Let’s Make Some Magic: Magic Systems in Fantasy

You are well on your way to writing your epic fantasy and your world-building is going as smooth as any author could dream. You have now reached the point where you need to insert your magic system into this world, but where do you begin?

First off, what exactly is a magic system? Well, this primarily refers to the rules, the abilities and the limitations of the magic and how these are linked together into a working whole.

Brandon Sanderson gave a spotlight to the terms ‘soft magic’ and ‘hard magic’ as a way to identify which side of the magical spectrum the magic system falls.

A hard magic system has a specific set of rules that govern it and how it can be used. It has clear limitations and costs, and potentially affects the culture, governments or general populace. It is generally understood by the reader through out the book from both extrapolation of events that transpire and explanation from the characters in some instances. Hard Magic Systems are often also illustrated with a magic that can aid a character in solving a problem. This type of system does need to be consistent and predictable, going wrong due to the error of the user rather than the instability of the magic itself.

An example of a hard magic system would be Avatar: The Last Airbender. The rules are clear, only certain people have access to the magic and it is used by the motions of various martial arts. The nations are split by what branch of the magic they use; the Fire Nation, the Water Tribes, Air Nomads and the Earth Kingdom. The people are limited to using only one element, except for the Avatar, who can use them all.

A soft magic system is quite different. It is vague and ethereal, never quite explained to the reader. Problems do not get solved by this magic and in many cases, the main character may not have access to this magic at all. This magic contributes to the fantasy setting, rather than driving the story, and may contribute to problems becoming catastrophic if it is used to try and solve problems rather than help. It rarely has established rules and even the characters are unaware of the limitations.

An example of a soft magic system would be The Chronicles of Narnia. There is no denying the fact that the world is filled to the brim with magic, and yet we cannot say how it works or where it came from. We don’t quite know if it has limits or if it is confined to certain people.

There is a sort of middle ground in magic systems where the reader is aware of some of the limitations as well as some of the possibilities of the magic, but there is no clear explanation as to how the magic works or where it comes from.

A prime example for this kind of magic system would be Harry Potter.

Sanderson created a set of guidelines to aid people when creating magic systems. Appropriately titled: Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic. This is where we get in to more of the intricacies of designing a magic system.

Law One:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the magic.

If a character uses magic to solve a problem, it is important that the reader understands how the magic works, preferably explained before it is used. If the character faces the problem and solves it with the aid of magic without the clarification, the reader may be left with questions such as; “How did he do that?” or “Where did that come from?”

If the story utilizes a soft magic system, using it to solve problems should be avoided, but it can be used to create the problem.

One does need to be cautious that magic does not become the ‘fix all’ solution. It should not be the go to for every problem, this diminishes the impact of the magic and undermines the wit and intelligence of the character, which is what should be used to solve problems.

Law Two:

The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than its capabilities. What the magic can’t do is more interesting than what it can.

Unlimited magic is great, we all would like unlimited magic. The problem is, it is boring. If there is no limit and no cost, then what does the character really have to work on to reach their goal.

With limitations, you create an environment where a character has to work to reach goals. They have struggles that they will need to find ways to overcome that does not revolve around the magic.

The story will also benefit from a magic system with limitations. When everything cannot be solved by the wave of a wand or the sketching of a glyph, there is a greater variability of what could happen in the story. The story is less likely to become predictable.

It doesn’t need to be complicated. A very common limitation is that a magic user can only use the magic until they deplete their stamina. The moment they grow too tired, they are unable to keep using.

There is also the notion of a cost to using the magic. There may be a limitation to using the magic, such as it can only be used during a certain time of day, but what if there is a cost involved too? What if those that use the magic have to sacrifice something every time they elect to use the power?

Consider the magic system in Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer Series. The limitation is that the Drafters have to be able to see the colour that they are able to draft Luxin in their immediate surroundings. Leading many to carry coloured glasses with them. Put a Drafter in an environment where there is none of the colour that they are able to draft and they will be unable to use the magic.

The cost aspect to this magic system is gradual. The more the Drafters use their ability, the more Luxin accumulates in their bodies. It can be seen in the coloured rings that surround the iris of their eyes called Halos. Eventually the Halos break and the colour floods the whites of the eyes and the Drafter becomes a colour wight and begins a descent into madness.

Law Three:

Expand on what you have already, before you add something new.

It is important to consider certain aspects of your magic system, to flesh them out and make them believable. How will your magic effect your world? Think about how your magic system, who it is available to, how it is used and what it can and cannot do will change the hierarchy of your society, your government or your warfare.

If your character has multiple powers, try and connect them together. Find something that will unite them as a coherent whole.

Streamline your magic system. Instead of adding new magics and powers, try combining pre-existing ones instead. Not all of your races or cultures may react or interact to the same magic in the same way. Capitalize on this and expand on it rather than giving each and every group their own individual magic. Not only will it be easier for both you and your readers to keep track of the magic and the rules, but it will unite the world and expand on it.

So how do you put this all to use? For some of you, it may just mean some tweaking of your current system, but for others, you may be starting from the beginning. So:

STEP 1: DEFINE ITS USE.

STEP 2: IDENTIFY ITS USERS.

STEP 3: OUTLINE ITS LIMITATIONS.

STEP 4: ESTABLISH ITS DANGERS.

STEP 5: EXPLORE ITS ORIGINS.

STEP 6: CONSIDER ITS CULTURE.

A well crafted magic system will add even more depth to your world and your characters. Happy creating!

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