What’s a fantasy story without magic?
A mistaken genre, that’s what. While magic exists in many places outside of the fantasy genre, successful magic systems in all stories follow similar patterns—no matter how they work or what unique spin you take to traditional spellbooks and potions.
Here is how to create a coherent magic system that makes sense within your world.
Why does your world have magic?
We presume our modern “real world” doesn’t have magic because our understanding of the laws of physics effectively prohibits it. Read: because we somewhat understand how our world works, nothing seems magical.
So in order for your world to have magic, you have to know why.
- Was there a deity at the beginning of time that left some of their creative power behind?
- Is there a tear in the fabric of the universe that certain people can tap into?
- Is there a force that surrounds your world that some people can manipulate?
There are an infinite amount of ways to figure out how the physics of your world allow for magic.
It’s important to know why your world has magic so that you as the author understand the parameters and history of how and why people can do things that don’t fit within our natural world.
Plus, if you’re changing the laws of physics in your world, you have to know what laws you’re changing so that it stays consistent and keeps your world coherent.
Who can use magic?
… and what is their place in society?
Once you’ve decided why your world has magic, you need to decide who can use it. The possibilities are endless (so here are some ideas):
- Everyone can use magic. Magic is necessary for everyday life.
- Only the rich can use magic. Because only the rich can afford to learn how to use magic.
- Only a certain few can use magic. Maybe it’s their DNA, maybe it’s the circumstances of their birth. Magic is limited to these few lucky ones.
- Humans can’t use magic. Only creatures born of magic can use magic, so better ally your protagonist with some elves and dragons.
- Humans can only use magic with the help of ____. Spellbooks, wands, staves, deities, potions, incantations… this fits in with how you decide your magic works.
- Only a certain few can use magic 2.0. Think of the Avatars from ATLA and Korra: maybe you have normal magicians, and then there’s the Chosen One or demigod who can do more than anyone else.
If there’s a class of people/creatures who can use magic, how do they fit in with the rest of society?
- Are your magicians hated or revered?
- Do most people even know that magicians still exist?
- What do most people know about magic?
- How do magicians feel about most people?
- What do magicians know about magic?
- Do humans trap magical creatures and force them to do their bidding since they can’t use magic?
Knowing why your world has magic and who has it, you probably have some ideas already on how it works.
How does your magic work?
Where does magic come from? What is its source and how do magicians tap into that source?
What can your magic do?
What are the limitations, or “laws” of your magic? What happens if you break a law of magic?
Is there a balance to your magic—a dark version of every light spell, a fire spell for every water spell? What is the natural balance of light/dark magicians based on who can use magic?
If humans can only use magic with the help of ____, what about ____ allows them to tap into the source of magic?
Let’s take a moment to look at some common ways you can fill in the ____.
- Language. Is there a lexicon of spells that you have to memorize and speak to activate the magic? Is there a literal language that, when spoken, elicits magical things? Do you have to speak out loud or can you just think and have magic happen?
- Magical objects. If an object is imbued with magic, what kinds of things can that object do? Are all objects able to be enchanted? If not, what objects can/can’t be and why? Who does the enchanting of the objects—a magician? A god? Chance?
- Motion. A dance, ritual or a good ol’ punch may activate magic (again, think Avatar:TLA). If so, what motions activate magic? Why? Can one motion create different outcomes, or are the outcomes directly related to the motion?
- Deities/magical creatures. Do magicians serve the same god(s), or can they “specialize”? Does the god choose how much magic to allow magicians to use, or is it based on some physical/mental/magical trait of the magician? Can the god/creature be controlled by the magician?
Again, your imagination is the limit of how you develop the “laws” of your magic system.
More great resources for developing magic systems:
3 Rules to Remember While Writing Magic
Expose your readers to critical information
If your readers don’t understand how magic works, then they will miss how important it is that your characters can/can’t use magic. Sure, it might be cool, but you can create more depth in plot, characterization, and dialogue by making sure your readers understand your magic.
This can be done easily if your magical character is just learning magic because they have to learn it anyway. The reader gets to go along for the ride in that case.
There are many ways to explicate the mechanics to your reader! Make sure to do it.
Don’t break your rules
If one of the laws of magic is that you can’t raise the dead, then you better make sure that nobody comes trotting back from the grave.
And if someone tries to raise the dead, the consequences for violating a magical law need to be consistent (and possibly deadly) as well. If you create a plot hole by allowing someone to break a hard-and-fast law of magic, then all of the work your characters have done in the plot will feel wasted.
You can take advantage of this—maybe everyone thought it was a law that you can’t raise the dead, and an adventurer expands everyone’s knowledge about magic by succeeding at something no one’s ever done before. Or maybe they find out it wasn’t a physical law of magic, but an ethical law of magic, which they get to reap the consequences of.
Your magic will only be consistent and coherent if you follow your own rules.
Make magic meaningful
You have to justify using magic. Maybe it moves the plot, maybe it makes the world unique. At best, magic should logically help the citizens live better lives and be more likely to survive in your world.
At worst, it’s just there to show that your story fits in the fantasy genre.
On this note, it’s recommended that you don’t make magic overpowering. Unless you want an unbeatable villain, magic should have limitations that make it a more-or-less equal skill to learn among a variety of skills.
Do what you want
At the end of the day, it’s your world, your story, your magic system. Do what you want with it, and enjoy the process of creating and writing about something that we can’t really enjoy in our world.
Yup. Feel free to throw everything you’ve read about writing magic in this post out the window.
What do you think? What things are critical when you are designing magic for your world? What are some whacky ideas that you’d love to see someone write about? Share in the comments!