Writers Write is your one-stop writing resource. Use this list to create a spectacular magic system for your novel.
What is a magic system?
In fantasy, magic makes your world go round. It is not an afterthought. It is an important literary device that shapes your writing.
Magic, and how it works, will dictate how your characters act. It does this the same way gravity makes the earth spin.
If you think this kind of thing is stupid, you are not going to be able to write about it. This is a deadly serious topic. It has made authors’ careers and it has relegated others to obscurity.
7 Ways To Create A Magic System For Your Novel
1. Decide on its tone.
There are roughly two types of fantasy. High Fantasy and Low Fantasy.
There are roughly two magic systems. High Magic and Low Magic.
They are not related in any way. Not at all.
- The Lord of the Rings is a low magic setting, but it is a high fantasy setting.
- Discworld is a high magic setting, but it is low fantasy.
But, the the magic system affects the tone.
- Because there is so little magic in The Lord of the Rings, it is a Low Magic setting. It is difficult for the heroes to solve their problems with magic. Frodo has to walk to Mordor. He can’t just teleport or ride a magic carpet. This creates a grittier tone.
- Because magic is easy to use in Harry Potter, it is a High Magic setting. The series is mostly about the fun things wizards can do with their magic. They have flying cars and brooms that sweep the floor for you. It makes the characters’ lives easier so they have time to deal with other problems – usually more personal ones. This leaves the tone up to the author.
- Forgotten Realms, created by Ed Greenwood, is High Magic, but serious, in a young adult kind of way.
- The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, is High Magic and often silly until it is deadly serious in very adult ways.
Writing Tip: When deciding the tone, decide how much magic you want in it, because having too much magic can make your story seem light-hearted.
2. Be consistent.
Your magic system must adhere to its own logic. If this breaks down, it creates plot holes. Plot holes need thousands of words to explain away and this will bore your reader.
Nobody wants to ask the question, ‘Why didn’t they just use magic to fly away from danger?’ when clearly you show your characters doing this as a pastime in another scene.
Just say that it takes ten minutes to cast the “Fly” spell. Then you can still have your dramatic chase scene through the woods.
The problem with consistency in high magic settings like Doctor Strange, the Marvel Comic, is that Doctor Strange can do anything including turning back time. So, you may forget what the rules are when you have so few of them. But whatever they are, don’t break them. Rather work around them.
In Harry Potter you need a wand to do magic. Simple. If you want to create tension and keep the story consistent Harry just needs to drop his wand. Then he’s just a boy. Problem solved.
A simple rule to your magic system like this will save you trouble later.
Writing Tip: Create an internal logic that you find easy to understand and that is simple to write about. Then reference back to this whenever you write about magic.
3. Choose carefully who can use it.
Sometimes magic is what makes a character special. In children’s books, where you want a bland protagonist the kids can project themselves onto, magic should be restricted to the main cast only.
On the other hand, in some settings, it’s fun if everyone has some magic. Perhaps, cell phones are all made by two or three competing Wizards? Perhaps Samsung the Blue and Applesen the Greedy have a bet going to see who can make more muggles addicted to Instagram.
Magic worlds work in two ways.
One where everybody in the world knows it’s there.
One where it’s a secret.
This will affect how people view your characters. In the Forgotten Realms, outside the Archmage Elminster’s tower, these warnings magically appear as a person walks towards it:
- ‘Trespassers could die a quick and certain death or they could be invited in for stew. Thank you for thinking better of disturbing my privacy.’
- ‘An archmage often can react poorly to interruption. – Please reconsider before it is too late.’
- ‘No Trespassing. Violators should notify next of kin. Have a pleasant day.’
- ‘Rumours of spike-filled pits along this path are almost totally false. Thank you for your caution.’
- ‘This ancient path/Is cracked and paved/With visitors who/Could not behave.’
But in The Magicians, magicians hide from the public by often living double lives.
In the first setting, it clearly pays to advertise that a wizard lives here. In the second, it might be illegal in wizard society to even tell your extended family that magic is real.
