Popular Magic Systems to Inspire Your Writing

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

Magic is the coolest part of any story. There, I’ve said it, and I’m not taking any arguments at this time.

Seriously, magic is the defining element of countless books, providing a framework for characters to grow and epic stories to unfold. In fantasy stories, how much your reader loves your characters, plot, and entire book can hinge on how well you make your magic work.

But no pressure, right?

If you’re embarking on making your own magic system, you’re in for a great time. It’s one of the most fulfilling parts of worldbuilding, in my incredibly humble opinion.

One of the ways you can get started is by checking out some other great systems. Use them for inspiration, a starting point, or just to brainstorm some ideas. In this article, we’re going to look at magic in:

  • Harry Potter
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • A Song of Ice and Fire
  • The Grishaverse
  • The Wheel of Time
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • The Dresden Files

While we won’t be diving into the minutiae of each system—each of them would take thousands of words on their own—we will be looking at the fundamentals of each system and what differentiates them from one another.

Up first, though, let’s briefly talk about what a magic system is.

What is a Magic System?

To keep it simple, a magic system refers to the rules, abilities, restrictions, and other details which determine how the magic in your world works.

They can be complex or simple, but your magic system should be consistent throughout your novel (with some exceptions).

Within a magic system, there are three key elements to consider: rules, abilities, and restrictions.

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 limitations to your magic. What can’t your spells do? Is some magic off-limits? What stops a magic user from subjugating the entire world?

On top of that, there are two types of magic systems: hard magic and soft magic.

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 doesn’t have explicit rules and is instead used to instill a sense of wonder and amazement. Great writers of soft magic rarely use it 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.

Many magic systems use some blend of hard and soft magic, though they tend to lean more towards one side than the other.

Clear as mud? These are just the basics. If you want a deep dive into magic systems, click here, or check out this article for a guide to creating your own magic system.

For now, let’s look at some of the most well-known magical frameworks.

Famous Magic Systems

Magic in Harry Potter

The magic system in Harry Potter is one of the most well-known and beloved examples of magic in literature. The series features a complex and intricate magical world, with its own rules, limitations, and costs. 

The magic in these books is largely governed by wand movements and incantations, but it also has its own set of rules beyond that.

For example, using specific spells means moving your wand in the right pattern while speaking the accompanying phrase. “‘You're saying it wrong,’ Harry heard Hermione snap. ‘It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the 'gar' nice and long,’” or its movie adaptation is a popular line to quote, but it emphasizes the importance of the magic system’s rules.

Dark magic, which tends to be more powerful, is limited by the costs associated with it. In the seventh book, we witness the impact wearing a Horcrux has for an extended period of time. It amplifies the negative emotions of the characters and leads to conflict within Harry, Hermione, and Ron.

There are other magic items, too, like the Time-Turner or the Philosopher's Stone, which come with their own set of rules and limitations.

The magic in Harry Potter is tied directly into the world. It’s so critical to the characters, plot, and everything else in the story that the magic system has to have expansive rules.

Magic in The Lord of the Rings

The magic system in The Lord of the Rings is more subtle than in other fantasy series. Magic is often associated with the beings who wield it, and their power is rooted in their identity and the land they inhabit. 

The primary users of magic are the wizards, or Istari, who are sent by the godlike Valar to assist the free peoples of Middle-earth. Gandalf, the most famous of the wizards, is known for his wisdom and magical abilities, which he uses to guide and protect the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, without slinging spells everywhere he goes.

One of the most notable examples of magic in The Lord of the Rings is the power of the rings themselves. The One Ring, created by Sauron to control the other rings of power, has the ability to grant invisibility to its wearer. 

The Elven rings, on the other hand, were created with the intention of preserving the beauty and power of Middle-earth. They are imbued with a kind of enchantment that helps to sustain the natural world and preserve the ancient wisdom of the Elves.

