Magic Systems

If you’re going to write a fantasy story, you might consider including magic of some sort– something like necromancy, sorcery, the Force (also called telekinesis).  But something like magic is fundamental to all fantasy stories.  It is supernatural, and the very essence of fantasy.  Since fantasy revolves around things like magic, almost nothing you think up immediately will be original.  Telepathy, possession, elemental powers– everything has been done before, in so many different settings.  In order to create anything that you can honestly call your own, you need to put some thought into it.

Firstly, bear in mind that nothing can be infallible.  If your magic system can do anything, every magician you have is a perfect character– there is no suspense anymore.  Even if omnipotence is restricted to the most powerful magicians, and the most powerful magician you have is your antagonist, you need a flaw.  Otherwise, the villain is, obviously, omnipotent– who can stop him?  Of course, you don’t want the flaw readily accessible, either.  It’s a fine balance, but when you get it right, the magic system is much better off.

Think about restricting the system by what you need it to do in the beginning of the story.  If you have a basic idea for a plot or a character, chances are you know what needs to happen to get the story moving.

For example, Bill wants a sandwich.  What gets the plot moving?  If the plot begins with him becoming hungry and going downstairs to get a sandwich, then his becoming hungry gets the plot moving.  Therefore, if you want to add a magic system to this story, I would suggest you build it off either becoming hungry or making someone else become hungry.  However, if the story begins with Bill finding that his refrigerator is empty of sandwich ingredients, forcing him to embark on a quest to find the Mayonnaise Spreader of the Apocalypse, the story would get moving when he fails to find sandwich ingredients.  Therefore, you might want to base your magic system on making food disappear somehow, or emptying refrigerators– or even turning Bill’s mind so he doesn’t see the obvious fact that he doesn’t even like mayonnaise.

But by creating something like this that conveniently forces Bill into an epic saga we will tell and retell through the generations, we have created a contrivance.  Just like a miniature Deus Ex Machina, contrivances are annoying.  Thus, you want to create your magic system so complexly that the inciting incident makes perfect sense.  Again, keep in mind the flaws– no single magic system should do too many things at once.  You wouldn’t want a sentient Mayonnaise Spreader of the Apocalypse that could change the way Bill thinks about mayonnaise, as well as move things by telekinesis, as well as raise Bill’s great-grandfather from the dead.  However, if the villain can plant irrational desires in people’s minds, perhaps he could force Bill to seek out the best spreader on earth, thereby leading him to one of the greatest sandwich making artifacts in history.  Perhaps the villain can only plant desires as yet– perhaps acquiring the MSotA would give him the power he needs to destroy the world.

Always take into account the consequences of your magic system.  Power can’t just appear; it always has to have a source.  Many magic systems come from the magician’s own body.  Others take power from different sources, like jewelry or precious stones.  These sources can often serve as limits to a magician’s power, as they can only carry so many sources around with them.  Also, take into account the laws of physics.  Yes, if your magic system allows flight, it’s rather hard to include normal laws of gravity– but if you need flight, consider simply removing a certain law of physics, like gravity, for one person.  Magic will never be completely within the bounds of science, but it can bend one law at a time.

Make your magic systems different.  As I write different fantasy novels, I notice patterns in my magic systems.  I quite like immortal beings, for one thing.  (Thank you, Castaways of the Flying Dutchman.)  I also quite like intangible beings that possess human minds. I also like talking inanimate objects or animals.  I’ve managed to name each of these concepts differently every time I use them, but they are never completely separate from each other.  That’s kind of a problem.  Things need to be distinct.  That doesn’t mean I can’t use immortal characters anymore– I just have to have a different way for them to get immortal, and different side effects.  But perhaps I should cut down on immortality for now.

This has been the rather disjointed explanation of the creation of magic systems, as laid down by me.  I know I missed a lot; please tell me.

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157 thoughts on “Magic Systems

  1. This was an interesting read! I used to ALWAYS have magic flung willy-nilly into my fantasy stories because I thought I HAD to. Reading other fantasy novels by people like Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, and, of course, GRRM, taught me that magic doesn’t have to be in your face (unless you want it to be). I had to take a step back and decide if I was using magic either (a) just to use it or (b) to cheat and move the story along. In my current work, I was trying to avoid bringing traditional “magic” into it. I’m now trying to shape something that will be part of the story but not overpower it.
    Thanks for bringing some clarity to the my brain mush.

    And Castaways of the Flying Duchman reference ALWAYS gets you points in my book!

    1. Systems always make things clearer for me. Knowing that magic has rules, boundaries– unlike Christopher Paolini’s “speak it and it’s yours” thingy– really makes things seem real. You know, for magic.

      Castaways of the Flying Dutchman taught me what it was to build up your love for a character, then destroy it piece by piece. I love it.

