Monday, March 28, 2011

Do You Believe in Magic? Building a Magic System for Your World

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Magic is central to a fantasy novel and knowing how it works is just as vital as knowing how your protagonist feels or what your plot is. It’s one more layer to your story. But if you haven’t developed it enough, it could end up being a problem instead helping you cause problems. The more you understand how your magic works, the better your story can be.

My husband came up with the magic system for my new book. He first suggested the idea to me several years ago, in one of his typical “what if…” statements that almost always give me a new book idea. (You gotta love this guy for that. I could rent him out) At the time I didn’t know what story this magic system might go with, but it was a cool idea and I wrote it down in my ideas file.
Jump ahead a bit and you’ll find me working with a new story idea and needing magic to go with it. And there was that little magic system needing a home. The perfect match.

Because of the odd way in which these two came together (like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups) it made me look at designing a magic system a little differently. Once I knew I wanted to use this system, I sat down with my husband and we discussed the general way the magic would work. Then I began world building my novel, developing my story and crafting my plot. And throughout all this, different levels of things appeared for the magic system.

Not everyone will have somebody to bounce ideas off of, but there are things you can think about on your own as you develop your own magical world.

Step One: General Use

That first discussion was all about how the magic worked. Because my husband knew very little at that time about the book I was working on, he had no preconceived ideas of what the magic should do. It was all about brainstorming and finding mechanics that worked. The magic system was its own thing, free of plot restraints or premise influences.
  • How did the magic work?
  • Who could use it?
  • What were the benefits?
  • What were the side effects?
  • What we the limitations?
Nowhere in this discussion did we try to force the magic to work with my story idea or plot. I wanted to, since that’s where my brain goes, but he kept me from restricting myself to what I thought I wanted to do and let me explore what we could do. And that’s what you want from a brainstorming session. You want to examine all the possibilities, even if your gut reaction at first is “no, that won’t work because I want to do X with this story.” Don’t limit yourself. You never know where an idea will go.

Step Two: World Use

Once we had the general system worked out, we needed rules. These became more story specific because we needed to understand how this system worked in my world. We started tailoring things, seeing how it applied to my world and enriching those early ideas.
  • What was the magic used for in this world?
  • Who could use it?
  • Was it rare or common?
  • How did others view this magic?
  • Were there different levels of power?
  • What were they?
  • How well known was the magic?
  • How did you learn it?

Step Three: Story Use

Now that we knew how the magic generally worked, and how it worked in my world, it was time to see how it worked in my story. These questions were specific to my story and characters. I needed to know how a magic user in my world would affect things. What I could do with the magic to cause trouble, enhance a conflict, craft a problem.
  • Who in my story has magic?
  • What do they do with it?
  • Does my protagonist have it?
  • Does my antagonist?
  • What problems might be solved by this magic?
  • What problems might be caused by this magic?
  • How will I introduce the magic to the reader?
  • When does my protagonist first discover it? (if it’s something you discover) 

Step Four: Plot Use

And then there are the unique uses for my plot. The real nuts and bolts of the novel. These are things that come up daily as I write. I’ll know I need to have my protagonist do X, and that it involves magic, but I’m not sure exactly how this would work. For example, early on my protagonist finds a magic item. This item needed to have a specific purpose pertaining to my bad guy, and this had to be a clue that would send my protagonist in the right plot direction to uncover some secrets. But I had no clue what this item was or what it did. I had plot parameters only. A) It aided the bad guy in breaking into something. B) Anyone could use it. C) It did something that was slightly different than the magic already established in the world, yet in the same magical vein. D) It had a specific use and purpose.

The next step was to take those parameters and see how it fit into my established set of rules and possibilities. This is where some of those wild ideas you didn’t think you’d need can come into play. Things that fit the magic system, but maybe not the world per se, suddenly click when you need something outside the box.

Specific magic needs will come up as you write, but don’t let them bog your story down. When you find a plot moment that requires magic in some way, look at your notes, your rules, and decide where this plot event fits in. If what needs to be done has been established, use your rules. If you haven’t established that particular thing yet, see how it fits into what you do have, and how you might craft something that works for both the rules, and the plot.


  1. Excellent post. Working out how magic works has typically been one of my stumbling blocks and my biggest fear in terms of my own work becoming self-limiting; that I wouldn't be able to come up with worthwhile and vivid magic systems.

  2. Building a magic system is always one of the areas that I get the most enjoyment out of as a fantasy author. I love the process of creating and twisting the fabric of the world.

    Looking through the list of things above, I'd say side effects are one of the areas that are too often ignored in fantasy. So often, magic is just a (very powerful) tool, without any drawbacks to compensate. A bit depressing, that.

    I have to admit that when I do magic I stop at point #2, and points #3 and #4 come much later. I suppose I view magic as a world-building task, and the rest of it as plotting. But that might be because I build the world and "finish" it before I start plotting or thinking of stories.

  3. Great post. I'm trying to develop a ma ic system so fond it vvery helpful.

  4. Paul: I've been there. In my earlier trunk novels, magic was just there. It had no greater purpose and that's probably one of the reasons those books never worked. It wasn't until I started thinking about how the magic fit into the society and how they used it than it started to become part of the world and not just something stuck into it.

    FourPart: Side effects really are, which is indeed sad since that's where all the fun comes from. Nothing wrong with waiting on steps until later if that's your process :)

    Natalie: Thanks! Good luck with your system ;)

  5. As a fantasy writer I have always struggled with fitting in the magic into my stories. I have a good idea for it, but I have a hard time explaining it. Your questions will make it easier for me, I believe.

  6. I add another set of questions, when designing a magic system.

    Who are the strong users of magic?
    Where are they?
    What are they doing?
    How does this magic logically change cities?
    How does this magic logically change economies?
    How does this magic logically change daily life?

    The answers of these dont necessarily have to be part of the action "on stage" in a story, but I find them critical to avoid plot holes.

  7. That's a pretty manageable list that still covers the basics. Even character/story first kind of people like me could jot down some quick answers to those without spending a ghastly number of hours on worldbuilding which might make me lose my connection to the story. I'm going to copy those down.

  8. Ianhess: Great questions! Thanks for adding them to the mix.

    Jaleh: Thanks! World building can be scary, but you can do a lot with a little. If you can get just enough for a foundation, the rest can develop as the story does.

  9. Just what I was looking for thanks!

  10. Just what I was looking for thanks!

  11. If anyone was struggling, it can sometimes be helpful to have a "generic" Magic system. For example, everyone has magic and it is a thing everyone can learn or do. Will your Magic survive? Where will it be in a century? Two?

    1. Good tip. You could go basic in the early drafts and revise it as you work out the details.