Charles Yallowitz and I are doing a blog swap today. I asked him to give us a brush up on writing magical items into our stories. I hold this advice is good across the spectrum of speculative fiction. Upscale science fiction items will run into the same issues. Here is Charles' primer on magic items:
Thank you to Craig who has asked me to write about magical items and give some tips on how to use them. As you can guess, I primarily write fantasy stories and enchantments are classic fare of the genre. So this topic is up my alley and now I realize how often I use these things. Is that a good or bad thing? Well, it really depends.
You see, there are many schools of magic item usage and I’m going to mention two of the big ones. There are Lord of the Rings type worlds that have maybe a handful of very powerful objects and a few more mundane things. For example, The One Ring is a highly enchanted bauble that can rule the world. It’s a rare level of magic for an item since most other ‘magic’ items are swords that are more durable and sharper than normal weapons. Also they glow when orcs and goblins are around as long as the special effects people remember. The second world type is a Harry Potter style where nearly everything is magical. Brooms fly, letters yell at you, time travel is possible, and you get the point. Wonder why they even bothered learning spells at some points.
So you can see two levels of enchanted items here and that can have a heavy impact on an author’s world building. If these objects are everywhere then you need to have characters act accordingly. Not as much surprise or fear like you would see in a world where a person can go their entire life without running into magic. In my series, Legends of Windemere, there is a type of enchanted object called ‘Durable Gear’, which is nothing more than hardier items. They are easy to get, so nobody is wowed by them like they would be with a magic sword that summons a Titan. Even that second object isn’t extremely awe-inspiring to the older locals because I’ve established that Windemere has a lot of magic. That’s an important factor here. You really need to set the rules on how common these things are and if anyone can use them. There are authors who feel that only magic-users should be allowed to use enchanted objects, but I’m not one of them. Why have a wand of fireballs when you know the spell? Just my personal preference though and I’ll touch more on that later.
Keeping an enchanted object balanced is another issue that comes up. A warrior with a sword that does everything and there are no side-effects is a bad idea. If the item is simple and mundane, like a self-cleaning toothpick, then you can get away with no limits. Still, you should do something in regards to activation. The common choices are rather simple and self-explanatory:
1. Activation word that doesn’t always come up in conversation.
2. Limited charges and/or cool down time.
3. Requiring a trance or great focus.
4. Certain times of day or night.
5. Specific movements of the body.
That doesn’t include side-effects like insanity, memory loss, shortened life span, and whatever the author wishes to inflict on the user. For example, Nyx in my series is a caster who gets an enchanted bracelet that attracts an enemy’s blade and releases a stun blast on contact. She says ‘pineapple’ to turn it on and off, but it seals her magic for about a minute. So a knight with heavy armor will still be a problem for her since a groin kick, headbutt, and right cross are pretty weak against platemail. Again, I will harp on the rule that it’s the author’s choice on how to work with these items, which really only have to fit into the world.
Unfortunately, you’re going to find readers who hate whatever choice you make. Some people want high magic like in Hogwarts and others want limited magic like in Middle Earth. You also have many who claim magic items are tropes, clichés, overused plot devices, childish tricks, and what have you. Well . . . they’re right. Just like dragons, elves, swords, medieval settings, horses, heroes, villains, and everything else are clichés of the fantasy genre. I’m stepping into another topic here, but my personal opinion is that you’re always going to have something calling your work cliché. Magical items are a big target here because they’ve been a staple since the days of mythology. So there really isn’t a way to guarantee that you’ll use them in a way that isn’t called a trope because their mere existence can trigger this opinion. How do you combat this? Just have fun with your stories and do what feels right.
So we don’t end on a downer, I’m going to mention the first enchanted item I made for any of my fantasy series. Still on the fence of using it because I made it in high school. To be fair, it’s more than one thing. I designed a warrior who used five enchanted blades that were always strapped to his back. Each one was unbreakable, could reflect magic, and pass through armor like it was air. So, why did he have five? They were talking swords that were twice as smart as the warrior. They would argue about who he would use and the ‘losers’ would guilt trip him after the fight. He had them because he’d feel bad if he didn’t and I think I made them siblings. As you can see, you simply have to have fun with these things.
Note: I've read a couple of Charles' books and enjoyed them immensely. I recommend his short tale, Ichabod Brooks and the City of Beasts, as a great way to test drive his writing style.