I came across this quote recently, and it stuck with me. At first glance, it seems to apply only to writers of fantasy, but I believe it goes well beyond that. Each story is a bit of magic in itself. However, even more than the idea of magic in fiction, I like the idea of rules. A great way to keep your story moving forward is to identify the rules you’ve established. If you have no rules established, perhaps you need to spend some time developing them. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate my point is to give a genre-by-genre list of examples. I’m bound to forget one, so feel free to weigh in if I do.
FANTASY: This will be the easiest to see. Let’s take a popular example to demonstrate the point. The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, for as much grief as I give it, does magic very well, as do the Mistborn books by Brandon Sanderson. In Inheritance and the other books of the series, the magic wielded by Dragon Riders and Wizards etc. is pulled from within themselves. For example, if they try to lift a rock that is too heavy for them to lift physically, it will exhaust them to the point of death. The way around this is to draw energy from other living creatures, or from their own store of reserves, which they can hold in certain gems. Each spell, then, has a cost. The Mistborn books focus on Allomancers, humans who “burn” metals in order to gain physical benefits (speed, strength, etc.). Each metal is spelled out, with each benefit. Additionally, the rate at which they “burn” the metals is proportionate to the “boost” they get from it.
SCIENCE-FICTION: Like fantasy, science-fiction stories often have “magic wands,” except in sci-fi, the wands take batteries. Much of the allure of science-fiction has to do with the advanced technology. This technology must have a power source, be it batteries, solar, geo-thermal, nuclear, etc. What is it that powers the technology? What happens when your characters lose their “batteries?”
STANDARD FICTION: For the sake of time, I’ll wrap everything else up into this neat and tidy little category. By “standard fiction,” I simply mean anything that covers a modern, earthly setting. I understand that I’m neglecting certain historical novels, but I only have so much time (as do you). While you may not feature a “magic” system, I encourage you to think of your characters as their own source of “magic.” That is, they should have some character trait, some skill or ability at which they’re very good. In the same way, they should have some flaw to balance it out. Perhaps they’re very determined and stubborn, but are afraid of spiders. Maybe they’re amazing on a computer, but can’t fix their marriage. The greatest air force dog fighter ever suffers from blinding migraine headaches.
You may continue my extrapolation to your particular genre. The basic idea is this: you must have balance. For every benefit, there must be a cost. A price must be paid for every victory. Without rules for magic, without balance in our characters, we run the risk of creating unbelievable, two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. We want something better.