The Massive Guide on How to Build a Magic System
Imagine a world where magic exists. A world where mysticism is imbued in everyday objects, where spells are cast to make our lives easier (or, for our enemies, more difficult). A world where the very air tingles with power and possibility.
I know you’ve got some image in your brain, something pulled from the threads of your imagination and woven into an incredible, fantastical world. Of course you do: you want to bring that world to life.
And one of the most important parts of any fantasy worldbuilding is its magic system.
Magic is the crux of the fantasy genre. Yes, there are one or two subgenres that don’t use magic, but most fantasy novels have magic in them, and the best of them have well-crafted, meaningful, and complex magic systems.
Guess what? We’re going to figure out how to make your very own well-crafted, meaningful, and complex magic system. All those great ideas floating around in your head are going to be mashed together into something incredible and—for your readers—something enthralling.
To make this fantasy a reality, we’re going to dive deep into:
- Understanding the fundamentals of magic systems
- Elements of a good magic system
- The six steps to creating your own magical framework
- Some bonus tips for writing magic
A quick note before we get started: this is a hefty guide. I’m talking a witch’s grimoire worth of content. So bookmark it for later, read through it, and revisit this guide whenever you need to.
Now, without further ado, let’s figure out how to build a magic system.
Understanding the Fundamentals
First, we need to get our foundation laid. There’s no point in getting into the nitty gritty of magic systems if we don’t understand the fundamentals first, right?
Because, as vast as magic can be in your world, it needs to be understood by both you and—at least to a certain extent—your readers. Underneath all the flash and pizzazz (the scientific term for how cool magic is), we need to know how the gears turn.
Defining a Magic System
I’ve mentioned the term a lot so far, but what the heck is a magic system anyway?
A magic system is the entirety of the rules, abilities, restrictions, and other details which determine how the magic in your world works. It is the who, what, where, when, why, and how all combined into something structured and logical.
I know “structured and logical” seems out of place when describing the mystical, but that’s the trick good fantasy authors know: understanding exactly how your magic works is critical to effectively writing it into your story.
That starts by understanding those big three elements—rules, abilities, and restrictions—and how they come together to make your magic work.
Rules are the laws that govern your magic. These are the who, where, when, and how of your system.
Abilities are the things your magic makes possible. These are the whats of your system.
Limitations are the least tangible yet most critical part of your system. Unlike the other two elements, this is what cannot be accomplished in your magic system: who can’t use it, what it can’t be used for, and what prevents it from superseding everything else in the world and instilling a tyrannical dictatorship?
Abilities are the fun part, rules are the guidelines, and limitations are the important boundaries. We’ll be talking about all three of these elements throughout the rest of this guide, don’t you worry.
Before that, I want to discuss another high-level element of magic systems.
Hard Magic Systems vs. Soft Magic Systems
While you’re planning out how spells and enchantments work in your world, you have a decision to make: will your story have hard or soft magic.
These terms specifically refer to the rules surrounding your mystic arts.
In hard magic systems, the rules, abilities, and limitations are explicitly defined and (mostly) always adhered to. The reader and characters know what magic can do, who can use it, and what those people have to do in order to make it work.
Hard magic is predictable, but not in a bad way. It becomes a tool that is understood, so it makes sense to the reader when it’s used. Heck, they might even feel proud when they shout, “Use the fiery boom spell!” when reading a particular scene.
That sort of understanding promotes engagement with your story as a whole, including the characters who use magic. It also clearly states what magic can’t do, so your readers aren’t left wondering why a simple spell didn’t fix a situation.
Or they are reeling when the villain does something that should be magically illegal. For the record, that’s why I put the awkward “(mostly) always” above.
Soft magic systems, on the other hand, are the opposite. With these spells and other wondrous effects, the rules are loosey-goosey, if they exist at all. Soft magic leaves a lot to the imagination, but authors of this kind of magic do so intentionally.
Why? Well, I’m so glad you asked.
Because your readers don’t know exactly how your magic works, you up the ante when it comes to a sense of awe and wonder. You can do more with your rituals and spells, operating with few limitations (though that makes magic harder for characters to wield) and playing around with new ideas.
Not only does this make for incredible displays of the supernatural, but it makes magic unpredictable for your readers. When you use it, you use it.
As Uncle Ben says on his many deathbeds (at least in some stories), though, with great power comes great responsibility. Soft magic systems provide you with a big sandbox to play in; as an author, it’s still your responsibility to know where the boundaries of that sandbox are and what you can build with that sand.
In other words, you need to know the rules, abilities, and limits behind your soft magic systems, even if your readers never will.
Bonus: Many authors operate in a gray area, using hard magic systems that are broken or coexisting with soft magic. As I mentioned before, soft magic often comes into play when the villains can do something outside the established rules, but this hybrid approach could also include ancient, unknown magic or particular rituals and spells that take a lot of work but aren’t bound by the normal rules.
Using a hybrid approach can be incredible, but always remember to understand your own machinations.
The Role of Magic in Storytelling
Now for some bad news: magic isn’t just for making explosive, awe-inspiring, world-ending spells in your stories.
*Cue sad trumpet*
But, if you’ve read any of the hundreds of free articles we have over at DabbleU, you know that’s usually the case with any element of storytelling; everything is tied together to create the masterpiece that is your novel.
That means that when you’re crafting your own magic system, you have to think about its bigger role in your story.
Realistically, the role of magic in your world boils down to a few options.
As a plot device - Contrary to what I just said, this is more along the lines of making explosive, awe-inspiring, world-ending spells in your stories. Good stories make it more than that, though. Perhaps the protagonists need to find the components of a forgotten spell or destroy a witch’s grimoire to stop a ritual.
If magic is in your world, it affects everything. Odds are, it affects your plot, too. Take some time to consider how deeply it’s entwined with your main plot or subplots.
As a symbol or metaphor - What if magic is only available to the ruling elite, and anyone in the slums caught practicing magic is locked away or killed? What if the source of your mage’s power is tied to nature, and that connection is waning as we continue to pollute and destroy the planet?
Magic can act as a powerful symbol or metaphor to drive home particular themes you want to share. As always, when it comes to themes, though, weave your spells subtly and don’t beat your message over the reader’s head.
