Creating Magic Systems

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Greetings Storytellers. Diana here today to talk a little about magic as part of the craft of writing. And I’m not just talking about fantasy. Writers of speculative fiction—whether fantasy, paranormal, horror, superhero, science fiction, or religious fiction—are dealing with supernatural or hyper-scientific systems that stretch our reality and knowledge of the known.

Craig recently posted about “Suspension of Disbelief” and he shared this recommendation: “If you write in any of the speculative genres, don’t spend too much time selling the functionality. Describe things and paint a vivid picture for sure, but don’t go into how it works.”

I’m going to shift into a different direction, into Magic Systems. Suspension of disbelief still applies. We all we know that time travel doesn’t exist (at least not yet) and that there’s no such thing as dragons. We suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy those stories. But I’m also going to suggest that there are some basic guidelines that help writers create realities where magic feels natural and integrated into the speculative world.

Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) suggests that magic systems, regardless of the speculative genre, should be cohesive, logical and well-explained in order to immerse the reader. Readers don’t necessarily need the nuts and bolts of how it works, but lets just agree that a time machine functions like a time machine. It can’t turn into a zebra or vacuum the house. At least not without some cohesive and logical explanation.

Sanderson distinguishes between “soft magic” and “hard magic” and suggests that they lie on a continuum.

The far end of the soft magic continuum is full of “wonder” and has few rules. The magic users have mysterious abilities and can do whatever they wish with little limitation. Wizards and gods are good examples of characters that tend toward the soft magic extreme, though they will often be subject to some rules. Rarely is someone with soft magic a main character or they’d simply wave their wands through every obstacle.

Hard magic lies on the other end of the spectrum, and here is where the rules come into play. In this case, the magic becomes an integral plot device in the story. According to Sanderson, an author’s “ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way for the reader depends directly on how well the reader understands the magic.”

So what does the “hard” end of the magic system need for reader understanding?

Origin – What is the source of the magic? Where did it come from? If people have different powers, why? Magic isn’t entirely random, and it needs to make sense within a story’s context. It’s origin may be a piece of inherited jewelry, the bite of a radioactive spider, or the discovery of alien technology. Men and women may have different powers, or certain genetic lines may have more abilities than others. If only some fairies can fly, why?

Simplicity – Some of the best magical systems have very little complexity but a great deal of depth. Think about how “warp drive” impacted space travel in Star Trek. That one bit of hard magic had huge implications. A story’s magic users have to work to make the system fit their needs, as well as deal with its limitations and consequences.

Limitations – What exactly can the magic do and what can’t it do? Be specific. Perhaps it can turn the user invisible, but won’t allow him to walk through walls. Perhaps the car can fly, but only for short distances. A magic system without limitations is too easy. We want our protagonists to face obstacles.

Flaws/weaknesses – These are the holes in the magic. What is its foil? When doesn’t it work? Is there a cost to the user? Remember Superman’s kryptonite? I had a shapeshifter who ended up naked and unconscious every time he changed back into human form, one of many flaws he had to deal with.

Tools/Activators – What does the magic need to function? Does it need a special item, something ingested, an initiation, a mutation? Does the amulet need to be worn? Does the laser beam need to charge up before it can shot through space?

Early introduction – Establish the magic parameters early and foreshadow any change in abilities. Beware of adding a soft or hard magic solution just when it’s convenient (deus ex machina), especially near the end of the story!

Remember that when crafting a magic system, the limitations and flaws are usually more interesting than the strengths (no different than crafting interesting characters). What the system can’t do is more intriguing than what it can, and it’s the system’s deficiencies that create the challenges and obstacles for the characters.

The number of rules an author employs is what slides the magic system along the continuum. But that’s not the only way soft and hard magic can be blended. Some stories will use hard magic to drive the story (space travel), but add little elements of soft magic (alien telepathy) to increase the sense of wonder.

Magic is no small matter! It will have an impact on the world, nations, cultures, governments, and religions. It will impact power hierarchies, livelihood, family, self-esteem, danger, and destiny. Take some time to think about how the presence of magic impacts the overall world. The more your magic system is woven into your world-building, the more real it will feel to the reader.

Happy Writing!

86 thoughts on “Creating Magic Systems

  1. Pingback: Creating Magic Systems – Legacy's Life Journal

  2. HI Diana, this is a good post and explains beautifully about how to incorporate magic into a novel. I have not done that to date. I have rather incorporated the religious beliefs of my childhood faith. The Catholic Church has rites for many strange and mysterious happenings including exorcisms. There is also Purgatory which is a place between Heaven and Earth. I find myself returning to my origins when I write novels. The beliefs and superstitions of my youth all crowd around me, jostling to get into the novel.