Songs and poetry play an important role in Tolkien’s system, too. The power of song and language is a recurring theme throughout the books, and many of the characters use songs and chants to invoke magic. The Elves are particularly known for their use of song, and their language is said to have the power to bring about physical changes in the world around them.

Despite the prominent role of magic in The Lord of the Rings, it is not without its limitations and consequences. The use of the One Ring, for example, comes with the risk of being corrupted by its power and becoming enslaved to Sauron. The wizards are also limited by their own mortality and the restrictions placed upon them by the Valar. 

The emphasis on the consequences of using magic adds a sense of realism and complexity to the magic system in The Lord of the Rings, making it a nuanced and intriguing element.

Something that sets The Lord of the Rings apart from other fantasy series is its use of soft magic, as opposed to hard magic. As we mentioned before, soft magic is a system where the rules are not explicitly stated, and the use of magic is often ambiguous and mysterious. 

In The Lord of the Rings, magic is not a tool that can be easily wielded or controlled, but rather an inherent part of the world and its inhabitants. The power of magic is rooted in the identities and histories of the beings who wield it, and its use often comes with unexpected consequences. This all comes together to add to the overall sense of wonder and mystery in the story, and allows the reader to experience the magic of Middle-earth in a more immersive and realistic way.

Truly, there are few stories that instill as much a sense of wonder as The Lord of the Rings.

Magic in A Song of Ice and Fire

The magic system in A Song of Ice and Fire is complex and mysterious, with magic often being portrayed as dangerous and unpredictable. It’s a relatively rare occurrence in the world of Westeros, and many of the characters in the story are either skeptical or fearful of its power. 

However, as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear magic is an integral part of the world, with important consequences for the characters and the plot.

Much of the magic system in A Song of Ice and Fire relates to the various religions and belief systems in the story. 

The followers of the Lord of Light, for example, are able to perform magic in the form of fire visions, resurrection, and shadow assassins. The Children of the Forest, a mystical race of beings who inhabit the forests of Westeros, are able to wield powerful nature magic. And the Faceless Men, a secretive organization of assassins, are able to change their appearance and take on new identities through the use of magic.

The use of magic often comes with unintended consequences, and its effects can be difficult to understand or control. This adds to the sense of danger and mystery in the story and reinforces the idea magic is not something to be taken lightly.

Magic in the Grishaverse

The magic system in the Grishaverse, encompassing author Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, The Six of Crows duology, and the King of Scars duology, is based on a series of supernatural abilities known as "Small Science." These abilities are wielded by the Grisha, a group of people who are born with the ability to manipulate elements of the world and bend them to their will. 

The Small Science is broken up into three main categories: Corporalki, Etherealki, and Materialki.

Corporalki Grisha are able to manipulate the human body and are often used as healers or soldiers. Etherealki Grisha are able to manipulate the elements, such as air and fire, and are often used as spies or diplomats. Materialki Grisha are able to manipulate materials, such as glass or steel, and are often used as craftsmen or builders. 

Each category of Grisha has its own unique set of powers, and the use of Small Science is an integral part of the political and social structure of the Grishaverse.

One of the defining characteristics of the Small Science is the concept of the "kefta." Keftas are robes worn by Grisha that are infused with specific colors, which correspond to the Grisha's category and powers. These colors are an important part of the social hierarchy of the Grisha and can often determine a Grisha's position and level of power within the community.

To that end, magic is intrinsically tied to the world and its inhabitants and isn’t just some tool to be used.

Another important aspect of the Small Science is the idea of "merzost," or dark magic. Merzost is a forbidden form of Small Science that is considered dangerous and corrupting, and its use is punishable by death. However, some characters in the story are willing to take the risk and use merzost in order to gain more power or achieve their goals. 

This adds a layer of danger and intrigue to the magic system, and reinforces the idea that all magic comes with a price.

Magic in The Wheel of Time

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series has a complex and extensive magic system known as the "One Power." The One Power is divided into two halves, saidin and saidar, which can only be accessed by men and women respectively. 

The entire system is based on the idea of "weaving" different flows of power to create specific effects and is similar in some ways to the casting of spells in other fantasy worlds.

