Limits of Magic
I like magic systems. I especially like harder magic systems which have clear rules on what can and can't be done. Most stories tend to focus on the first of those: if asked about a character, a writer will talk about what powers they have. In this post, though, I'm going to look at the flip side of that – the boundaries of a magic system and what a character can't do.
Brandon Sanderson has written about this in the past, and he has a take on it which he calls Sanderson's Second Law: when it comes to magic, limitations are more interesting than powers. If a character is faced with a problem which their magic can overcome easily, there's no story: they'll just solve it and be on their way. But if their magic can only partially solve the problem or can't solve it at all, they have to think and work and make decisions. It creates conflict, and conflict is interesting. So when it comes to magic, what a character can't do is more important than what they can do.
I didn't have Sanderson's article in mind when I designed the universe of the Alex Verus series (since I started on that about ten years before the article was written) but reading it made me realise why I'd done things the way I had. In the universe of the Alex Verus series, mages can only use a specific type of magic: you get fire mages and life mages and chance mages, but you don't have generalist spellcasters who can do everything. In the previous books I'd done in the setting, the main characters had tended to to use elemental magic, like ice and air. But when I first sat down to write the Alex Verus series I decided this time I wanted to do something different.
The problem I'd been finding with elemental magic (which had been growing on me for a while) was that elemental magic in my setting is great at applying raw power but isn't very subtle. This works out okay from the character's point of view, since they can usually bulldoze most problems with sheer brute force. What it's not so good for is creating stories – situations get resolved by some version of 'hit it until it breaks' and I was finding it harder and harder to write those in an interesting way.
So for the Alex Verus series I came up with something new: I made the protagonist a diviner. Alex's magic can tell him the probabilities of future events, and that's it. It can't affect the physical world in any way.
Straight away that opened up a lot of interesting possibilities. Since Alex's magic only gives information, it means he can't force his way through problems – his magic can point him towards a solution, but he still has to think up the plan and do the actual work (which tends to make for better stories). It also created a David vs Goliath sort of feel when Alex has to go up against someone who completely outclasses him in terms of direct power, and I liked that – I've always had a soft spot for the idea of the smart hero who relies on intelligence rather than brute strength.
Fast forward three years and I've now just finished writing the third Alex Verus novel, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to say that it worked. :) What was a surprise was how easy I found it to keep coming up with new material – the combination of Alex's powers, his history, and his personality was great for supplying story ideas.
A character's powers can be interesting in concept, but it's the limits on those powers that make them interesting in practice.
About the Alex Verus series
FatedAlex Verus 1
Ace, February 28, 2012 (US)
Mass Market Paperback and Ebook, 304 pages
Alex Verus is part of a world hidden in plain sight, running a magic shop in London. And while Alex's own powers aren't as showy as some mages, he does have the advantage of foreseeing the possible future--allowing him to pull off operations that have a million-to-one-chance of success.
But when Alex is approached by multiple factions to crack open a relic from a long-ago mage war, he knows that whatever's inside must be beyond powerful. And thanks to his abilities, Alex can predict that by taking the job, his odds of survival are about to go from slim to none...
The UK Cover (Orbit, March 1, 2012)
Camden, North London. A tangled, mangled junction of train lines, roads and the canal. Where minor celebrities hang out with minor criminals, where tourists and moody teenagers mingle, and where you can get your ears pierced and your shoulder tattooed while eating sushi washed down with a can of super strength beer.
In the heart of Camden, where rail meets road meets leyline, you might find the Arcana Emporium, run by one Alex Verus. He won’t sell you a wand or mix you a potion, but if you know what you’re looking for, he might just be able to help. That’s if he’s not too busy avoiding his apprentice, foiling the Dark, outwitting the Light, and investigating a highly toxic Relic that has just turned up at the British Museum.
Fated will be followed in 2012 by Cursed (Alex Verus 2) and Taken (Alex Verus 3).