Worldbuilding

Using Incantations in Your Magic System

The three Sanderson sisters from Hocus Pocus singing on stage

In Hocus Pocus, the Sanderson sisters bespell their targets through song.

Classic fantasy spellcasting wouldn’t be the same without incantations, but they’re challenging to work into a magic system. First, you have to create incantations that sound mysterious rather than silly. Second, language is so variable that it’s difficult to pin down how a specific phrase will affect a spell. If you’re interested in including incantations in your magic system, let’s examine your options.

What Language Should Incantations Be In?

Your choice of language will determine what you’ll need to do to make your incantations feel mysterious and believable.

A Magical Conlang

Like many other fantasy stories, you could invent your own magical language. This approach makes it much easier to explain how speaking the incantation produces a magical effect. So, if you’ll be putting a lot of focus on how magic works in your story or you want to make your magic system as rational as you can, this is a good choice.

Of course, you’ll have to make up a fictional language. Creating a few invented words just to use in spellcasting doesn’t have to be that time-consuming. However, it can be difficult to ensure your invented words don’t sound silly to your audience. You don’t want your incantations to feel like the ones in Eragon, in which the Shade shouts “Garjzla!” to shoot red bolts from his hands.

Thankfully, you probably don’t have to invent specific words if you don’t want to. In many stories, you can summarize magical speaking instead of writing it all out. For instance, you might describe how a character’s speaking the language of water elementals speaks words that sound like a bubbling brook. If you have lots of long incantations, this will also be less boring to readers than seeing a bunch of words they don’t understand.

However, this could become weird if your story makes exactly what magic casters are saying feel important. For instance, a story about a magic school may have the protagonist spend much of the story learning how to speak a magical language. In these cases, the audience may expect to hear some specific words.

Another option that makes avoiding spoken words easy is to express the language through something other than spoken word. Maybe it’s composed entirely of symbols, movements, or music. It’s much easier to draw mysterious-looking symbols, and readers of a narrated work won’t expect to know exactly what symbols or movements look like.

Latin or Another Dead Language

Using a real language that your audience doesn’t know avoids the risk of picking words that look silly. Because Latin in particular has been used for magic so often, it also sounds magical to Western audiences. This means they won’t look as closely at your incantations or think too hard about what their purpose is.

However, using a real language also comes with downsides. For one thing, a few of your readers will inevitably know the language. If you don’t know it and you aren’t careful, you can expect those people to tell everyone else that your incantations are laughable nonsense. But on the plus side, reference materials are available for Latin and many other languages, so looking up a few key words related to your spell usually isn’t difficult.

If you’re not using Latin, you need to examine whether using the language might come off as appropriative or otherwise disrespectful. Latin works great not just because it’s a dead language, but also because it’s the dead language of a powerful Western empire. Pretending that Latin is mysterious and magical doesn’t harm anyone.

With another language, you need to do some homework. Even if the language is dead, there could be living people who consider that language part of their heritage. Depicting the language as magical could exotify those people. This doesn’t mean that only Latin is okay, just that you need to double-check that the language you’re using isn’t sensitive.

Unfortunately, real languages also aren’t a good fit for a story that encourages the audience to think about how its magic works. If you’re using an arbitrary magic system where you specifically define each spell and its precise effect, you could be okay. But once you call attention to spell invention or engineering, audiences will start to wonder why magic only works in Latin. Unless your magic is powered by a Roman god, you’ll have trouble explaining that.

This becomes an issue in Harry Potter, which has arbitrary spells as mentioned. For readers who don’t know Latin, all is well until book five, when we see some records from a student inventing spells. The idea of a student inventing spells feels unbelievable because the mechanics of Potterverse spells don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason, and the Latin incantations are part of that. Somehow, other wizards can repeat a short phrase they don’t understand and get the same newly invented effect. Is inventing a spell just a matter of saying a random Latin word and seeing what happens? If so, why don’t students do that more often? And again, why Latin?

English or the Audience’s Language

If you’re fed up with mysterious languages, you can just write the incantations out so audiences understand. Naturally, the downside of this is that your incantations will be less mysterious, and with the lack of mystery comes more scrutiny. Your incantations could sound silly just because audiences think your wording is awkward or cheesy.

That means that you’ll spend proportionally more effort futzing with the exact wording of each spell to make it sound appropriately magical and avoid embarrassing yourself. If you love writing poetry, this may be a great use of your time. Otherwise, it could be a lot of pressure.

However, your incantations don’t have to rhyme. There are other poetic devices you can use with less effort. Besides poetry, prayers and other ceremonial language are also good inspiration for incantations.

You can also reduce the number of incantations you have to write by reusing phrases. Maybe there’s one phrase that’s always used with fire magic, and another that’s used with water magic. Just keep in mind that this could get repetitive for readers, so summarize these incantations when they’re used frequently or when the spell isn’t as important to the plot.

What Role Do Incantations Fill in Spellwork?

