A Guide to Writing Magic Systems: GUEST POST by Mike Alwill
If you were to grab a stranger off the street and ask them what magic was, well… first they’d probably mention someone like Penn and Teller, but once you clarified and said you meant magic in fiction, you’d very likely hear at least a few of these words: spell, wizard, fireball, enchantment, wand, curse, potion, witch, fairy, monster, illusion, spirit, warlock, charm, amulet, sorcerer…
You get the point. For Western audiences, the general idea of magic descends from a mixture of European myth, medieval literature, and high fantasy, as popularized in the 20th century by writers like Tolkien. This version of magic was further cemented in people’s minds due to the unbelievable success of the gaming industry over the last 50 years. From Dungeons & Dragons to videogaming to collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, audiences have been exposed to more magic than ever before, frequently with a well-defined, regimented system attached to it to facilitate the need gaming has for rules and progression mechanics.
This popularization and systematization of magic has had two major influences on audiences:
- They increasingly expect Sanderson’s First Law to hold, that “an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic”. The deus ex machina doesn’t get much mileage when it comes to magic nowadays.
- The classic, Euro-myth/Medieval-Lit version of magic has become trope-ified and stale, requiring creators to put larger and larger twists on it to avoid being redundant.
And what this means to a fantasy writer thinking of using magic in their next story is that you need to be mindful about how well-defined and how different your magic system is.
Throughout the rest of this article, I’m going to walk you through a few frameworks that can help you clarify key attributes of the magic in your fantasy world and inspire you to craft magic that is unique and refreshing. We’re going to start with an exercise about the world you’re building and the story you seek to tell in it, and then identify magic’s role in this world. After that, we’ll talk about the who and how of magic users, as well as the role of limitation in magic. Then we’ll get into the magic-making itself and I’ll provide ideas and examples to aid your creation process.
Ready to get started?
Your Story Seed
While you could go through the frameworks below without a world or story in mind, you’ll get a much greater return if you’ve at least considered the following questions:
- Where does your story take place? A fictional world? Our world? Somewhere in between?
- When does your story take place? The past? Modern day (or some analog)? The future?
- What does society and civilization look like in this world? Is there an abundance of government? None at all? Is society in decay or only just beginning to crystalize?
- Who is your protagonist? What values do they have? What do they want? What conflicts are they likely to encounter?
If you haven’t already, take a moment to jot down your answers to these four questions. Don’t give into the temptation to go down a worldbuilding rabbit hole though, we’re just trying to get the broad strokes of your story for now.
With your story seed in mind, the first thing we need to figure out is how abundant magic is in your world. Is your land one rife with magic, where magic’s use is as common as any other trade or skill? Or is magic exceedingly rare, where even mentioning that it might be real is met with snickers and taunts? Are there pockets of your world where magic reigns, perhaps ancient cities that run on it or natural wonders that inspire the same breathtaking awe of a site like Mount Everest or Turkmenistan’s infamous Door to Hell?
Making magic rare will require that you meter and justify its appearance accordingly, or readers will have trouble connecting with the supposed rarity. After all, if magic hasn’t been seen in a thousand years and every single character we meet has some magical ability, it will be very hard to feel the impact of magic’s absence. If, however, our magically-abled characters have only just discovered their powers or have all come together from far flung corners of the world for a special purpose, then that’s more understandable–though we’ll probably expect this to factor into the conflict somehow.
On the flip side, a world flush with magic needs to treat it as being appropriately commonplace, all without making the reader feel it’s mundane or boring. This can be very hard to achieve without some framing mechanism, such as a portal fantasy that introduces non-magical people to a magical world so the reader can experience the magic through their fresh eyes. One tactic is to lean on escalation, where a more secret, powerful magic is discovered that dwarfs the everyday variety, but escalation can easily get out of control, rendering earlier conflicts in a story uninteresting and low-stakes.
How abundant is magic in your world?
After abundance comes the question of definition: How well understood is the magic in your world? Based on my mention of Sanderson’s First law above, it may seem like a non-question. Shouldn’t all magic be well-defined so that it can be used to resolve conflict?
Not necessarily. While well-defined magic provides the writer a deep toolbox to use in conflict resolution (among other areas), magic need not be so defined to produce conflict. We don’t need to understand how an ancient, magic artifact that summons a monstrous demon bird to besieges a city works, we only need to know what we can reasonably expect this demon bird to do and how our heroes might triumph over it. Granted if our heroes use this artifact themselves or invoke another unexplained magical power to claim victory, we’re in trouble without some definition, but if they were to melt the artifact in a volcano then all is well (minus the similarities to Mount Doom, of course).
