How to Create a Magic System in Six Simple Steps
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Abracadabra, Alakazam — let’s talk about crafting magic systems, writers!
Though not every speculative fiction story needs to be threaded with magic, adding a few fantastical powers to your story world can be a fun way to liven up the narrative. In many cases, magical powers also symbolize bigger themes, serving as a vehicle for conversations about privilege, oppression, pride, and other compelling topics.
No matter your approach, building an original and believable magic system requires a fair amount of time and care. Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Let’s work together today to give our characters some incredible powers!
The many approaches to magic...
Before we dive in, let it be said that there is no right way to build a magic system. Your personal approach may differ widely from my own, and that’s okay. It’s also worth noting that there’s more than one type of magic system you can create.
As explained in Sanderson’s First Law, both hard and soft magic systems exist. Hard magic features a strict set of rules outlined in the narrative that explain the parameters of that magic system. You see hard magic used in stories such as Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy and many superhero comics.
On the other, the parameters of soft magic are never explained in the narrative; its depths, limitations, and origin often remain unknown. A prime example, as Sanderson states, is the magic Gandalf uses (or, doesn’t often use) in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Magic itself is not a binary world-building element, either. Your own magic system may fall somewhere between hard and soft magic on the spectrum. But what truly matters when crafting a magic system isn’t its delineation; it’s how it serves your story.
As Sanderson discusses in his First Law, the use of magic in storytelling creates problems. If your plot involves characters using magic to solve those problems, establishing a clear set of rules for your magic system is the surest way to avoid cheapening the conflict in your story with contrived magical solutions.
If, however, magic serves more to create a fantastical ambience than to solve your story’s conflict, there’s no need to lay out all the details of its use and creation. The Hobbits didn’t cast a fancy spell to destroy the One Ring, so the exact parameters of magic held little sway. If your story follows a similar pattern, a soft magic system may be the right choice for you.
Six steps to a fully-developed magic system...
If you’re crafting a hard magic system for your story world, I’ve outlined six simple steps to building that system below. If, however, your world uses soft magic, you may not need to develop each of these six elements. Feel free to take from this guide what best serves your story.
Step #1: Define its use.
How does magic manifest itself? What fuels its use? How does the user summon magic, and what abilities does it give the user?
Step #2: Identify its users.
What are magic users called in your story world? Is magic inherited, gifted, obtained, or learned? Are there different factions of magic users? Can anyone use magic, or is it exclusive to a certain few?
Step #3: Outline its limitations.
Is magic or the source that fuels it a limited resource in your story world? Can magic be stolen or quelled? What effect does the use of magic have on the user? Is there a cap on the users' magical abilities? How could a magic user be defeated?
Step #4: Establish its dangers.
Can magic be used incorrectly or for selfish purposes? Can it be used to harm others or cause destruction? What dangers does magic pose to the user, whether directly or because the use of magic is scorned or envied by society?
Step #5: Explore its origins.
How was magic created? Where does it source its power? Are there different types of magic, or did magic diversify over time? What important historical events in your story world were affected by the use or failure to use magic?
Step #6: Consider its culture.
Is magic kept secret in your story world? If so, why? Are there magical societies or a hierarchy of magic users? Is a magic user marked by their clothing, appearance, or some other distinguishing factor? Do magic users have their own language, religion, festivals, or other cultural hallmarks?
Magic as a vehicle for theme...
Voila! By working through these steps, writer, you’ve crafted a solid structure for your world’s magic system. Before bringing these powers to life on the page, however, I’d encourage you to consider what magic means to your fictional world.
Does it exist solely for the ambience that the fantastical can provide, or is magic a vehicle for a larger conversation in your story? The magic system in my current work-in-progress, Lady Legacy, was a late addition, yet I love how the use of magic allows me to explore the concept of talent and the powerful but dangerous appeal of glory.
The thought of weaving theme into story often drags writers right back into their stuffy high school literature classes, yet theme is far less intimidatingly academic than its taught.
In essence, theme simply answers the question, “What is this story about?”
If magic plays a major role in your fictional world, chances are that it’s woven deeply into the fabric of your story’s themes — whether you’ve consciously or unconsciously crafted those themes in the first place. For more information on utilizing theme, make sure to check out this article on the Well-Storied blog.
Or, if you’d like to spend further time fleshing out your world's magic system, make sure to check out World-Building Warrior, a 167-page comprehensive guide to developing your stories' fictional worlds!