Elves. Princesses. Dragons. There are many reasons fantasy is my favorite genre. But the thing that makes fantasy #1 is magic. I love imagining myself in worlds with magic. How would I react? What kind of magic would I do?
This has led me to study the creation of magic systems. What sets the best ones apart? What are the different roles magic plays in a story? In the end, I have compiled a three-step process to create a magic system, from the first inklings of an idea to the full flourishes of a magical world.
Step 1: Decide the role of your magic
What is the role of magic in your story? Are you using it mainly to enrich your setting or to drive the plot? There are pros and cons to each side. The less you explain your magic system and the less understood it is, the more otherworldly and magic-y it will seem — great for making an awesome setting. But the more a reader understands your magic system, the more you can use it.
Readers don’t want to be worried about the characters only to find that the magic-user had a convenient spell to save the whole time. On the flip side, they don’t want to see the characters in a bind and wonder why the magic users haven’t pulled out a spell yet. When they know the limits to the magic system, they will understand when the characters are truly in trouble and there isn’t an easy way out of this. The tension will rise. It should never feel like spells are being pulled from thin air.
Gandalf from Lord of the Rings is a good example of a mysterious magic-user. We know he can do magic, but he actually rarely uses it, and it remains mysterious and otherworldly.
On the other side, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series has a well-defined magic system. We know what the characters can and can’t do with their magic, and that heightens the tension when we know they can’t magic their way out of a situation. Harry Potter is in-between. There are well-understood rules — you need a wand and to know the spell — but the fact that we don’t know every spell wizards can do means that it remains uncertain exactly what the characters are capable of.
What purpose does the magic system of your story have? If you want it to add flavor to the fantastical world you have created, keep the magic mysterious. If you want to use the magic to further the plot, you have to explain how it works to the readers. This isn’t a black and white choice — magic is a sliding scale of mysteriousness and understanding.
Step 2: Choose Costs and Limits
Choosing limits to your system is more important when your magic system is well understood by the reader, but you should know what your magic can do even if the readers don’t.
This is where the first step interacts with the second. If the tension from your story comes from relational, political, or societal problems, then limits on the magic will be less important because it won’t be relevant. (Like the fact that a character can only hover two inches about the ground isn’t relevant if he never needs to go higher.) It doesn’t need to be understood. The tension won’t be coming from how they use their magic. But for coming of age and adventure stories, as many fantasies are, solid limits will become more important as characters push against those limits and are forced to work around them.
If you placed no limits on your magic system, then there would be no problems. The villain could be turned into a frog with a wave of the hero’s hand. No problem, no tension. No tension, no story. Your magic can’t be unlimited.
The limits of your story are what separates it from other magic systems. As Brandon Sanderson’s second law of magic says, what your magic can’t do is more interesting than what it can do. Personally, I like really limited magic systems because it forces characters to be creative with it. Plus, the more niche a magic system, the less chance I have seen it somewhere else before.
Try taking a common limit and narrowing it down further. Sure, making an object have to be in your line of sight to cast a spell on it is a good limit, but having to hold it in your hands makes things even harder for your characters — and it is always a good thing to make things harder on your characters.
Costs are a subset of limitations. Costs say “if you do magic, [negative thing] will happen.” They are a great avenue to explore themes as characters debate if doing magic is worth the cost. There are costs that are built into a magic system (if you do magic, you will feel tired) but there are also material and societal costs. (If you do magic it will burn this piece of paper, or risk the villagers burning you at the stakes.) Having a high vs low cost will influence how often your characters will use magic.
The most common cost is fatigue. It is a good cost if you don’t want characters spamming the magic button all the time but don’t want to mess with the internal debates that come with a higher cost. It will be familiar to your readers, which could be a boon or curse depending on the role magic plays in your story.
Whatever you choose as your cost, even something as small and familiar as fatigue, it is important to make it matter. If the cost doesn’t impact the plot, then it isn’t really a cost. Being inconsistent with any cost or limit will show the readers that you aren’t serious about consequences. Make every limitation matter.
Step 3: Think about how magic will affect your world.
Your magic system doesn’t just exist in the plot. It exists in the world your story is placed in and it will affect that world. When making the magic system, consider how magic would affect society.
How common are magic users? Does the cost of your magic mean that it will be used often? How do people feel about magic users? Most people won’t be using magic for high-stakes adventures, they will be using it for everyday life. What does that look like? How does the government utilize magic users? How does magic affect the market economy? All of these questions will add richness and depth to your world.
The implications of your magic system should not only grab the reader’s attention but your’s. It should make you ask, “What would it be like if I was there? How would I use magic?” If you aren’t asking these questions, the readers won’t either. Make your magic interesting.
To Sum It All Up
Magic can do so many things in so many different ways. It can add richness to your setting and drive the plot forward. It can be unimaginably grand or meek and commonplace. Creating your magic system with intentionality will produce a magic and a world full of wonder.
What role will magic play in your story? How will the limits and costs drive the plot? How will it shape the world around it?
Now go out! Write stories filled with fantastical magic systems that will draw the reader in, heighten tension, and create a world that they want to visit.