Magic and the rules that govern it can make or break a story. Creating a system, whether magical, governmental, militaristic, or some other type, can be complicated. But it is an integral part of world-building.
I began writing when I was young and looking back, I can see huge errors I made as I attempted to create magic systems. My magic was sporadic, had inconsistent rules, and lacked a lot of style. Now, this isn’t to say each magic system should be the same. Not even a little bit. Some of my favorite magic systems are completely different. Brandon Sanderson creates numerous magic systems, all tied together, in his Cosmere. The types of magic he describes are wildly different from the magic found in other fantasy epics like The Lord of The Rings.
Each magic system will have its own rules, patterns, quirks, and exceptions. A reader might never know all of them, but it is essential for the author to know each and every one so they can write from a place of knowledge, understanding, and authority. I have a few questions that will help you think through creating a magic system and write a story that leaves people enthralled with your world and your magic.
What can and can’t magic do?
Magic can do many different things but it needs to be consistent within its own system. To keep consistent, you as the author must know the boundaries of your magic system. Use the questions below to find those boundaries.
- What can magic do physically/externally to the person using magic if used on oneself
- What can’t magic do physically/externally to the person using magic if used on oneself?
- What can magic do physically/externally to the person using magic as a magical repercussion?
- What can’t magic do physically/externally to the person using magic as a magical repercussion?
- What can magic do physically/externally to another person/thing?
- What can’t magic do physically/externally to another person/thing?
- What can magic do physically/externally to another person as a magical repercussion?
- What can’t magic do physically/externally to another person as a magical repercussion
- What can magic do emotionally/internally to the person using magic if used on oneself?
- What can’t magic do emotionally/internally to the person using magic if used on oneself?
- What can magic do emotionally/internally to the person using magic as a magical repercussion?
- What can’t magic do emotionally/internally to the person using magic as a magical repercussion?
- What can magic do emotionally/internally to another person/thing?
- What can’t magic do emotionally/internally to another person/thing?
- What and when are there exceptions to any of the above?
Who can use magic?
You will need to clearly define who can and can’t be magic users. Is it a bloodline? Can everyone use magic? Is it a certain order? Each person who uses magic needs to fall into the category you choose. You can’t have people willy-nilly using magic. Any system needs to have rules and structure. Consistency is key. By defining those who can and can’t use magic, you are helping the reader create a world and understand it better. If they can’t follow this, how are they supposed to follow more complex parts of your magic system? This also allows you to play with expectations of your reader. Can the main character use magic even though they aren’t of the correct bloodline? Why? There is the possibility of exceptions but if there is no baseline within your system, there is no tension to that question.
What repercussions come from magic?
“All magic comes with a price” is a common phrase in magic systems. While in the sections above, you dove into some of the potential repercussions, it is vitally important to understand what goes into and what the consequences are from using (or not using) magic. Ask yourself these questions.
- What do you need to have or give to use magic? (Some examples: In the Inheritance Cycle, magic took physical energy to create and use magic. In Peter Pan, you need to have faith and pixie dust. In Harry Potter, you need a wand.)
- What side effects happen if you use magic correctly? (Long life, shortened life, physical changes, etc)
- What side effects happen if you use magic incorrectly?
- Why would someone want to use magic?
- Why would someone not want to use magic? (Or why would someone not want their friend, lover, family, etc to use magic?)
How long has magic been a part of your world and how did it begin?
These questions are at the heart of your magic system. As with characters, the backstory of magic will influence the entirety of the story.
Perhaps magic has always been a part of your world you’ve created, in which case there isn’t a time before magic. That will impact how people view magic. Ask these questions.
- Is magic widely known about? If not, why?
- Is magic widely accepted? If not, why?
- Are there famous people in your history who used magic for good or bad purposes?
- Do people dream of a world without magic? Or is that like dreaming of an Earth without water?
- Do people question where magic came from still?
If magic was introduced into your world at a point, whether created or brought into it by some other force, you must know the answers to these questions.
