Creating Magic Systems

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Writers of speculative fiction—whether fantasy, paranormal, superhero, or science fiction—are dealing with supernatural or hyper-scientific systems that stretch our reality and knowledge of the known.

As writers, our job is to create realities where these systems are understood by the reader and feel natural and integrated into the speculative world. A reader’s immersion requires that our systems are cohesive, logical, and well explained.

Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) refers to these systems, regardless of whether they are fantasy or science fiction, as “magic systems.” Both adhere to the same storytelling principles in order to bring the magic/technology to life.

He distinguishes between “soft magic” and “hard magic” and suggests that they lie on a continuum.

The far end of the soft magic continuum is full of “wonder” and has few rules. The magic users have mysterious abilities and can do whatever they wish with little limitation. Wizards and gods are good examples of characters that tend toward softer magic though they will often be subject to some rules. Rarely is someone with soft magic a main character or they’d simply wave their wands through every obstacle.

Hard magic lies on the other end of the spectrum, and here is where the rules come into play. In this case, the magic becomes an integral plot device in the story. According to Sanderson, an author’s “ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way for the reader depends directly on how well the reader understands the magic.”

So what does the “hard” end of the magic system need for reader understanding?

  1. Origin – What is the source of the magic? Where did it come from? If people have different powers, why?
  1. Simplicity – Some of the best magical systems have very little complexity but a great deal of depth. Magic users have to work to make the system fit their needs.
  1. Limitations – What exactly can the magic do and what can’t it do? Be specific.
  1. Flaws/weaknesses – These are the holes in the magic. What is its foil? When doesn’t it work? Is there a cost to the user?
  1. Tools/Activators – What does the magic need to function? Does it need a special item, something ingested, an initiation, a mutation?
  1. Early introduction – Establish the magic parameters early and foreshadow any change in abilities. Beware of adding magic just when it’s convenient (deux ex machina), especially near the end.

Remember that when crafting a magic system, the limitations and flaws are usually more interesting than the strengths (no different than crafting interesting characters). What the system can’t do is more intriguing than what it can, and it’s the system’s deficiencies that create the challenges and obstacles for the characters.

The number of rules an author employs is what slides the magic system along the continuum. But that’s not the only way soft and hard magic can be blended. Some stories will use hard magic to drive the story, but add little elements of soft magic to increase the sense of wonder.

Magic is no small matter! It will have an impact on the world, nations, cultures, governments, and religions. It will impact power hierarchies, livelihood, family, self-esteem, danger and destiny. Take some time to think about how the presence of magic impacts the overall world. The more your magic system is woven into your world-building, the more real it will feel to the reader.

Happy Writing!

121 thoughts on “Creating Magic Systems

  1. This is fabulous. The two book outlines I actually have are both- well not fantasy -esque , but not in the realm of known reality so this is uber helpful. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. D says:

    An interesting and thorough post that gets everything across clearly. Magic is a very tricky balance to establish. Its really tempting to ignore some of the most interesting aspects of magic to just have it there. But to me the uniqueness and interesting aspects of a world can often come from magic’s impact on religion, culture, and more. Thanks for writing!

    Like

    • I so agree, D, that magic has to be integrated into the culture, religion, and other aspects of world building. How could it not have a profound impact on a society? Thanks for the comment and visit. I’m sorry for the late reply – I just back from vacation. I’ll be over soon to read and follow later this morning as I catch up on comments. 🙂

      Like

  3. Love this! Thanks! Wishing you a happy weekend, D.😃

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Heartafire says:

    Thank you for the pointers…they are magical in themselves! so appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] author blog and she posts interesting articles about writing fantasy (need to design a magic system, anyone?). Her series of posts about deciding to terminate her contract with her previous […]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m bookmarking this one. Fantastic post. 💖

    Liked by 1 person

  7. PoetSpeak says:

    Thanks for this! It shows you don’t need to get bogged down in explanations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely no need to get bogged down. I think in most world-building (of which magic is a part) the author must have a cohesive and consistent world/system. It will come through without having to explain every detail. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and have a great Sunday!

      Like

  8. Adam says:

    Well said. I definitely think Sanderson handles his magic well, particularly in regards to the limitations, preparations, and consequences. I remember one article that pointed out that the Matrix’s concept of “The One” only works because a single character has all that power, in contrast with multiple magic/power users.

    It’s interesting how villains are often the most forgiven. A vampire or another type of monster can transform into smoke or appear at any moment, but the hero has to be much more circumscribed. Of course in some instances audiences still wonder “Why doesn’t the villain use that ability again?”, but it’s rarely as narrative ruining as an inconsistent set of abilities for the hero.

