Worldbuilding

Know How Your Magic Works

Magic is a cornerstone of fantasy. A good place to start when creating a magic system is to ask yourself some questions about how the magic works. Knowing the answers to the following questions is integral to building a cohesive world.

Who can do magic?

  • Those who are born with it. Think Harry Potter, where witches and wizards are born with magic, muggles and squibs aren’t, and there’s nothing that changes that. This immediately separates your civilization into two castes. These castes can then coexist in many different ways.
  • Anyone can learn. In this system, magical ability is a matter of understanding and study. This makes magic much more of a science than a physical skill. Some may have more natural ability to learn it, but magical strength will be linked to the access to knowledge and education. The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin uses this type of system, embedding magic in language.
  • Supernatural beings. Urban fantasy tends to use this idea, where vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings each have a certain set of magical skills. In systems like these, the rules tend to be segmented, and it can be a challenge to keep consistent. Instead of one set of rules that applies to all magic, each being has its own makeup; vampires and werewolves frequently appear in the same stories, yet behave differently. Adding an underlying element to the system that ties everything together will give your world more vitality.

Where does the power to do magic come from?

  • Personal skill. In both Harry Potter and Earthsea, magic is a personal ability, like physical prowess or intelligence. Whether born with the ability or not, wizards study, practice, and get tired after pulling an all-nighter on a tricky spell. When it’s something that’s taught and practiced, magic will likely be an institution, with schools or apprenticeships. This works well for coming of age stories, since the protagonist can struggle through learning and have adventures practicing while the audience also gains a deeper understanding of how the magic works.
  • Nature. Some magic systems treat magic like a natural resource. In her Dragon Nimbus series, Irene Radford’s dragons are the natural source of magic. The fact that they are dying means magic is running out, with much the same effects on that world as fossil fuels have on ours. In Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters, magic users called masters are born with a magical affinity, but the source of their power is natural elements. In this world, magic is such a fundamental part of nature that it is polluted right along with the earth and water by people’s activities.
  • Gods or demons. This is likely to suggest the magic in your world is aligned with good or evil.  Historically, witches were said to get their power by making deals with demons and persecuted because of it.  However, if you use good or evil alignments with your magic system, you don’t always have to stick with the traditional.
  • Thoughts or emotions. Even gods’ powers might have a source. In American Gods, the power of the gods comes from people’s belief in them. This makes gods less than all powerful and is useful if you intend to have them as active characters in your world or story. The Neverending Story uses a similar idea where people’s imagination is the source of magic.

How is magic preformed?

  • With magical tools. In many fantasy worlds, wizards are identified by the wands, staffs, etcetera they carry around. These can be indispensable items for performing magic: Harry Potter disarming an opponent is a solid defense. Other times it’s just a focus: Harry Dresden can cast spells without his blasting rod, but it usually results in his burning down the whole building.
  • With everyday tools. Magical practice can also be connected with ordinary tasks, as in Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series. In this system, the four protagonists each practice magic through mundane things: thread, weather, metals, and plants. The supplies they use are ordinary items until they are combined with the mage’s personal magic.
  • Through rituals. Complex rituals are traditionally needed to draw on magic from gods or demons. The places, books and other supplies used to correctly perform these rituals could be used to identify magic practitioners. It will also affect your world in other ways. If necessary supplies are scarce, or the right place is distant, magic will be less common.  If the black candles needed to summon powerful vengeance demons are illegal, a black market for such things will likely exist.
  • Using emotions. Other systems use magic that’s preformed in less tangible ways.  The classic power of true love is an example. Though it’s usually enacted with a kiss, love is not a tool that can be purchased at the corner magic shop. However, a system that uses emotions as the key to magic tends to be more difficult to keep consistent, since the very source is something that is unquantifiable.

What is the defense against magic?

  • A special weakness. Urban fantasy is full of powerful supernatural creatures that leave normal folk pretty helpless, but for each creature there is at least one reliable weakness. In the Buffyverse, the Slayer is the world’s key defense against vampires. Even without Buffy, the Scooby gang can manage to hold their own using crosses and stakes.
  • More powerful magic. Of course, that avenue is only open to others with magic. Additionally, if the only reliable way to defeat magic is with more powerful magic, the likely cultural outcome is that those with the most power will rule over those with less or none.
  • Charms, talismans and other items. These could be used by both the magical and non magical beings, and can be great for leveling the playing field. Such items, especially powerful ones, would be scarce and expensive, possibly passed down as family heirlooms or controlled by specialty dealers.

What are the limits and costs to doing magic?