- When was magic created or introduced into your world?
- Why was magic brought into it?
- Is magic widely known about? If not, why?
- What was the reaction to magic initially? Was it different between different people, groups, etc?
- What is the current reaction to magic? Was it different between different people, groups, etc?
- Is magic widely known about? If not, why?
- Do people dream of a world without magic?
- Do people question where magic came from? How accurate is the ‘history’ of magic that your characters know?
Why does magic matter?
This question will impact how you write. Magic can be the crux of the story or it can be a peripheral part of world-building. If magic is the way a character will “win” or reach their conclusion, writing about magic will take on a different tone. While all magic needs to be consistent and clearly explained and defined, magic that is at the crux of a story must be done so in a different way.
In a story where magic is simply a part of world-building and not a main crux of the story, you can introduce your system of magic at a leisurely pace if you choose, as with most world-building techniques. When magic is crucial to your story, you need to introduce magic in a way that doesn’t feel like deus ex machina, the trope where a supernatural power swoops in and saves a seemingly hopeless situation. This is a common trope that takes away from your story greatly. Your characters lose agency and you lose tension, which is vital to a good tale. If your reader always believes something can swoop in and save them, they won’t ever be actually worried or care about your characters. But, if the only time we learn about magic is when it is swooping in to fix or do something, you will fall into this trope.
Instead, focus on finding ways to introduce your magic system in a more natural and common way rather than big, flashy reveals. Now, this isn’t to say you can’t have a big reveal for your magic system. (A character suddenly shooting lightning from their hands in a dangerous situation, a wizard swooping in and saving the main from danger, etc). Big reveals can be great ways to introduce magic. This simply can’t be the only way you introduce magic. Here a few guidelines to help you think about
- If magic is commonplace in your world, do a big reveal early in the story for some event that isn’t (or doesn’t seem at the time) to be crucial to the story. Otherwise, magic should already be explained as a normal part of life in regular interactions. We shouldn’t be four chapters in before we realize magic exists if all of your characters live with it daily. Usually that just means you haven’t explained your world well enough so that a reader can understand it and come to care about the characters. (If magic is unknown, you can have the discovery later without ruining tension.)
- If it is your main character manifesting or discovering magic, don’t have them consistently only learning about magic by shocking discovery or danger. That will get old fast. Once introduced, find ways to explain magic to the reader, whether directly or subtly. Readers don’t need all the answers (in fact, they shouldn’t have all the answers or you again lose tension), but they do need to understand enough that magic feels like a real system.
- Convey emotion through a big reveal. Are the characters shocked, in awe, scared, desirous, etc of magic/the magic user when it is first revealed? These emotions will set the tone for the rest of your story and your character. Use it to pack a punch.
Magic is one of my favorite things to write. It can be complicated to create a system, daunting to figure it all out, but hopefully these tips and questions can help you figure out a structure for your own magic system. Each system will have nuances and some questions will fit while others won’t at all. As a writer, we always have the flexibility to bend or break writing rules, but first you must know them.
Magic is like any other structure or world-building within your novel. It must be consistent and have clearly defined rules (even if the author is the only one who ever truly knows what they are).
My final advice is two-fold. One, if you want to write better magic systems, read them. Reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing. A few series I would recommend would be The Lord of the Rings, The Stormlight Archives, The Mistborn Series, The Inheritance Cycle, The Mortal Instruments, and Inkheart.
Secondly, write! Go through these questions to get your structure but begin writing. Don’t just plan, get out and write. If you aren’t ready to start the actual bulk of your novel and want to flesh it out even more, write short stories about your world. Tell us the famous bedtime stories your character would have heard. Write about the entry of magic or the great magic users of old. Write about a child learning to use their magic for the first time or an old magic user enjoying their magic that is such a part of themselves. Just write.
Do you have any series you’d recommend or advice that has been helpful as you’ve written about magic? Share below! If there’s a topic you want to learn how to write about, send me a message on my contact page. I love helping writers and am happy to answer questions!