It’s impossible to quantify everything someone could say. That makes incorporating speech into a rational magic system – where the effects of magic can be extrapolated and anticipated – difficult. However, storytellers still have options for doing so.

Commanding Reality

If you’re using a magical conlang, you can say that the language inherently has power over reality. Speak it and it becomes true. Generally, this should come with an explanation that the language was used by the gods to create the world or something similar.

However, you’ll also need to severely limit how much of the language can be used or what it can be used for. Otherwise, you’ll have a system where magic can do literally anything. This freedom may seem fun at first, but people rewinding time and bringing back dead characters will break any plot.

One option is using a true name system like in Le Guin’s Earthsea books. In these cases, the magical language only includes the names of nouns, and these names allow the mage to target that item with magic. Other limits can be placed on what magical effects mages can use on their targets. The downside is that incantations are just one word, which may not be what you want aesthetically.

Magical effects can also be limited by what small portions of the language are known to people, but once your protagonist learns more, it’ll be hard to go back. In all likelihood, you’ll need limits on your magic besides the constraints that come with using the magical language.

Communicating to Magical Beings

If your magic is implemented via an outside intelligence like spirits, demons, elementals, or gods, your spellcaster could simply be speaking to them. In this case, magical effects are based on what those beings can and will do on behalf of the spellcaster. That means that the full range of the language can be used without complicating the magic system.

However, your incantations can still be plot important if your magical beings are finicky about how they’re addressed. Maybe they take everything literally, so your spellcaster must word all their directions carefully. Malicious beings might look for loopholes, and prideful ones might get angry if their proper title and full name aren’t spoken with perfect pronunciation. Perhaps your magical beings still need to be spoken to in a ritualistic manner, allowing you to reuse some of your incantations.

Aiding Concentration or Maintaining Tradition

If you like the aesthetics of incantations but you don’t need them to be plot important, you can also use incantations that don’t influence magic directly. In that case, you’ll need another reason why spellcasters use them.

If the magic requires a lot of concentration from spellcasters, the incantations might help them focus. Perhaps speaking the effect the spell should have helps them imagine that outcome. Alternately, they might come from a long line of spellcasters with traditional incantations, and the repeated association between the incantation and the effect helps. The spellcaster might also have a mantra that helps them enter an altered state of consciousness.

If spellcasting is a religious exercise, it will also feel natural for the spellcaster to speak prayers as a sign of devotion. These types of incantations would probably be skipped if the spellcaster is in an emergency situation and short on time, but otherwise it should be believable.


Sometimes, using an arbitrary magic system is easier. If you create a specific list of spells whose inner workings aren’t revealed, then you can put anything in there without explaining why it’s needed. But then you also have to carefully keep track of spells, plan ahead, and teach your audience about each one. Using a rational system takes care of those problems, and you can still depict witches that chant over a cauldron as they add eye of newt to the brew. You just have to think harder about why they are doing that.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I do like the idea that a spellcaster needs to create their own incantation every time and that they can do everything, provided the formulate it correctly and it rhymes, because that makes ‘poetry’ a secondary skill for every spellcaster to learn.

    Another idea I’ve toyed with every now and then is that the spells only work when they are pronounced correctly and ‘correctly’ in this case means absolutley in the standard pronounciation. That means spellcasters must first overcome whatever dialect or accent they grew up with and must perfectly speak their ‘high’ language at any time they wish to cast. It’s very, very hard to do that and everyone usually has a slightly different pronounciation from the standard, because every area will pronounce certain words or letters or letter combinations differently from standard.

    I always found the spells from “The Dark Eye” (a German RPG system) very nice, because they combined sound bytes with understandable wording. Even many, many years after the last time I looked into a source book, I can still remember the spell for creating a light: Flim, Flam, Flunkel – Licht ins Dunkel. It doesn’t only rhyme, the first words also conjure up light in the mind of the audience. ‘Flim’ not so much, but ‘Flam’ is a shortening of ‘Flamme’ (meaning the same as the English ‘Flame’) and ‘Flunkel’ sounds very much like ‘Funkel’ which is the German word for ‘Glimmer’. The second part says ‘light into darkness’ which simply describes what the spell does.

    • Prince Infidel

      I have to say though, for a native English speaker, Flim Flam Fluunkel sounds really silly. To the point where I’d have trouble taking a story or game seriously if that was a common spell.

      • LeeEsq

        Flim Flam Fluunkel sounds like an over the top name for a villain with a penchant for scams in overly didactic kid’s show.

      • Cay Reet

        It sounds silly to a German speaker, too, but that was the eighties for you…

  2. Arix

    On inventing spells with a magic language, I always thought of it less as ‘inventing’ and more as ‘discovering’. Like, a curious and experimentative mage might think “Okay, so this word means this, and is part of a well-known spell that does X. So if I replace this word for that one, and modify the gestures to reflect the difference, maybe it will do Y instead”, that kind of thing.