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    • I look at “magic” broadly, Robbie. Anything speculative… like ghosts, spirits, demons, visions, esp, even a lot of religious beliefs simply because we have to speculate about them, like life after death or heaven. By that definition, most of your books contain an element of magic. Beyond the Nethergate is full of the supernatural, and In The Ghost and his Gold, you created at least some rules about what your soldier’s ghost could and couldn’t do. So I would say that you have done this! I think we do most of this naturally, but I always like these kinds of guidelines to beef up things like the limitations and flaws. Thanks for dropping by. Happy Writing!

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  3. Pingback: Creating Magic Systems – Site Title

    • Some people write that way, Michael, with outlines and character bios and research. Other people just dive in and write. And a whole bunch of us are somewhere in between. What’s most important is finding what works for you. We’re all different with our own creative styles. Thanks so much for stopping by to read and have a wonderful Sunday. Happy Writing!

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  4. Another thought-provoking post! The point about the limitations of magic is such a vital one. In your excellent Unraveling the Veil series, the three main characters have their own abilities but each one comes with significant (and dangerous) consequences. I’ve just looked up Superman because I found him a bit boring as a child. The first edition appeared in 1938; Kryptonite didn’t make an appearance until1961 – and added a compelling strand to the subsequent tales. There has to be tension and that does need the limitations of magic to work. Many thanks! ♥♥

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    • Thanks so much for the comment, Alex. I loved Sanderson’s approach to creating magic systems and have tried to build mine the same way. I’m stoked that you noticed! Thank you! And that’s so interesting about Superman and how long it took for there to be a serious flaw to his powers. He was pretty invincible up to that point, which may be why you found him sort of boring. Flaws and weaknesses are essential to any story telling, I think. They make our characters work hard and change. Thanks for the wonderful comment, my friend. Have a great weekend. ❤

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  5. I’ve never heard of the terms “soft magic” and “hard magic,” but they make a lot of sense. Maybe writers don’t have to go into how something works, but as a left-brained analytical type, I like something that seems plausible even if I know it’s not true. It’s the same feeling I have when watching an action thriller where we know the lead character will survive, but I want some sense of logic as it happens. I suppose that’s why I’m more inclined to enjoy an action film or story where the actor/protagonist uses their mind to outsmart the villain rather than overcome enormous odds through brute force.

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    • I’m the same way, Pete. I like a sense of plausibility and logic even as I suspend my disbelief. How well the “magical” elements are integrated into the world is part of that. Great point about protagonists using their minds/cleverness to solve problems. I love to see characters work hard and smart rather than just blast their way through problems. BTW, I’m about 100 pages into your book and hope to finish within a few days. 🙂 Thanks for your patience!

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  6. Fabulous explanations of soft and hard magic (I had never heard the terms before but it makes so much sense). I don’t write that type of fiction but I know that, when I’ve read stories that contain magic, sometimes something just didn’t work for me. At the time, I wasn’t able to put my finger on the problem, but I think there could have been magical “hand waving” going on.

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    • Thanks for dropping by, Janis. I think that “hand waving” is probably what turns off a lot of readers to fantasy. There is a real craft (and balance) to these systems. I like magic that’s so natural and integrated into the fictional world that it almost fades into the background, allowing the human story rises to the forefront. Thanks so much for the comment. Have a great weekend! ❤

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  7. This is an incredibly informative post, Diana. While I’ve never written a fantasy story, I have considered a time-travel story. I may yet write it one of these days. Your post gives me much to consider.

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  8. This is a fascinating subject. As one who would probably be more of a panster writer, I can see how not planning this part would cause problems. Very interesting and thank you, Diana.

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Dale. I think it helps to plan the magic a little bit up front, even if the overall story will be pantsered. It has so many tentacles that it can really cause plot problems if it isn’t fully understood. And that can create lots of rewrites. Ugh. I’m glad you found this interesting. Thanks for the visit and have a great weekend.

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  9. An interesting post, Diana. A system where magic can do anything is not a good idea, as you say. It makes things too easy.
    In my Wolves of Vimar series, the magic is pretty standard. Mages manipulate an invisible force that runs around the world. It is incompatible with water and sinks underground around rivers and seas. The larger the body of water, the deeper it goes. Like rivers and streams, it has confluences, and where 2 or more streams meet, magic is stronger. It is on the more powerful of these nodes, as they are called, the mages of old built their towers.
    I sometimes allow my mage to explain something, for example, how the invisibility spell bends light rays around a subject.
    In another series, the magic is imbued into gems by mages and can only be used in the gems.

