How to Write a Magic System
- There are two main types of magic systems: hard and soft. A hard magic system has strict rules and is often front and center within the story. Many times, one or more main characters will be able to perform magic themselves. On the other hand, a soft magic system is more mysterious. This is not to say that it has no boundaries; however, it typically plays a smaller role. Thus, the characters and reader will understand magic less because they do not need to know the rules. All in all, there is a spectrum of soft to hard magic, and it is useful to know where your system lies on it. Due to its stricter rules, hard magic will be the focus of this blog.
- What is magic capable of? When writing a magic system, one must decide what the magic can do. A magic system, especially hard ones, should have established possibilities. Otherwise, the reader can be confused when the characters get out of a problem using a power that was never previously mentioned. For instance, a beloved character lays dead on the ground. The sky is slate gray. Tears prick the hero’s eyes. Rain drizzles down as if the whole world is crying for their loss. Surprise! People can resurrect the dead now. Why was this never used before? Who’s to say? This one important character is alive again, the author got an obligatory emotional gut punch with no consequences, and countless side characters will continue to perish despite this new magic being present. Inconsistencies such as this remind the reader that it is a book, rather than truly being immersed in a fantasy world. Thus, it can be incredibly frustrating as a reader when magic is treated as a deus ex machina instead of a consistent tool or ability. Strong and reliable worldbuilding can better the reading experience and create a more realistic fictional world.
- Who performs magic? The requirements needed in order to do magic is entirely up to the author. A character may be unique in their magical abilities due to a prophecy or other explanation. In contrast, the story may take place in a world where everyone is capable of magic. Even in a world where magic is common, some may be untrained or there may be a wide variety of powers. The point being, not every character will be equally capable of magic. Therefore, a writer must decide what makes one more powerful than another. Sheer ability, training, determination, etc.
- How is magic done? Are spells created with a wand wave and some funny words? Are ingredients needed? How magic is done can play a significant role in the plot. The need for an object to channel magic, or the need of school to learn spells can be a limiting factor common with hard magic systems. Let’s say you need a character to be captured, but they are too powerful for you to write their capture realistically. Separating them from what they need to use magic can solve the plot hole. A series that does this well is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. The characters must ingest metal in order to use their magic. Therefore, whenever the main character, Vin, is captured, it is specifically mentioned how careful her captors are to keep her away from metal. This way, she has no access to magic, which makes escaping more difficult. Overall, the way magic is performed is an opportunity for originality within your magic system and can affect major plot points.
- Does magic come with a price? Another limiting factor to magic usage can be the price that comes with it. One of the most common prices of magic is exhaustion. After a character uses a great amount of power, they may pass out. To increase the stakes, magic could draw from one’s own life force, placing a character’s life on the line whenever they use too much magic. While this is commonly used, it is popular for a reason. The fact that this price is not rare does not make it bad. Furthermore, an author can easily put their own unique twist to it. However, that is only one example of a cost for using magic. There are infinite others, the possibilities limited only by your imagination. To conclude, prices can up the stakes of your story while ensuring that magic is not overly powerful. Limiting its capabilities also limit your characters’ reliance on it, forcing them to use their wits in addition to raw power.