Creating a Magic System for Your Fantasy World

It’s a forgone conclusion that if you’re going to create your own Fantasy world, you are going to have some form of magic. Like Samwise Gamgee, we long to see the beautiful and strange; it’s a huge lure that draws us to these fantastic worlds. But you must also be careful. Your magic system must be clearly defined and follow a predictable pattern, or else your readers will see that you’re using it as a cheap way to move the plot along. But the pattern is the easy part; creating a pattern that is still 100% in your control is where it gets really challenging.

Man Using Magic

 

The Consequences of a Poor Magic System

My first attempt at Truth Unearthed was ruined by my poorly thought out role of magic. It took me three attempts to just get the basic plot of my novel down, but only the first one had to be razed and rebuilt from the ground up. This was because I simultaneously wrote myself into a corner AND made my characters look like idiots for not using a natural extension of their powers. I knew I didn’t want to use magic as a crutch, but you can’t give your characters the perfect tool and not let them use it! So, I went back to the drawing board and answered some key questions that every writer should ask when building a Fantasy world and the role magic will play in it. (Also, for more tips based on hard lessons from writing my first novel, check out my blog, “Lessons from Writing my First Manuscript“.)

First – Which of the Two Magic Types Will Your World Have?

“For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?” – Galadriel to Sam in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring

This Galadriel quote from the Father of Fantasy’s most well-known work is both a cornerstone of understanding the role magic played in his own world, and also a great illustration the two different types of magic available.  As a writer, you need to know which you will use (or if you will use both).

The First Magic Type – Arcane

I chose the word “Arcane” for this type because of it’s Latin origins, which means “hidden” or “shut-up”. This is the type of that can be learned through texts (or other methods – they key thing is that it is learnable). While very common in Literature, it’s pretty much universal in games that take place in a Fantasy setting like World of Warcraft. This is the magic that can be acquired through intense study and application. Essentially, the magic exists in the world as an element that is foreign to ours. It is often associated with weaving terminology, “threads” “patterns”, etc. This also allows for new magic to be created, as it is essentially a piece of technology – the wielder is taking a piece of the world and building upon it an manipulating it for their own purposes.

It is also typically broken down into multiple categories, the most common being “white magic” (benign, healing, helpful, etc.)  and “black magic” (destructive, offensive, or draining). Sometimes it can also be broken down into multiple schools – Elemental (Fire, Ice, Wind, Earth being common examples), Holy (Associated with the followers of a benevolent deity to restore fellow creatures), Unholy (necromancy, daemonolgy, etc.). Most other schools (plant-based, animal, medicinal, etc) are offshoots of these three primary ones.

This magic system allows the most growth, but it also requires a ton of time and effort to execute well. To keep magic from being the solution to every plot problem, you have to have very clearly defined borders, but they can’t feel like the arbitrary will of a writer stepping in to stop things before they get out of hand. As it is an element, it must feel natural. It’s a great magic system for games because it allows every person’s avatar to feel unique. Though it can be done well in writing, it can be also very unwieldy (magic pun!) if not handled with the utmost care.

The Second Magic Type – [Innate] Power

This was the “magic” employed in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth the majority of the time (all exceptions were regarded as evil, such as The Necromancer, or something strongly likely to lead to evil, such as those using the One Ring…basically, arcane existed, but it was strongly discouraged). Note that this type of magic isn’t necessarily devoid of learning or technology (such as the Elven rings). But the role they play is entirely different. The source of the magic comes from the characters themselves, or is acquired through something those with that power built. They are innate abilities. Just as you or I can learn how to ride a bicycle or build a tree-house, so too may the characters need to learn how to use their powers or build things from it. But, if the power wasn’t there’s to begin with, they could learn all they wanted and still not be able to perform it or create a magic item themselves. Likewise, someone with limited knowledge can still perform acts of power, though maybe clumsily if ignorant of self-taught.

In this magic system, the scope is much more limited. Just as you or I cannot fly like a bird and they can’t grip a door knob, certain characters or creatures have these abilities and others won’t. In these worlds, magic is often determined by creature type or race, but it can also be random. The most basic example being dragons who exhale various elements. A dragon can breathe fire (…or ice…or anything else the author picks). There is no explanation (or at least there doesn’t HAVE to be, though I imagine dissecting a dragon and identifying the body parts that allow it to breathe fire could be fun), because there isn’t one needed. But, though innate to the creature, it doesn’t have to have a physical source. It could be mental, spiritual, or unexplained. In fact, that’s what makes this magic system much easier to keep up with. In our world, that different species or even different people having various capabilities is seen as perfectly normal. It needs no explanation. While the Arcane magic system will naturally lead to people wanting to analyze it (since that’s the nature of the magic), the innate power system is accepted, not out of laziness, but because it is actually already a concept we are familiar with in our world, whereas the arcane is foreign to our experience and demands to be explained.