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    • Very cool, Viv. I like how the magic has parameters and limitations as well as ways of becoming stronger. I also like how the magic you describe is woven into the world-building. That’s fascinating. I also will have characters explain an element of magic if it makes sense in the story and adds to the narrative. It’s part of working with that continuum in the context of the story and its characters. Thanks for sharing your experience! Happy Writing!

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  10. I love magic in fiction. It always feels like it should make a character stronger and safer, but there’s always someone else with magic who challenges him who’s just as strong but evil. So magic is never a total blessing. It complicates things, so it’s always a good story. Enjoyed this post.

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    • Great point about the foils, Judi. We want our characters to have less power so they have to work harder and use their wits. Plus we want them to fail a lot. (Writers are so mean). The hero’s magic might be weaker, at least for a while, or so full of flaws that the bad guys can take advantage of the opportunities. You’re right that it’s never completely a blessing and can complicate everything. Thanks for the visit and the great comment. Happy Writing!

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  11. In Eternal Road, I have a car that transports folks and until your post, I never gave much thought to explaining how it worked. I did have a beta reader on the sequel suggest putting an operator’s manual in the glove box. Your post has convinced me that the car works and that’s about all we need to know. Thanks, Diana

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    • I agree, Denise. I really enjoy creative magic systems that are woven into the world and plot. Sanderson does that really well and I’ve tried to use his magic system concept in my writing. Thanks for the visit and Happy Writing.

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  12. This is a fascinating post, Diana. I haven’t thought about magic systems at all, but your post has me imagining scenes and possibilities. Thank you!

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    • I beg to differ, Gwen. 😀 😀 I just finished “The Choice” a week or so ago, and you have a “speculative” system working in the background of the series, which works quite well, by the way. It has rules, limitations, and a source, and you introduced it early in the series. It’s not the focus of the story, but I’m certain you put some thought into its workings and how to integrate it into the tale you want to tell. I just finished reminding Joan that some of her stories have ghosts! Lol. I’m glad the post got you thinking about scenes and possibilities. Thanks for the visit!

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  13. My head is spinning. What a great discussion on magic and its variances. I must say, I had to go back and read Craig’s article (somehow missed it) about not spending too much time trying to convince readers of functionality of a speculative plot piece. I struggled with that in my thrillers–wish I’d asked Craig’s advice!

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Jacqui. Isn’t this fun? I was thinking about Craig’s post as I wrote this one. I think he does conform to the rules, but in a very light whimsical way. For example, the Hat can only “talk” when on Lizzie’s head, it has an origin, and it can only change into other styles of hats. Craig doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts about how this can possibly be, but that’s part of the “wonder” and suspension of disbelief. What’s important is that he’s set parameters around the magic that the characters have to work with or work around. Lucy and Xhosa’s “paranormal” connection is similar. You’ve kept it narrow in scope, haven’t overplayed it, and haven’t tried to explain it. It works. I just love this stuff. Have a great day and Happy Writing!

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  14. What a wonderful post, Diana! You know I’m a huge fantasy fan, especially today, when an escape from reality is big on my list of things that make me happy. (I’ve read everything Brandon Sanderson has ever written, btw.) This is one reason why I love your books so much, and now I see better how you handle creating your magical worlds and systems and heros. While I doubt I’ll ever write true fantasy, for sure there are some elements here I can use … and maybe do already to some extent … in my Wake-Robin Ridge series. But even if I never used anything you pointed out, I love having a better understanding of why some fantasy tales work much better than others.

    I hope to be getting back to my regular blog visits before much longer, and to sharing “This Week on Story Empire” again. In the meantime, thanks for a great post, that pulled me right in! 😊❤️

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    • I love Sanderson too, Marcia, and it was his Mistborn series that made me start researching magic systems. I’ve tried to use the principles ever since. And you do include “paranormal” magic! Wake-Robin Ridge is full of it, and I love it since you do it very well. If you think about it, you’ve employed the magic system “rules.” As I was saying to Craig, they don’t need to be hard science and techy. There is a lot of room for wonder too (there has to be with a character like Rabbit). Keep resting and regaining your strength, my friend. Have a peaceful weekend. ❤

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      • Oh, it’s so nice to think I unknowingly used some of the rules you’ve mentioned. That’s a wonderful compliment, Diana, and as always, I’m delighted that you’ve enjoyed the series, especially Rabbit. I’m really looking forward to getting back into the swing of writing with my Cole, Cole, & Dupree novella. I NEED to feel well enough to be creative again, and I’m confident I’ll get there! Thanks for the encouragement and all the tips on handling magic, too! 😀 ❤

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  15. This is such a great bit of direction when creating magic systems, whether soft or hard. And the limitations or weaknesses of the magic definitely serve to add conflict and tension to the story. In my most recent release, a character has to deal with the limitations and frustrations of her “gift.” And as Craig mentioned already, I thought of his character who has to make sure he has a change of clothes nearby when he transforms back to human form. I love all of this! Magic makes the world go around! Thank you for sharing, Diana.

