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Creating a Magic System

New Worlds by Julie Dillon (detail)The naming of a thing gives you power over it. Sorcery is the will and the word. Cast fireball now and you won’t be able to again until tomorrow and have finished your revision.

Magic systems exist in scores of fantasy novels. Diverse in their rules, varying in complexity, they instruct us in how the magic of the world of the story works and in any rules that govern it. Some authors disdain them, preferring to keep their magical arts shrouded in mystery, while others will provide exhaustive explanation and runic charts in the back of the book. I’ve always believed that a good magic system can only enhance a book, serving to develop the world, engage the reader and open up the scope for storytelling. Clever use of such a system can create new plot opportunities, allow an author to foreshadow and enact hidden twists, not to mention being interesting creations in their own right.

A common stop on the road to worldbuilding, many authors love to craft their own systems with various casting protocols, methodologies and effects. It can be great fun to develop your own magic system but if the groundwork is poor it will quickly become difficult to manage or hard to understand for the reader. This article will cover the various aspects involved in creating a magic system and how to make it interesting and effective.

magic city by aiyayo

Note that these aspects don’t only apply to an “official” magic system with spells and incantations, but can apply to whatever form of magic might be in your story, even if it’s a power based system like superheroes, or ability focused like the Gracelings from Cashore’s Graceling Realm series.

Sources of Power

Does magic come from some universal source like the Weave in Forgotten Realms, an otherworldly supply of magical power that users can tap into to fuel their spells? Does it come from the castor themselves, a supply of magic produced from their body like Brent Weeks’ Glore Vyrden that works like a spiritual battery? Is it siphoned from bound demons and magic crystals or fuelled by crushed unicorn’s horn and fairy dust?

Loyal Retainers by Bastien Lecouffe Deharme

Throwing fireballs, changing forms and moving mountains would require a lot of energy by any measure, so defining a source for that energy is a good first step. What an author chooses for the source of magic is fundamental to the whole construction of a system, forming the basis of any rules, and affecting the utility of magic. It can determine a mage’s relationship with their powers, the casting process, how it affects the castor and their perception within the world.

Spring Spell by Kasia Zielinska

An easily accessible river of energy is going to mean more magic in your story than if a mage gets their power from dangerous bargains or drawing on their own life energy. A wizard who casts spells by drawing on some underlying force of nature might think and fight differently than someone who draws on their own energy to weave spells, possessing a different perspective/philosophy. What if the magic comes from the gods of your story, is it a serious spiritual experience or does it involve the teasing of a goddess like Sparhawk receives in Eddings’ Tamuli series? The source a magic user draws from can also place restrictions on what they can accomplish, bringing us to the next part of a magic system.

Limitations and Rules

Hoar Frost by Marzena Nereida PiwowarMagic cannot be a solution for everything. For all the power and wonder it can bring to a story, the limitations are what make it a fully realised part of the world and not seem like a contrived plot device. In broad strokes an author first needs to establish ground rules, an idea of what is and isn’t possible with magic in order to fix its place within the world of the story. Sure you can cast fireballs from your fingertips or turn a coil of rope into snakes, but can you create something out of nothing, conjure food or money from thin air? If so think about the consequences for you world (and economy).

Once the basics are established you can look at some of the other ways to customise your system like creating a cost for using magic. It’s traditional in fiction to make magic have a cost to the user, firstly to prevent its overuse, but also because it can add a sense of character to your magic system, a feeling of weight and responsibly to balance out the abilities it provides. Some systems like that of Dungeons and Dragons, place limits on how frequently magic cast be cast or require the use of magical regents to allow a spell to be used, like burning a feather as part of a spell to give temporary flight. This not only places checks on the castor but provides an opportunity for creativity when coming up with spell materials.

And then there are the more direct costs, starting with physical and mental exhaustion and ranging all the way up to death. These kinds of costs can be fascinating to play with, exploring the toll they take on a magic user, increasing the level of danger and tension in their scenes, plus you get the joy of coming up with gruesome prices to pay. Though remember that if you make your costs too prohibitive/punishing it will limit the about of magic that can occur within the book.