What Type of Magic Should You Use?

Neither magic system is superior to the other. That being said, readers and writers both have their preferences. Each system has strong points and limitations, so you should pick whichever magic system enables you to tell the story you want. You might have picked up on a slight bias towards Power in this blog. That has a lot to do with my early experience in Fantasy literature. The first Fantasy novel I read was The Hobbit, and Tolkien is still my favorite author of any genre. But possibly even more instrumental in forming my bias was the execution of arcane in the other early Fantasy novels I read. I saw “Magus ex machina” everywhere. A new element or ability hitherto unseen just happened to be found in just the nick of time. And then the first novel that didn’t… I was so excited only to see the characters be stymied for 15 chapters when there was an easy magic solution that could have been employed based on what had already been revealed.

The main thing is just to be purposeful with your system. If you don’t take the time to craft a well-thought out system, it will show. Personally, I chose to use the Power system in mine. I did this for a host of reasons, chief among them:

  1. I wanted magic’s use to play a significant role, but not be a huge focus or take too long for the reader to understand.
  2. I didn’t want the boundaries to feel like something I just made up as I went, but also be clearly defined without limiting. Essentially I wanted “A narrow scope with an almost infinite depth.” Innate Power allowed me to do this. Elves have a particular field of power, as do Dwarves and Men. In that field, there are no limits, but the types of task that magic can be used to solve are very limited. Infinite creativity within the borders, but the borders are rock solid. There are a few immortal characters with widely increased Power, but they are very few and far between, and there are hints that backstage where my main characters can’t see it, they are keeping each other in check.
  3. Practicality. I have a full-time day job and freelance on the side (I have to pay for this English degree somehow!). By not having to ensure every time I bring up magic that it doesn’t break any rules I’ve already set in place or open up a Pandora’s box I regret, I can spend all the time I get to write working on characters and plot.

What About You?

What magic system do you prefer or use in your own writing? Do you prefer to read in one and write in another? Did this help you maybe think through some things in your own book? Leave a comment or tweet me @Tales_of_Lugon. Also, if you want to approach Fantasy world-building in a thoughtful way, I highly recommend checking out The Tolkien Professor, Corey Olsen. Just thinking about Tolkien’s works from an academic perspective can help you think through your own creation process at a much higher level.

 Creating a Magic System for Your Fantasy World

4 Comments

  1. Zachary Brooks | | Reply

    Omg!!!! Thank you so much! I’m actually writing a fantasy novel and was wondering about this the other day!!!

    • Sparky
      Sparky | | Reply

      You are quite welcome Zachary! I am in the middle of a new initiative of writing blogs once per week on the novel creation process. The next one will be posted Friday. Be sure to come back and check it out!

  2. Shawna | | Reply

    I could totally have a long conversation about this. I honestly don’t know what to think of the title. Especially in terms to my own magic system. (Mind you, my world went through 4 different magic systems through its history because of cataclysmic changes to the world (and I’m talking about in the story, not in the creation of the story. In creation I’ve probably gone through over a dozen)).
    I feel like my magic system could be placed in both categories. There are inherit magics, but there’s also magic that can be learned without being born with abilities (one magic-less character seeks these out to be stronger to be able to defend themselves against magic users). In the world itself magic is a mystery, but the “scientists” of the world have labeled and sectioned magic (as they like to label and section everything). And there are 12 main “schools” of magic. (Though there are beings that can break these rules that the “scientists” conducted, but those are usually greater beings). Usually people that are born with magic are born into a single school and can’t do anything outside of it (though each school is broken down into further categories that people are inside, like the Kiersey Persinality chart that has 4 types inside 4 types). But the “scientists” are usually chosen by the previous generation because they’re the people with the natural ability to use all the schools. (They are actually the druids).

    And I realized I’ve gone on about it a lot, but after reading your article, I’m not entirely sure where my system would place itself in your two choices, but my system wholly works for my story.

    • Sparky
      Sparky | | Reply

      Hey Shawna!

      You can use both. I acknowledged that in parenthesis right before I discuss Arcane Magic. The main thing is just to be purposeful and clear with the reader. You need to make sure the reader understands which magical abilities are rooted in the school of magic that is determined at birth vs those that can be learned. If people not born with magic can learn defensive magics, who is developing them? Were they developed by people from each school to protect non-magic users from those abusing their magical abilities? If they can be learned by those born without magical abilities, can someone from one school develop or learn magic that protects them from another school? I’m not asking you to actually answer these questions here, just pointing out some things to think about to make sure you stay consistent. Of course, if you want to discuss your magic system, I would be happy to provide feedback.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *