What is a Magic System?
It’s safe to say we write (and read) fantasy for how magical it is: mythical beasts and people, epic adventures, wondrous worlds, and… well, the magic itself. Bringing all of those components together is no easy feat. Especially that tricky magic.
To make sure your readers aren’t confused or—in some cases—angry at magic that doesn’t make sense, we have what we call “magic systems.”
Some magic systems are explicitly detailed in their stories, while others sort of hang out in the background. But even if your readers don’t get to know the finer points of your system, it still needs to exist for you and your characters.
So we’re going to talk about:
- What a magic system is
- Rules and guidelines to abide by
- Abilities to include (or exclude)
- Magic users
- Famous magic systems
Let’s get magical.
What is a Magic System?
Let’s start by defining the term “magic system.”
To put it simply, a magic system refers to the rules, abilities, restrictions, and other details which determine how the magic in your world works.
A magic system is not just the source of magic or how it came to be in the world. It’s not the politics or some mystical council that creates a magical legal system to be enforced.
A magic system is the framework that you, the author, and your magic-wielding characters abide by when putting your spells and charms to work.
The three big components of a magic system are the rules, abilities, and restrictions we mentioned above, and we’ll dive into these elements (and more) in detail. First, though, we’re going to establish a basic understanding of these big three.
- Rules are the governing tenets of your magic. These rules determine when spells can be cast, what’s needed, who can use it, how strong it is, etc.
- Abilities are the actual things you can do with the magic you’ve invented. Maybe you shape elemental power, influence the mind, summon infernal creatures, or shape fate itself.
- Restrictions are the oft-overlooked limits to your magic. What can’t your spells do? Is some magic off-limits? What stops a magic user from subjugating the entire world?
Honestly, you could use those three elements to start identifying magic systems in books you’ve read or games you’ve played. But we can’t just stop there! Let’s dissect magic systems even more.
Rules and Guidelines
Arguably (though almost anything can be arguable, I guess) the most important aspects of a magic system are the rules that govern it.
The magnitude or volume of rules in a magic system are limited only by an author and what they want to create. Whatever the rules are, there is only one immutable rule for your rules: be consistent.
As far as those governing principles, here’s a list of questions that can be used to create the rules of a magic.
- Is there a cost associated with magic?
- Can anyone use magic?
- When can magic be used?
- Is magic given? Can it be taken away?
- Does an instrument, conduit, or focus need to be used?
- Are there different schools of magic? Can these schools overlap?
- Is anything unaffected by or immune to magic?
- Do you need to speak to use magic? Make hand signs or write arcane words?
- Is magic intrinsic, taught, or harnessed?
Honestly, the list could go on but I don’t want to be accused of padding this article with words. I think you get the idea: rules are the details that describe how magic works.
When are rules guidelines?
You’ll notice that this section is titled “Rules and Guidelines,” and that was intentional. Not all governing details of a magic system are rigid or unbendable.
This isn’t the case in all situations. The old saying goes “rules are meant to be broken,” which is the case here, too. Some rules can be bent or broken. Some have loopholes that can be exploited.
This is especially true for villains and “chosen one” heroes who disregard or flagrantly flout the rules. In this case, those rules act more like guidelines, and there should generally be a reason for this exception.
Hard Magic vs. Soft Magic
Within the “academia” of magic systems, there exist two ends of a classification spectrum: hard and soft magic. These two terms are used to explain how rigid and explicit a magic system is.
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 this style of magic to solve problems, as readers won’t understand how the solution would work.
Some writers might be tempted to use soft magic as a way to lazily write their magic system or circumvent a problem or plot hole.
That’s illegal. I will call the writing police on you.
Even if a magic system abides by the tenets of soft magic, that system should still be detailed, fleshed out, and fully realized before the book it’s in gets published.
Interestingly, most books will have their magic system fall somewhere in between the two extremes, resulting in a story where the reader knows some of the restrictions but is still surprised by uses of magic they didn’t see coming.
This is often the case in antagonists who use magic who exploit those guidelines and loopholes we just mentioned. It’s not that the rules don’t apply to them, readers just don’t know (and might never know) how they made the rules work differently for them.
Abilities and Restrictions
Next up we have abilities and restrictions. I’ve grouped these two together because understanding what you can do is just as important as what you can’t.
Up first, abilities. As we defined earlier, these are the things that magic makes possible. Honestly, the possibilities are as endless as your imagination. Usually, magical abilities are related to each other and either the source of their power or the people using them.
For example, a magic system might harness the classical elements of earth, wind, fire, and water, though each element might have different uses.
Alternatively, you can have an item-based system like in Locke & Key, where all abilities are tied to magical keys.