  3. Charlotte

    I like what the Mairelon the Magician series by Patricia C. Wrede does with this–you can cast spells in any language you like, but they’re uncontrollable if they’re in one you grew up speaking. So a lot of spells are taught/written in Latin because it’s dead, but (for example) a French wizard could just as easily cast spells in English if they wanted.

  4. Shamanka

    One idea with regards to why incantations are necessary is the one from the Nasuverse (The continuity behind the Fate series of visual novels/video games/anime and manga), where incantations are essentially a form of mantra used for self hypnosis that convinces the mage that what they’re doing is possible despite going against the normal logic of the world. Not only does this fit with the fact that magecraft in this setting is ‘unnatural’ and rejected by Gaia (the embodiment of the planet), it explains why more experienced mages can produce greater effects with shorter or no incantations, as they’ve internalised the fact that ‘this spell is possible’ into their worldview via repetition.

  5. LeeEsq

    The main purpose of incantations is to make magic look like work. Most magic systems in fantasy novels, role playing games, and more like to emphasize that casting magic isn’t easy but really requires training and effort to cast even a relatively simple spell. Saying that a mage character cast fire ball and there was suddenly a lot of charred wood and the smell of burning flesh everywhere takes doesn’t leave the reader, viewer, or player with an idea of the amount of work needed.

  6. Tony

    The planned setting for my urban fantasy and historical fantasy stories runs primarily on divine magic, including various Mesopotamian deities. That pantheon seems relatively safe to write about, as it hasn’t had active worshippers for millennia outside of modern pagan revivals. But were I to include Mesopotamian incantations in such a story, I’d stick to the long-dead Sumerian and Akkadian, as Aramaic is still in use by Mandaeans and Syriac Christians.

    • Tony

      Oh, and as with other magic in my setting, the words aren’t the only necessary component of the ritual.

  7. Rose Embolism

    I like that you went into the background- knowing how and why incantations work is pretty fundamental work that has to be done before one decides on the specific language and structure:

    Here’s a couple more categories for why incantations might be needed:

    Isaac Bonewitz back in the 70s proposed the the whole idea of incantations and rituals was to put the mage in an altered state of consciousness, one where magic could take place. In that case the particulars of the language and incantations might not be as important as the meaning the Magic worker puts into it.

    Operation Chaos had a minor element in this, in that the language for spellcasting had to be “exotic”. In the story, where American sorcery tended to use Latin, there was a mention of foreign exchange students coming over to learn English as a spellcasting language.

    There’s also the idea of magical language as a programming language: it tells exactly the parameters of how the spell is going to be used. Zelazney’s Merlin the Magician books did that, including “hanging” spells, by omitting a few phrases that would be final keys.

    There’s also the idea of Jack Vance where spells are semi-living things, and reciting the words in the spellbook imprinted them into the mind. Which is why a top wizard after decades of study could only memorize six at a time.

    I mean ultimately we’re dealing with the idea that words are magic, that they define reality. Which itself is a fun concept to deal with.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      I have my own idea for why incantations are needed: they help the mage to focus on the spell.

      The language of the incantation doesn’t matter, what matters is that the mage knows what spell they’re supposed to cast with that incantation, so it allows them to focus all their thought and effort on it.

  8. Erynus

    A magic system that needs incantations make the single Silence spell the most powerful of all.
    Also it would mean that mages protects their necks and mouths forever.
    Will a recording of a n incantation works?
    I think the use of incantations depends on the magic system itself, and should be designed accordingly.
    A magic system don’t need to have obvious rules, but need rules no matter what.

    • Kenneth Mackay

      The TV series ‘Fort Salem’ has good examples of these points (their incantations are more sung combinations of notes rather than words, but the principle’s the same).

  9. Brigitta M.

    Still another idea as to how incantations could be used.

    The spell has more than one part:
    1) Informing the powers that be (whether external or internal) that a spell is about to be cast.
    2) What the intent of the spell is/desired end result.
    3) Informing the powers that be that a spell is complete.

    By using this metric and adding in something like rhythm, harmonics, and/or tone as the why and how magic works makes it possible to have either a rational or eclectic magic system overlayed on top of it.

    –Bri

  10. Erynus

    Also, latin is the language of the Good Magic in the West becuase back then, to exorcise demons, they read versicles of the Bible, that was written in latin. In fact it wasn’t the words what defeat the demon, but the Glory of God.
    On the other hand, someone possesed by a demon would “speak in tongues” what means to speak dead or foreign languages.
    It’s like when the ancient greek invented the word barbarian, than later was to meant “foreigner” but in the origin just mean “whoeven don’t speak greek” (all they said sounded as bar bar bar to a greek) as back then, greek was the main language. Romans had spells written in greek and, the same as later times with latin, or now with english, any cultivate roman would speak greek fluently.
    Just remember that Omnia dicta fortiora si dicta latina (Everything sounds more important [said] in latin)

  11. Geovonnie Welch

    This post works well with the 4 rules of fake words, creating a simple language and that one post about colang.

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