameters. The only powers and limitations with any flexibility are those that are personal to Aura. As her personality changes and develops, those powers can change and develop, too. The rest are ironclad. She didn’t write the rules of her order.

Now, I have a character who is human again. Now, I have a character who must think her way through a situation instead of just blasting everything around her. Now, I have a character who earned a level of power and self-knowledge through enduring what she endured to reach this point in the story. Now, I have a story!

No, I won’t tell you what Aura’s powers and limitations are. You’ll have to buy the books to find out. I will say that they make sense now, and I shall endeavor to keep them consistent.

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2 thoughts on “IMPOSING LIMITATIONS UPON MAGIC

  1. That’s a great line of questioning to go down. I actually have always had a beef with Superman for the same reasons. I know there’s kryptonite, but bleh, it seems ad hoc and limiting in narrative (although Superman has grown on me recently and I damn liked the new movie). Another thing you might can use, although it’s not necessarily novel, is that certain “types” beat certain “types” (or e.g., Fire Pokemon beat Grass Pokemon).

    How far are you in this series/book(s) btw?

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