      1. I definitely agree with you. Leaving magic vague is cheating, to me. It’s one thing if the magician/wizard/what-have-you is new to magic (Harry Potter) and learns it as he goes (although I won’t go on a rant about how Harry seems to only know 3 spells). It’s another thing to leave it completely open ended.

        Plus, boundaries and limitations are what makes things interesting!

      2. That new-to-magic thing is always odd. It works so well, but it’s overused. It’s another thing if the magic system is actually a secret that the main character has to piece together.

        Exactly.

      3. That’s true—and a unique idea. I suppose Harry Potter took it a step further with HP not even knowing magic existed.

      4. Well, that’s the thing. Luke Skywalker didn’t know the Force existed. None of those self-discovery stories know what they’re supposed to discover until they’ve discovered it.

      5. Ah excellent point. Forgot about the Force, I did.

        I just think (like anything else in fiction) writing a unique magic system is pretty difficult. Some people have a great skill at crafting an intricate system with lots of specific rules. I’m not one of those people, so I think I’ll try to keep my magic simple.

  2. Great post! You really know what makes fantasy novels great!

    I’ve had an idea in my head for 3 years now that I have been trying to turn into some semblance of a novel. The problem is I keep coming up with more and more questions. I finally figured out what the “special power” is, but now I’m struggling with deciding whether the source of power should be internal or external. And that’s just one of the gazillion questions that still has no answer.

    So when are you publishing “Mayonnaise Spreader of the Apocalypse”? 🙂

    1. I use a lot of internal sources for magic systems, but as I think about it, I enjoy external sources as well.

      Um, I think that will stay on this blog. Bill has been a good character for me, but I don’t think I’ll be writing his quest for a sandwich just yet.

  3. I second the kudos for the Castaways of the Flying Dutchman reference. Brings me back to when I was ten and still obsessed with Brian Jacques.

    Hey Liam, just wanted to introduce myself – I’m a long-time reader of your blog (albeit a new follower, because I’m a new blogger) but I’m also a would-be writer. Right now I’m conceptualizing my novel and this involves establishing a magic system. I hit an obstacle recently that I’d really like to hear your opinion on – any other writers around welcome to pitch in, too.

    The magic I’ve established thus far is crucial for my plot. Key events simply can’t happen without its existence. At the same time though, I’m struggling to find a societal purpose for the magic. I wanted to incorporate the magic in such a way that it takes a backseat to the story itself, so that it’s not the standout factor.

    … Geez, I’m having a lot of trouble trying to explain this clearly, too. Stay with me, please, if you could.

    Right, you know those stories where MC discovers or acquires an ability that no one else/only a select few have? In these stories, the ability is the thing that gets the story started and the problems that follow revolve around this ability.
    My story’s kind of different, or at least I’d like it to be. Right now the magic’s just here to help the characters when they need it, and it’s also what allows a lot of the supernatural elements to be there. I want the magic to be something that’s socially accepted. Maybe not everyone has to have it, but everyone could, or everyone knows about it at least, and everyone’s fine with it. (Ever seen Naruto? Where anyone can be a ninja but not everyone is, and everyone in the world is comfortable being around ninjas?) But I feel like if I want to have the magic this way, then it should serve some purpose to the populace. At the same time, I don’t want to make the generic business or government out of my magic system.

    What are your thoughts on the purposes of magic, and on magic systems that take a backseat to the story?

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed Brian Jacques as much as I did.

      Magic, wherever it is found, always becomes a part of society. I assume you mean to incorporate it obviously into your society, instead of making it a secret that the main character finds out. In that case, you need to figure out what kind of jobs can be done with this magic system. If it can do everything, what’s the point of anyone abstaining? Why would you decline omnipotence if you clean toilets for a living? If it’s something specific, though, like sudden strength, then builders and porters and packmen are going to use this magic the most often. You need to figure out what your system’s specialty is, then craft that aspect of society to include it.

      I don’t know if I’m being helpful, but your explanation is sort of vague. I have a feeling that if I cleaned toilets for a living, I would want to be a ninja as soon as possible. (I’ve never seen Naruto.)

      But whatever the system entails, whoever has the most power is going to become the most powerful. That’s why wizards occupy the highest seats in the politics of Harry Potter– why would an ordinary human rule where a wizard could? Of course, that’s a secret society, but you can see the same things in many different places. Quite a few middle-grade fantasies have governments revolving around wizarding classes.

      One of the biggest things, I think, is to figure out how different people respond to magic. Obviously, there is going to be an atheist sect that stubbornly denies any sort of magic– in that case, you get magical discrimination! That’s fun. In other places, there are people who want magicians to work for them. You’re going to have to look at every facet of the issue and figure out how society reacts.