As a part of character arcs - This is sort of like a plot device, but your magic systems can be directly tied to your character arcs. Understanding and controlling magic might be their ultimate goal, or magic might be the cause of the Ghost that skews their view of the world.
Or magic is just a tool to help them get from point A to point B. Or it gets in the way.
In our fantasy world, these spells and cursed items and ancient scrolls are all things. They exist and can be used, pursued, guarded, forbidden, taught, sung, conjured, stored, augmented, weaponized, politicized, and a lot more verbs I don’t want to bore you with. So use them to affect your character’s story.
Magic Worldbuilding in Fantasy: Why It Matters
I want to make one more stop in Theory Town before we get into the juicy parts of magic (aka how you raise the dead, call on aid from deities, imbue ancient relics, etc.). I promise it’s worth it, though.
Remember a couple paragraphs ago when I said magic affects everything? I seriously mean EVERYTHING. I can’t think of more formatting to add to that word to make it stand out further.
But this cannot be understated. If magic exists in a world, it changes the game. Think about our modern society’s use of computers. I know it’s not magic, but a century ago it would have been.
From smartphones to running TikTok to grocery shopping to sending spaceships into orbit and beyond, computers and the tech powered by them touch every aspect of modern life. Heck, even things deliberately designed not to include them only exist in spite of computers.
And, for most fantasy settings, magic can do more than what our computers can do.
It doesn’t matter if you’re using a hard magic system or a soft magic system, it all has an effect.
A church suddenly isn’t just a place of worship but a conduit of regularly occurring miracles or a training ground for holy magic warriors.
Merchants might not just need to watch out for pickpockets and street urchins who are incredibly adept at thievery but spells that can whisk their wares away without anyone being around.
We have a complete worldbuilding guide over here with more than ten different categories to think of. One of those categories is magic itself, but you need to approach all the others through the lens of magic, too. These are:
- Geography and environment
- Flora and fauna
- Cultures and societies
- Important people
- Religion and beliefs
- Art and entertainment
Even if your own magic system isn’t directly tied to an aspect of your worldbuilding, it will eventually impact it in some way.
Take geography, for example. Magic may not have shaped the terrain in a particular region (though it might have), but how has it affected it since? Is magic used in mining or exploiting resources? Terraforming? Establishing settlements? Transportation? Was a war fought here with devastating magic?
This is especially important for society and culture, as these will be the most obvious elements your readers will see throughout your story.
No matter what, be intentional with your worldbuilding: ask yourself how your magic has influenced your world and what that means for your characters and your plot.
Elements of a Magic System
As promised, it’s time to get into the juicy parts. And I promise that’s the last time I’ll use that term in this guide.
We are getting to the most fun parts of magic, though. The next handful of sections will largely cover the abilities and rules of your magic system: what kind of powers it includes, who can cast it, and where the magic comes from. Then we’ll talk about limitations you can impose on your system to make it balanced and, as you’ll see, memorable.
I want to point out, before we get too much further, that my lists of types of magic, magic users, and sources of magic will be as comprehensive as I can get, but they won’t be exhaustive. There will always be another item that can be added to these lists… heck, we’re talking about magic, so you could just make up something brand new that I haven’t included.
That said, use these next few sections as equal parts information and inspiration. Take the info you need, but harness the creative juices they squeeze out.
Okay, that was really the last time, I promise. Let’s talk magic.
Types of Magic
Up first, types of magic. There’s nothing saying your magic system can only use one type of magic; in fact, some of the best systems out there blend or borrow from multiple schools of spellcasting.
They might share common characteristics, too. A pyromancer might manipulate fire in the same way a sanguimancer manipulates blood, but one is using elemental magic and the other is using blood magic.
You also aren’t restrained by this terminology or categorization—again, information and inspiration. I will be using common, if not the most common, nomenclature, though.
Odds are, elemental magic is the most well-known kind of spell casting. Wielding this power involves harnessing or creating natural elements and using them to incredible effect.
The elements you use can vary and are usually based on what your characters and their societies define as elemental. Aristotelian physics, named after the philosopher Aristotle, believes our world is composed of four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and a fifth element, aether, makes up the universe beyond Earth.
These four terrestrial elements are the most popular when it comes to referencing elemental magic, but that’s not all the options. My Naruto fans out there will know this already, but the popular manga includes lightning in its standard nature transformations (adding elemental power to your “magic”), and all five elements can be combined to create more options: ice is a combination of water and wind, wood is a combination of water and earth, dust is a combination of fire, earth, and wind transformations.
What’s important for your elemental magic system is that the power is an expression of natural powers or controls them.
To round things off, here are some benefits to using elemental magic in your system:
- Versatility - Elemental magic gives you a lot of options. Spellcasters may be restrained to or specialize in a particular element, or some may have the ability to wield them all, giving them a Swiss army knife of magical power.
- Familiarity - Any fantasy fan worth their salt has encountered some form of elemental magic before. We understand the elements, so you can spend less time explaining the power being wielded and more time showing it off.
- Themes and symbolism- Many elements have been tied to specific messages or ideas over the years: fire belongs to short-tempered, feisty mages; water embraces change and goes with the flow, earth is calm and strong, with deep roots in its community. You can use these themes to convey powerful messages in your story.
While elemental magic is easy to imagine, ritualistic magic is a bit more abstract. This style of spellcasting isn’t so much about the what as it is about the how.
It’s in the name, right? Ritualistic magic is conjured through specific rituals that could involve necessary components, diagrams and sigils, incantations, timing, people present, where the ritual is taking place, etc.
Rituals are almost tailor-made for soft magic systems, too, even though they tend to have strict rules around them. That’s because the spell’s effect once those prerequisites are met is usually so grand in scale or unique that they defy the other rules you have established. And they do that without making it feel cheap or out of place because you’ve put such an emphasis on setting up the spell.
That said, rituals should still tie into your existing magic system somehow, even if it bends the rules.
Just like before, here are some benefits of using ritualistic magic in your story.
- Possibilities - Ritualistic magic opens up a whole new world of potential spell outcomes that the more common abilities in your magic system don’t have access to.
- Plot device - Because rituals can bring about such unique results, they are great plot devices for your story. This can create a race against the clock to stop a ritual or questing for the knowledge and components to conduct one.