    The distinction between hard and soft magic systems is also interesting. Most of the soft magic I can think of involve tertiary characters or races who have vast power, but also have fairly firm rules about not interfering with the conflict(s) of the protagonist, ranging from personal reasons, culture, or religious edicts. Tom Bombadil would be a great example, incredibly powerful, but thoroughly indifferent to the troubles of Middle-Earth.

    Thank you for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sanderson also points out that the all-powerful “soft” magic user is often a god or villian that the protagonists need to outsmart of out-maneuver. Gandalf is one good guy that had to be off doing other things so that everyone else could keep getting into trouble. There are so many ways to handle it…as long as its handled. One of the challenges as a writer is going through each scene and asking, “why doesn’t the person just use her/his power here?” For me, consistency is critical for believability. My husband doesn’t like to watch movies with me because I’m always pointing out those glitches. “If he’s so strong, why doesn’t he bust down the door? Etc.” Thanks for adding to the discussion. 🙂 Happy Writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Roseylinn says:

    Those are good tips. As a reader I like to know the characters limitations with their magic. I also expect an author to be consistent with them; or have a good explanation as to how and why they changed mid book. What I don’t care for is magical abilities changing to fit the situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you on that, Roseylinn. Anything that pops me out of the reality of the story is disappointing. All these rules should be invisible to the reader and the magic should just flow as if it’s real! Happy Weekend. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Whoa, you’ve got me thinking hard here, Diana. Weirdly, I was thinking about the magic in my (and all of our) “real” lives as I read your post the first time. Because, I think there’s “magic” all around us, but we just don’t know what to look for, or what the “rules” are. Now I’m re-reading the post for writing speculative fiction. As I said…you’ve got me thinking. Love all of this – thanks. xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh! I like where your mind wanders, Pam. I have no idea what the magic rules are in real life, or if there are any, or if we’ll ever know! Real life seems way over on the “soft” side, …full of “wonder.” For fiction, it’s another story. Even Cinderella’s Godmother had rules 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  11. dgkaye says:

    Although I’m not a writer of fiction and yet, enjoy reading it, it was nice to learn about some the writing elements regarding the use of magic. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] via Creating Magic Systems — Myths of the Mirror […]

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  13. This is incredibly useful. Thank you so much for sharing, Diana. I’m going to add this to my favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, good, Lisa. I’m glad you found it helpful. The more I write, the more I discover how complex this craft is – so much to learn and think about. I need checklists, and this one has come in handy. Happy Writing. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  14. bpsenapati says:

    Magic! I love the word. Great description how to built a character with some power. Thanks to share your experience, Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Erika Beebe says:

    I love this post! Are you sure you didn’t write it for me? Lol! I love the questions you pose, especially in Regards to limitations and tools. Lovely picture too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Not for you, Erika – for all of us. 😀 (And I needed something quick to post!) Magic is a unique part of writing speculative fiction that other genres don’t have to deal with, and I love reminders/checklists as I world-build. The soft to hard magic continuum is just that – one end not better than the other and all with their challenges as we puzzle them together. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Lana_SHON says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  17. Ali Isaac says:

    Excellent post, Diana! Its too easy to use a little magic to make something happen in a story. Its not convincing, or satisfying for the reader. The character still has to be the main focus, and his/ her struggles along the way are what keeps me reading. If they overcome some obstacle through growth of character when they could have used magic is far more exciting to me! Having said that, I do love a bit of magic, as you know. 😊 Just think of Gandalf’s wizard battles, and Harry’s. The world would be a poorer place without them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point, Ali. Character comes
      first. Magic is a “plot device”that supports the character’s journey. The coolest magic is nothing without the character wielding it as part of the plot. Thanks for the great comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Great post, Diana! I find often the rules are the most interesting part of the magic, and how the character has to figure out how to work around them. When I think about the many fantasy books I’ve read, they’ve all had rules that limited the character’s ability to get through the obstacle. Piers Anthony always had interesting rules in both his Juxtaposition series and the Xanth series. The rules in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series are realistic in the context of the story, as are the ones in Jim Butcher’s Dresden series. And when you mention “magic rules” in sci-fi, I can’t help but think of Star Trek, and all those things Scottie said couldn’t be done, but managed to do anyway–talk about bending the rules 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Always informative and helpful posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Steven Baird says:

    A very interesting post, Diana. Though speculative fiction isn’t something I write, I totally get the rules you’re talking about and found this fascinating. I always come away with something from this blog. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Me says:

