Urban fantasy is incredibly popular right now, especially in the young adult market. The market has, in fact, been glutted with YA urban fantasy novels of varying quality. So, how can your work stand out? One way is to create a unique magic system which is deeply ingrained in your world.
Done already? Okay. Let’s continue.
While it’s technically true that you can transplant any magic system to the modern-day world and have it ‘work’ in the sense that it makes interesting reading, that’s not what I’m after. I want you to do something unique, something with pizazz, something that compliments the world you’ve built in interesting and unexpected ways. To that end, let’s take a look at some different ideas of how to make magic an integral part of your world. (These ideas are also for fantasy sub-genres other than urban.)
Find a power source.
This can be anything, really. Electricity, a certain food, the written word…. Regardless, something has to power the magic. You can make it something that’s commonly available or extremely rare, but it should be something that’s relatively important within your world. A good example is the assortment of powers in the Infamous videogame series, most of which are powered by electricity. The main character of the first two games has the ability to draw electricity into his body and store it for later use. Seeing how it’s set in a near-future world, electricity is common and definitely an integral part of society. But such a system would be far out of place in, say, the 19th century.
If you don’t feel the need to have an in-world power source, you can go the route of having a power source which is external– say, cosmic background radiation, or something cyclical like Sozin’s Comet (yes, it technically only boosted the magic’s power, but you get the idea). In that case, though, you’ll need to anchor your magic in a different way. Let’s try….
Developing a skill set.
Ask yourself what you need the magic to do. Or to put it another way, what limitations do you want to place on your mages? Again, you’re aiming for something that will compliment the worldbuilding you’ve already done.
Let’s say you have a world where much of the urban technological development is based on a certain readily available material– copper, for instance. It would stand to reason that a magic system intertwined with the world would include a number of skills related to manipulating copper. And perhaps iron and steel are far less available, and so are not used as much. In this case, despite the similarities between the metals, your mages would have a block when it comes to using steel or iron; perhaps a block severe enough that those metals could be used as ‘insulators’ against magic.
The idea of a magic that evolves with the society’s technological development is a fairly new one, and is exemplified in Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy. In that world, a new kind of magic has arisen as a result of the development of gunpowder and (presumably) this new technology’s reaction with the planet’s magical field (or whatever is powering magic in this case).
Let’s extend the copper example I used above: as new copper-based alloys are developed, new powers may come into being. Whether those powers are unlocked in existing mages or create a whole new class is up to you; but it lends a unique sense of realism to see that certain magical abilities only come into being alongside their attendant technological developments.
Human agency is, so far as I have read, often neglected in the development of a magic system. We are, after all, thinking beings who have a distinct effect on the world we live in. Thus, let’s take the idea of magic evolving in sync with technology to its logical extreme and say that humans (and other sentient beings) can directly affect the magic system of your world.
We humans have a tendency to innovate, to create new things by combining old things, and even to create new things wholesale. So perhaps your humans have created their own disciplines and talents within your magic system– which begs the question: what powers would be most useful for their personal and/or cultural development? And how have they molded their magic system to bring those powers into existence?
A well-endowed bestiary.
Supernatural and magical creatures figure largely in urban fantasy, from fairies to Fuchsbau– though these days, the protagonists tend to be forming love triangles with them more often than killing them. Thanks a lot, Meyer.
But the existence of these creatures begs the question: what are you going to do with them? You can leave them out, of course (more power to you); but if you must have them, bear in mind that they’re a part of your world’s magic system and history, and should be developed with the same care.
Refrain from using them as mindless cannon fodder for the villainous army. Perhaps, instead, the system of rewards and consequences inherent in your magic is more complex than it appears at first glance. Let’s say certain kinds of magic have the effect of gradually transforming the practitioner into an image of what they practice. In that case, the practitioner of any necromantic disciplines would perhaps eventually become a zombie or vampire.
Food for thought. Just, please refrain from writing sparkly vampires.
The flipside of gritty.
Urban fantasy tends to be darker and grittier than many other genres of fantasy, and its magic systems follow suit. What else would you expect when you’re moving through the seamy underbelly of an over-urbanized civilization?
But for the last thought experiment here, let’s look at it from another angle. What about the rich kids? Or the media magnates? Or the politicians, big business owners, or even just moderately wealthy people? What kind of magic do we see on the ‘bright’ side of the urban sprawl?
To continue along those lines, what if you totally changed things up and set your urban fantasy novel in the near future on a clean, well-kept space habitat with largely law-abiding citizens? What would the magic look like, and who would be using it?
There you go. Hopefully I got you thinking (that’s the point of this marathon, after all) about some new and unique ways you can approach the magic of your urban fantasy stories. And as my favorite writing podcast concludes: “You’re out of excuses; now go write.”
About the Author
Joel A. Parisi is the author of Shadow Play, the first volume of the series S.H.R.A.I.D. He is a regular contributor here at Vaguely Circular, so you’ll be seeing more posts from him in the future. He’s currently working on way too many projects at once, which is really stressful, but he tends to get bored otherwise.