- Immersion - On the other hand, small rituals can go a long way in adding depth to your world. If your protagonist needs to recall an old memory and finds someone who can perform a dreamwalking ritual, suddenly your world has dreamwalkers in it and everything that goes along with that lore.
In the intricate weaves of magic, divine magic stands as a shining thread, drawing its strength from celestial beings or higher realms. Unlike the elemental force that resonates with the tangible world or the procedures of ritualistic magic, divine magic delves into the spiritual connection between mortals and the divine.
This connection might be through a benevolent deity, the whispered wishes of ancestral spirits, or even the intercessions of lesser celestial or infernal beings.
One intriguing facet of divine magic is that it often intertwines with the faith and devotion of its users. A paladin might invoke the might of their god to smite down enemies, while a priestess might channel the blessings of a goddess to heal the wounded.
Yet, the scope of divine magic isn’t confined to D&D-style combat or restoration. Many times, divine spellcasters draw upon their connection to foresee the future, bless crops, or even curse a blasphemer.
But the real beauty of divine magic lies in its inherent ambiguity. Unlike elemental or ritualistic magic, which often has a concrete source or procedure, divine magic thrives on the belief of its users. The same spell might vary in strength depending on the conviction of the caster or the favor of their deity.
To further cast a godly light on this school of spell casting, here are some benefits to integrating divine magic into your system:
- Moral and ethical exploration - Divine magic allows for a deep dive into questions of morality, ethics, and faith. It offers opportunities to explore the dilemmas faced by characters who must choose between their own desires and the decrees of their deities.
- Dynamic character relationships - With divine magic, you introduce a unique relationship dynamic between the magic users and their divine patrons. This can be a source of internal conflict, growth, and story arcs as characters navigate the expectations of their deities and their own personal journeys.
- Cultural and societal depth - By incorporating divine magic, you can craft intricate religious systems, pilgrimages, and ceremonies. These can become cornerstones of cultures in your world, leading to festivals, conflicts, and societal norms centered around divine magic and its practitioners.
Let’s get a little grimmer and talk about blood magic, a force both potent and controversial in the tomes of magic systems.
Tapping into the very essence of mortality, this form of magic transcends the mundane to access the intrinsic power contained within the life force. Blood, being the conduit of life and vitality, holds unparalleled energy in some stories, and manipulating it can yield results that are as astonishing as they are treacherous.
I also want to include another school of magic under this category: necromancy. While blood magic delves into the ebb and flow of the living, necromancy ventures a step further, touching the shadowy realm of the dead. A necromancer might communicate with spirits, raise the deceased to form an undead army, or even tether souls to achieve particular goals.
There’s an association between blood magic and necromancy which underscores the fundamental connection between life and death. They are two sides of the same coin, and mastering one often means understanding the other.
However, the potency of blood magic, especially when intertwined with necromancy, doesn’t come without its risks. Dabbling in such arts can exact a heavy toll, both physically and spiritually. Blood rituals might demand sacrifices or the caster’s own vitality, while necromancy often courts the wrath of restless spirits or breaches the natural order of life and death.
Considering such depth, here are some benefits to infusing blood magic (inclusive of necromancy) into your narrative:
- Moral complexity - Blood magic, especially with its ties to necromancy, provides a fertile ground for moral dilemmas. Characters might grapple with the ethics of sacrificing for greater power or the implications of disturbing the rest of the dead. This is especially true when you’re using blood that isn’t your own.
- High stakes and consequences - Given the inherent risks of messing with life and death, the stakes when using blood magic are naturally elevated. This can lead to tense, gripping narrative arcs where characters face severe consequences for their magical choices.
- Rich lore and history - Blood magic and necromancy often come with a storied past, allowing you to craft ancient rituals, forbidden texts, and long-lost civilizations that once mastered these arts. Use this magic to add layers of history and mystery to your world.
Venturing into the realm of chaos magic is plunging into the unpredictable maelstrom of creation and entropy itself. This brand of magic is wild, untamed, and fundamentally linked to the very forces of randomness and unpredictability.
Unlike the order and structure found in other magical disciplines, chaos magic revels in the unexpected, often yielding outcomes that even its practitioners cannot entirely foresee.
Where other magical systems draw on the known to generate a specific outcome, chaos magic draws from the tumultuous energy of the universe. It’s the brushstroke of an abstract painter, the melody of an improvisational musician. Its manifestations can range from spontaneous firestorms to sudden temporal shifts, from inexplicable matter transmutations to unpredictable creature summonings.
Yet, for all its volatility, chaos magic isn’t merely about random outcomes. A true chaos mage seeks to understand and dance with the universe’s unpredictable rhythms, to find purpose in seeming randomness and to mold uncertainty into a form of art.
Such a dynamic magic form offers a plethora of narrative benefits:
- Narrative unpredictability - By its very nature, chaos magic introduces an element of surprise to your story. Even the most astute readers might find themselves taken aback by its manifestations, ensuring an always-engaging read.
- Character development opportunities - Wielding chaos magic demands a unique mindset. Characters who practice or are affected by it may undergo significant growth, learning to embrace uncertainty, adapt on the fly, and find solace in the unpredictable.
- Thematic depth - Chaos magic can be a potent metaphor for life’s unpredictabilities, the challenges of adapting to change, or the scale of the unknown universe. Through its lens, you can explore profound themes about the nature of existence, fate versus free will, and the pursuit of understanding in an ever-changing world.
Other Types of Magic You Might Use
Remember when I said this wasn’t an exhaustive list? Well, I’m still going to try my best.
Here is a quick look at some of the other types of magic you can integrate into your fictional world:
Psionics - This involves harnessing the power of the mind for telekinesis, telepathy, and other mental manipulations. It’s often seen in settings where the line between science fiction and fantasy blurs and questions the limits of consciousness and cognition.
Alchemy - Not just for turning lead into gold! Alchemy often involves the transmutation of materials or the quest for eternal life. It’s as much about the philosophical and spiritual journey as the physical transformations.
Nature or druidic magic - Rooted in the rhythms of nature, this form involves communing with animals, plants, and the elements. Think druids, shamans, and other nature-bound casters.