Undefined magic can be wonderful fun. It can create dramatic odds and make otherwise legendary heroes seem small in comparison. But it must be used judiciously. Even in our demon bird example above, there can still be something unsatisfying about undefined magic driving all of the conflict, and it’s not unreasonable that a reader would have questions: Where did this artifact come from? Who made it? Why a bird?
Defined magic on the other hand aims to provide answers to questions like these and requires an underlying system to do so. Perhaps our artifact above is the vessel of a vengeful god, and makes a nightmarish copy of whatever is placed inside that then attacks anyone who has disrespected this vengeful god–in this case an entire city. Now we have rules–parameters–that give our heroes options to deal with the demonic threat. Maybe they can convince the city to pay homage to the god, or maybe they can pry open the vessel and retrieve the original bird placed inside.
Both options can make for an enjoyable story. You need to decide which best fits your story seed and which you–and your audience–would most enjoy reading.
How well-defined is magic in your world?
By now, you should have some idea of how common magic is in your world and how well understood it is, whether that means your world is full of raw, mysterious magic or has just one lone mage with a recipe book of spell ingredients and their effects.
It’s time to ask yourself: Who is using magic? And why them?
Let’s consider the possibilities: Either everyone is using magic, no one is using it, or some people are.
Right away you should be able to see how eligibility is related to the question of abundance, and how the rarity of magic in your world informs how many people are using it. Obviously if you have a world where magic is exceedingly rare it will be nonsensical to have everyone using it.
What about the reverse? Could you have a magic-heavy world and no users of it? I’d argue you can, with magic playing a role akin to nature. Maybe the closest your magic-heavy world gets to the classical idea of a wizard is someone who has spent their life studying magic meteorologist-style. While that’s a very different story from one in which characters can wield magic, it can be an engaging setup nonetheless.
If you’re thinking about having everyone use magic (in a world with abundant magic), you’ll want to have some organizing principle about who uses what type of magic, whether that’s a “magic-type-as-field-of-study” approach, innate affinities, or something entirely else in order to give the reader some points of differentiation across characters and factions.
It’s very likely you’ll fall somewhere in the middle with only some characters being able to use magic. The way you choose these characters will say a lot about how your story views and presents magic:
- The Chosen Few: If magic is a gift that provides characters tangible advantages in the world, then those with the ability to use it could be considered part of the chosen few. They might enjoy special privileges, especially if they play their partnerships right, or they might find themselves under the thumb of a brutal, exploitative empire. Going with this option invokes themes of class and privilege.
- Freak of Nature: In a world that sees magic as evil or unnatural, having magical abilities will often turn a character into a (powerful) outcast. In these settings there are typically few magic users or they have banded together to stand against their enemies. Probably the most iconic version of this is the X-Men, which while not strict magic per se does focus on people with powers that wouldn’t be all that unfamiliar in a fantasy-type setting.
- Meritocracy: If magic is a learned ability, using it may be a matter of merit, i.e. who can work and study the hardest. There may be natural inclinations here (and when there are, they are often stacked against the protagonist for conflict’s sake), but generally the story in part focuses on the learning, which means your world should have some kind of magic education system to facilitate this learning.
The major delineation here is between the extrinsic and the intrinsic; is the ability to wield magic something that happens to a character or do they realize it through their actions? Furthermore, is magic use a good thing or a bad thing?
Consider your story seed and the world you’ve creating. What are the answers to these questions that best harmonize with and heighten your story’s unique stakes and conflicts?
Methods & Means
Hand-in-hand with determining magic eligibility is figuring out how those eligible to use magic actually use it. By this I don’t mean what the magic is–we’ll get to that later–but what methods magic users employ to (ahem) make the magic happen.
And really what’s sitting behind this question is the idea of limitations. One only need look at gaming to see how unlimited magic can be (literally) gamebreaking, and how while moments of extreme power can be satisfying, having them all the time is boring. Take the star/super star in Super Mario Bros. Getting one of these and running around a level with invincibility is lots of fun, but an entire level with that star power borders is downright bland.
You want to bake in some sense of limitation to your magic users’ abilities, and the way they use magic is a great way to do that. Limited resources is a popular method, where a magic user requires either spell ingredients or an artifact or some substance to use their powers. No ingredient, item, or substance = no magic. Easy as that. Another way is to require the magic user to prepare and channel their magic, perhaps allowing them to store enough energy or stamina for so many uses or to be within range of specific locations. Fatigue, being spent, or out of range = no magic. Again, easy peasy.