Users of the One Power, known as Aes Sedai, are part of a powerful organization that is tasked with keeping the world safe from the Dark One, the story's primary antagonist. However, the use of the One Power is heavily regulated, and the Aes Sedai are forbidden from using it for personal gain or interfering in political matters.

In addition to the One Power, The Wheel of Time also features the "ta'veren." Ta'veren are people who have an unconscious influence on the world around them, often causing events to bend to their will. These characters are used to create a sense of destiny and inevitability in the story and add an extra layer of complexity to the magic system.

This is a unique combination of hard and soft magic that come together to create one of the most beloved fantasy series of all time.

Magic in The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, has a more subtle and understated magic system compared to some of the other examples we've looked at. In Narnia, magic is often described as something that is woven into the fabric of the world, so it isn’t as easily distinguished from the natural world.

One of the most prominent uses of magic in the series is the idea of portals or doorways between different worlds. These portals are often hidden or disguised, and can only be accessed by those who have been granted permission to enter.

The Chronicles of Narnia also features plenty of magical creatures, like talking animals and mythical creatures. These creatures often have their own unique abilities and characteristics and add to the overall sense of wonder and imagination in the series.

The use of magic in The Chronicles of Narnia is another example of soft magic. It’s not always straightforward, and often has significant consequences for the characters involved. Even when the White Witch believes she has ultimate control over Narnia, Aslan swoops in and tells her there’s deeper magic at work that supersedes her own.

A bit of a deus ex machina? Maybe. But the whole point of soft magic is to be mystical and mysterious.

Magic in the Dresden Files

The Dresden Files is a series of urban fantasy novels written by Jim Butcher, which follows the adventures of Harry Dresden, a private investigator and wizard living in modern-day Chicago. The magic in the series is based on a combination of various mythologies, folklore, and occult practices, and is grounded in a set of well-defined rules and limitations—so hard magic.

One of the key features of the magic in The Dresden Files is the use of magical energy, which is drawn from the practitioner's own life force, or "mana." Magic users in the series are limited by the amount of mana they can expend at any given time, which forces them to be strategic in their use of spells and rituals.

Mana itself is generated through life, excitement, emotions, and even sex. 

The magic is also subject to a number of other rules and limitations, such as the principle of "Thaumaturgic Conservation of Energy," which states that any magical effect must be balanced by an equal and opposite effect.

In addition to these rules and limitations, the magic in The Dresden Files is also influenced by the personal beliefs and biases of the practitioner. This means that individual practitioners may have different interpretations of the same spell or ritual and may use different symbols or tools to achieve the same result. 

The use of language and symbolism is also important in the series, with certain words and phrases having specific meanings and effects in the context of magic.

A must-have in urban fantasy, The Dresden Files is brimming with magical beings, such as fairies, demons, and spirits. These beings are often powerful and dangerous, and must be treated with caution and respect. Harry Dresden often finds himself in conflict with these beings, and must use his wits and magical skills to navigate their various agendas and schemes.

Make Your Own Magic

I don’t know how you can’t be inspired to come up with your own magic system after reading about all of these famous ones. 

Or maybe you’re just excited to go and read some of these books. I wouldn’t judge.

But if you want to write a story with a great magical framework, you’re going to want a novel-writing platform that makes it easier to integrate that magic.

Enter Dabble. Dabble not only has handy features like goal setting, automatic syncing on any device (literally any device), and the Plot Grid, but it comes with custom, nestable folders and notes to let you keep track of all your characters and worldbuilding.

What does that mean for you? It means you’re always just one click away from all the blood, sweat, and potions you’ve put into designing your magic system. That means no spells or rituals to get rid of plot holes and inconsistencies, nor do you need to have fifteen different documents open while you’re writing.

If you want to give Dabble and all its features a shot, you don’t even need to enter your credit card info. Just click here to get started on a fourteen-day free trial, and you’ll be all set to make some magic.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.