Fantasy world building. The possible considerations are infinite. Choices must be made. Some loom large and have great implications. Some are easy and require minimal thought. For instance, most authors leave the natural world largely intact and water means oceans, seas, lakes, streams, and liquid for making tea (if there’s tea). Humans? If yes, then there’s one group that comes predesigned.
See? Millions of decisions that often aren’t decisions at all.
One big choice, the big beast in the fantasy kitchen, if you will, is magic. Some writers sprinkle it in with a shaker while others use a bucket. Some explain it more than others (explain only as needed…no info dumps!), but what’s vital is maintaining consistency and having limitations.
Even so, everyone will have different priorities in what they include and one small choice can have major implications. For instance: Why do some characters have magic and others don’t? An extension of that is: Why doesn’t everyone have some form of magic? After all, from a evolutionary standpoint, you’d think it’d be an advantage that would spread through the population over time like a favorable gene or trait (I vote for thumbs, but my cat favors retractable claws).
Please note that it isn’t necessary to explain this to the reader unless you want to, but there should be a rule, at least for your own reference. Over time readers detect inconsistencies.
In LOTR, Gandalf, a wizard, or Istari, isn’t human and was sent from the west. I can accept that, but I’ve encountered books where the explanation, if there is one, is suspect. This was one of those questions that was important to me, so long ago I vowed that if I ever developed a magic system I’d work out the how and why.
And so I did. And the basics are so simple I laughed out loud when it came to me.
Again, I want to stress this is a situation where explaining isn’t imperative. In fact, since working it out I’ve written well over a dozen short stories placed in Ontyre and drafted several novels and only once did I address the issue directly (indirectly in Where Light Devours when discussing a related issue). The direct reference was because I developed a short story around the topic (that’ll make more sense in a moment).
So, how does it work? In my case it started with developing The Prolongation Factor, the idea that those who possess magic have longer lifespans in proportion to how much magic they possess (that’s complicated and I won’t go into it here). On a graph it’d be an exponential line with non-gifted humans (gift = magic) having no “extra” years and wizards at the other end with hundreds of extra years.
Except there’s a downside (limitation). The Prolongation Factor roughly mirrors an inverse line that represents reproduction (appropriately named The Reproduction Curve). In other words, wizards can’t have children. Period. Near the other end of the scale are those with proportionately little magic who can still have children, but it’s difficult. That’s what happened to the elves of Ontyre. All elves had magic coupled with a low birthrate and so the race died out (there were contributing factors and there remain races related to the elves).
Those two exponential lines led to many other issues/ideas that led to other complications, limitations, and (the best) conflicts/tension. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a short story about a woman whose sylvan gift is extraordinary, but she’s crushed when she learns the chances she’ll ever have a child are slim. Learning her gift has a cruel downside is a crushing blow that sends her life in an unexpected direction.
Limitations make magic more believable and are a valuable source of complications, tension, and other valuable ideas. An all-powerful character is boring and erases all doubt as to how the story will end.
Another magic-related example: The long lifespans wizards possess means it’s difficult for them to have long-term relationships with anyone other than other wizards. Sort of explains their grumpy dispositions and intellect-driven outlooks.
And another: The Wizard’s Curse explains why women don’t become wizards. Ah, there’s one way for them to sidestep that problem, which is to take the sorcerer’s path, but that choice comes at a steep price.
The primary point here is that choices made have implications and those implications are a valuable resource and not a problem. Limitations on magic aren’t a limitation on the story, but the exact opposite.