10 Different Types of Magic to Use in Your Writing
Is there anything better than writing a character who wields awe-inspiring magic? Maybe winning the lottery or your wedding day (obligatory insert in case my wife reads this post). For many writers, though, writing about magic and those who use it is one of the best parts of writing.
But “magic” is a very broad term. In fact, it can pretty much encompass any power or ability that science can’t explain. And when you can make up basically anything when you’re building your world, that can be a heck of a lot.
Too much, actually. That’s why we’re going to talk about ten different categories of magic in this article and how you can wield these mighty powers while writing your novel. These ten categories are magic from:
- Life and death
- A resource
- Magic itself
Whether you already know what kind of magic your characters have access to or need a little spark to get your imagination going. Whichever camp you fall into, you’re about to learn all about these wondrous schools of magic.
Magic from Learning
If you want your characters to be bookworms, students, or teachers, magic from learning is likely the direction you’ll be taking.
In this category, magic is a tool or resource that characters can wield. In some cases, all characters can access this magic, while other stories might only have a certain subsect of society have the potential to wield this power.
Either way, most of your characters do not have an innate understanding of magic or a limitless font of power. Instead, characters must learn magical skills through studies or mentorship from a more powerful spellcaster.
The kinds of spells, charms, and potions that can be learned are only limited by the laws of your world, but magic that’s learned is often divided into schools or specializations, just like any other profession or expertise.
Tips for Writing Magic from Learning
Growth is essential - The whole point of this kind of magic is to progress through it to become more powerful. Your characters will likely be inexperienced or brand-new spellcasters tutored by some Sage character.
Specialize your characters - By specializing your characters or making them more talented in different schools, you can create a more exciting and varied cast that compliment or impede one another.
The villain doesn’t need to learn - As with most stories, the villain is initially more powerful than the heroes. They’ve already learned enough to put them above most characters, and forbidden magic might even be a part of their repertoire of spells. And if magic can be taught, a villain might offer this corrupted power to a “good” character.
Magic from Training
While similar to magic from learning, gaining magic from training doesn’t necessarily involve hitting the books. Instead, this magic comes from within a character and needs some refining to be used properly—or potently.
Think of it this way: math is a concept most people can learn by absorbing outside knowledge (books, lessons, etc.). Running five miles is also something most people can do, but only through regular practice that conditions their body to get better at running.
When someone acquires magic through training, they refine their skills through practice, shaping and honing something already there.
That’s not to say they can’t learn new techniques or spells from others, but they already have the potential for those techniques.
Tips for Writing Magic from Training
Make the training plot-relevant - Not only should the character’s training be relevant to their magic (even if it’s a wax-on, wax-off Miyagi-style training), but it should be plot-relevant, too. A similar situation should present itself for that training to pay off later.
Focus on a big obstacle - It shouldn’t just be a training montage to power up your magic wielder. Throw in a significant barrier that interrupts their training or sets them on the wrong path. Maybe their instructor is killed or turns out to be the baddy.
Magic from Within
Sometimes you don’t need training or that pesky learning. No, that’s for losers and nerds. If you’re lucky, you’re just born with it, Maybelline style.
Writing a character who draws their magic from within can be a little tricky. It’s way too easy to use this innate power to solve all their problems without any growth. Unfortunately for us writers, that makes for a boring story.
If a character draws their magic from within, something must stop them from using it as a solve-all. Maybe it’s a latent ability unlocked by a particular event. You could give them magic only applicable to specific situations, thus becoming another trait like left-handedness or being a computer hacker.
When your character draws magic from within, remember that limits are more important than their abilities, so use limitations and obstacles to make their journey more interesting.
Tips for Writing Magic from Within
Focus on internal conflict - Internal conflict is critical for all characters, but even more so for those brimming with magic. Because these characters didn’t have to work for their power, you should complicate their abilities a little. Is there a cost to magic? Is it forbidden and needs to be hidden? Don’t make it so easy for them to pull out their magic and solve all their problems.
Couple this category with another - These categories of magic don’t need to exist in isolation. Just because your hero is a witch brimming with cosmic magic doesn’t mean they know how to use that magic. Perhaps their ancestor had the same magic, and they need to find some old journals to learn about and understand their own situation.
