Friday, March 8, 2019

8 Tips for Creating a Compelling Magic System

Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Eragon. Discworld. Narnia. Earthsea.

What am I doing? I'm listing off universes with awesome magic systems.

Why am I doing this? Well, partly because I couldn't think of an interesting hook for this blog post. And partly because magic system creation is the topic of this blog post.

Did the hook work? Are you interested? No? Wrong answer.  I'm going to cast the Imperius curse and make you finish reading this post.

Okay. You're locked in now.

Let's talk about the ins and outs of creating a compelling magic system in your writing:

8 Tips for Creating a Compelling Magic System

1. Find an energy source. It doesn't make sense for your magic to come from just anywhere, right? That's not how energy works. Unless, of course, you want to go super off the beaten path, in which case: Yes! Do it. I applaud you.

However, if you want to make things easier on yourself, it's best to figure out where exactly your magic is coming from....or what exactly your magic is. Is it just energy from the universe? Does it come from living things? Is it connected to the weather? To emotions? If you don't know where the magic comes from, your entire system will fall apart. Also: if you name your magical energy after a poorly disguised reference to mitochondria, I will shoot you with Force lightning.

2. Decide on a moral system. Is there good magic? Bad magic? Or just magic that good people or bad people can use? What makes magic good or bad? Stories are built on conflict, so don't slip up and overlook one of the biggest conflicts of all: The morality of magic. Just like any other weapon, you'll want to look at how it's used and perceived, and what it does to its users.

3. Have answers for the important questions. Readers have come to expect answers to specific questions about a fantasy magic system. These questions often look like this:
  • Who can be a magician? In Harry Potter, you were simply born with magic or you weren't. In Star Wars (yes, I consider the Force magic. Space magic. Sue me), everyone has the ability to tap into the Force, but only a select few actually do so due to knowledge and skill. These are generally the two answers to the "who can use magic" question, but you can think outside the box and do something even more different.
  • How do you become good at magic? Is it practice? Study? Sheer force of will? Does everyone have the same opportunity to be skilled in magic, or is there a bit of a caste system going on? Tell us! 
  • Are there tools involved in spell-casting? Do your magicians use wands? Staffs? Magical orbs? Are spells spoken-word or projected thought or something else? Your readers like these little details, so don't forget to include them. 
4. Set up definitive rules. Without rules, alllll of this falls apart. After all, what's keeping your villain from practicing a ton of magic and then becoming unstoppable? What's stopping your hero from becoming overpowered like Superman, thus lowering story tension?

Gif of McGonagall from Harry Potter shaking her head. Text reads: #mcgonagall does not approve

You need to set up side rails to keep the magic system from getting out of hand. Perhaps there is a limited amount of magical energy in the world. Perhaps using magic makes a person sick. Perhaps you should go home and rethink your magic system. Think about all the ways this magic could end up destroying your plot or character arcs, then set up magic system rules to keep that from happening.

5. Consider modeling it after something in real-life. I know this sounds kind of sketchy, so hear me out. My magic system was inspired by the concept of entropy. I'm a science major, after all, so I figured I might as well put some of my knowledge to use. It's now a lot easier for me to keep track of my magic system because, if I get confused, I can go back to the core concept: Entropy. Modeling the system/energy source/rules off of something real not only grounds you as a writer, but it also gives your magic system a robust feel.

6. Set up a power system. Magic, like any other weapon or commodity, would end up having a political, social, and economical impact. Don't ignore this massive world-building opportunity. Ask yourself: Can magic be used for menial tasks like plowing a field or pumping water? If so, what is the price of this convenience? Do non-magicians lose jobs due to magicians using their powers to accomplish everyday tasks? Can magic be used to heal? To see the future? How much does all of this cost? How does all of this shift the power system?

Loki from Marvel screaming "Tell me!"

Are magicians always in charge because they have a lot of power? Or are they in hiding because magic has a negative connotation? If some magicians can be better than others, then what's stopping a high-powered evil magician from simply taking over your world? If there are non-magical people in the world, how do they respond to and interact with the power the magicians have? Or is magic really not very powerful and thus ridiculed by nonmagical people? There are so many different angles to consider, so take a minute (or eight hundred) to sit back and brainstorm.

7. Don't go with your first idea. If you grew up reading or watching fantasy, you've probably been exposed to a lot of different magic systems over the years. Thus, the first idea for your own magic system is probably an amalgamation of books you've read. Sure, your first idea might be worth a few points for sheer dumb luck, but honestly: It probably isn't that great. At best, it needs refining. At worst, it needs a total overhaul.

8. Remember that you reader doesn't need to know everything. While it's important for you to understand all of the above aspects of your magic system, your reader absolutely does not. If you want to give your magic a wondrous feel, hold back on explaining the technical side of things. If you want your magic system to feel grounded, then focus more on the rules.

However, remember that infodumping is never cool. Besides, do your readers really need to know all the rules and ramifications? No. Make a judgement call as to how much you want to reveal.

What are some of your favorite magic systems? Do you have any tips you'd like to add? Let's chat!

Related articles:
10 Tips for Unique, Creative World-Building
It's Okay to Put Magic in Your Christian Fantasy Stories. Here's Why.
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  1. Loved this post, Hannah!
    I just spent all of last summer refining and working on my magic system so now I'm excited to use what you posted here and go back and tweak it. Thanks for posting!

  2. (Welp, time to go revisit my magic system... again...)
    In all seriousness though, it was good to see that I'm following at least some of these tips (I'm not completely lost after all!). I think the biggest challenge I have is giving magic a cost and keeping that consistent in the story. Since magic is an internal force in my story, using it drains the user of their physical energy. The problem is that it's too easy then to make exhaustion (or lack thereof) plot-convenient. Sigh...

    Sorry, just thinking out loud. Lots of great food for thought in your post though - I'll be keeping this in mind as I write

  3. I have been thinking about how to revamp my magic system for the past few months and this has given me such a good starting point for doing that! Thank you, Hannah!

  4. So excited to continue to follow you on your new path, always loved reading your blog posts and following your adventures.thanks periproductreviews

  5. I definitely needed this article. Thank you, I realized what I need to work on. And I do feel like my magic system is based on other stories, so I’ll try and change it up a bit


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