      Hope this helps.

      1. Yeah, I apologize for the muddy question, but your tips answered it in full. Thanks!

  4. I love how you always use the “Bob wants a sandwich” story as an example in your posts. Does Bob appreciate the fact that you’re taking advantage of him?

      1. “Bill saw a werewolf with a hostile expression bearing down on him. He passed it off as a troubled soul and turned back to his needlepoint. He looked up a moment later when the werewolf was running off with his leg. ”Oh, my,” he said unconcernedly. ”That’s the fourth one this week.””
        ~How Not to Present a Plot Twist

      2. Well, there’s a blog. It’s called “This Page Intentionally Left Blank”. But don’t put that in your search engine– you’ll get bank statements. You need to type “insideliamsbrain”. He writes all kinds of stuff, including a wonderful periodical. The next part of that is supposed to be posted soon.

      3. Wow, what a coincidence! I’m commenting on a blog right now with the exact same name! This couldn’t possibly be the blog of this great author you speak of, could it?

      4. Mmm. Maybe. You know the blogs _do_ have the same name… and the authors have the same name, too. Hmm…

        Nah. It’s probably just a coincidence.

      5. And the other has the first name of “Liam,” (with a comma), the middle name of “Head”, and the last name of “Phil”.
        What a coincidence!

      6. Really? Rats. I was hoping it wasn’t.
        Oh, well. By the way, he has this really good post on why he writes. It’s got this crazy title… “I Want a Pony… And a Puppy… And an Exploding Kite…(TCWT)”.

      7. You know, I think you might be right. He wants to write as many books as he has ideas and provide young people with satisfaction from reading his works. Provide a new favorite series for a young someone. It’s wonderful.

      8. Yeah, but how could I be the same person as that guy, that… genius, if you will? This is me we’re talking about. That guy has to have an IQ higher than the planet population. Or something. I never really got the hang of IQ scores.

      9. I’d love to take an IQ test just to see what my IQ is.
        Oh, you’re a genuis, Liam. Absolutely brilliant. And keep in mind that is coming from an immortal Elvish woman. Come, now! The other guy can’t be more genuis than you!

      10. Where have you been? Quirk has been wanting to dissect me for the 20 minutes!
        Hmm. While I do enjoy your writings, I am quite sure I like his Quirk better. I don’t know what happened to your’s.

      11. Um… he’s been spending too much time with a certain homicidal ping-pong ball. If I had died choking tonight (long story there), he would have dissected me! And after all the help I tried to give him about oliving pickles!

      12. He and I have spent the last hour or so perusing Monty Python sketches, with the occasional Rowan Atkinson thrown in. He hasn’t been doing anything… odd. Now he’s checking his Google account.

        Ouch. He’s put up a post to try to fix the damage.

      13. About halfway through I realized that if this was actually Quirk, I’ve created a disgusting side to his personality. We all know Steve is disgusting, so I started dropping hints, then the final wrap-up.

      14. Perhaps the same way a genuis like you and a… not genuis like Quirk can be the same person. You are just split into more than two halves… if that is even mathmatically possible.

      15. Four halves would make two of you. One is you and the other is from a parallel universe. You never knew about the other before. That’s how you two are two and the same. 🙂

      16. Okay. If there were four halves of you, that would make two wholes. One whole is you and the other whole is you in a parallel universe. The people in the parallel universe can post things on the same internet. You have been reading the other Liam’s stuff all along and have never realized before that it was you in the parallel universe. So, both are you and at the same time, two people.

      17. But that would make no sense. If it was a split universe, wouldn’t we be writing something different, depending on the separate influences we have had?

      18. Nope. You’re both just that genuis. Maybe he writes whatever comes to mind no matter what instead of what is helpful for him that comes to mind.
        Or… maybe you’ve been copying off of him! Plagarist!
        (This is going to get into a dangerous paradox…)

      19. Um, last I saw, he traveled to 2169 to convince scientists not to modify humans as logical, emotionless thinkers called Observers that would eventually try to destroy the Earth.

      20. We never figured out how there were two such intelligent writers that could not possibly be the same person.
        I guess that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. So…
        You MUST be the same writer!

      21. Think of it this way: you have the illusion that your imaginary friends are real and you’re following them around on their adventures. That’s good for writing. However, if you have delusions that you write well when in fact you write poorly, that’s bad for writing.

      22. Because imaginary friends are real, as long as you can think of them– just as your thoughts are real. If you mean tangible, then yes, you would have to be delusional, but that makes sense too– who would write fictional stories about people they can touch?

  5. I see the awesomeness of Allomancy got ya thinkin’ ’bout magic.

    My fantasy rejected the idea of magic, and told me it wanted to be historical fiction for a land that doesn’t exists. Grr. Though my sister wants me to write her a story that’s an actual fantasy. With dragons, too!

