Writing Abilities & Magic

Superpowers can be a great addition to the adventure and thrill of your novel, but they need to be used correctly. There are lots of factors to consider when writing them, so let’s jump right in!

Role to Plot

First, you need to know what role it’s going to play in the plot of your story. For example, you’ll need to know whether it is the main plot or a sub-plot (will the story revolve around your powers, or are they secondary?). Later, you’ll also need to know its role to the character(s) that have it. For example, is it an asset or a struggle for them?

To thoroughly answer these questions, you’ll need to start asking questions. You can start off with some world-building. How is society impacted by the abilities or magic? What is the popular view on them? Who has them? Why do they have them? These can help shape the plot of your story, and help you to better understand if their abilities or magic need to be a main or sub-plot.

From there, you’ll need to keep asking more questions, digging deeper. What kinds of abilities or magic are there? This can fuel plot on its own. Take Harry Potter for an example; everybody around him has normal wizarding abilities, but he can talk to snakes, which are generally associated with the house Slytherin, Voldemort, and evil. This not only makes his peers fear him and accuse him of attacks that take place, but makes him question why he is similar to the villain. Depending on your story, the kinds of abilities and magic can be a great source of conflict.

Role to Character

Now, to figure out the role this ability or magic has to your character. First, you’ll need to know exactly how your character’s power works. What are the limits to the ability or magic? The downsides? What exactly can they, and can’t they, do? How do they do it? How does it physically feel? This is important to make your story feel realistic and consistent. The rules of the abilities or magic need to be laid out before they become crucial to the story. For example, if your character can teleport, you’ll need to know where they can teleport, how they do it, what can stop them from teleporting, what it feels like, if there are any repercussions, etc.

Next, you can start figuring out more about how it impacts your character. How do they feel about the ability? How do they use it? How does it impact their life? These, combined with the limits, will help to ensure there is still room for conflict in your story. For example, in my current novel, Outliers, (to be published this summer) my main character, Renee, has mind-reading abilities. However, she limits herself by not reading her family and friends’ minds, because she feels it’s disrespectful. This leaves room for conflict that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. If she was always reading everybody’s minds, there would be no room for misunderstanding, mystery, or conflict between characters. It’s like that for any magic or ability. Your character can be powerful and have cool powers, but they can’t be unstoppable or unable to be surprised/unsure. Leave room for struggle and loss.

You can also ask how the power fits with a given character. Does it fit well to their personality, or is it almost ironic they ended up with that ability? Both can work great. For example, you could have a character whose ability/magic reflects their temperament, who has fully embraced their powers and seems one with their ability/magic. This can help reinforce their personality, and will help the reader to feel that the powers are well thought out/fitting. On the other side of the coin, you could have a character that, say, is afraid of heights, and gets the ability to fly. This can be a great source of conflict and plot for your story. Maybe they keep trying to deny the ability, but have to overcome their fear and embrace their ability by the end. This will make their embracing (or even just using, if they haven’t embraced it) the ability or magic meaningful, and the contrast leaves lots of room to put them in ironic and/or high conflict situations.

You may also need to figure out how to balance the abilities/magic between characters. If more than one character has an ability, you need to figure out how others will compare. Why does each character have that level of power? How does it correspond to their role in the book (e.g.: protagonist, side-kick, minor character, etc.)? For example, let’s pretend there are five people, including your protagonist, in your main group of people. Say four of them have different, but cool, abilities or magic powers. There should be a reason why if number five has an objectively worse power. It’s fine to have an imbalance of power in your characters, but there should be reasoning for it, and they should all still bring some value to the table (if they are part of your protagonist’s group).

Plan It

Abilities and magic need to be explained before they become important. Specifically, before they are useful to your character. It can be interesting to have an ability or magic power suddenly develop if it creates conflict for the character. Basically, surprise powers that put your character in danger or freak them out are good, but springing powers out of nowhere to save the day is not a good idea. If the reader has no idea a character can do something and it just pops up, getting the character out of trouble, it will seem lazy, like a slap-dash fix. If your character doesn’t yet understand how the ability or magic works that’s fine, but it should at least be talked about before it’s helpful to them.

Abilities and magic can be great for a story, but need to be well considered and developed. What are some stories with abilities or magic that you thought did them really well? Does your work in progress have abilities or magic?

I post new advice on Saturdays, so please click “follow”  to keep learning more!  What would you like me to blog about next? Do you have any questions about writing? Please be sure to let me know in the comments, or contact me via social media!

With all of this in mind, go out and write your masterpiece!


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