You want your resources, rituals, spells, or locations to flow naturally from your story, so look to your setting and your meta-level decisions about magic for what the best fit is. If your story takes place in a modern day New York that’s home to a handful of magic users, you might make it so they can only use their magic there, turning your setting into a prison of sorts (and setting up some conflict in the process).
But what if there is no limitation on magic use? What if magic users are free to use their abilities as much as they want, whenever they want? Is that even possible?
Well, yes. Comics about superheroes do this all the time, as do stories featuring magical beings, angels/demons, or demigods. And it’s often very, very fun. The trick here becomes giving them limitations and challenges in some other way so that the reader doesn’t get bored of watching an overpowered individual breeze their way through the story.
For superheroes, that’s frequently the burden of a secret identity and an equally powerful supervillain, highlighting themes of work/life balance and what the dark version of ourselves looks like. For angels and demons, there tend to be rules from Heaven or Hell governing their actions, creating law-based obstacles to contend with. For demigods, they often get their godhood stripped right out of them from time to time, which allows for discussion on what it means to be human vs. being more than human.
It all comes back to giving our characters something to struggle against and (most likely) overcome. If you keep this idea of struggle in mind and look for interesting limitations–the seer who can only tell the future while high on dangerous drugs, the firecaster who uses their own body heat for their magic, the enchanter whose magic artifacts have a random chance to backfire–your story will have plenty of opportunities for drama, conflict, and excitement.
Try this: Go back to the last work of fantasy you came across and pick out all the characters who in one way or another handle magic. Task yourself with figuring out what their limitations are, and whether or not those were interesting limitations. Imagine two or three different limitations for each of these characters, along with the possible challenges those limitations would provide.
Range, Change, & Mediums
Let’s pause to recap for a moment. If you’ve been following along, then at this point you know:
- How abundant magic is in your world.
- How well-understood it is by the characters and the reader.
- Who is eligible to practice this magic.
- How these eligible people actually do the practicing.
But what about the magic itself? In this top-down system building exercise, I’ve largely avoided talking about specific magic to keep you from getting anchored to an idea that might not fit your story world. But now it’s time to dig into those specifics.
Every act of magic can be viewed as a function of three things:
- The range of effect, or who is targeted and affected by the magic.
- The “medium” it uses, or how the magic takes effect, i.e. physically, mentally, or other.
- The change it results in, or what’s different after it’s used.
Let’s use a well-known, tropish example: the fireball. The range of a fireball is something other than the caster (ideally!), the medium it uses is a physical medium, and the change it results in is burning things to a crisp.
Range and medium are easy, as there aren’t all that many choices. Range is either the magic user themselves, someone else, or several other people, with the extreme end of the scale being all of reality. Medium will most likely be the physical vs. the mental, with room for other options depending on the writer’s preference (some like to employ a “spiritual” type medium).
Change is where things get weedy. Common go-tos for change include elemental changes (i.e. fire, water, air, earth abilities), changes that generally harm or heal (attacks, regeneration), changes that buff or debuff natural traits (super strength, reduced mobility), changes that reveal or conceal (mind reading, invisibility), changes to location (teleportation, time travel), and many more. You could spend days listing out all the different types of change writers have used in their worlds and it’s clear that some naturally lend themselves to different range and medium modalities.
So how do you pick which kinds of change to feature in your world?
A good rule of thumb is to look for fun pairwise combinations that mesh well with your story seed. To revisit an earlier setting, if your story takes place in modern day New York, which is dense with buildings, locked doors, and unseen spaces, you might pick the pairwise combination of locking and unlocking. Consider one character or group of characters who can secure, lock away, and hide things with ease, and use a dense urban area to facilitate their abilities. It’s easy then to imagine they might come into conflict with characters who can unlock, reveal, and discover that which was meant to stay hidden.
“Locking and unlocking” is definitely a weird combination, which is somewhat the point. We’ve all read stories pitting fire vs. ice and know what to expect from that match-up, and in some settings–such as a classical fantasy world–it makes sense. But you should seek pairwise combinations that bring out what is unique about your world and that have a better chance of being fresh and new to readers.
If you’re feeling particularly system-minded, you could take this pairwise concept and blow it out to three, four, or eight (or however many directions you want) to create a robust magic system of checks and balances. Those who have spent some time gaming will have an easy time thinking in these terms and will feel at home designating a “Strong Against / Weak Against” matrix to describe which kinds of magical abilities are likely to win in a given match-up.
