An Author’s Guide to Magic Systems
Everything you need to know about incorporating magic into your next fictional world.
I’m a fantasy fanatic. I’m always going to get excited when a story includes magic and monsters and mayhem. That being said, magic might just be one of the hardest fiction writing elements to work with - so how do you do it? How do you create a magical world that people want to read about?
You set up a magic system. Here’s how you can do that.
What is a magic system?
Magic, in the realm of fantasy novels, is essentially a catch-all term for non-scientific, non-physical feats. This usually includes things like ultra-realistic multisensory illusions, teleportation, instantaneous creation or destruction, and similar tricks that aren’t possible in the real world. When we talk about a magic system, we’re talking about the way that magic works in a particular setting and how it interacts with the story. I’ll go into more detail in a bit, but for now, it’s enough to say that magic systems answer the who, what, when, where, and how of magic in a fictional setting.
Why do you need a system for magic?
Because magic is so inherently unrealistic, it almost necessarily makes writing harder. If your characters have magic, why do they have any problems at all? Couldn’t they just snap their fingers and will it all go away? Shouldn’t they be living in a utopia full of dragons and fireballs?
Magic systems impose rules on the magical power in your setting so that your reader can understand why there are problems in the narrative at all. They make it possible for you to include magic without breaking your setting or making your story really boring. To put it simply, magic systems prevent the presence of magic alone being a deus ex machina.
In addition to that, having a system for your magic means you can up the ante by breaking out of that system. Establishing a rule and then breaking it can, if done well, introduce an element of intrigue and make your reader desperate to uncover why that rule isn’t holding up and what the characters are going to do about it.
How to create a magic system
Creating a magic system from scratch can be incredibly difficult, especially if it’s done early on in the world-building process when you’re still not entirely sure how or where your story is going to play out. Yes, you could always go with the classic pseudo-medieval pseudo-European magic tropes that are used in settings like Dungeons and Dragons, but you might also go a slightly different route. For example, one of my friends is currently running a roleplaying game campaign in which magic is derived from a specific kind of crystal that orbits the planet and occasionally crash-lands, causing something similar to nuclear genetic change that allows people and animals to manipulate energy and matter (which is, might I say, one of the coolest magic systems I’ve ever come across).
While there’s a good reason for classical magic systems looking how they do - generally because it’s familiar to most English-speaking readers from classic mythos - having a unique magic system can help your books stand out from the crowd and attract readers as a major selling point.
So, how do you create a magic system? You build it up, then build it in.
Building blocks of magic
The first thing you need to do with a magic system is break it down to its base elements: answer the questions that your readers are likely to have in the order they’re likely to have them. Here’s what some of those questions might look like.
- Where does the magic come from?
- What does magic do?
- How is magic used?
- Who gets to use magic?
- When and how is magic not the answer?
And here are some of the answers to those questions.
The first question you should think about when deciding how your magic system is going to work is, where does the magic come from? What is the source of magic in your world, and why is it the source? Even if you don’t reveal this right away, it’s good to keep in mind while you’re writing to offer some context to the way magic is used in the story.
Here are some potential sources for your magic:
- Magic is tied to the physical planet on which your story takes place. The ground itself is infused with magic as part of the natural ecosystem.
- Elemental magic rules the world, and comes in the form of fire, water, earth, air, and/or whatever elements you feel are appropriate to use.
- Magic comes from the gods of this story’s world, who offer a small segment of their power to those who display amazing faith.
- Magic is just another term for energy manipulation; anyone with enough training and discipline can learn to use magic.
You might also try having multiple sources of magic. For example, in many tabletop roleplaying games, magic comes from either gods, bloodlines started by powerful magic creatures, or deals made with such creatures. Consider having multiple sources of magic that do different things - how do those sources interact with each other? Can their combination cause magic to spike in power, or even cancel each other out?
So you have magic…what does it do? Magic is an extremely general term that can cover everything from summoning lightning and bringing zombies up out of the ground to charming a spoon to stir your soup for you or doing your laundry in an instant. In this particular setting, what role does magic play in the world?
A good place to start is by deciding whether or not magic is taboo in your world, or whether there are schools of magic that aren’t allowed. This can be a great way to set up rebellious groups with simple setting descriptions; if your reader sees someone using magic in a way that it’s clearly not supposed to be used, they automatically know to be wary of this person.
Okay, now that you know what your magic is and what it does, you should probably answer how it works. Do you have to perform certain rituals to get spells to work, or can you just point your finger and will something to happen? Are there any consequences for setting your magic up incorrectly? How, when, and where can magic be accessed on a practical level?
If you have multiple sources for your magic, you may choose to assign a different structure to each source. For example, deity magic might only work if you’ve done the proper ritual and are appropriately devout, while innate magic might be controlled by your emotions and set off by accident.
You may also choose to mention how people know these structural rules. Were they explained by a patron? Figured out by trial and error? Established by a ruling body?
You know your magic’s source, function, and structure. Awesome! So, who can be a magic wielder? This question is important because it lets us know right away what the hierarchy is when it comes to magic. If magic is innate and everyone can use it, we know it probably won’t be considered particularly special or rare. On the other hand, if magic can only be cast by trained professionals with years of experience, it’s probably significantly rarer and less likely to be seen in common places.