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    • You include paranormal elements in some of your stories for sure, Jan. And you do it well – very consistent, which makes it easy for the reader to suspend disbelief. I really love adding limitations and flaws to the magic as there are so many opportunities for trouble there to make our characters struggle and work. I had no idea that so many of us have naked shapeshifters. Lol. Thanks for the visit and Happy Writing!

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  16. Great post. I may be delving into a bit more of this in my coming posts. I love the limitations part of the post. I’ve written a kind of recurring character who turns into fog. When he does, it’s only him. No clothing, not even his after shave which I’ve had some fun with when he comes back.

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  17. All good points Diana. I recently did a fantasy flash fiction piece that had magic, but the user had to pay a price. It makes the story more relatable for sure. Would the magic user consider using the magic if the price were too great? You want the reader to enjoy the story, not think you just wave your hand and everything works out in the protagonists favor.

    I did this with a time travel story I wrote earlier and a fiction piece based on a character getting help from their muse who only gave partial clues. What fun would it be if the muse gave the answers.

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    • Great points, Michele. “Would the magic user consider using the magic if the price were too great?” That’s a great dilemma for a character, isn’t it? I enjoy stories where magic has lots of rules and costs because they create so obstacles. I read a book a few years ago where the main character’s magic drew the life out of everything around him. Oh, the turmoil and drama! Ha ha. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Magical Writing!

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  18. Pingback: Creating Magic Systems | Jeanne Owens, author

  19. I was disappointed to know that it “can’t vacuum the house.” This is a good and timely post, Diana. I am crawling through the second book in my series, and I added just a hint of factual support for the phenomena at work. Not so much “how it works,” but a little evidence that there was some official interest in whether it could work. I’ll be paying attention to your suggestions as I continue this edit. Thanks!

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    • I think you’ve done a fabulous job with the magic in Knuckleheads. There are some rules and obstacles, but there’s also a lot of “wonder” which is delightful. I think you positioned the magic well along that continuum. I did wonder how these two kids ended up with their skills, but I also completely suspended my disbelief. I’m almost done with the book. 🙂 Thanks for the visit and have fun with the sequel!

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      • Thanks. They’re adults in the sequel, so this can just be “skills they’ve had since they were children.” But there has been some evolution of Zach’s skills, and still some obstacles.

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  20. You’ve given me something to think about, Diana. I don’t write fantasy, but I have written a time travel story and have considered doing another one. The part about magic having flaws has sparked a story idea. Thanks for the great post.

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    • Thanks for dropping by, Joan. I frequently laugh when writers say they don’t write speculative fiction but they include ghosts in their stories. Time travel is a great “magic” because your readers already know, generally, what it is and have bought into it. Loading it with limitations and flaws beyond the butterfly effect can make it distinct to the story. 🙂 I often think about Hans Solo’s Millennium Falcon that wouldn’t start up just when he needed to escape. I’m glad this sparked a story idea. Yay! Happy Writing.

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  21. Pingback: Creating Magic Systems | Legends of Windemere

  22. Plotters probably work out all the details of their magic systems, but pantsers let them develop organically, which may lead to problems. So careful checking at the beta-reading stage would be in order. I added magical and quasi-magical elements to my books “as needed,” which created problems I had to resolve downstream in the series or in a sequel. Magic wands aren’t part of the writer’s toolkit, sadly. 🙁 Which reminds me that you write the entire series before publishing. Very wise. 🙂

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    • Great points, Audrey. Pantsers (and plotters) can get into trouble when they haven’t thought their magic system through, and your suggestion about careful beta-reading is excellent. As a reader, I’m disappointed when a character in the middle of a fight seems to forget that he has super strength, or when a character with the power of flight can suddenly levitate things (to fix a plot hole). And you’re right that making the magic system work is one of the reasons I write all the books of a series before I publish the first. That’s probably overkill, but I seem to go back and forth constantly to make all the elements line up. Thanks for dropping by to read, and Happy Writing!

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