Magic from Life and Death
Now we’re moving into categories of magic that come from external sources. In your world, life and death themselves could have powerful energy that casters can shape into spells.
Life and death are two ends of the same spectrum, usually coinciding with the idea of good and bad magic.
Those who draw on the power of life usually use it to heal, cure wounds, and generally do good.
Characters using death magic tend to curse, raise the dead, or preserve their own immortality.
Magic in this category views the soul or spirit as a resource to fuel spells and other effects. Things that invigorate life—physical activity, sex, or pharmaceutical stimulants—can be used to strengthen magic, while age and illness might limit its efficacy.
Tips for Writing Magic from Life and Death
Contrast the two - One of the benefits of life and death magic is how they play together. Use them to highlight how good or bad they are. You can then use those two extremes to create moral dilemmas for your characters.
Subvert expectations - What if your hero is a powerful necromancer? What if wielding life magic means absorbing souls to “fight the good fight?” Subverting your reader’s expectations can be a powerful tool in your literary arsenal.
Magic from Nature
Similar to drawing energy from a human life force, some magic draws energy from nature and the world itself.
When writing this sort of druidic magic, you should theme your spells around the natural world. Plants, animals, the sun and moon, the elements, and what your character views as the “natural order of things.”
Those who wield nature magic usually have a reverence for the environment and animals. Any people or other magic that go against nature is viewed as wrong and a threat.
Druids aren’t necessarily good or evil. They can be either, but spellcasters drawing on nature magic see their preservation of the world as a mission that doesn’t align with the morality of others.
Tips for Writing Magic from Nature
Make the reverence for nature integral - Where some magic users see their powers as a tool to be used, druids usually gain their magic through a deep connection with its source. Few things should be more important to users of this kind of magic than nature itself.
Subvert expectations (again) - With the above tip in mind, what happens when someone can use nature magic with a complete disregard for nature? Human beings have a long history of exploiting natural resources and animals for our gain, so what’s stopping a mage from doing the same?
Magic from History
Sometimes the source of magic comes from something that has existed in the past. Magic from history is a sort of catch-all term for a bunch of different possibilities:
- Bloodlines/ancestry: Magic is part of the character’s family tree, tracing back generations before them. Are there perceptions about the family? What makes this character so special (or ordinary) compared to those who came before?
- Past event: Something happened prior to the story’s events that unleashed or gifted magic to the character, a location, or the entire world. How does this event impact your world as a whole? Who benefitted from this event and who suffered from it?
- Curse: An ol’ fashioned hex or curse laid upon a person and their descendants. Can your character turn this curse into a benefit? What are the consequences of being cursed?
You’ll also want to consider who knows about this history. Is it a worldwide phenomenon or do only a select few know about it?
Tips for Writing Magic from History
It impacts all your worldbuilding - Yes, the very inclusion of any magic will affect most aspects of your worldbuilding. But when a person, event, or curse from history is what provides the magic, it is more than just an event or just your magic system.
Add another layer of significance - It’s not enough that this thing from history provides a source of magic. That’s a cop-out. Think of at least one more way the source of magic will create an obstacle for your protagonist.
Magic from Knowledge
I know, I know. “Magic from knowledge” sounds a lot like learning or training. But it’s not. Rather, magic from knowledge doesn’t require memorization or training. Instead, simply becoming aware of some arcane knowledge grants power to a character.
Think of a group of teenagers finding a library of magic scrolls or a scorned lover discovering a witch’s evil grimoire. Not all knowledge is stumbled upon, either. A villain could be searching for arcane secrets to help in their world domination.
Knowledge might be power, but it usually comes with a cost, too. Remember, inconsequential abuse of magic makes for a boring story.
Tips for Writing Magic from Knowledge
Consequences, consequences, consequences - Don’t just think about the initial cost of the magical knowledge. Consider the long-term ramifications, too. How will this knowledge get in the way of your character’s goal?
What’s the source of the source? - Where does your forbidden knowledge come from? Someone had to write or create it, decide the world couldn’t have it, then hide it. You should know the fine details even if that information never makes it into your story.
