Building Your Magic System: A Full Recipe
Call me a nerd, but creating a magic system is really cool. As if spells weren’t enchanting enough, building your own magic system adds an entirely new level of depth to your world while making your story much more memorable for your readers.
But is it mandatory to come up with a unique magic system if you have characters slinging spells in your story?
Sort of. Ish.
You don’t need to invent a system no one has ever seen before—simply saying a couple arcane words is a basic magic system—but you need some sort of basis for magic to work within.
Even if your readers don’t learn the specifics, they’ll need to know what magic and characters can and can’t do. Heck, you need to know those things, too.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to bring your book’s magic to life, including:
- Sanderson’s Laws of Magic
- The difference between hard and soft magic
- A full recipe for creating your own magic system
I know I have you spellbound already, so let’s get started.
Sanderson's Laws of Magic
Before we dive into crafting our own magic system, we’re going to borrow some knowledge from Brandon Sanderson. While hundreds—if not thousands—of fantasy authors have created magic systems, Sanderson has done the legwork to break down some fundamentals.
And he knows his stuff. I mean, there’s a reason he’s one of the most successful speculative fiction writers ever.
First up, we’re going to look at Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. These are three rules that Brandon Sanderson uses to establish his own spell systems. We’re going to dissect each one, but here are the Laws:
Law One: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
Law Two: Limitations are greater than powers.
Law Three: Expand what you already have before adding something new.
Even though these are called laws, they aren’t mandatory for your writing. But understanding them can help you figure out when to disregard them, should you choose to do so. With that said, let’s dive into Sanderson’s Laws.
Sanderson’s First Law of Magic: Proportionality
An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
Magic is awe-inspiring… literally. Its very nature is to fill us with wonder.
That’s not carte-blanche to do whatever the heck you want. Why? Because the reader will be confused.
In Sanderson’s First Law, he establishes that you can only solve a conflict using magic to the extent that a reader knows your magic can do that. There is nothing worse than magic being used as a deus ex machina to save the day when our protagonist has backed themselves into a corner.
If your wizards have only been shown wielding elemental magic, it’s going to be jarring if they suddenly time travel to solve a dilemma. If your witches need to say a magic word or two to hex their enemies, why the heck can they do it in writing for the first time during your climax?
That said, if a small, inconsequential act teaches your readers more about your magic system, it’s okay to include something new in that act.
Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic: Limitations
Limitations are greater than powers.
When most people set out to create a magic system, they immediately think of what magic users can do. Sanderson argues that it’s more interesting to explore what they can’t do.
To be clear, throwing fireballs, charming people, flying, and so on is all very interesting. And Sanderson says that limitations are more for writers than for readers.
That’s because setting limitations on your spell slingers is how you add depth, conflict, and intrigue.
Think of it this way: if your protagonist can shape shadows into weapons, what happens when they wake up in a room absolutely flooded with bright light?
In that situation, the interesting stuff doesn’t come from their shadowshaping but from the decisions they’re forced to make to overcome their limitations. These limitations add tension, force characters to adapt, and make you think of characters as more than just their powers.
It’s important to note this law also encompasses limitations (what magic and its users can’t do), weaknesses (things a character’s enemies can exploit), and costs (what you must give to access this power).
Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic: Expand
Expand what you already have before adding something new.
Lastly, Sanderson advocates that a magic system with thousands of different elements and powers isn’t nearly as good as one with a few elements that are fully fleshed out, intricate, and have depth. This goes to his idea of expand, don’t add.
For us fantasy writers creating our own worlds and magic rules, it’s easy to contract worldbuilder’s disease: an all-consuming malady that sucks us into worldbuilding and makes us forsake our actual book.
This is such an easy trap to fall into when creating your magic system. You can literally do anything you want, so adding a spell or power for every single idea you come up with is a pitfall that many authors fall victim to.
Worse, inventing hundreds of spells that don’t contribute to your story or get used is fun but ultimately shallow. Coming up with a handful of spells that influence your world, are used for character growth, come with consequences, and make your magic system easy to understand are far more powerful for storytelling.
To expand your magic system and add depth, consider:
- Asking what if? What if only holy people had access to this magic? What if magic users are persecuted? What if magic doesn’t work in one country?
- Connecting magic, culture, and themes together to make your magic more meaningful.
- Streamlining your system. Instead of five magic users having five different schools of magic, how can they uniquely use the same school of magic in five different forms?
Hard Magic vs. Soft Magic
One more theory lesson from Brandon Sanderson: hard magic and soft magic. These are terms given to two different styles of magic systems that we’ve all seen—even if we don’t know it.
Hard magic is any system that has defined, concrete rules the magic and its users follow. These limitations are explicitly outlined for the reader to understand, and magic is regularly used to solve problems and conflicts.