Symbolic or rune magic - Drawing or inscribing symbols and runes that hold power. The mere act of inscribing or invoking these symbols can bring about magical effects.
Technomancy or techno-wizardry - Try blending magic with technology. Spells might be coded, enchanted items might be gadgets, and power sources could be both arcane and electronic.
Animism or totem magic - Drawing power from spirits present in objects, animals, or even the environment. Practitioners often have guardian spirits or totems from which they derive strength. Note: don’t lean into harmful stereotypes or clichés when using this kind of magic.
Illusion magic - Rather than altering reality, this type manipulates perceptions, creating false sensory experiences to deceive, entertain, or protect.
Wards and seals - Defensive magic that creates barriers, seals away evil, or traps entities. It can also be used to lock away or protect precious items or memories.
Realistically, magic in a fantasy story is limited only by your imagination. With all you’ve read, what kind of magic do you think will exist in your fictional world?
Magic Users and Their Abilities
In many cases, the magic you include in your worldbuilding will inform some or all of the types of people who can use that magic.
Clerics, paladins, and priests use divine magic.
Technomages use technomancy.
People who use necromancy listen to My Chemical Romance. (Relax, I belt out Welcome to the Black Parade every time I hear that first iconic note… and apparently the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber agrees with me.)
However, those rules aren’t necessarily written in stone. You make the rules, after all, so you need to decide who can use what magic. That’s why I’m going to provide you with nine well-known magic users and the general abilities that come with their titles.
As you read through these options, think about which ones will vibe best with your story's magic system, and the fictional world you are creating.
Quick tip: If you want more information about these spell casters, check out our full article here that expands on each one.
Alchemists - These scholars walk the edge of science and magic, merging both realms. Alchemy, an ancient precursor to actual chemistry, was once obsessed with turning base metals into gold. In modern tales, alchemists aren’t limited to metal transformation; they craft magical potions and poisons, from love elixirs to memory-erasing concoctions. Some might even use alchemy to enhance their knowledge and morph their physical form.
Clerics and religious magic users - Deriving their power from higher entities, clerics and their kin wield divine magic. Their powers are manifestations of their deities’ intentions. A benevolent deity might grant healing abilities, while a storm goddess bestows control over weather elements. A devout relationship with their deity is crucial; waning faith could result in revoked powers.
Djinns - Rooted in various mythologies, djinns are fascinating, human-like entities with their customs and desires. They may possess abilities ranging from shapeshifting to possessing humans to foreseeing futures to casting curses. Remember, not all djinns grant wishes; that’s more typical of divs from Persian myths. Their moral compass varies, with both benevolent and malicious djinns in existence. While incorporating djinns, ensure you acknowledge their diverse cultural contexts, as some people genuinely believe in their existence.
Druids - Druids epitomize nature’s magic. Their powers encompass animal communication, potion-making using plants, and elemental manipulation. The key to understanding druids is partnership. They thrive in harmony with the environment, often condemning unnatural constructs. But, as with all magic users, rogue druids may exploit nature for darker intentions.
Mages - Unlike innate magic users, mages acquire their skills. Their powers come from intense study and comprehension. “Mage” hints at a profession, perhaps a sought-after role in kingdoms or scholarly institutions. Historically gender-neutral, mages can be anyone dedicated enough to learn the arcane.
Magicians - On the magic spectrum’s other end, magicians are performers, often using sleight of hand rather than actual magic. They might be perceived as charlatans by genuine magic wielders but can be revered by common folk. A blend of real magic with their tricks can make for intriguing characters driven by ambition or manipulation.
Necromancers - Dabbling in the darker sides of magic, necromancers harness death’s energy. They can resurrect the dead, utilize corpses in rituals, and commune with spirits. Naturally, their connection with death often paints them in a negative light. But remember, morality is multifaceted; your necromancer might use their powers for nobler causes or be a misunderstood hero.
Sorcerers - Born with their abilities, sorcerers are the antithesis of mages. Their power might come from bloodlines, ancient pacts, or mystic artifacts. Crafting their story involves balancing innate power with the challenges of mastering it. Whether protagonist or antagonist, ensure their abilities create conflict and a compelling narrative tension.
Witches and warlocks - Historically, these terms referred to those consorting with malevolent forces in exchange for power. Their magic revolves around curses, hexes, demonic summons, and other dark arts. Yet, motivations matter; delving into why they forged these dark pacts can create intricate characters.
A quick note about modern witchcraft: Moving away from old perceptions, modern witchcraft or Wicca centers on nature worship. When crafting a Wiccan character, thorough research is paramount, acknowledging its contemporary significance beyond fiction.
Wizards - Bridging the gap between mages and sorcerers, wizards have an innate magic affinity honed through external learning. They might be naturally adept yet yearn for deeper arcane knowledge. Traditionally, “wizard” was gendered male, but modern literature embraces its gender-neutral potential.
In your worldbuilding, the terms you use aren’t restricted to what I’ve listed above. In Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and its sequels and spin-offs, Grisha are born with an affinity for magic, or the small science, which makes them akin to sorcerers. But they often get drafted into the military, adding formal training to their innate gifts that is more like a wizard.
Use these roles to help develop your character, their backstory, and their place in the world. Think of them as archetypes and layer on the complexity that makes them unique.
Sources of Magic
Finally, the power behind magic needs to come from somewhere. There is fuel for the spells your characters will be using, a source that grants your magic users the ability to cast in the first place.
This is another big worldbuilding moment for you to consider. Is magic intrinsically tied to the world itself? Does it come from some higher being? Is it restricted to one part of the world?
Also, how can that source be blocked? We’ll talk more about limitations and rules after this section, but start thinking about what can interrupt the connection between source and user.
Here’s my obligatory mention that these sources I’m going to talk about are more for inspiration than information, but you’re sure to learn a thing or two about where the power in your magic system can come from.
The very earth we tread upon, the air we breathe, the canopy of stars above—nature, in its untamed essence, is a wellspring of arcane energy. Many magic wielders and scholars believe that the purest forms of magic originate from the natural world.
Those attuned to these primal forces often find themselves inexorably linked to the elements, the animals, and even the very pulse of the planet. Here are some specific sources you might not have considered before.