Magic from a Resource
What happens if the item itself is magical? A crystal that lets you harness the elements. Swords that absorb the souls of anyone they cut. Shoes that make you a freakin’ awesome dancer.
Magic powers gifted from physical objects—whether natural or manufactured—are very common in basically all sorts of fantasy. That doesn’t give you the freedom to go ahead and make a magic item for any problem your characters face.
Instead, give some meaning to your story’s magical items and resources. Alternatively, you can make magic items commonplace, as familiar to your characters as garden tools. If the latter is the case, tone down the impact these resources have on the world so you don’t have world-ending weapons in every household linen closet.
Tips for Writing Magic from a Resource
Be consistent - Whether you go with a few powerful resources or a lot of slightly magical items, be consistent on their impact and what’s required to use them. Sure, you can have a few outliers to the rules (if you make them make sense), but being inconsistent with the laws of your magic resources will confuse the heck out of your reader.
What’s the impact on worldbuilding? - Sort of like historical events, magic from physical resources and items are tough to keep secret. How does the presence of an acquirable item or set of items affect the lives of your characters and society in general?
Magic from Deities
Throughout this list of magical sources, power has always come from intangible or non-sentient things: studies, knowledge, the world itself, etc. With magic from deities, that’s not the case.
Gods, extradimensional entities, and even mages that have transcended our mortal coil are all examples of what could be considered deities. If these deities are strong enough, they can give their followers some power.
Precisely what that power is can be up to you; if you have gods that have some sort of domain (i.e., the god of war, love, farming, etc.), the magic they imbue their worshippers should relate. You can go broader, if you’d like, and have good and evil gods provide “good” and “evil” abilities. However, it’s up to you to define those.
Tips for Writing Magic from Deities
Faith is integral to the character - If a deity deems someone worthy of their magic, that person should be wholly committed to their worship and belief in that being. If their faith falters, so too does their connection to magic.
Test their faith - Using that above tip, create one heck of an internal conflict by stressing their devotion to the point of breaking. How will the character cope when it isn’t just their magic that’s in danger but everything they believe in?
Magic from Magic
Kind of a silly name, but sometimes magic is just… there. We’ve lovingly dubbed this “magic from magic.”
Some forms of magic just won’t fit into the above categories. This is especially true for soft magic systems, where the reader doesn’t understand the intricacies or rules behind your arcane ways.
In situations where magic is from magic, it’s really as wondrous as it sounds. A magician just waves their hands in the air and poof. Magic.
This sort of spellcraft seems fantastical and stops magic from being just another tool for your characters.
Tips for Writing Magic from Magic
Use it to inspire awe - One of the strengths of soft magic is how surreal and, well, magical it is. Sure, there’s something to be said about understanding how the legions of wizard soldiers wield elemental magic. But there’s also something incredible about magic that makes you smile or makes your jaw drop.
Commit to soft magic - If your magic has no discernible source or guiding laws for your reader to understand, stick with that. Don’t try to toss in some rules that don’t make sense or—worse—are inconsistent.
What Magic Will You Use?
There’s one last category of magic we haven’t discussed yet: the magic of writing your story.
Once you finish rolling your eyes and accept that I won’t apologize for that joke, let’s talk about what you can do with all the different types of magic we covered.
If you want to incorporate one or more of these categories into your story, consider mapping out your magic system. Even for pantsers—who I assumed feel like I’m pricking a voodoo doll when I mention “outlining”—coming up with some semblance of a magic system will ensure you aren’t writing yourself into a corner that requires significant revisions to remedy.
To do that, check out our guide to creating your own system of magic right here.
The fun doesn’t end there, though. Magic is just one part of the fictional world you’re creating. Sure, it’s a big part of your world, but it’s not the only part. It will be influenced by and will influence other elements of your worldbuilding.
So become a worldbuilding pro! Check out all our articles on creating a new, unique world (or a fictionalized version of our world) over at DabbleU.
And when you’re ready, bring your story to life with a free trial of all of Dabble’s premium features. It’s yours for fourteen days without even putting in a credit card, so you can try it without any risk of getting charged.
Click here to get access to your trial and write some magic!
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