Soft magic does not have explicit rules and is instead used to instill a sense of wonder and amazement. Great writers of soft magic rarely use soft magic to solve problems, as readers won’t understand how the solution would work. That said, writers should still know the rules of their soft magic, even if it never makes it onto the pages of your book.
Most authors will find themselves somewhere in the gray area between the two: you’ll have some established rules to work within, but the reader doesn’t know every detail about magic in the grand scheme of things.
There is no right or wrong option to go with when creating your magic system, because all options are valid and have their place in writing. What’s important is knowing what your system is going to be.
Protagonists vs. Antagonists
One common use of hard and soft magic is the difference between our heroes and antagonists.
Giving a hero access to soft magic is potentially problematic. Again, if we don’t know the limits of the power, a soft magic-wielding hero can just solve problems without issue. And an all-powerful hero is boring.
For that reason, heroes are normally restricted to hard magic. This forces them to adapt their abilities while still using the cool magic you create.
Villains, on the other hand, are scary when they are seemingly all-powerful. They are meant to be a threat to overcome. Because of that, it’s okay to apply soft magic to their abilities and not explain every detail about their power to the reader or let your antagonist exploit some loophole in your magic system.
Recipe for a Magic System
With the theory out of the way, it’s time for us to get into the ingredients for your new magic system. For this recipe, we are going to need:
- A magical source
- Magic users
- Some extra details, to taste
Along the way, I’m going to be building a custom magic system to help illustrate these ingredients. If you already have an idea for your magic system, even a tiny inkling, I encourage you to follow along.
It’s important to note that the order of these ingredients isn’t set in stone. Do what works best for you!
One Source of Magical Power
Power needs to come from somewhere: a source. This could be a singular source, like a well of magic that all users draw from, or a method by which spellcasters use their magic, like words or hand gestures.
So what is the source of your magic system?
Is it a single thing where magic is pulled or borrowed from? That could be a deity, a holy relic, a supernatural location, etc.
Or is it some conduit or action that magic wielders can use to access that power? Those could be wands, magic words, hand signs, etc.
Examples of Sources of Magical Power
In The Wheel of Time series, magic is drawn from the One Power. Magic users have to literally weave the magic from the One Power together to create their spells.
In Naruto, for my anime fans out there, chakra is harnessed (mostly) through hand signs.
In The Dresden Files, magic comes from living beings and their life energy. The human heart, soul, and emotions generate this energy and thus magic itself.
Crafting Our Magic System
Let’s figure out where power comes from for our magic system.
Since we’re all writers, I like the idea of magic being tied to runes. So a magic user must draw a rune in order to access magic. To make it a little more specific, maybe they have to have conscious intent on the outcome of the spell while writing the rune.
This means that magic isn’t accidental, can be studied and learned, and new spells can be crafted by its practitioners.
One Quart of Abilities
While we established that what your magic can’t do is arguably more important than what it can do, we still need to figure out those really cool abilities your magic gives its users.
There’s a near-infinite number of options but—and I don’t mean this pessimistically— it’s almost impossible to make a completely unique or original system.
So look to magic systems you like, take the best parts, and come up with some abilities that work with your story and characters.
Do they wield elemental powers? Are they holy warriors drawing on forces of good and evil? Do some magicians influence the minds of politicians? Can they shapeshift?
Take the time to write out the abilities your magic system provides access to. You don’t need to think of every single one (refer back to the Third Law), and your magic will develop as you write, but get the basics down.
As you do, I recommend focusing on consistency. Make all the abilities make sense with one another and be logical within your world. As with everything in your book, your magic system should serve your plot, not exist to just add sparkly spells.
This is really your place to have fun, so enjoy the process!
Examples of Abilities
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, individuals who have access to bending can control their respective elements, while the Avatar has access to all elements of bending.
In The Wheel of Time, weaves are created by combining strands from the One Power, usually related to a natural element or Spirit, a form of life energy.
There is a lot of magic in The Grishaverse novels. The Heartrenders are one type of magic user who can manipulate a person’s body at a molecular level, usually doing nasty stuff to someone’s internal organs.
Crafting Our Magic System
Okay, so we have the source of our magic: runes. But what the heck can the runes do?
I’m digging the idea of runic magic being incapable of affecting people or objects (i.e, they can’t set you on fire), but they can speed up, hinder, or otherwise alter events. So one rune drawn across an open wound can speed up the healing, while a powerful rune drawn on a beach can turn waves into tsunamis.
This opens up a lot of possibilities for our story while letting us expand on the power of a handful of runes.
