Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Making Magic Systems That Work and Wow

By Bethany Henry

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: There's something magical about making magic, and it's often a fantasy writer's favorite part of writing in that genre. Bethany Henry shares tips on how to create a compelling magic system for your novel

Bethany Henry writes fantasy novels, and blogs about writing and wellness at bethany-henry.com. When not writing, she can often be found on the frisbee field, drinking tea, or reading picture books with her two little girls. Sign up for her email list for weekly posts on writing craft—along with fun extras like quotes and freebies.  

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Take it away Bethany...

Magic systems are an integral part of any fantasy world yet they are not all created equal! Today we’re looking at what makes a strong magic system and four steps for creating our own.

To start with:

A magic system is the set of rules, limitations, and theories that define the magic in our fantasy world.

Having a strong magic system helps make our story more believable, enhances our characters, and just generally makes everything more fun and awesome.

If our magic system is too confusing or inconsistent, it can make the story frustrating or just not as enjoyable for readers.

A magic system is just one aspect of our worldbuilding. For further reading on worldbuilding check out Worldbuilding 101: The Foundation and Worldbuilding for Writers: Brainstorming and Beyond.

What makes a strong magic system?

A strong magic system will fit the tone of our story, have a cohesive theme, will be consistent in its rules, and will enrich the story rather than detract from it.

Let’s break that down a bit.

First of all: Tone.

The tone of our story is its general feel. We can think of it as the story’s soundtrack and underlying emotion.

For example, is this more Game of Thrones or Discworld? Are we writing a dark, gritty story or something light and fluffy?

Tone is set in part through specific word choices and imagery as well as through characters and events that fit its framework. Even small changes can alter the feel of a story which is why a strong magic system should be designed to match the tone we want to create.

Ridiculous singing flowers and magical cotton candy being used for spells would be out of place in a serious story, but they would fit right into a lighthearted world.

A strong magic system fits into the tone of the story.

(Here’s more with Leave A Message At The Tone: Setting The Right Tone For Your Novel and How The Wrong Tone Can Change Your Whole Novel.)

Second: Theme

Strong magic systems have something that ties them together. This provides continuity and makes it easier for the reader to understand and buy into our worldbuilding.

For instance, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender series has a magic system tied to the four elements of fire, earth, water, and air. There’s huge variety in the way magic is used throughout the series, but this theme gives the story a cohesive feel and keeps it from being too confusing.

Brandon Sanderson is known for creating excellent magic systems. His Mistborn series contains a magic system that is centered on “metal burning” and different metals will grant different powers and have different drawbacks. When new powers show up throughout the story they can be tied to this same theme. This helps the worldbuilding and magic system to be more believable and keeps it from having a deus ex machina feel.

There are some common fantasy worldbuilding settings that come with common themes, such as medieval European fantasy settings containing wizards, spells, and dragons.

However, there are so many possibilities we shouldn’t limit ourselves.

Just to get us thinking, here are a few possible themes for magic systems:
  • Elements
  • Astrology
  • Music
  • Dance
  • Food
  • Divine beings
  • Magical artifacts
  • Art
  • Animals

Within any of these themes there are hundreds of possibilities! The theme can be tied back into the rest of our worldbuilding as well to create a strong sense of immersion in our story.

Third: Consistent Rules (and Limitations)

Having consistent rules and limitations is a big part of creating a strong magic system.

It’s one of Brandon Sanderson’s famous laws of magic, and for good reason. He says that the better a reader can understand the magic, the more satisfied they will be with the conclusion of the book.

If a magic system is illogical or inconsistent it can be confusing and frustrating for readers and keep them from buying-in to the story’s world. Without consistent rules it is hard to create a satisfying story.

The rules of magic define who can use it, how to use it, and what it does. It should also place limitations and a cost on the magic.

The limitations placed on the magic are just as important (and potentially more interesting) than what the magic can actually do.

After all, if magic could accomplish anything without limit, there isn’t much of a story! It’s when the magic is limited, hard, and costly that the story gets more compelling.

An example of magic being given limitations would be a genie or djinn which is typically portrayed as having nearly endless powers yet they are limited to only granting three wishes, only granting wishes to someone possessing their lamp, and may also deliberately misunderstand the wishes asked of them.

Other common limitations placed on using magic may include becoming tired or sick, needing certain rare ingredients for spells, needing to be in a certain location at a specific time, or needing to have specific knowledge or abilities to perform certain rituals.

These limitations will influence and shape how magic is used in our world and the barriers the characters will need to overcome throughout the story.

While it’s important to flesh out the rules and limitations of our magic system, it’s also important to remember that every tiny detail of our magic doesn’t need to be fully explained to our readers. Most info-dumps don’t make for good stories. Like any other topic we want to ration out the information only when it serves our story.

In order to do this well we will want to identify what pieces of our magic system will be important for the reader to know and understand in order to appreciate the climax of the story. These rules and limitations should be established early enough so that the conclusion is understandable and believable.

(Here’s more with The Danger of Infodumps (And How To Avoid Them))

While developing a well-reasoned magic system with logical rules is great, it’s also important to keep in mind that some stories may not have clearly defined rules of magic... and that’s okay.