Plants and herbs - The flora in many fictional worlds has been a subject of intrigue, mysticism, and power. Sorcerers and healers alike have turned to the botanical realm to source ingredients for their potions, elixirs, and rituals. Some plants glow under moonlight, their leaves shimmering with enchantment, while others hide their magic beneath the earth in gnarled roots or elusive fungi.
Consuming, burning, or simply being in the presence of such plants can invoke their powers. What happens when the leaves of a magic bush are used to brew tea? Or what does a spell caster feel when meditating under a waterfall formed by their god?
Living beings or creatures - Beyond the flora, the fauna also possess their unique brands of magic. Creatures of myth and legend, like dragons, unicorns, and phoenixes, are embodiments of raw magical power. A dragon’s fiery breath, a unicorn’s healing horn, or the rebirthing ashes of a phoenix can be harnessed for potent spells.
Even common creatures, like ravens or cats, can have their own subtle magics, often acting as familiars or guides for those with the sight to see.
Ley lines and magical locations - Is the landscape of your fantasy world veined with hidden pathways of energy known as ley lines? These invisible threads of power crisscross the globe, connecting ancient monuments, sacred groves, and places of mysterious happenings. Magic users attuned to these lines can tap into their energy, drawing strength or even teleporting along them.
Moreover, certain locations in the world—the heart of an enchanted forest, the depths of a crystal cave, or the peak of a soaring mountain—pulsate with magic. Such places are revered, sought after, and often jealously guarded, for they offer a direct conduit to the planet’s arcane heart.
Artifacts and Relics
Steeped in history, mystery, and imbued with ancient powers, artifacts and relics represent a tangible link to the arcane legacy of the past.
These objects are conduits of magical energy, often created, discovered, or modified by formidable sorcerers, alchemists, and legendary heroes. They bear witness to epochs long gone, holding secrets that can change the fate of realms.
The scope of what constitutes a magic artifact or relic is so large it can’t be fully explored here, but I want to provide you with some specifics to help make sense of these sources of magic.
Magic items - Fantasy stories are full of enchanted swords that can cleave mountains, rings that render wearers invisible, or cloaks that shield people from the deadliest spells. Such magic items, often crafted in moments of dire need or great inspiration, are instilled with purpose.
Whether to aid, protect, or sometimes, to curse, these items carry the weight of their intent. An amulet might store a protective spell to shield its wearer, while a bewitched quill might pen prophecies on its own. The power of these items often comes at a price, and those unprepared might find themselves ensnared by their allure.
Rituals and chants - The rhythm of a chant, the cadence of an incantation, or the intricate steps of a ritual dance can invoke powerful magics. These traditions, passed down through generations, serve as a bridge to the arcane realm.
A well-executed ritual can summon beings from other dimensions, bless an entire harvest, or bind an enemy’s power. The chants, often in forgotten tongues, resonate with the very fabric of magic, their vibrations fine-tuning the energy that surrounds us.
Often, these rituals include specific items that are either magic themselves or act as ingredients or conduits in the ritual.
Books and knowledge - Knowledge is power, and in the realm of magic, this adage takes on a literal form. Grimoires, ancient scrolls, and arcane tomes hold the collective wisdom of powerful spell casters.
These are not mere books but repositories of spells, histories, and secrets of the cosmos. But with great knowledge comes great responsibility. Many a mage has been consumed by the very power they sought to harness from these powerful pages.
Deities or Higher Powers
One of my favorite parts of worldbuilding is introducing deities. These formidable beings offer not just vast power but layers of complexity by questioning the nature of existence, morality, and destiny.
In other words, casual weekend conversation pieces.
There’s more than meets the eye when we’re talking about higher powers as sources of magic. Check out some of these options when you’re crafting your magic system.
Gods - These are entities of unparalleled might and wisdom, often perceived as creators, destroyers, or overseers of specific domains. Whether you envision a pantheon of squabbling deities or a solitary, omnipotent figure, gods can grant mortals magical abilities or even curse them.
The interplay between gods and mortals adds a lot of opportunities for you, the author, when writing. A deity’s favor might manifest as divine magic, allowing a chosen one to heal with a touch or command elemental forces. Yet, their displeasure could just as easily plague a land with famine or unending night.
Astral and cosmic entities - Beyond the gods, the vastness of the cosmos teems with otherworldly entities. These beings, often older and more inscrutable than even the gods, can be sources of ancient, alien magic.
Drawing power from constellations, harnessing the energy of creation itself, or invoking the unknowable strength of eldritch beings can add a layer of cosmic horror or wonder to your story.
Such magic feels vast, uncontrollable, and, at times, indifferent—reflecting the nature of the universe itself.
Channeling spirits and other forces - Not all magic needs to come from the mighty. Spirits of the land, forgotten ancestors, or elemental forces can be entreated or channeled by practitioners. Shamans might enter trances to communicate with ancestral spirits, gaining insight or power.
Meanwhile, elementalists could forge a bond with the very essence of fire, water, earth, or air, using this connection to wield magic. This approach roots the magic in the world you build, making it feel organic and integral.
Deals with devils, demons, and other nasties - Treading the perilous path of forbidden magic can be tempting for characters seeking power at any cost. Making deals with devils, bargaining with demons, or forming pacts with evil beings offers potent magic but always at a price.
Such arrangements can lead to moral quandaries, corruption, or even the loss of one’s soul. The cost of wielding such magic is narrative gold that adds tension, internal conflict, and moral dilemmas.
Finally, not all magic needs external sources. Sometimes, the most potent magics emanate from within, tied to an individual’s very essence or unique experiences.
These intrinsic sources of magic allow for deeply personal narratives, linking the character’s growth to their evolving magical powers.
Natural affinity or talent - Just as some are born with an aptitude for music or mathematics, in a world drenched in magic, certain individuals might possess a natural talent for the arcane. This innate affinity allows them to tap into the ambient magic around them with ease.
As they grow and face challenges, their natural talent might flourish, becoming a cornerstone of their identity. Such prodigious characters often grapple with the expectations and responsibilities their gifts thrust upon them.
Sacrificial magic - Magic that demands a price, often a personal one, introduces a tantalizing push and pull between power and sacrifice. Whether it’s offering one’s memories, emotions, or physical well-being, sacrificial magic makes the practitioner ponder the true value of power.