Writing Tip: If in doubt, write magic as if it is a rare power. This automatically makes your readers see it as important, mystical, and interesting. It also allows them to engage with childlike wish fulfilment. This helps them buy into the setting.
4. Tell us where Magic comes from.
Magic can come from three sources:
- It can be part of the world. Like sunlight or oxygen. You might need training to turn sunlight into electricity, but anybody with a solar panel can. This is good for world building. It lets you tell the reader how your world’s magic is put together.
- It can come from God or small “g” gods. Think holy water. Think priests fighting demons with flaming swords. In this case, magic must be earned by faith. This style is nice for Christian Horror themes. It can also be played for laughs like the Angel Demon buddy cop duo in Good Omens.
- It can come from a person. Perhaps, you can only use as much magic as you have energy in your body. Perhaps, you are born a sorcerer because you are descended from a dragon/angle/eldritch horror. In this case writers can create a mystery of finding out what makes the protagonist special.
Note: A sorcerer is a source of magic.
Writing Tip: If you don’t have a story goal in mind finding out where magic comes from is a perfect way to give your characters something to strive for. Alternatively, use this as a big reveal that tells us something important about your world.
5. Play with magic.
It you have magic and you don’t use it, what’s the point?
Have fun with it. Make fantastic creatures and enchanting landscapes.
Tell us about how gnomes create black holes to suck up their trash. Or how an elf spent a thousand years talking to a tree, because he was just too polite to leave.
Have your character use it in ways that will either put wonder into your reader or at least make them laugh. Maybe even cry?
Writing Tip: People read about magic because it is entertaining. It has no real world value. So, if your magic is boring you are failing at a basic aspect of magic fantasy writing. If you are struggling to invent playful ways to use magic, ask a small child to explain how their phone works. Or even better your grandmother.
6. Make sure you need it.
Don’t have magic just to have it.
Magic is what makes worlds like Harry Potter worth reading. It enhances the enjoyment of the reader by making character moments more meaningful.
On the other hand, A Game of Thrones would be just as good without it. This is because it is a character-driven plot. The dragons and snow zombies could just as well be big siege weapons and northern barbarians.
The Lord of the Rings depends on magic to drive the plot. The magic ring starts the quest. It warps characters’ minds. Makes them turn evil. It needs to be destroyed to make the world right again. At every twist in the plot magic drives our characters onward.
Writing Tip: Sometimes, it is more interesting to have a reason to want magic than to be able to use magic. Your character’s motivations come before all other considerations. Magic is just a plot device to serve your story needs.
And you need to write something people want to read.
7. Know who to steal ideas from.
To really know how to make a magic system you need to steal from the best.
So, don’t start with them.
- Read pulp fantasy. R. A. Salvatore and Ed Greenwood write in the Forgotten Realms Dungeons and Dragons setting. It is a well put together tried and true magic world with clear rules and named spells you can look up in tables. It is a perfect starting point. (Maybe go to a comic book store and buy the rules to Dungeons and Dragons.)
- Then move on to Harry Potter to see how you can have fun with magic.
- Read C. S. Lewis for a religious magical world. You can learn how to write about God without upsetting people here.
- Tolkien is a good place to go to learn how to use magic sparingly and how to make it seem special.
- Move on to Neil Gaiman to learn how to write magical landscapes. Stardust is light-hearted and American Gods is not. Both are good.
- Robin Hobb is an example of how to make a magic world and system that seems more real than our own.
- Terry Pratchett will teach you that funny is not the opposite of serious. Unfunny is the opposite of funny. You can use the Discworld books as a reference for how to turn traditional magic ideas on their heads. What happens if a girl identifies and a wizard and not a witch? See Equal Rites.
Writing Tip: I’ll paraphrase Terry Pratchett here. Writers are readers who have read so much that they start to overflow. Nobody has ever become worse at writing by reading more.
This list will help you make your magic setting into one where your reader feels comfortable and wants to visit again and again.
Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter.
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