Building a Magic System

MagicMy favorite genre to write is fantasy. It’s probably because I’m a world building sucker. I’ve seriously written entire languages that will never be in any book ever. For fun. For fun. So it should come as no surprise that I also enjoy making up magic systems. My first attempts at writing a magic system pretty much consisted of: “And then the characters got trapped in some crazy situation that was absolutely impossible to get out of…. And then MAAAAAGIC! Because… because it’s MAAAAGIC!” And everything was solved. And it was lame.

I try to put a little more thought into it these days. As with any aspect of world building, I, the author, will need to know more than will ever be put into my story. But it’s still important to know. I’ll be better at catching plot holes before they happen, have a more consistent system and world, and know exactly what kind of stickiness my character can get into and out of using magic. I’ll also have a better sense of how it really works and what I can do to make it unique, so I won’t have to automatically fall back on what I read in Harry Potter or Grandma’s dusty grimoire and risk producing a cliche magic system. (Unless you’re working parody or humor. Then cliche away.)

So if you’re thinking about making a new magic system, here are a few things to consider:

Who uses it? Can just anyone use it? Does it require special (or expensive) training? Are only the upper classes allowed to use magic? Can only a few who are born with it work magic? How are they chosen (by god, by biology, by the government, by some kind of prenatal exposure to magicurcury in contaminated fish)? If it’s the sort of thing anyone can do, it’s going to be pretty common throughout all tiers of the characters’ society as well. If it’s much more selective, it would be that much more powerful and/or revered (whether that be the ‘please don’t kill my entire family with your awesomeness’ sort of reverence or the ‘aw, gee, thanks for taking good care of us little people, we adore you’ sort of reverence).

When can it be used? Only by the light of a full moon? When the planets align? When all the right stuff is blended over a fire of yew boughs? After doing the prescribed jazz hands routine or reciting emo poetry in a dead language? When you’ve contacted your proper spirit/demon/senator/whatever? When you’re holding your magical-unicorn-hairy wand? One of the better known magic systems currently is that of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The characters’ use of magic isn’t limited by time itself, but does incorporate lots of different elements. Generally, you have to have a functional wand; you have to say (or think) the proper incantation; you have to get the right stuff in the pot in the right steps.

Where does it come from? God? Aliens? The Force? Ancient technology? The earth herself? Magical artifacts that you can tap into (ahhh, but where did that get the magic from)? Perhaps the source of all magic in the world is actually house cats, who are secretly from a distant star imbued with massive creative power and are the most intelligent creatures currently on earth, but they allow us to think that we are so that we will voluntarily make ourselves their slaves. You have to admit, it makes sense.

What can it do? Can it shift the laws of physics? Can it make something out of nothing? Can it be used to borrow aspects of a neighbor or a tree or a star? Can it make an epic good cheesecake in two minutes flat? Can you fireball the snot out of your rival? Can it heal wounds and raise the dead? Can it do all these things and more? Can it do everything ever, or is it used much more subtly? One of my favorite magic systems right now is that of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, wherein magical abilities are limited to the swallowing and ‘burning’ of metals which then grant heightened abilities depending on the metals. The system is pretty limited in what it can do, and Sanderson is pretty clear about the rules, but the characters can do incredible things within those parameters.

And finally: What makes it unique? This isn’t necessarily vital to the creation of a system, but it is vital to a good story. Uniqueness will make a functional magic system into an actually interesting one. And you very much want your readers interested in the happenings of your book. Think about your favorite magics. Chances are, they have some singular element that caught your attention. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be memorable, let alone your favorite. Keep this in mind when crafting what will (hopefully) some day be someone else’s favorite magic system.

Even if none of this ever ever comes up in your story, you should at least know it for the sake of internal logic. You have to know the parameters of your magic system, or it’s going to be lame. If your magic system has no limitations, that also is kind of lame. If it makes no sense, lame. The best magic systems are logically crafted, have some limitations, and remain consistent in what they can and cannot do. Know the rules and stick to them. If you really want your magic to do something awesome outside of those rules, be ready to either change the rules from the get-go, and shift the rest of the system to match, or have an explanation about why this exception exists. And it had better be a good one.

Think you have a great magic system? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below! Let us know how you answered these questions and others in the building of your magic system. Happy writing!


9 thoughts on “Building a Magic System

  1. I like it! Lots of great points, and… have to admit that I stared for a while at the photo you chose, because I’m obsessed with old-school “real life” magic. I used to love watching magic shows on tv with my dad 😀

    I thought your point about uniqueness was really interesting; I’d never really thought about this before! I see a lot of forum posts about this, but I’d never thought about *how* to do it, since by that point, my magic system was already created. For new magic-creators, do you have any advice about *how* to make a system unique?

    I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but I think an idea might be nested in what you’ve written: you talked about Harry Potter and about *how* they use magic – with wands and words. I think a lot of what makes a system unique is how it’s used (and, tangentially, how it works, etc). In thinking about how your casters use magic (not only by burning yew but by what you do after..?), it can help to identify unique aspects.

    Your thoughts? 😀

    • You could address uniqueness in any of the aspects we talked about in the post. I’ve found it’s easier to make the whole system more razzle-dazzle and organic if I start out with the single unique aspect (like the house cats! nobody does house cats!) and then build out the other aspects from that. (Oh, that’s why witches have to have cats as familiars- so they have a magic source! They’re just deluding themselves that it’s the chants and potions!)

      Maybe if you approach your magic system like you would brainstorming a new story, that might help. Come up with your own mini what-if question that relates to magic. What if magic sprang up from radiation poisoning in Chernobyl (and the USSR government was trying to cover it up)? What if magic could only happen during a solar eclipse and then it was totally crazy-go-nuts? What if only the seventh son of an only daughter could work magic? What if magic was so common in the future that it replaced all of society’s technology? What if magic was considered plebeian and the upper classes forced magic users into slavery? Once you have a single aspect worked out, answer the remaining questions in a way that fit into that unique aspect. Just be sure that the magic system, as well as being organic as a self-contained unit, also meshes naturally with the rest of the setting.

      On a side note, I love that J.K. Rowling never made any of her magic stuff up- it’s all rooted in legends and old grimoires and history. The characters and events are made up, but the magic is all borrowed, all mashed together. Japanese water kappas butting up with European mermaids and all that jazz just lit up my imagination as a kid. You could accuse her of being completely cliche in all the details, but the overarching combinations of otherwise unrelated magical stuff is where she totally owned it. It must have taken sooooo much research…

  2. Where do you get your information from because you truly involve some interesting stuff here.

    • Most of this information is from personal experience, either as a reader of fantasy or as a writer thereof. (Alas! my college didn’t offer magic system classes.) I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject- these are just my thoughts. But I did try to lazy-cite a few specific examples, though (Rowling, Sanderson), because I felt these authors did it particularly well.

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  4. All good questions. I do think it’s important to avoid answering these questions too explicitly. Nothing kills the wonder of magic more than some just-so theory presented in overdone exposition. Better to let the patterns show gently through the narrative, leave the reader putting 2 and 2 together without quite hearing anyone say 4.

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