One of the keystones of the fantasy genre is magic. Whether it be dark and mysterious, lost and forgotten, or as common as forks and spoons, it is an ever-present theme in our favourite fantasy books. There doesn’t seem to be anything magic can’t do. When our heroes are in trouble, a well placed spell can change the tide of a hopeless battle. Whether it be warming a bowl of soup, blasting enemies with fireballs, or moving mountains, the potential for magic’s effects sometimes appear limitless.
But sometimes there are rules, and every author appears to come up with or follow a different set of rules. These rules, that control every aspect of the magical presence in a book or game, are called a Magic System.
Do I Need a Magic System?
This is an important question. The very nature of magic is shrouded in mystery, and so to give it a set of rules and define how and why it works defies its nature. This question will be answered in part by what you hope to get out of your magic system. Is there an explanation for magic in your world, or is it a total mystery? How common is magic in your world? If magic is extremely rare, then defining a magic system may not be for you. This is a personal choice, and your writing may dictate this magic system naturally. One thing to keep in mind is this: if you include magic in your book, it is imperative that magic be handled consistently throughout the book, and defining a magic system before you sit down to write can help keep things smooth and congruent.
Define Your Expectations
It’s hard to establish a set of rules and a roadmap without first knowing your destination. Pantsers (like me) will cringe at this prospect, but it’s important to first decide on what you expect to get out of any particular magic system. Is magic going to be a big important part of your work, or is it something that fades into the background? Can anybody use magic, or is it just certain people?
Tearing into this task without a clear goal will leave you floundering, and it will show in your work. A broken or nonexistent magic system where a proper one should exist will confuse readers or turn them off completely. The suspension of disbelief can only be stretched so far before the reader just puts the book down.
Limit Magic Potential
A good magic system has limits.
This is such an important point that it deserves its own paragraph. Without limits, your readers’ suspension of disbelief will dissolve, and fast. It’s not interesting to have a world full of characters who could theoretically destroy the entire world with a single word. Somebody who is just learning magic should not be able to channel the same amount of energy as a seasoned wizard. And even if your seasoned wizard is all-powerful, there should still be limits as to how much energy they can summon and project before injuring themselves.
In some cases, it’s also appropriate to put limits on what type of magic a particular character can wield. For instance, in my book, The Time Weaver, there are eight types or elements of magic. In most cases, a magic wielding character in my world can only wield magic from one element, though a few lucky individuals can wield more than one.
One final limit should be decided before carrying on. How much or how often can a magical spell or ability be used? This is one case where the limits may be variable depending on the potential of the character and the race of the character. In Harry Potter, for example, house elves appeared to have no real limitations on their power, where humans were confined to using a focus to cast their spells. In The Time Weaver, normal human wizards are limited by their inherent potential, where Lyecians have much higher limits to the types and strength of magic they can wield.
Setting up these limits should be one of the first things you decide on when creating your magic system. Doing this early will allow you to keep yourself in line when writing those critical scenes where the magic or abilities are actually used.
It’s All About the Execution
The next thing to decide is how spells are actually cast. There are a few common options in this regard, the most common being through some kind of focus element. Wands, rings, pendants, or even words can be designated as a focus element for a spell. The key here is, without this focus element, the wizard is incapable of using magic effectively, or possibly at all. Harry Potter comes to mind again as a good example, where a wand is required to cast spells effectively. Certain amounts of magic can be achieved without a wand, but it’s sporadic, uncontrollable and usually related to some kind of emotional outburst the wizard has had. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, various items were used to focus magical energy, and without that focus item, the wizard could not cast spells at all (the exception to this being the Prime Merlinian, but that comes later…). The Time Weaver requires that human wizards speak the words to their spell in order to focus the energy. Lyecians can focus the energy through thought alone, and the vicious Narshuks use various howls to focus their magic.
Another option is to have the magical ability be an inherent trait for the wizard. In this case, the execution is quite simple: The wizard wills the spell or effect into existence, without thought or action. J. K. Rowling’s house elves were a very good example of this. They didn’t require a wand, or ring, or words, or even thought to focus the powers they wield. They will the effect into existence, and it’s done.
Books, scrolls, and other written materials are a third option. The DragonLance saga uses this quite well, with Raistlin able to learn and use any spell so long as that spell has been recorded into a spell book of some kind. In this case, there are often other steps involved in the actual casting of the spell, but without the spell book, the wizard’s spells cannot be prepared each day.
This element of a magic system will play an important role in your plot if done well. J. K. Rowling used the wizard’s wands to her advantage quite well, even bringing the magic system to life through specific rules that govern wands and their owners. This can give you something to leverage when building the twists and turns of your complex plot, and perhaps can even help you build the stakes in your story.
With Great Power Comes Great…
…Cost. I bet you thought I was going to say responsibility? Not at all. Cost is the key. Without a cost, you have a limitless well of magical power that any wizard can tap into. Casting spells, using abilities, and even failed spells should all have a cost associated with them. Raistlin paid dearly for his power, spending much of his life either weak or ill, and being tended by his brother. In The Time Weaver, each time a character uses magic, their next spell becomes more difficult to cast, and harder to control. Also, an interrupted spell can have devastating effects on the casting wizard, as illustrated by the numerous wizards who suffer pain, burns, and even a grisly death as a result of an interrupted spell.
Ask yourself what your wizards are giving up so that they can tap into their well of power. The greater the spell, the higher the cost should be.
There’s Always Exceptions to the Rules
Yup, exceptions. The Prime Merlinian in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice could wield great power without the use of a focus element. This was an exception to an otherwise good set of rules. And that’s okay, so long as this exception is done in such a way as to add something to the plot. An exception to the rules makes a great plot device. Lyecians in The Time Weaver normally gain their powers at a very young age, which created a mystery when Seth, my main character, didn’t get his powers until he was thirty.
A word of warning though; do not add exceptions to the rules just for the sake of adding them. Our goal is to put forth a good, exciting, consistent, and believable product within the scope of fantasy. Lacing your system with exceptions for no good reason will undermine your whole concept. Also, even if you have a good reason to add an exception to the rules, be wary of how many exceptions you have. Keep them to a minimum and make your readers happy.
Putting it all Together
Write it down.
Okay, so I’ve not followed my own guidelines here, as I keep information about my fantasy worlds almost exclusively in my head. But I will, and you should too. Writing it down will serve two purposes. First, it reinforces the rules in your mind, makes them real. Second, it gives you a point of reference. You can look back on these rules any time during the next fifty, hundred, or even hundred fifty thousand words, and know exactly where you stand on any given magical feat.
It’s not always easy to keep all the facts straight in your head. Ask me how I know. But creating, and then following your rules for your magic system will leave your readers in awe over how you kept your magic flowing smoothly, even during the heat of the fiercest battles.
This article was originally posted on February 12, 2012.