Or you could have a magic system that pulls monsters from other planes of existence to vanquish your enemies. Unlike the other systems, this magic is solely summoning.
What about restrictions?
Brandon Sanderson, whose best magic is his writing, penned three laws of magic when it comes to his own magic systems. The second of those laws states that limitations are greater than powers.
This law is strictly for the authors of magical stories. Since conflict and obstacles are what make stories worth reading, magic has the potential to make any character so powerful that they unravel your story by surpassing every obstacle with ease.
To make magic systems effective, an author needs to think about not only what their magic can’t do, but what restricts the potential of their magic system. To put it another way, restrictions aren’t just necessary for a magic system; they’re necessary for the story itself.
If there is a cost, can it always be paid? Does that much power corrupt? Does magic do more harm than good? Can something take magical power away?
All good magic systems have clever, plot-relevant ways of limiting the power of their spellcasters, often at the most tense moments.
Finally, we come to magic users. Let’s be real, a magic system isn’t even worth making if there isn’t someone to use the magic.
This someone could be an individual chosen one, a race of divine beings, or a bunch of teenagers at a school.
But, like all things in a magic system, it has to make sense. This is where things like rules, abilities, and limitations come together to determine not only who can use the magic but how.
There should always be some barrier to entry to casting spells or harnessing the arcane. Even in a world where everyone has access to magic, they should have to learn how to use this magic or go through some sort of rite of passage.
Here are some general descriptions of magic users:
- Devoted followers of a god
- Students at a magical university
- Someone who has sold their soul to a demon or devil
- An alien or extra-dimensional species and those they deem worthy
- Victims of a mad scientist’s experiments
- Descendants of the last known magic user
- Those born with a specific genetic marker
- Someone who has stumbled across a grimoire or spellbook
Again, the list could go on. But every good writer, once they’ve determined who can access the magic of their world, should follow up by asking “Why?” What connects the spellcasters and the spells? Is that the best choice?
There’s no right or wrong answer, really. And some magic systems have multiple categories of magic users, some sharing one system or operating in different systems entirely!
Some Other Notable Details
We’ve covered the primary elements of magic systems, but there are a few others you should know about. Some of these might fall under what we’ve discussed so far, since “rules,” “abilities,” “restrictions,” and “magic users” are all very large umbrellas, but anything outlined in this section is worth singling out.
Sources of magic - Where does the magic come from? It could simply exist in the same way oxygen, water, and squirrels exist. But it could also come from a god, a deal, outer space, and so on.
Public knowledge - It seems like most books with magic have some way of hiding that magic from the rest of the world, but that’s not mandatory. Whether it’s something that’s kept hidden or is public knowledge, the presence of magic will have real-word implications that should be woven into the system.
Components - What goes into bringing the magic to life? Some spells require a potion to be brewed or a ritual to be cast. Others operate solely through the spoken word. Sometimes components for a spell are consumed in exchange for the magic, but other times they are fundamentally altered or left unscathed.
Think about any stand-out elements from magic systems you’ve read. How did those elements influence the use of magic and the impact it had?
Magic System Examples
There are as many magic systems as there are books with magic in them. Here are some of the more well-known ones you might recognize or get inspired by:
The Mortal Instruments series sees Shadowhunters using runes to harness the magic of the angel, Raziel. They even tattoo these runes on their body to gain their effects.
The Grishaverse books have practitioners of the “Small Science” called the Grisha. These magic users manipulate various elements of the world, depending on their specialization. But another magic, merzost, allows users to create and destroy magic (hello guidelines and soft magic).
The Wheel of Time spellcasters weave strands of the One Power together to create magical effects. This magic can corrupt its casters, especially men.
Children of Blood and Bone has maji from various clans. Each clan worships a different deity who, as a result, gift the maji with associated abilities. These range from manipulating elements to seeing into the past and future.
Four different books or series, four vastly different magic systems. At the risk of sounding corny, that’s pretty wondrous.
Are You Making a Magic System?
Hopefully this article has not only excited you about magic and all its possibilities in a book, but it has inspired you to create your own magic system in your writing.
And guess what? We have a guide for that, and you can read it right here.
Making it is one thing, though. Integrating it fluently into your story is another thing entirely. And that’s where Dabble comes in.
Dabble lets you house all of your notes, plot lines, and manuscript in one sleek, modern platform. No more juggling between a document for your characters, a document for your outline, another document for your story, and a fourth for your magic system details.
Everything is just one click away while staying out of your way when you’re doing the most important thing: writing!
The best part is that you can try Dabble and all of its feature for fourteen days, absolutely free. Like, free free. No tricks, no magic hexes. Not even a credit card required to get started.
So, when you’re ready, click here and write your magical story with Dabble.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.