    Oh God you’re an author and that is your book!!! Omg omg. I’m such a dumb head to not to have noticed the name before. I’ve gone through many of your posts many many times. I just Googled you a couple of minutes ago and voila!! Omg thankss a million for liking my posts. It is such an honour. Thanks again!
    From Me ☺
    P.S. I’m making a mental note to read your books soon for sure! I liked your excerpt.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. A.S. Akkalon says:

    Thanks for the great post. I think I have elements of hard and soft magic in my story; it’s certainly not “anything goes”. What I struggle most with is keeping the difficulty of a magical act consistent throughout the plot. It’s too easy to have a character perform magical act A at one point and have it totally incapacitate them for days, then to do something similar at a different time and shrug off the effects after a momentary dizziness. Why would I do this? Because it helps so much with the plot! But no, I’m aware of temptation, and I need to come up with better plot solutions that don’t require my magic to be inconsistent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is really challenging, Alecia, and quite different from any reality-based writing. It’s great that you notice the inconsistency, and yes, there needs to be a way around it. I mentioned in another comment, that one of the things I have to do with most scenes is ask myself, why doesn’t the character just use magic to get out of this situation? And then, either have them use it or find a plausible reason why they don’t or can’t. It’s work!

      Liked by 1 person

  23. Well articulated as always, Diana. Have you watched Sanderson’s youtube videos on the subject? If not, I highly recommend them. They’re fascinating, and they’re free. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’ve watched the whole series, Cathleen. Twice! It’s great – every fantasy writers “Must Watch.” I love his discussion of magic systems and world-building and try to apply the principles in my own writing. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Awesome article, Diana!

    I recall the theatrical cut of Superman II, where Superman kept exhibiting new, theretofore unknown powers in scene after scene. In the DVD commentary track, the producers justified this by saying, “Yeah — he’s Superman. There’s no limit to the number of powers he can keep coming out with!”

    Wrong. The idea behind a character with some kind of magical abilities or superpowers is that you define the parameters of those powers, and then you have fun coming up with new and inventive permutations of them — new ways to use them. What you don’t do is “make it up as you go along,” because then the magic isn’t believable — it’s just an all-powerful contrivance that can solve any problem the author finds himself backed into, what is also known as Double Mumbo Jumbo. (Fortunately this was rectified in Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.)

    Magic has to have rules and limitations if it’s to have any meaning. Set the rules but play by them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Sean. There are plenty of variatons when playing with magic, but these cover the main elements of not only believable magic but interesting magic. I’m disappointed by books and movies that introduce something new in the last ten minutes that completely fixes the problem for the characters. Superman II is a perfect example of what to avoid. Super-duper “unlimited” powers are okay if they create new problems for the character when they’re used (leave him unconscious for hours or kill everyone within a certain radius). So many lovely options to make life hard in our books! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Erik says:

      I think the Flash is a character who pushes the limits on new powers and yet still maintains a rule set (e.g., first it’s just speed, but later he breaks through the space-time continuum and time jumps, or he vibrates his own molecules at a fast enough rate to phase through objects, etc.).

      Liked by 2 people

      • It works if the writer has prepared the reader for his breakthroughs. Plus, in what you describe, his power enhancements are related – a natural evolution related to speed. What wouldn’t work as well would be if he suddenly developed x-ray vision just in the knick of time. 😀

        Liked by 2 people

      • Agreed, Erik. That works because it was an extension — a new but entirely logical permutation — of an established power. It wasn’t that the Flash suddenly developed a new ability, simply a new way of using an old one.

        Liked by 2 people

  25. Christy B says:

    Bring on the speculative fiction! I love to read it (and so many other genres). When it’s done right, it’s amazing. Thanks for telling us about hard/soft magic, Diana 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Christy. I’m with you about reading any genre when well written…it almost doesn’t matter. Happy Poeting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Erik says:

        Yes, I feel this way about music, cuisine, art, movies … pretty much everything. If it’s done well, I’m in. If it isn’t, no matter how many other people may have endorsed it or raved about it, or which notable person had a hand in it … I’m just not buying it.

        Liked by 2 people

  26. I don’t write fantasy (or magic), but that was fascinating. I do write about AIs and can see that those guidelines would probably help me with my topic. Excellent post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The same rules apply to sci-fi (hyper-science). Otto needs to have a bit of a history (which you’ve already established), things he can and can’t do, a way of being operated, and consistency. It would be interesting if he has a flaw (overheats, a sticky key, or likes to sing show tunes). Ha! Happy Writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  27. Great post, Diana. My hat goes off to you and the authors who write using supernatural or futuristic elements.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s all just fun, Mary. But there is some crafting behind it to make the extraordinary seem ordinary. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Writing!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Erik says:

        “Some crafting,” indeed. Your ability to “make the extraordinary seem ordinary” is one of the many things that makes your books page-turners; nothing hokey or implausible distracts from the flow.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks so much, Eric. One of the most rigorous parts is asking with each scene, why doesn’t the character just use their power to get out of trouble/danger? A character that can turn invisible, for example, can get out of a lot of situations. The author needs a plausible reason why he chooses not to or can’t.