Methods of Casting

Apprentice Sorcerer - Applibot by Yohann SchepaczThis is a fun part, the actual description of the process of magic. Will yours require drawn out rituals, or a few hand gestures and a focus of willpower? Does it need a magic tool like a staff, or complex incantations spoken in ancient languages? There’s almost endless freedom for the author when working on this part, the chance for developing some original and interesting spell mechanics. Do spells simply burst into life from nothing, maybe runes and mystical symbols shimmer into existence in the air as the spell is cast? Perhaps there are no flashy effects but a more subtle result, a gentle nudge of probabilities like the Principle in K. J. Parker’s Fencer Trilogy?

The key thing to remember for this part is to make it entertaining for the reader, you want to wow them with your magic so it must have something that’s flashy or exciting enough to make it memorable. Also you’ll want to think about utility in how magic works for your story, a magic system where someone yells a few words and waves their hands to bring forth major destruction will lend itself far better to an epic magical duel than one where the system requires hours of ritual preparation to accomplish a small spell. The casting method can also bring its own limitations, like how Harry Potter’s wizards aren’t much use without their wands.

Organisation

How is your magic organised, are their different forms, different ways of practicing it? Is it based on cultural differences, are they organised into schools? Is there formal training, what about good or evil magic? Your magic system can be as organised as you want it to be. Whether you see it as a mysterious way of tapping into ancient power or a science with charts for different schools of magic. This organisation should not be mere window dressing, but ideally should have meaning and influence within the book.

Apprentices by Efflam Mercier

If magic systems are organised in terms of the four elements, why does a person choose a particular craft? Can they overlap their knowledge and skills? Are there rivalries between the factions that can provide tension and drama within the story? What would happen if someone tried/could break such rules, as in the Avatar series where a single individual can use all forms of bending? Organisation can be what gives depth and realism to a magic system, providing details of how it all works and interrelates serves to flesh out the concept and can help to cement its place within the story.

Magic Users

Is magic something you’re born with, or does it just require training and research like any other skill? Do the people who have that spark see it as a curse or a blessing? What happens to those who have the gift? If it can be learnt by anyone, why isn’t it? Is the knowledge restricted, a monopoly held by those in charge? What does it mean for the power structure in your story?

Chandra Origin by lius lasahido

These questions can affect not only how the magic user sees themselves but also how they are seen by others. Does the guy with godlike powers stride arrogantly through crowds of cowering peasants, or do those same peasants throw stones at those marked with the sign of magic? Do you want such power to be accessible in your world, or does the plot require it to be limited to a special few? It’s largely a binary choice in fiction but it’s definitely something that requires thought for the consequences it can have on the story.

Prevalence of Magic

Forest Guardian by JasonTNHow much magic is there in your world? Can you not swing a two headed cat without swatting a flock of fairies, or is it something secret and rare? This part revolves around worldbuilding rather than a magic system itself, but it’s an important consideration in order to make your magic feel like a functional part of the world. How does magic affect daily life? Is it a widely accepted concept? What uses has it been put? The more you can make it feel like an organic part of the world the more grounded the system will feel to the reader.

Creating an effective magic system is a complex process but addressing these aspects should provide the foundations to make a good one. They will help with structuring the system and allow the author to develop traits that make it interesting. Just be sure not to get too carried away and make some fantastically complex system of spells and intricate casting measures that requires a hundred page primer before the reader can understand it. Ideally your magic system should be engaging, relatively simple to understand, with enough depth and rules/limitations that the characters can twist it into new ways to solve problems. Remember that magic should not be the easy way out, a system should bring its own tensions, trials and drama to the narrative, and it can be the flaws or costs of a system that create the most interesting effects on the story and characters.

So wiggle your fingers, start your chanting, put pen to paper and make some magic!

Title image by Julie Dillon.

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2 Comments

  1. Lizzie says:

    Love this article! Really helped me think about my own system 🙂 -L x

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    It’s reassuring to see the magic system I developed for my fantasy series addresses every single point in this article quite effectively. But I already suspected that would be true because I put in the effort to make it work. It’s an excellent overview on how to develop a system.

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