But such gamification is not necessary. As I’ve been saying throughout this article, the main things you want to strive for are balance, conflict, and satisfying conflict resolution, all done in a way that is reflective of the world you’ve created. You could do that by creating some wholly original magic, by applying an established framework to your world, by developing a robust system as described above, or by eschewing system altogether. The choice is yours, provided that choice amplifies the themes of your story.
If you’re having trouble brainstorming, try this exercise:
Get a couple of sheets of paper and at the top of one write down your story setting. Then list out the numbers 1 through 25. Turn off your phone, close your laptop, and do whatever you need to do to not be disturbed. Your goal is to fill in each number with a different combination of range, medium, and change that fits your setting. It doesn’t have to be good or plausible or executable, but it needs to work in the world you’ve built.
Then, once you’re done, take a blank sheet of paper and start grouping these different combinations together by number based on their commonalities. Did you craft a set of magic uses that are all performed mentally and all affect the user? Lump them together. Noticing a theme around those who deal with the dead? That’s a group. Are there many instances involve jumping through spacetime? That’s another group.
You can make multiple, separate groupings if you’d like–the idea is that you’re learning to categorize your ideas, and thinking about how these categories might lend themselves to contrast and conflict.
If listing 25 different magic uses isn’t enough for you, double or triple it. The most interesting ideas you have to offer often only emerge after you’ve pushed yourself past your limit, and that can require you to keep going even when you think you’re all out of material.
We started this article with your story seed, where you identified the where, when, what, and who of your fantasy world. But we’ve yet to talk about standing out and offering readers something different.
There are a couple of ways to stand out. One is to represent ideas, cultures, and communities that don’t get a lot of high profile attention. This is great if you’re a member of or have significant involvement with said cultures or communities and have thought deeply about what aspects of them are underrepresented. It’s absolutely not great to co-opt or appropriate anything for yourself in order to gain acclaim or goodwill.
Another way is to revisit a standard fantasy setup from an unexpected POV. By presenting a story from the perspective of the so-called villain or a ho-hum merchant, you can bring a stale tale into fresh relief by exploring the untold stories inherent in the original. The catch here is that you’re working against expectation, which can be an uphill battle, particularly if the standard fantasy setup you’re using isn’t all that well known. If readers don’t recognize so-and-so as an iconic villain archetype, they may not appreciate the reversal by viewing the story through the villain’s eyes.
You could also imagine wholly new fantasy concepts for your world. This offers the writer the most freedom, but at a high stakes cost; if your original concepts aren’t compelling or cohesive, they could come off as sloppy or boring. For this approach you’ll want to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to say in your story and why you’ve chosen the fantasy concepts you have. Don’t be afraid to bring peers in to critique your ideas or to put them in front of beta readers to see if they pass a basic sniff test–it’s much less painful to discover you have an issue your bold new magic system before you start writing than after you’ve put together the first 150k word draft.
For When You’re Totally Stuck
My goal has been to provide value and useful structure to fantasy writers seeking to create magic systems for their next story, but it’s completely plausible that after reading all of this you feel more lost than ever. If that’s you, then you’re probably asking:
What the hell do I do now?
The answer’s easy. You read. Read big names, read small names, read well reviewed books, read ones with mixed reviews–your goal is to think about the above frameworks and apply them to fantasy works you haven’t read before. How does the author answer the questions of abundance and definition? Who is eligible to use magic in their worlds? How do they use it? What conflicts arise as a result? What specific magic do they use–what’s its range, medium, and change it affects–and how is that different from the tropey world of Euro-myth/Medieval-lit fantasy fiction?
The more you read, the more ideas, stories, and worlds you’ll have to reference–and the better your writing will be. If you’re looking for specific suggestions, there are plenty of groups on Goodreads and subreddits on Reddit that would be more than happy to suggest something to read. All you need to do is ask.
I hope you’ve found this article and its frameworks useful, whether you’re a fantasy writer thinking about your next work or a reader who is looking for insight into how to think about books. If you have any feedback to share–positive or negative–I’d love to hear it at (this address) or down below in the comment section. Thanks for reading!
Michael Alwill is a fantasy writer and mathematician living in New York City. His latest novel, Untethered, draws from the sense of fascination and mystery he felt growing up on the graffiti-inked streets of New York in the 1980s, and introduces an original fantasy world steeped in the ethos of the city. In addition to his fantasy fiction, Michael founded the literary magazine Weird City, authored the creative writing guide Ready, Set, Write, and has even been known to ghostwrite for artists and musicians from time to time. Michael also spent 10 years with Google, where he worked in Data & Analytics and Operations.