    Good post. I haven’t thought of anything you’ve missed, but I’ll let you know if I do.

    This is a very boring comment. My apologies.

      1. Yes, crazier. I almost typed “crazy”, but knowing some of the things that go on in my head, I’d say my sanity is relative.

        Very true. I did get some time reading this afternoon though, and wow this book has me hooked. I kind of want to fangirl over it.

  6. I was hoping for a new post. 🙂
    Magic systems. For my Drake Elliot books, I have two basic forms of magic– the wizardry/witchcraft (reserved for villains) and the Fey-magic (reserved for the Fey creatures and select humans). Neither magic system can do everything, but I haven’t really spoken about that in the books. I guess there’s also another kind of magic, though I haven’t thought about it before. The kind that breaks spells/curses. That’s not witchcraft, but I don’t think it’s Fey-magic, either.
    I will have to think about magic systems.

      1. Only the Fey can do Fey-magic unless they give some gift to a human. And also, if a Fey-woman becomes a fairy godmother, she gives up some of her magic, including the ability to read minds. And neither magic system allows the user to see into the future. Yes, there’s occasional visions and ancient prophecies, but no one can see into the future on demand.

      2. Everything is way too broad. The cursebreaking is cool, but its opposites are too much. If cursebreaking is a defensive power, what happens when the attack isn’t a curse? Say I decide to use wizardry to throw a table at you. You are a cursebreaker and you try to break– what? Have I put a curse on the table? No. Perhaps you could bring wizardry down to simply laying curses. Or, if you want cursebreaking to be the opposite of the Fey instead, you make the Fey’s power about curses. Like I said in the post, make sure there are limits.

      3. No, no, no. The cursebreaking only works when you are breaking a curse. I guess, it’s not really a system as much as a power. I just don’t think that power comes from wizardry or Fey-magic. Let’s explain it like this: There is a curse. Some wizard doesn’t like you. You are now cursed to eat nothing but brussel sprouts for the rest of your life. Let’s say I can break the curse by dumping a bucket of ice water over your head (too easy, but this is an example). If I do dump the water on you, I am not using wizardry, but I am not using Fey-magic, either.
        Now, I’m not sure what this is. It’s not only certain people can break curses (unless it involves specifics like true love or something like that). It seems like magic.

  7. Ah, magic is a pain in the butt to work with. I tend to keep it subtle and out of the way when I can, use it more as a backdrop and occasional source of power for characters to utilise to move the plot, but focussing too much on the magic and the system just gets boring. Who cares about the system – you want to engage with the story, and for that to happen it has to MOVE, i.e., avoid getting bogged down in magic systems.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t like magic systems – I do. They’re fascinating and really add depth and complexity to setting. But overmuch focus is always detrimental; it slows the story, takes the focus off the narrative, and can highlight flaws and deficiencies in the system. Nobody can foolproof anything. No point highlighting something that might prove just that.

    1. Excellent thoughts. I think I have to disagree there, however. Brandon Sanderson in Mistborn goes into a lot of trouble to make sure we understand all the facets of each of his three magic systems, but it never takes away from the plot. In fact, much of the plot depends on the characters finding out about these magic systems, so that helps. But he’s also writing eight-hundred page books at a time.

      If you can manage to explain a magic system without infodumping, and make it relevant to the plot, then you’ve succeeded. To ignore the magic system, unless it’s something you didn’t create, is almost cowardly. If the magic system is really cool and original, to ignore it would be a crime.

      1. I concur on all counts in that last paragraph – that’s what I was trying to get at. An obstructive and / or unimportant magic system being shoved down your throat is one of the first signs of bad fantasy, a mon avis. Detailed, interesting, and relevant magic systems presented without infodumping is one of the indicators of a good ‘un.

  8. This is one of the reasons I’m very glad I don’t write fantasy. Not to say it wouldn’t be fun to come up with, but I think it’d be a lot of work to do it properly.

  9. While magic can be confusing, frustrating, and bothersome, it is definitely one of the things that makes fantasy awesome. Sure, dystopian high-tech pistachio openers are cool, but magically opening the pistachio with a special charm is much cooler by my standards.

    1. Yes. Hey, there’s a magic system! You get special powers depending on what nuts you eat. Cashews give you the ability to sneeze all your enemies into oblivion, obviously.

      1. We do actually. But once the zookeepers realize that the elephants breathe fire, they must be escorted from the premises. That’s also the reason behind the “Don’t Feed the Animals” signs.

  10. Have I ever told you just how helpful your posts are?
    (Here on Epic Fantasy errands, trying to figure out my own magic systems. Or I could be usefully procrastinating. Take your pick.)

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