The Rules of Magic

 by Autumn Birt

Admittedly, I like limitations. Or maybe I should say knowing what are ‘safe operating parameters.’ Something where if you step outside of those and you’ll be answering for it.


Well, the rebel in me then knows exactly which line to hug… or skirt. 😉 Oh, you thought I was going to say so I could play it safe? Hah. No. I like rules because they create boundaries and ‘uncrossable’ boundaries create temptation and tension. I like temptation and tension!

I feel the same way about fantasy stories. I love the idea of magic powers, but not omnipotent and omniscient characters. I cannot relate to being imperfect and powerful (see sentence 5 above). Vulnerabilities (limits) elicit empathy in me. If I think a character may fail, I worry and fret. And when things aren’t defined and new abilities miraculously appear to save the day? I’m bored and disappointed.

Dr whoCase and point: I love Dr. Who. But I’ve been slow to the party, watching old seasons on Netflix. However, somewhere in series 5 or 6, I started getting annoyed. Seriously, it is a sonic screwdriver. That pretty well defines what it should be able to do (manipulate objects through resonate frequency). It isn’t a magic wand! But suddenly, it can fix anything.

And yes, I know the Doctor is a Time Lord and not human, but miraculously he can withstand things that at least caused pain and a threat to limb in earlier episodes. I really got itching for some parameters. Not that I’ve found any. But it gives me something to gripe about while watching! I keep holding out hope that I’ll connect with the Doctor the way I did in earlier episodes, the ones I think about watching again.

And if it doesn’t? Well, I might not pick up the next episode of Dr. Who. Or if this were a book, I’d probably finish reading it, but might not pick up the next in the series or another by that author. I’m in the story to care about a character, to feel tense and the flush of victory. Easy wins do nothing for me. And this goes both ways: the ‘rules’ in Steven Montano’s newest epic fantasy series the Skullborn Trilogy caught my interest enough to want to read it.

So, how does this play into my writing?

Well, one of first things I do when world building is create a set of rules for the magic system, of course! It can be difficult as an author and rule… um, ‘transgressor’ to stay within the boundaries I set up. So, I try to have fun testing them!

This is very true with my current epic fantasy series on elemental magic. There, the rules would seem straight forward. If you are a Fire Elemental, you control fire. Right? So, can you control light? What about heat without light? See… testing limits!


Okay, she had a ball of water. But its the other things she can do that made if fun!

How about being able to control water? Did you know blood is 92% water? What if you could control that? Or mess with evaporation? Water is one of the strongest forces in the world. It can erode mountains. Of course, so can wind. Think of controlling a tornado… I could have fun as an Air Elemental! And I haven’t even touched on the fact that what we see passes through air carried on light! Could a fire or air elemental change what you see?

Is your brain humming with possibilities yet?

Needless to say, I think there can be a lot more to elemental magic than lobbing rocks or balls of water. In the world of my epic fantasy trilogy, the magic can be intense and surprising.

You might say I get a lot of magical inspiration from a strong scientific foundation. It certainly helps me test what seems to be a very simple set of rules regarding fire, water, air, earth, and spirit (yes, five elements. That is a whole different topic). But science isn’t the only way to create rules (or stretch rules) for magic.

And for my next WIP? It has the ultimate set of rules for magic: no magic exists! Now that causes some stress and challenges.

 Do your favorite books have rules for magic? Or do you love limitless powers?


Autumn uses her writing as a safe and healthy outlet for her rebellious ways. Well that and her motorcycle and sports car. You can find her trying to behave herself online on Twitter @weifarer. Learn more about her writing at


4 comments on “The Rules of Magic

  1. Great post, Autumn. I’m glad you mentioned Dr. Who. My wife and daughter love it, but I can’t watch it because the wonky, make-it-do-whatever-needs-to-be-done science leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
    Awesome thoughts about the elements, too. A shame M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t have your imagination!

    • That is great way to put how Dr. Who’s antics, Bruce. They drive me batty, but lead to great conversations on why it isn’t possible or the science that would make it possible. Yah, I have an odd household…

      And thanks for the compliment too! I love writing fight scenes because, man, it is a great way to test what is possible and how fast you (your character) can react.

  2. I agree. If there’s no limit then there’s challenge. If there’s no challenger then there’s no…fun. Interesting suggestion. A few ideas went a-buzz when I was reading your post! Thanks for sharing. 😀

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