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Magically Systematic

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?

2012 FEB Magic - Mistborn (cover art)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

2012 FEB Magic - Harry Potter duelThe 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

2012 FEB Magic - Sorcerer's Apprentice DaveYup, 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.

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15 Comments

  1. Louise says:

    One short story that also springs to mind is The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi. Each time someone casts a spell, a small piece of bramble sprouts in the ground – the more magic is used, the more it grows – until entire cities are dragged down, choking on a forest of bramble.

    I think what I like about this concept is that there are serious repercussions to using magic, a consequence paid not by one individual, but by entire cities and civilizations.

  2. Good article here, but it does point out something that has changed since the beginning of the genre: There must be realism in magic because no one believes any longer. Even your statements about limits and costs betray the term “Magic”, though it is not a negative thing in the slightest. We are all too skeptical to believe in limitless magic, good heroes being good for no reason, and mythical being existing just because…

    Makes me pine for the simple days every once in a while.

    Good write up, always good to see someone thinking about what is on the horizon when it comes to future fantasy writing. Thanks for sharing.

    • I tried to cover this scenario briefly (going without a magic system) but it wouldn’t make for a very interesting article if I just told everybody not to use one. 😉

      But hey, magic systems aren’t a modern fantasy creation. Weis and Hickman have been using them in DragonLance and The Darksword Trilogy for many years (at least since the 80’s). And I’m sure many other examples of classic fantasy could be found that use a magic system.

      Tolkein took the route that you prefer though, with magic remaining a mystery, and no set system. But as I said in my article, this was a case where magic itself was a relatively rare thing, and so these books were not suited to having a defined magic system.

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  3. Khaldun says:

    Haven’t read the Alchemist, but sounds awesome. It perfectly illustrates the problem of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ wherein it is in every individual’s best interest to use magic in small amounts (or even large amounts) to gain benefits for themselves, but if everyone does so then everyone suffers and the playing field stays level but the playing field is destroyed. How to navigate this difficult problem is an interesting problem and especially so in a fantasy novel. Cool 🙂

  4. Gnomey says:

    I’ve always found systems of magic interesting and in fact create rules of “magic” to help with my mathematics, as I study it. It gives life to math where most people find math boring. To me in real life, mathematics is the closest thing we have to anything arcane. It’s mystery and complexity reflects something that would hold alot of power. And nature wouldn’t want us to learn such power without heavy study and thought.

    I agree with and think about this: The public lean towards wanting to understand how magic works in a story. It’s rules, formulae etc. As people become educated, their curiosity grows. The price paid is that we have to know the answers at the cost of the mystery. The mystery is what gets us interested in the first place. Sometimes it’s just good to be fooled.

    But if someone were to attempt this in a story they could use math as a foundation for it.

    For example;

    The Law of rote limits:
    All rotes (spells) must result in zero.
    If rote is equal to zero upon resolution, then no backlash. If rote is not equal to zero backlash results. As the rote approaches –> 0, the backlash dealt is equal to the excess energy before 0.

    The excess energy must go somewhere.

    Such efficiency is dependent on the magician/school of magic/equipment uses, material strength of the equipment etc

    Note: Although it would be hard and make the story a complex read. But in turn would give the story tremendous substance.

  5. xiagan says:

    I think having a magical system and explaining it to your readers is something different. You should have one but it is totally okay if the readers only see the effects. They will be consistent if the magical system is consistent. That way you have mystery without chaos. 😉

  6. […] accomplishes in those scenes. While this is best done before you write, Thomas A. Knight explains magic systems in fantasy and what makes them work. And Janice Hardy advises what to do when your novel is too […]

  7. I think too much effort is put into trying to define magic. It is an irrational idea. Trying to rationally explain something like magic is sort of fruitless. It creates exceptions and paradoxes I find more disruptive to the story than a “mysterious” magic system.

    To me, magic as a fantasy element is most successful not when its limits are defined but when it is used to define the limits of the narrative’s characters. I think it is successful method primarily because it acknowledges the tension between the irrational and rational elements. A character’s struggle to internalize the irrational creates an internal conflict that can really highlight who that character is as a person.

    Magic should be used as a tool to define the characters, and should not be a character itself. Magic is limitless, the characters are not.

  8. Jason Black says:

    Great article! The one thing I wish you had focused on more was the inverse relationship between power and drama. That is, the more powerful the magical system and the stronger the effects the characters can evoke in the world, the less inherently dramatic (and thus, interesting), the story will be. Like you said:

    > When our heroes are in trouble, a well placed spell can change the tide of a hopeless battle.

    If, as a writer, you create a situation where the reader knows that any situation, no matter how dire, is one conveniently-placed spell away from resolution, then the book will be b-o-r-i-n-g. Drama, fundemantally, is an emotional response a reader has to _uncertainty_ about the outcome of situations in the book. When the magic is too powerful and/or too low-cost for the characters, there’s no uncertainty.

    Without uncertainty, there’s no drama. Without drama, there’s no compelling reason to keep reading. Readers may as well go watch an episode of Gilligan’s Island, where you _always_ know that no matter what happens, everybody will be fine, they castaways will remain stuck on the island, and the Skipper will hit Gilligan with his hat.

  9. C. Emmett says:

    I realise I am reading this post waaaay later than when it was published- but well done! I really liked this posting. One thing that helps me think of rules for the magic system in my (hopefully published someday) novel comes from an old X-men comic book. In it, Storm is explaining why she can’t just change the weather all over the place- she says “Rain on one plain means drought on another.” I like that push/pull cause/effect relationship and try to use it in my writing as well. Again, thanks for the posting- great one!

  10. ProgrammerWithoutaName says:

    This is a great Article, I really appreciate the posting. I’m working on developing a game system that includes magic, and actually researching into all the various types of magic systems and lore out there. I’m working on developing both Mystery and Technicality into my system, which I think I’ve figured out how to do. I’m guessing that developing a well thought out magic system is not much different then writing one with a few key differences in that you can develop exceptions to the rules, where as the development of a system in essence means that the rules can’t be broken.

    I don’t know if you are even reading this, but what about the approach of developing a base set of rules and layering the development of magic in a manner that draws parallels from real life? (Example, using the evolution of Coding or Electrical Engineering) as a basis for the system as well as the historical evolution?

  11. Kazzak says:

    good article, but i need more. i need to know how to make the construction of magic spells

  12. Erica says:

    Rules and systems have been around for a long time for magic in genre fantasy. Jack Vance’s system, for instance, became the basis for the magic rules in the original D and D game, and Ursula K Le Guin had name magic and gender limitations (which always bummed me out) in her Wizard of Earthsea (which later turned out to have more consequences than what was implied in the original trilogy.

    An example of a fantasy without a clear magic system might be Lord of the Rings, however. Gandalf appears to use magic sporadically. Sometimes it’s quite powerful, but often it’s used for small, inconsequential things. And he’s not omnipresent or all powerful.

    But he’s not a mortal, and we’re never inside his head as a character. So we’re left to guess why he can use magic to get his pals out of a scrape in one situation and not another. Maybe he’s got to build up some sort of credit with his god, or he needs to recharge his mana batteries, or using magic takes something from him permanently. The point is, if he were constantly using it to resolve conflicts or come to the rescue, it would likely need more structure.

    And the ring certainly had rules, costs, and limits.

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