These magic systems, often described as “soft magic,” may depict magic as being more mysterious and unknown.

For example, this might include things like secretive wizards that no one quite knows what they’re capable of (looking at you, Gandalf) or a mythical magic force that the main character doesn’t quite grasp (Star Wars may be more sci-fi than fantasy but the concept still applies).

The rules of magic may never be shown or fully explained in these stories.

Yet even in a soft magic system it should still be somewhat consistent to itself.

For instance, if the magic is always ridiculous and unpredictable then it should stay ridiculous and unpredictable. If the wizards only do small spells, it would be strange if they suddenly had world-ending power without explanation.

It’s not a bad thing to have a mysterious “soft magic” in our story, in fact sometimes by coming up with contrived explanations we can detract from the experience. The key is to be consistent.

Fourth: Enrich the Story

A strong magic system should enrich the entire story.

This is the wow-factor and where a lot of the fun stuff fits in.

One of the best things about writing magic is that we can create cool moments and situations! Dragons, powerful spells, dramatic face-offs, giant talking cats, hilarious mishaps. What awesome things can you imagine happening?

We don’t need to limit ourselves to what’s been done before. When we create a magic system, we can brainstorm how to use this magic in cool, new, and just plain fun ways.

Stories are a form of enjoyment and escapism. We can use magic to enrich that experience.

(Here’s more with Filling Our Stories With Shinies.)

We do want to keep in mind that the magic in our stories is meant to enrich the story and not detract from it.

A chaotic mash-up of flashy moments may be fun for us as writers but we may end up just confusing the reader and not letting our story shine through. Keeping tone, theme, and our magic rules in mind can help us stay focused.

Revisions and getting feedback from beta readers are also good ways to check and make sure our story is coherent. We can always save some of our awesome ideas for the next story!

(Here’s more with So What Do You Think? Asking For Feedback)

4 Steps for Creating Our Own Magic System

Now that we’ve looked at what makes a strong magic system it’s time to work on our own! Now everyone has their own process of writing so don’t get too caught up in following my directions- see what works for you! But this gives us a place to start anyway (grin).
1: Brainstorming

A little bit of planning can go a long way!

Taking a couple minutes to just play with ideas without any pressure is super important. Sometimes it’s the off-the-path and strange ideas that end up being the best. There are no wrong answers here.

As we start to plan our magic system within our worldbuilding, it’s helpful to have a general idea of what role we want magic to play in our story and if there is anything specific we need it to do. This is also where we can identify possible tone and themes that may be present in our story.

Think about what we know (or don’t know) about our story and our worldbuilding.
  • What tone does our story have?
  • What do we want magic to do in our story?
  • What possible themes would be fun to explore with our magic?
  • Is magic common or rare in our world?
  • Does everyone know about magic or is it a secret?
  • Does our story take place in a fantasy world (high fantasy) or in the real world (low fantasy)?
  • Where does magic come from?
  • What fantastic magical things would be fun to include?

2: Making Decisions

It’s time to make decisions! This gives us a starting point to move forward with, even though we can always go back and change it later. After all, it’s our story.
  • Is our story gritty, lighthearted, or somewhere in the middle?
  • Is magic common or rare?
  • Does everyone know about magic?
  • Is our magic clearly defined or is it more mysterious?
  • Does our magic have a theme?

3. Creating Rules and Limitations

We’re moving forward now to making decisions on the nuts and bolts of the magic itself. This can sometimes be a lot of work depending on the magic system, so we shouldn’t be afraid to take our time and even come back to some of the details later on.

As we decide on rules and limitations, we’ll want to keep in mind our brainstorming from above regarding what we need our magic to do and what tone we want in our story.
  • Who can use magic?
  • How do they use it?
  • What limitations does magic have?
  • What cost is there to using magic?
  • Where does magic come from?

(Here’s more with Playing by the Rules (Of Magic))

4. Brainstorming Revisited

It’s time to look back at our earlier thoughts and see how it all fits together so far as theme and cohesion in our story.
  • What do you think of your magic system—do you like it?
  • Does it work with your story?
  • How can you dig deeper within this framework to develop further possibilities and complexity?

Feel free to repeat steps (or add in steps) as needed. Remember this is your story, your worldbuilding, and your magic system.

(Here’s more with Do You Believe in Magic? Building A Magic System For Your World)

Note: We want to do our research and be respectful of others, especially if we are including elements in our magic system that come from cultures not our own. This probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, other people’s cultures are not our playthings. We have the responsibility to research, get feedback, and do whatever work is needed to ensure we are properly respecting others with our writing.

(Here’s more with 7 Tips For Writing Across Cultures)

One More Thing:

Before we go, don’t forget to have fun!

Fantasy worlds filled with magic can be one of the most exciting things to read about, and as writers we should be having fun with it as well. What sounds cool to you? What do you love about magic?

Let’s fill our stories with shiny magics and all the very best things. Happy writing!

1 comment:

  1. I posted a comment, but it's vanished! Maybe it'll come back. If not, I'll need to repost.