  • Knowledge. After all, knowledge is power, right? This limit leaves lots of room open for someone to amass a tremendous amount of power. The costs are those associated with controlling or learning that knowledge: expensive libraries and long nights of study.
  • Physical limitations. In this system, if magicians push past their physical limits, they pass out and are vulnerable. If you’re looking to raise the stakes further, they die. You could also place a physical limit between those extremes. Perhaps the use of magic creates illness.  A small spell and the magician gets the equivalent of a mild cold, but a larger one could cause fatal pneumonia.
  • Scarce resources. In the Dragon Nimbus series, magic is a non-renewable resource which is being used up. This system design places the cost on society as a whole rather than the individual magician, and that cost is potential catastrophe once the magic is depleted.

It’s important to add limits and costs to your magic system. It might be fun for a moment to design an all-powerful system, but consider what limitless power would do to your characters and cultures. It’s also rather boring after the first impressive fireworks, since struggle is what keeps an audience engaged in both your story and its world.

Whatever limits you set, they should be relevant and immediate. If you are using a natural resource system where the limit is scarcity, but you place your story at a time where the resource is still readily available, it’s an ineffective limitation. The fact that their grandchildren’s grandchildren will run out of magic if they do a powerful spell is unlikely to change any magician’s actions.

Limitations should also be consistent throughout. Villains can be more powerful than heroes, but if your hero gets a headache every time he lights a candle with magic, the villain burning down whole villages should be dealing with intense migraines too. Even fire breathing dragons in the same magic system should be touched by your system’s limits. If they stay deep in their caves throughout your story, then your audience never really needs to know their limits. However, if they become part of the plot and start burning down villages themselves, a critical audience will begin to wonder. If you make limits as much a part of your magic system as benefits, it’ll be harder to accidentally introduce inconsistencies.

How does magic fit into the rest of the world?

  • It’s an integral part and everyone knows about it. In Discworld, magic is everywhere — it’s just a part of life on a flat planet, which is riding through space on the back of a turtle.
  • It’s hidden from all but a few. Urban fantasy often uses a system where magic is a hidden part of our modern world. In this setup, magic usually has little effect on those who aren’t part of it. With a system like this, though, you also need believable ways to keep it hidden.
  • It’s a tool or trade. Witches and wizards in Harry Potter have access to lots of wondrous tools, like tents with all the comforts of home. However, after the awe factor for the audience, it’s not clear how having access to these wonders really affects wizarding society.  Magical healing would come with tremendous benefits for a world. On the other hand, magic could be the source of control for dictators or tyrants, with an evil sorcerer reigning over the surrounding peasants from a tall, dark tower.

As you answer these questions, also consider big events and advances in our own world and think about where magic might compliment or substitute. Electric lighting is the key to our 24-hour lifestyle. If magic can also create cheap, easy light, it’s unlikely folks in your world will go to bed with the sun. Magical beasts would revolutionize warfare. In Game of Thrones, dragons were what originally allowed the Targaryens to conquer Westeros.

Evidenced by the large variety out there, there are a lot of options when creating a magic system for your fantasy world. As you work through answers to these questions, keep asking more questions and adding connections to make sure your magic system is an integrated part of your world.

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Comments

  1. Oren Ashkenazi

    A lot of good options here for building a magic system. A lot of the option noted above can also be combined for even more variety.

  2. Jack Marshall

    A nice summary of an important topic. Without rules and limits, it’s hard to build tension in fantasy, because the reader can’t clearly see the conflict. We really couldn’t guess the trouble Gandolf was in when facing Saruman, nor for that matter when Harry Potter was facing He Who Should Really Get a Nose… er, Voldemort. At least in the latter the enemy’s advanced power was demonstrated repeatedly, but honestly, the series was carried by pure imagination and weakened by smudgy rules.
    But nothing says good rules can’t still be tiresome. I aborted reading Devon Monk’s “Magic to the Bone” because it just sounded painful. 350 pages of headaches and lost memories didn’t seem like a good time to me.

  3. Quinte

    I think the winds of magic idea in Warhammer where everyone Mage is using magic from the same limited pool is also an interesting approach. I like the idea that you can’t have too many mages in the same area at once, as it makes clever way to handicap mages and explains why you wouldn’t want an army of magic users.

  4. Bronze Dog

    “Whatever limits you set, they should be relevant and immediate.”

    This is one I can certainly agree with. I’ve seen shows like Naruto with supposedly dangerous abilities that shorten the user’s lifespan. It rarely feels meaningful, especially if those powers start to see regular use.