Such magic can be directly connected to the result, where a mage might sacrifice their voice to save a loved one, or harrowing as they continually push the boundaries of what they’re willing to give up.
Blood and ancestry - The notion that magic courses through one’s veins, a gift or curse passed down through generations, is a well of storytelling potential.
Families will guard their bloodline’s secrets jealously, ensuring that only their kin harness its power. A protagonist discovering their ancestral magic could embark on quests to uncover lost histories or grapple with the weight of their forebears’ deeds.
This type of magic speaks to themes of legacy, destiny, and the inescapable pull of the past.
Lingering impact of a spell, encounter, experiment, etc. - Sometimes, magic is thrust upon an individual. Whether it’s the unintended consequence of a rogue experiment, the fallout from a potent spell, or a mysterious encounter with an otherworldly entity, this accidental magic can turn an ordinary life upside down.
These characters might initially struggle with their newfound powers or even resent them. But, as they master these abilities, they often reshape their destiny, becoming pivotal figures in grander tales.
Limitations and Rules
They say all good things must come to an end, and I hope it’s been as fun reading about the abilities, users, and sources of magic as it has been writing it. Hopefully by now, there are a bunch of great ideas being conjured by that author brain of yours.
But, like I said way back near the start of this guide, the most important elements of creating a magic system are what can’t be done.
This doesn’t mean you need to write “Pyromancers can’t cast ice magic or earth magic or water magic or illusion magic or necromancy or…” until you’ve exhausted every exception to what can be done.
But you need to establish what magic can’t be used for. Who can’t use it? What happens when they use it too much? Is there a cost for wielding this power?
Brandon Sanderson—yes, that Brandon Sanderson—has said limitations are greater than powers. For a reader, it’s exciting to see fireballs thrown all over the place. For authors, it’s exciting to put our characters in situations where throwing fireballs doesn’t solve the problem or where they can’t throw fireballs at all, no matter how hard they try.
There’s more to limits and rules than just “you can’t do this.” Let’s get into the details you want to include in your worldbuilding.
Balance and Consequences
When you introduce something as powerful as magic into a world, it forces everything around it to adjust to its mere existence. While magic can be alluring, you need checks and balances to deepen this balance.
Here are some things to consider when crafting a world with magic.
Balancing power - Magic, in all its glory, must be tamed with purpose. If every mage could summon tsunamis at will, where would the conflict, tension, or narrative stakes lie?
Here’s a critical consideration: the more potent a power, the rarer and more challenging it should be to wield. This could manifest as extensive training, personal sacrifices, or unique circumstances. By doing so, the appearance of such potent magic becomes an event in itself, which can be a powerful tool to suck your audience in.
Furthermore, by dispersing different magical strengths and specialties among your characters, you encourage collaboration, rivalry, or even treachery, all of which are juic—I mean, tantalizing story elements.
Consequences of magic - If Hamilton taught me anything, it’s that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This axiom holds true even in realms of sorcery. Introducing consequences to magic use can provide both depth and realism.
Maybe casting spells drains life energy, or perhaps overuse of elemental magic disturbs nature’s balance. Or, in a more sociopolitical context, magic users could be revered or reviled, leading to societal privileges or prejudices.
When you imbue consequences, both personal and grand, you make your characters think twice, strategize, and innovate.
Tethered limitations - Remember, limitations aren’t just shackles; they’re story drivers. A character might only have a limited number of spells before they need to recharge or could be vulnerable to certain elements.
These aren’t simple hindrances, mind you, but plot devices waiting to be exploited. Such limits craft scenarios where characters are pushed to their wit’s end and have to resort to unconventional solutions or rely on allies.
The Butterfly Effect - A lesser-discussed but equally important aspect is the ripple effect of magic. If a spell is cast today, how does it reshape the world tomorrow? Does resurrecting a loved one cause a natural death elsewhere? Does manipulating time create paradoxes? By considering the broader implications of magic, you enrich your world’s lore and balance, making it feel living and interconnected.
Tales of caution - Lastly, always consider the legends, myths, and cautionary tales within your world. These stories, passed down through generations, can serve as warnings about the misuse of magic or the perils of ambition. By weaving these stories into your larger narrative, you subtly remind both characters and readers of magic’s gravitas.
The Cost of Magic
Though magic can be a tool or weapon, it’s more than that; it’s an embodiment of power, allure, and consequence. And while every spell cast can be a spectacle, it’s the price, often hidden somewhere in the shadows, that shapes the depth of a story.
Let’s talk about the profound costs associated with wielding magic.
Give and take - At its core, magic often functions in an equilibrium. It’s like a cosmic balance sheet, where no power can be taken without something being given in return. This could be as straightforward as expending energy to conjure a spell or as intricate as offering memories, emotions, or even lifespans.
For you, as an author, this presents an opportunity. What would a mage be willing to give up for unparalleled power? And once given, can it ever be reclaimed?
Physical, emotional, or spiritual toll - Using magic isn’t just an action—it’s an experience. And like any profound experience, it leaves its mark.
Physically, it might manifest as exhaustion, scars, or even drastic changes in appearance. Emotionally, spell casters might grapple with the weight of their actions, leading to guilt, euphoria, or a spiraling descent into madness. Spiritually, the very essence of one’s being could be altered. They might become detached from reality or even lose touch with their own humanity.
The potency and frequency of magic use can determine the severity of these tolls.
Potential risks vs. benefits - Every decision in magic, as in life, comes with its set of pros and cons. A spell to heal might save a life but weaken the caster for days. A charm to glimpse the future could offer an advantage but expose the seer to horrifying visions.
As an author, consider this balance carefully. How far would your characters go to achieve their goals and at what cost? By emphasizing this dilemma, you heighten the stakes and immerse your readers further into your story.
Consequences of overuse or abuse of magic - Honestly, if magic was real, we would all be obsessed with it. Its promise and draw would be unimaginable. The same goes for powerful magic in a fictional world, and if it’s left unchecked, it can lead to overreliance, addiction, or even cataclysmic events.
Overusing magic might drain the world’s essence or tear the fabric of reality itself. Abuse, on the other hand, can lead to power corruption, turning benevolent mages into tyrants. In societal terms, reckless magic use can breed fear, leading to witch hunts, exile, or even wars.