You should also be clear about how magic is viewed in general. If it’s common, are there still groups that refuse to use it for whatever reason? If it’s rare, are magic users revered or reviled? If people don’t like magic, why? Does magic play a role in the system of government, or is it separate? This can help shape how you portray magic users and how your reader views them.
Maybe magic users themselves are fairly rare in your setting, but magic items aren’t. Magic items can be a great way to cheat real-world issues like slow travel times or dangerous injuries and illnesses. They function amazingly well as MacGuffins but can also be fantastic functional story items if given the correct level of detail.
Some questions to ask when creating magic items:
- What is it? What does it do, and what does it look like?
- Who made it? Is the creator of this item important to the story?
- How does it work? Is it one-time use or reusable? What do you have to do to activate it?
- How many of them are there? Is it one of a kind or a dime a dozen?
- Why is it in the story? Is it a quick fix for a problem (hey, no shame) or an important part of the plot?
Answering these questions can help you decide how much emphasis you put on your magic items and/or where that emphasis should come into your story.
Limitations of magic
I’ve saved one of the most important parts of building a magic system for last, and for a very good reason, so listen closely: all magic systems should have reasonable limits, even if you plan to exceed those limits. I know I mentioned that earlier, but let’s look at it in a bit more detail.
A magic system without limits is, to put it bluntly, not a system at all. It’s an arbitrary set of rules that have no real weight to your characters or their world. As I mentioned earlier, if your characters can solve every problem they have through the use of magic, then why don’t they? Having magic without limitations, even if you’ve got all kinds of other details built in about it, means that you’ve entirely removed the stakes for the story. Say for example you have healing magic in your story, to the point that you can even come back from death. If your characters are in mortal peril, why would they be afraid? Aren’t they just going to bounce right back no matter what? If the powerful magical artifact they’re trying to keep safe can do almost anything, why not just use it to wish the bad guys gone?
Setting limits on your magic helps you maintain the tension in your tale and use it as a tool rather than a fallback or catch-all answer. As a quick rule of thumb, there are two types of magic systems to choose from: a hard magic system - one with definite rules and limitations - or a soft magic system - one with rules that are there, but flexible and not as rigidly defined.
Here are some limitations you might use.
- Magic is incredibly physically draining. Using too much of it at one time can kill you.
- Magic can heal to a point, but it leaves scars, and it does not have the power to bring things back from the dead.
- Using a particular school of magic or magical artifact too often can corrupt you into something less than human or cause you to become lost in horrible hallucinations.
- There is a finite amount of a particular magical resource in the world; once it’s gone, that kind of magic becomes impossible.
Interesting magic system examples
If you’re still a bit unsure how to address magic in your series, consider looking at these examples from some of the best of the best fantasy writers as a model.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
JRR Tolkien is considered by most to be the father of modern fantasy, with his magic system being the basis for many others. In his world, Middle-earth, magic is inherent and comes as a part of the natural environment. It comes in many forms including the ability to shift between planes of existence and see the future. Magic is bound by type to different people; for example, wizards like Gandalf use a particular kind of magic that’s closer to divine power while Ringwraiths are essentially made of magic.
In Tolkien’s world, magic items are common among certain cultures (such as the elves and the dwarves) because they’re constructed with particular techniques. The drawback is that the more powerful the magic you use is, the more corrupting it becomes and the harder it is to stop or control, as seen with Sauron’s rise to power.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter
JK Rowling’s magic system in the Harry Potter series admittedly makes very little sense. What we know of it is that magical abilities are inherent in a person or creature, and are only present in a very small subset of the population. Magic isn’t genetic, as muggle-born wizards and witches exist as do nonmagical children of witches and wizards; the source isn’t entirely clear. Magic items and creatures abound and are apparently incredibly common and easy to find, although there are definite limits as to what magic can do - in this case, magic can’t bring things back from the dead and there are aspects of magic that have been banned from wizard society for both their immoral and extremely dangerous nature.
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn
Brandon Sanderson is another fantasy staple whose Mistborn series has a complex and interesting magic system with clear rules. In this series, magic is a force that comes from some of the deities of the world and can be used through various metals, each of which causes different effects. These effects are split into three types of magic - Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy - the last of which is considered dangerous and evil. Which of these schools you have access to is determined by your genetics, and all schools have damaging physical effects if overused or used carelessly.
Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist
This is one of my favorite examples of a well-maintained and properly utilized magic system. Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t describe its magic systems - there are two! - as “magic,” but instead as an adaptation of scientific and spiritual practices that taps into the base energy and construction of the universe. Anyone can use alchemy with enough practice, as its power is drawn from the creation of special scientific formulas and runes. Alkahestry, on the other hand, is considered a spiritual practice and taps into certain energy flows using symbology.
The guiding principle behind these philosophies - that you can’t gain something without giving up something of equal value - is one of the major driving plots of the show, as our main characters are prime examples of what happens when you try to take more than you give. Both alchemy and alkahestry have clearly defined limitations - you can’t bring anything back from the dead and you can’t get something from nothing - which are deeply explored over the course of the series to much emotional benefit.
Magic, when done right, can be one of the most entertaining literary devices to explore in fantasy stories (or science fiction where the technology is so advanced it might as well be magic from our modern perspective), but it can also be one of the most difficult to use without feeling cliche, boring, or like a scapegoat. So, wrangle your magic appropriately by setting some ground rules and seeing what you can come up with. Treat it like a game; in this case, winning means compelling magic written within an interesting system.