Magic Fantasy Writing Demystified: The Secrets of Magic System Writing
We all like a bit of fantasy, but what makes your story gripping? Magic systems! Think about it. Your main characters are in a fight when suddenly, one of them develops a new type of magic!
The thrill of a completely different dynamic entering the story's plot is both riveting and exciting, and when writing these types of books, it is absolutely necessary.
Now we need to clarify something. The magic that we are referring to is not that which you would find at a circus. Nope, what we are referring to is the wielding of the elements!
From different curses and potions to be able to construct how your character develops their magical powers, we are going to be covering the ins and outs of how to write your next magic system.
Plant the First Seed of Magic Writing
Placing a magic system into your plot allows you to really develop your characters in ways that would otherwise have been difficult, but you need to make sure your system is unique and well-defined.
Magic systems do not only require the teasing of what types of magic you are going to have your characters use. It also requires that you know a bit about world-building!
So where does one start? Well, delve into your story and make sure you have the basics under wraps. A few questions that require answers include the following:
What is the main environment of your story? Does it take place on a planet that is already known to man, or is it between our world and another galaxy?
What is the timeline of your story? Is it a historical turn on the development of magic, or is your story set so far into the future that each person has their own unique magic powers?
What type of society have you created? Is the country or planet ruled by an autocracy, or does it have a dystopian feel?
Have you developed your protagonist, antagonist, their values, and the type of conflict they are going to have? Yes, you read that correctly. There needs to be conflict!
What kind of magic do you want to see? Will there be magic users that cast spells, or will there be magic tamers that use dark magic to catch and enslave magical creatures?
To create a fictional world that is based on a cacophony of demons, wizards, paladins, and healers, you need to make sure that your foundation is solid. That's just how fantasy works!
When you plant the seed of your story, your world follows your rules. Your magic system can do whatever you want it to. The mere existence of a magic system will entice readers to your work, from different masteries of magical abilities to different types of magical beings.
How Well Do You Understand Magic Systems?
As you venture into the domain of creating your own fantasy novels, you need to think about how you are going to develop your own magic system. Some things you will need to consider is whether you want to use soft magic or hard magic. Yes, those types of magic exist!
But, before we can assign magical abilities to your fantasy world, there are a few aspects of magic that you need to master. This is to make sure your reader understands your concept and can, to some extent, relate to a specific character more readily.
The Abundance of Magic in Fantasy
How abundant do you want magic to be in your world? Will everyone inherently be able to use magic, or will it only be reserved for those of royal descent? With that being said, you will need to justify its abundance.
To keep your readers hooked, you need to explain what magic means in your world. Is it a sin to be born with magic powers, so much so that you are cast out of society? Will the use of magic be greeted with awe? Better yet, will your characters have control over this power?
One approach you could take, which is taken by many other fantasy novels, is to give different magic users the chance to come together, by chance, for a common goal. Yes, this sounds rather cliché, but by thinking outside the box, you can really make it unique.
But, on the contrary, what if everyone uses magic? Well, if it is a common occurrence throughout life and the capacity to use magic is the norm, you will need to create a form of whimsy that ensures the storyline isn't monotonous or mundane.
A way to spin the excessive presence of a magic system in your world is maybe having a character lose control of their powers, causing the entire magic world to lose stability. Just a thought!
What Is the Definition of Magic in Fantasy?
Magic is more than just simple spells of elemental origin, it can be the magic to conjure up spirits, control animals, or even take a step into the past. Thus, the definition is not necessarily its denotation but more of a magic system's connotation.
What needs to be remembered is that the magic system needs to be well understood by everyone within your realm. Better yet, it should be used to create some form of conflict.
However, there is a part where you need to not only take into account the relevant parts of your magic system's history but also how dynamic you want your magic system to be.
So, before you move forward with the nitty-gritty of your journey into creating your own sense of magic, you need to consider how well-defined your magic system is going to be in the world.
Once you have established this, you can start fleshing out who qualifies to use magic, whether you will use artifacts with embedded magical power or whether the magic present will be limited to only elemental magic.
Who Is Eligible to Wield Magical Powers?
As you delve into this concept, think about the different types of characters in your story. Based on the plot type that you have chosen; you will most likely need to classify the eligibility of each character to use magic.
Every fantasy genre needs someone who wields magic in a seemingly natural world. So, who will be allowed to use black magic, white magic, or more magic than anyone else? Well, here are a few directions you could take:
You could limit the use of magic to "The Chosen Few." This could be seen as a definitive advantage your main character has over others. You could choose a few to use magic, but also have your main character wield a more powerful spell.
Many high fantasy novels will refer to someone who sees magic, or better yet, rules the elements of earth, fire, wind, and water as a "Freak of Nature." For instance, look at how the Dursleys treat Harry in Harry Potter!
If you're into wizards and making your characters go to school to study how to use magic, implementing a system of "meritocracy" may be worthwhile.
Here, your characters will start to gain a sense of their capabilities, discovering other forms of power or the use their abilities to fight demons, and protect societies but also have the ability to rule worlds!
The choice with regard to which direction you want your eligibility criteria to go is all up to you. However, just make sure there are some that follow the rules, and others who would rather strive for as much power as they can.