To truly make your magic system memorable, always remember this: the allure of power is nothing without its price. While magic can open doors to realms unknown, it’s the choices made, the sacrifices borne, and the costs paid that truly define a character, a story, and a world.
6 Steps to Building Your Magic System
Still with me? There’s been a metric ton of information to digest so far, but we’re not done yet. What we are finished with is all the theory and options behind what goes into your magic system.
Now we’re going to move into the practical side of this article to start wrapping things up.
After reading all that you’ve read, there are certainly ideas brewing in your head. It might take some time to fully realize what ideas will stick and which ones should be shelved for a different novel or worldbuilding project.
To use the following six steps, you don’t need to know every single detail about what you want your magic system to be. Some more things will pop out of that big ol’ brain of yours as you go, so feel free to revisit steps to flesh things out a little more.
Step 1: Define the Purpose of Magic in Your World
Before you craft the mechanics or choose dazzling spells, take a step back and ask yourself: why does magic exist in my world? Is it a force as natural as gravity, or is it a gift from the gods? Does it serve to empower the downtrodden, or is it a tool monopolized by the elite?
The purpose of magic should reflect the broader themes and tones of your story. If your narrative leans toward an exploration of power dynamics, then magic could be a scarce resource fought over by empires. If you’re weaving a tale of personal growth, perhaps magic blooms in tandem with a character’s emotional journey.
Think, too, of the challenges and conflicts your story addresses. Does magic exist to provide solutions, or does it complicate matters? A magic system that always has the answer will rob your story of tension, whereas one fraught with unpredictable consequences can add layers of suspense.
Lastly, consider the emotional connection. How do the people in your world feel about magic? Is it revered, feared, or taken for granted? The emotional landscape shaped by magic will influence societal norms, personal relationships, and plot development.
Remember, magic changes everything. It touches everything. So what effect does it have and why are you including it?
Step 2: Establish the Rules and Limitations
Defining the rules of your magic system isn’t just about creating a list of dos and don’ts. It’s about instilling a sense of wonder while still anchoring your story in logic. The rules you design serve as the framework that makes your magic believable and keeps readers invested, and this is true in both hard magic systems and soft magic systems.
Begin by determining the scope of your magic. Can anyone learn it with the right training, or is it a rare talent few possess? This decision will influence how widespread magic is in your world and its influence on society.
Next, ponder the mechanics. How is magic invoked? Whether it’s through intricate hand gestures, chanting ancient verses, or channeling inner energy, this mechanical aspect will add depth and texture to your magic system.
Then come the limitations. No power should be absolute, lest it make your story predictable. Maybe magic drains the user’s life force, or perhaps there’s a finite source of magical energy in the world that’s depleting.
The limits you set will drive conflict and force your characters into making tough decisions.
Lastly, be clear about the consequences of breaking the rules. If a sorcerer oversteps, what are the repercussions? Do they face societal exile, a curse, or a more immediate, devastating backlash of their magic gone awry?
Remember, while rules ground your system, they also offer opportunities. They can be bent, circumvented, and even broken, leading to unexpected twists and turns in your story. But consistency is key. Once established, be sure to adhere to these rules or have a compelling reason for any deviations.
Step 3: Create a Magic Hierarchy
Constructing a hierarchy in your magical system can add some extra depth, complexity, and a framework for understanding the different power dynamics at play. Just as societies have hierarchies and structures, so too can the world of magic in your narrative.
Use these hierarchies as an extra tool to work into character arcs, plots, and themes. Here are some possibilities:
- Tiers of power - At the most basic level, think about the power differentials among users. Are there master sorcerers whose abilities far eclipse those of novices? This could be a result of training, innate talent, or even exposure to particular artifacts. These tiers can create dynamics of mentorship, rivalry, and aspiration among your characters.
- Types of magic - Beyond individual prowess, categorize the types of magic present in your world. Maybe elemental magic is more prevalent and revered, while shadow or time magic is rare and feared. These classifications can give rise to different magical sects or guilds, each with its own agenda.
- Source-based hierarchy - Depending on where magic is drawn from, as discussed in the sources section, some sources might be considered more “pure” or “powerful” than others. For example, magic derived from deities might be held in higher esteem than that drawn from nature, and both might be preferred to dark magic drawn from a cursed source.
- Access and restrictions - Consider who has access to which types of magic. Is there a ruling elite who monopolizes a particular magical discipline? Are certain magics forbidden to particular groups? Such restrictions can be a rich ground for societal conflict and personal dilemmas.
- Magical creatures and beings - If your world includes magical entities beyond human magic users, where do they fit? Are dragons, for instance, at the pinnacle of magical creatures, or are they subservient to some even more powerful entity?
- Cultural and social implications - The hierarchy you establish will influence the society and cultures of your world. If healers are the most respected magic users, hospitals and healing temples might dominate cityscapes, while blood mages could be relegated to the fringes.
Any hierarchy you implement gives you a chance to add more to your world, and fantasy readers absolutely crave that sort of depth.
Step 4: Develop Unique Magic Components
One of the elements that distinguishes one magic system from another is the unique components used to harness, amplify, or channel magic. These distinct elements add depth, flair, and individuality to your system.
Imagining unique components is tough, though! So here are some tried-and-true methods to brainstorm some.
- Identify core components - Start by identifying what’s absolutely necessary for magic to function. In some worlds, it might be a wand or staff. In others, specific gestures or spoken words. Understand the essentials and then think about how you can twist them to fit your world uniquely.
- Experiment with unconventional elements - While crystals, herbs, and runes are popular choices, don’t shy away from the less explored. Perhaps in your world, magic users require specific melodies or dances to invoke spells. Or maybe the tears of a rare creature are a coveted magical component.
- Personalized components - Consider components that are unique to individual users. Tattoos that morph and change with a user’s magical growth or personal talismans crafted during significant life events can make the magic feel deeply personal and connected to character development.
- Environmental dependency - The environment can be a fantastic source of unique components. Maybe magic in a coastal realm is powered by different types of seaweed, while a desert realm relies on sand from specific dunes.
- Mix and match - Often, the most compelling components aren’t standalone but combinations. Combining a moonstone, harvested during a specific lunar phase, with a chant spoken in a lost dialect might produce a spell’s true potential.
