I’ve tried writing non-fantasy stories, I try really hard. But the magic always seeps in. Maybe it’s just a part of how my mind works. I love my genre! One of my favorite tropes is magic in the hands of characters—magic that is willpower or emotion or spirit made manifest. Magic that can change the world!
Whoa, slow down, tiger. Magic used improperly can wreck the story. You have to make rules and stick to them, or else you break the audience’s trust. And tension, that’s essential to a good ongoing narrative. Where’s the tension if your character can bowl over the villain with a snap of their fingers? And the audience should care for a character—who will really empathize with the top dog?
I personally ran into this problem when I wrote my novel, The Ninety-Ninth Bride. My novel presents a new perspective on The One Thousand and One Nights, and, naturally, I would be playing with the familiar elements of this story cycle. And one of the most recognizable elements of The Arabian Nights is the djinn—or genie, depending on who’s translating. These fire-spirits are a tricky ingredient in a story. Tradition doesn’t put many limits on their capacity for magic. How to stop djinn-magic from taking over the story, or worse, resolving it too quickly?
Disney, when they adapted Aladdin (in a very freewheeling manner, I might add), solved this problem by limiting Robin Williams’ Genie to three wishes. He can grant almost anything in the cosmos, yes, but the wisher gets only three chances for happiness. This meant that Aladdin himself had to parcel out his wishes carefully. This kept up the tension and made Aladdin himself a more appealing hero when he used his wits rather than brute magic to solve his problems.
What are other ways to solve the problems of character-driven magic?
Well, Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books limit each character’s ability, and stick within those limits. Lady Sandriliene fa Toren can do nigh-anything magical with thread, weaving, and cloth–but is a normal human outside of those parameters.
On the other hand, Garth Nix gives the most powerful destructive magic in the Old Kingdom books to the bad guys, while the good guys have to scramble and forge on the fly.
Now, in my story, The Ninety-Ninth Bride… the djinni that I wrote is long-lived, like other djinn you might read about. I didn’t put specific limits on her magic. The biggest limitation I threw in her way is… herself.
Her name is Upalu, and she suffers from a broken heart. This causes despair, and makes it difficult for her to reach out to or help others. Djinn are creatures of fire, and fire resonates as the element of passion, and most importantly, it resonated for me. Passion can turn destructive—this is a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
Upalu’s story is properly one of recovery—as her sadness ebbs, her ability to tap into her magic grows. These are mostly small magics, but Upalu also gets to see their beneficial effect. Taking a note from Eilonwy’s golden bauble in The Chronicles of Prydain, the more that Upalu cares for others, the more she is able to use her innate magic.
Upalu’s story is linked with that of Dunya, a human girl with no magic of her own, who comes into a different kind of power. Magic aids the plotline of my characters’ growth and development. That’s the path that worked out for me, because I set out from the start to write a coming of age story. And that’s really the thing about writing magic—et it suit the story. When you know the story you’re trying to tell, the magic it needs will come clear.