½ Cup of Costs and Limitations
Now that we know what our magic can do, let’s stop it from being all-powerful (and plot destroying). By putting costs and limitations on our magic, we make our characters and story way more interesting.
A cost is something that is paid to access the power of your magic. It could be a physical cost (blood, a limb), a mental cost (years studied, aging), or a material cost (a sacrifice, components to a ritual).
Limitations are something our magic or magic users can’t do. These could be integrated into hard magic rules (magic can’t heal, only hurt) or imposed by some society or governing order (it’s illegal to practice the Shadow Arts).
Remember, the costs and limitations you impose will be used to challenge your protagonist and add tension to your story, especially if your villain can find a way to skirt these rules.
Examples of Costs and Limitations
In Fullmetal Alchemist, there’s a clear Law of Equivalent Exchange: something cannot be created from nothing. To obtain something, something else of equal value must be lost. The protagonists try to find a loophole to this and end up losing a lot in return.
In the Lightbringer series, Drafters use chromaturgy to turn light into real objects. Most Drafters can only access one color of the spectrum, but more powerful ones can access adjacent or even separate colors to create incredible results. Overuse of chromaturgy causes an imbalance in the world, causing natural disasters and other horrible effects.
Crafting Our Magic System
Okay, so our fate-altering rune users need to be reigned in a little bit. Let’s give our magic a cost and limitation.
The cost: crafting a rune takes off days or years of a lifespan. You don’t know how much, but the more powerful the rune, the more time you lose. If you don’t have enough time left to pay, the magic takes it from your descendants.
The limitation: besides your remaining lifespan, runes must be drawn on a medium. If you can’t draw them, you don’t get access to magic. This can lead to rogue practitioners getting their hands cut off as punishment.
One Helping of Magic Users
The last thing our magic system needs is some folks to use it. I mean, what’s the point of having magic if no one can use it (or maybe that is the point in your plot)?
When you’re thinking of the magic users in your system, consider the following:
- Who? Is there a specific demographic, family, caste, species, or profession who can use magic? Is there more than one?
- What? Are parts of your magic system reserved for different people? Is there a rite they need to pass or a ritual they need to perform to unlock their potential?
- Why? Even if your magic system has some historical source that never makes it onto the page, it’s nice for you, the writer, to know why your spell slingers can use their powers.
And, while it’s not mandatory, give them a name. It can be as simple as wizard, witch, or warlock, or you can come up with something unique. But giving an official moniker to your magic users will help set them apart for your reader.
For the love of all things arcane, please don’t capitalize the term for your magic users unless you have a reason. The fantasy genre is flooded with unnecessary proper nouns. If your casters are named after a person, place, historical event, etc., that’s fine. But don’t capitalize terms just for the sake of capitalizing them.
Examples of Magic Users
In The Dresden Files, magic users are generally referred to as practitioners, with the labels of wizards, sorcerers, minor talents, and warlocks falling under that umbrella term.
In The Grishaverse, the Grisha are practitioners of the Small Science, and the name is derived from the original Sankt Grigori.
In The Wheel of Time, those who can touch the One Power are called channelers. Among channelers, men can generally hold more power than women, but female channelers can perform feats that males cannot. Men also tend to get corrupted much more easily than women.
Crafting Our Magic System
Let’s add some users to our magic system.
Right off the bat, I’m thinking of runesmiths—like blacksmiths work with iron, runesmiths work with runes. And creating these runes is a precise, technical skill; if a corner isn’t sharp enough or the right intent isn’t put into it, the spell will fail, so runesmiths have to go to school to learn their craft.
On top of that, what if using runes left a permanent mark on its caster’s body? A scar of the symbol appears on the runesmith’s skin, so the most experienced magic users are identifiable by skin covered in markings. It can act as some sort of prestige in their academies.
Craft Your Magic System
Even though we’ve started creating a magic system using these ingredients, it will only become more real as we continue to worldbuild and—most importantly—write.
But when you’re engaged in such complex worldbuilding and designing systems of magic from the ground up, there’s a lot of details to keep track of.
That’s where Dabble comes in. Honestly, it’s like a worldbuilder’s dream. Keep track of all your notes and creations about your magic, the characters who use it, how your villain exploits your rules, and how the world functions with your unique spell system.
All of that is just a single click away from your manuscript or, if you use the Plot Grid, available in the sidebar as you’re typing. When you’re writing a story in your incredible world, consistency is of the utmost importance, and Dabble helps you get it right.
That’s not even mentioning automatic cloud syncing, goal tracking, co-authoring, and more. All the tools you need with a simple, modern interface.
And you can try out all that magic for an astounding zero dollars and zero cents, no credit card required, for fourteen days by clicking here. So go build the coolest magic system we’ve ever seen with Dabble.
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.
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