When devising unique components, let your imagination run wild. Think about the senses—how would a component feel, smell, sound?
Deeply immersive worlds often pay attention to these details, making readers feel as if they could almost reach out and conjure the magic themselves.
Step 5: Consider the Cultural and Historical Aspects
The roots of magic often dig deep into the cultural and historical soil of a world. This relationship gives magic its meaning, shaping how societies view, respect, or even fear it.
As you construct your magic system, consider these aspects can enrich your world touched by magic.
Cultural influences - Magic could be affected by societal norms and traditions. Maybe in one culture, magic is a solemn and spiritual practice, while in another, it’s a festive, communal activity. The way people celebrate, revere, or shun magic can shape its presence and use.
Historical evolution - Over time, magic systems can evolve. Ancient practices might be considered taboo or obsolete, replaced by newer magical techniques. Similarly, certain spells or practices might have historic significance, celebrated annually or remembered in infamy.
Taboos and superstitions - Every society has its forbidden fruits. Consider what’s off-limits in your world’s magical practices and why.
Magical milestones - Just as we have significant events in our real, non-magical world’s history, your magical world should have its defining moments—battles won using unprecedented spells or eras where magic was forbidden and had to be practiced in secret.
Integration with everyday life - Do I need to say it again? Magic affects everything. Think about how magic intertwines with daily routines. Is it part of the education system? Is it invoked during weddings, funerals, or other ceremonies? Your world’s mundane is a little more magical than ours.
Step 6: Ensure Consistency Throughout Your Story
As you build an intricate and enchanting magic system, remember that it’s only as strong as its consistent application throughout your tale. Your readers have embarked on a journey with you, trusting you to guide them through a world where the established magical rules are adhered to.
Break that trust, and the enchantment can shatter.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of storytelling, especially when powerful magic is at play. But every time you introduce a magical element, ask yourself if it aligns with what you’ve established.
As your characters navigate challenges, face adversaries, and grow, their magical interactions should reflect the boundaries and nuances of your system. Any evolution in their abilities should have a foundation in the story’s history or their personal journey.
Seeking feedback is a good idea, too. Fresh eyes can often catch inconsistencies or areas that feel out of sync with your world’s magic. Consider asking your beta readers to look for this specifically.
Above all, be wary of using magic as a convenient tool to solve narrative challenges. When magic starts feeling more like a stale plot device than an integral part of your world, its draw can quickly fade.
Tips for Writing Believable Magic Systems
To round things off, I want to leave you with four big tips to help ensure your magic system makes your story shine.
Balancing Magic and Conflict
Magic can be a tempting solution to any problem, but it’s essential to remember that easy solutions can often weaken tension and dilute the stakes. By balancing magic with genuine conflict, you craft a story where the challenges feel real and the resolutions earned.
The presence of magic should not diminish the weight of adversity; instead, it should add layers, complexity, and depth to it, making the journey all the more captivating.
Avoiding Deus Ex Machina
Deus ex machina, a term rooted in ancient theater meaning “god from the machine,” refers to a sudden and unexpected solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.
When writing magic, it can be tempting to conjure a last-minute spell or artifact to save the day. But this often feels unearned and can leave readers feeling cheated.
Magic systems, with their rules and limitations, should be respected throughout your story. Instead of relying on magical shortcuts, focus on building a story where the outcomes, even if influenced by magic, stem from character choices, established lore, and consistent worldbuilding.
Showcasing Character Growth
Magic offers a unique lens to explore character development. Whether it’s a novice learning the ropes or a master facing unprecedented challenges, the way a character interacts with magic can mirror their personal growth.
Their struggles, failures, and triumphs with magical elements can be representative of their broader journey. As they evolve, their understanding and application of magic should, too.
At the same time, let the magical obstacles they face become more daunting as the characters themselves become more capable.
The Art of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a subtle tool, hinting at events to come, creating anticipation, and weaving a sense of inevitability into your story. When intertwined with magic, foreshadowing can be even more potent.
Seeds planted early in your story about a particular spell, legend, or magical entity can pay off in satisfying ways as the tale unfolds. By giving readers subtle clues, you invite them to engage more deeply and draw them into the mysteries of your magical world.
It’s a delicate balance between being too obscure and too overt, but when done right, your readers will eat it up.
It’s Time to Craft Your Own Magic System
Deep breath. Stretch your neck and shoulders. Recite the incantation.
You’ve done it! You’ve made it to the end of this massive guide to writing your very own magic system. This is such a fun, exciting topic whose value people grossly underestimate until they’ve already written a half-baked magic system that completely undermines their story.
But not you, you spell-slinging wordsmith. You’re a cut above the rest.
Unfortunately, fantasy writers, the quest doesn’t end here. As important as a magic system is, it’s not the only thing you need to think about when writing fantasy. To help you on your journey, I want to give you a handful of articles you might want to check out:
- Turn Fantasy Into Reality: How to Write a Fantasy Novel
- How to Create a Fantasy World Without Getting Lost in There
- World Building Reflections From Master Fantasy Author R. A. Salvatore (this is the author that got me into writing fantasy, so I’m a bit of a fanboy)
- Villains and Curses: Picking a Conflict for Your Fantasy Novel
- How to Describe Spellbinding Magic in Fantasy Novels
- The Author’s Guide to Writing Fantasy Characters
And just one more link: subscribe to Dabble’s newsletter. We don’t spam you because spam is icky and no one wants that.
What we do send you is quality articles just like this one (albeit not as long as this monster) that help hone your craft. If it isn’t helpful, we don’t send it.
So do yourself a favor and get witty, helpful resources directly to your inbox.
Then grab your wand and your grimoire and go write those magical words.
Book marketing. Those two innocuous words instill fear and loathing into the hearts of so many writers. You just want to write your books and have them sell themselves. Why do you have to tell people about it? Well, Susan, because you do. I know you want to write, but if your goal is to write, publish, and make money from your books, then you’re going to have to find a way to make them visible. Thousands of new titles are uploaded to Amazon every single day. Millions of books are being published every year, and no matter how good your story is, without marketing, there’s not much chance very many people will find it.
What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train? Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear. Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh? There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
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