          Liked by 2 people

  28. Mike says:

    Thank you for the timely post. It’s useful to draw a distinction between soft and hard magic in fantasy, just as it’s useful to do so for sci-fi. One’s not necessarily better than the other, but keeping the categories in mind helps the author to be consistent, and the reader to better comprehend the world the author has created.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly. Gandalf is a perfect example of soft magic with few rules (a reason he is not in scenes where major things go wrong). Harry Potter is on the hard side of magic, but the stories have soft elements. Sanderson’s magic is very rules based. You’re right that consistency is extremely important in every case. I’m glad it was timely! Happy Writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  29. These points are definitely food for thought. It is most interesting to see how writing about magic should be broken down and packaged.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a little different than writing about things that happen in the “real” world, Robbie, where so much is already understood and therefore can be taken for granted. But the creativity is a blast once committed to it. Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  30. Sheron says:

    A clear and easy to understand outline of how to incorporate different systems of magic into your work. Nice job.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Allie P. says:

    World building definitely is not as easy as you think it will be when you first are getting started.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. Wise words! I find the real challenge in building a new world, whether magic or tech, is to reveal it in such a way that it isn’t a narrator’s info-dump on the reader. Lots of exposition gets boring fast, and the best way to show the way the world works is to have characters interact with it. The best stories I’ve read have introduced magic/tech subtly and naturally. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree. There is so much info to get out there, and info dumps are so dull. Having the character interact with the environment or use the technology/ magic is a great way to show. It’s also helpful to introduce elements of the world in context as the information is needed versus in a big “lesson” up front. I find that readers are more astute than authors give them credit, and a phrase slipped in here and there does a lot of work. Thanks for adding to the conversation 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Erik says:

        This is something you do extremely well, Diana. While there are times when dialog reveals the rules (perhaps through teaching a magical discipline to a novice or where a character explains what parts of the magic he is very good and not so great with), you also have people stumble into it, explore it, test it … sometimes with drastic consequences. It’s like “I wonder if I could …. yup! And I just killed a bunch of people in the process!”

        Liked by 2 people

  33. adeleulnais says:

    A great post, enjoyed reading this. I love creating magical systems and as you say, the flaws are often the best part. xx

    Liked by 2 people

  34. balroop2013 says:

    The world of magic is very alluring till it becomes dark and violent but I guess it has to intensify to keep the reader glued to a book. Yes, magic is no small matter as it has been growing to unimaginable proportions! Thanks for being magical Diana. Stay blessed!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for reading, Balroop. Magic doesn’t necessarily need to be dark and violent, but it needs to feel real in order to keep a reader engaged – like most elements of a book. Because it’s “fantastical” (not already understood by the reader) writers need to work a little more methodically toward that end. Have a great day and Happy Writing!

      Liked by 3 people

  35. Terrific post, Diana. I had not seen Sanderson’s essay (interview, whatever) on this topic, but I have to agree. Hopefully readers new to fantasy will see this — it would be very helpful to them.
    Mega hugs.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Teagan. To readers, this should mostly be invisible, but for writers, it’s something to keep in mind. Your writing strikes me a full of “wonder” and you have a talent for making it work beautifully (by establishing the rules and subtly hiding them from the reader). That’s not easy to do. 🙂 Hugs back at you!

      Liked by 2 people

  36. For me, it’s all in the writing at first. You have to be able to capture me, tie me up in my chair and don’t allow me to get up. Surprise me. I don’t want to feel that I am re-reading something that I have read before -even if it’s just bits and pieces.

    Too much explanation in a fictional or “magical” book often turns me off. To me, it’s not important how the dragon egg got there, I want to know what happens next. I want to step into the unknown without looking back. I hope any of this makes sense.

    Liked by 3 people

  37. babbitman says:

    Absolutely! ‘Magic’ or ‘superpowers’ or even hugely advanced scientific civilizations have to have context and limitations. Superman without kryptonite is a very dull story.
    And most importantly, don’t suddenly introduce something from outside the established context in order to save the day. That’s cheating.
    🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Exactly, Nick. It’s the vulnerabilities, the holes in the power, that create the tension. And yes, one of the biggest mistakes is introducing a skill or power or technology out of the blue at the last minute to save the day. It can kill a book.

      Liked by 2 people

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