In the world of fantasy there’s little that’s more central to worldbuilding than the magic system. Now, let’s whittle that down to limitations. To be even more specific, let’s look at how limitations can enhance further worldbuilding and the storytelling by restricting.
There are those who’d argue against limitations, but I’m an advocate. The easy response is that a world, any world, doesn’t work that way. There are rules and laws and all kinds of scienc-y stuff that say everything is restricted to some degree.
A sometime response is that fantasy should be unhindered. Creativity should be unhindered, the resulting world restricted. Limitations are part of worldbuilding’s framework. They tell the reader what’s possible and what isn’t. They’re also a promise to the reader that the writer won’t stray outside of the rules whenever they write themselves into a corner.
Those limitations not only hold true for the storytelling, but also for any additional worldbuilding. A world that isn’t consistent with itself isn’t a world at all. Instead, it’s a bunch of ideas slapped together. That doesn’t mean new can’t be added. I add all the time. What it means is that what’s added either falls within existing rules or a new rule is created.
My magic system is like a Constitution. I do everything in my power to not amend it or it becomes too sprawling. That makes it more difficult for readers to understand in the small doses they get. Readers will try and understand the system. If they can’t or, worse, it doesn’t make any sense, they’ll become frustrated.
I know how hard adhering to the system can be. It happened to me when I wanted engines to exist. For the longest time I didn’t believe it was possible. My dream of airships was on the line, and still I was stumped. In desperation, I wrote a short story around the breakthrough. Somehow, the distraction of writing a romance unlocked my brain. I became Mercie trying to understand…
“All right.” He gestured at the board behind him. “We’re struggling with the air intake, which the engine requires. Air contains more than oxygen and nitrogen. There’s also natural and raw magic. Natural magic isn’t the problem. For our purposes it’s rather benign. The problem is raw magic, which is a chaotic force and the reason—”
“Flames cannot be enclosed without sufficient precautions.” She smiled and batted her eyes to add unspoken sarcasm.
Behind her, Draven sputtered his way to a snicker.
“Uh, yes, okay, Mercie, that’s correct. We haven’t been able to create a system for safely separating them. Once the raw magic is trapped within the engine there’s no way to expel it quickly enough before it explodes and casts nonsensical, often deadly, spells.”
Before the story had ended Mercie came upon the person with the key piece to the solution. Mercie’s discovery became my discovery. That key allowed me to stay within existing worldbuilding. It also led to motorcars and trains. Trains, in fact, were a combination of the engine solution and the solution that led to creating lifts where magnets were involved.
Trust your worldbuilding and it’ll reward you with more valuable worldbuilding. Likewise, trust the limitations built into your worldbuilding and they’ll reward you limitlessly throughout your storytelling.
Restrictions on your magic rules and the characters who possess magic make stories more interesting. They create tension. A good example is Riparia Dellbane, the protagonist in my Carrdia series. Riparia has the ability to heal. One limitation on all Healers is the inability to heal themselves.
If that restraint didn’t exist? Riparia would be impervious to any danger except sudden death. Goodbye vulnerabilities. Goodbye fear.
Another limitation to her gift is that she can only Heal that which is damaged. Fixing a birth defect, for instance, is beyond her ability. Likewise, the same applies to some diseases and poisons. For Riparia, any limit on her gift takes an emotional toll, as is established early in Bk1, Trust in the Forgotten. In fact, it’s for this very reason that she’s downplayed her gift for years until, on a fateful night, Paran persuades her to try and save a girl of twelve…
Surviving the moment meant not allowing herself to care. She couldn’t become swept away in their tragedy, if that was what awaited. She couldn’t let the girl become Penareen or any of the others she’d lost.
Haden’s fires, it was easier to shut off her gift than her heart.
Damn, Paran, damn him.
She motioned the mother aside, sat, and set her satchel on the floor. “Your husband indicated there might be abdominal pain?”
“Yes.” The woman sniffled and retreated to her husband’s embrace. “There’s been a continual burning week after week.”
They had to be wanting a reassuring smile. She had none.
She touched the girl’s brow. Hot beyond reason. She eased one of the girl’s eyelids open and exposed the blue, swirling cauldron beneath.
“No…” Her face hidden from the parents, she closed her eyes and grit her teeth. It wasn’t fair.
Later in the story, her limitations established for the reader, she fights a losing battle to save someone dear to her. It’s a battle she can’t win. At best, she can slow the other character’s demise. Unless she locates a rare antidote.
That search, caused by a limitation, leads to her inadvertently uncovering knowledge that is a catalyst for the rest of the series. Thus, in a sense, I can honestly say that the entire series hinges on the limitations to her gift.
In many ways, the restrictions on Riparia’s gift have helped shape the woman she is, thus helping to craft her character. If later she Healed when the established rules said she shouldn’t be able to I would have delegitimized her character and all my worldbuilding. Too, by always having an easy escape I’d have missed that moment that was responsible form making the saga special.
You see, the scene that altered the series? That wasn’t planned. It happened because I was in a bind caused by the check on her abilities. Now, that’s a gift.