The Nitty-Gritty of an Elemental Fantasy Magic System
The elements are more than just your typical fire, water, earth, and wind. You could even include vox, lightning, metal, and wood. Yes, these will most likely be present in a supernatural world, but the aim here is to broaden your magic system repertoire!
Once you have decided which elements you are going to include in your magic system, you need to define some clear rules. What we mean is that you need to focus on the following three factors:
What will the range of your magic be? Yes, we are referring to how far away targets can be hit! Will your character use short-range magic, or be able to continue casting spells for a few miles?
The key here is to be realistic, yet not too extravagant!
What is the medium that your magic will use? Remember, the type of magic varies. So, will your characters cast their magic through words, physical actions, or artifacts?
Ultimately, what will your magic do? Is it magic that forces one to tell the truth in order to solve conflict? Does it provide superspeed? Here the outcome should be the question, "What is the function of this magical ability?"
When it comes to establishing the range of a magic system, it can be rather easy to deduce. It could be the same character, a different character, or something on a larger scale affecting multiple people.
How Does Magic Work in Fantasy?
Magic on its own does not adhere to its own rules. However, that doesn't mean you can't impose your own rules! But, in order to do this, you need to understand the differences between certain magic systems.
Luckily for you, we have you covered!
The Difference Between Soft and Hard Fantasy Magic Systems
What better way to learn about magic than from the words of a veteran, namely C.R. Bowenson? He typically divides magic into two different categorical subtypes. The hard or soft magic, or the rational or irrational magic. Let's delve a bit deeper!
Simply put, the harder the magic, the more detailed and explicit the rules for its use in the story. Magic serves the function of altering a specific instance! With more detail in the magic, this instance can become completely warped and unrecognizable.
A soft magic system on the contrary is one that is a lot more generic. The use of a soft magic system becomes more prominent when magic doesn't play a major role in establishing and forwarding the plot of your novel.
Then comes the degree of rationality that you want to add to your magic system. For example, using a soft magic system that only includes the ability to wield magic from the four elements seems a lot more rational than being able to manipulate thunder across different planes of time.
Your magic system needs to define your magical world. In this way, you are also indicating the type of magical creature you want to include when creating your system.
As you can see, magic systems do not need to be as inherently complex as others make them out to be. Many well-known fantasy writers have written a fantasy novel where magical abilities are more like soft magic than hard magic.
Magic that is more complex is not necessarily easier to understand. Simply put, just because it is more detailed does not guarantee that you will be a successful science fiction writer.
Tapping Into the Four Different Types of Elemental Magic in Fiction
We discussed the different types of magic and which character should be able to wield magic. But, in creating a believable world, especially in fantasy fiction, there are four main types of magic systems. Each of them has its own set of interesting limitations!
The Inherited Magic System
As simple as the heading states, yes, this type of magic system has an underlying genetic component to it. It is this type of magic system that is most common in children's books.
Let's think of Harry Potter. At Hogwarts, most of the students have magic in their genes. That is, apart from the witches and wizards who are half-bloods or from Muggle families.
Other than the infamous Harry Potter, which other well-known fantasy stories use this form of magic? Well, The Witcher is another well-known title that uses the inherited magic system.
In The Witcher, people and creatures are born with their magical capabilities, such as being a sorceress, a druid, or an elf. They then spend most of their life learning to harness and develop their magical abilities.
Just imagine Harry and Hermione, or Geralt and Ciri communicating by using cell phones? Just the thought of it is amusing!
A Magic System Based on Objects
Magic can either be found within a person, a creature or better yet, an object. Now, this could be done by wielding a weapon that only a certain person can wield, but the power it creates is insurmountable.
You can make this link more concrete when you look at simple game mechanics. Warlords can only use heavy metal weapons such as large axes and broadswords. Imagine a warlord running around with a dagger or violin. No hate on the bards, we promise!
World-building always needs a few special objects that have intrinsic magic potential. Whether it is soft magic or a more complex magic system, it really does add another element of excitement.
A few great examples that use this magic system are The Chronicles of Narnia, which makes use of the magic wardrobe, and The Lord of the Rings, which has the one ring that rules them all!
An Environmental Magic System
The most popular of all magic systems, an environmental magic system either allows characters to obtain or use magic based on being in a particular environment. The more abundant said environment, the greater the power you will be able to create.
But, with this magic system, there are a few more rules than other systems. For instance, you are either able to use the magic of the four elements, combine magic and medicine as an alchemist, or use material objects as a source of power for spells.
This system can be seen in Excalibur and the sword that is built into it, as well as in Merlin and his many magical skills.
The Faith-Based Magic System
Now instead of using fire and earth like your typical wizards, this magic system is based on magic that is granted by someone that is of a higher power. Usually, this is through specific rules followers in a ritual.
Depending on the type of worlds you fancy creating, you can use this system as one that is based more on soft magic. Writers that focus more on the fantasy genre typically use this as one of the common magic systems, based on how easy it is for the reader to understand.
Some of the main magic systems that fall under this category include the ethereal characters that can manipulate energies from other worlds into their plane of time.
You can choose either cosmic or celestial magic systems to be included in your fantasy world. Being able to harness and use magic from the universe or spirits from certain realms can give an unrealistic sense of surrealism to your world... absolutely enthralling, right?
Or, you could go for the typical spell that summons spirits to your world. Fantasy novels are not complete without including a character that can harness their own spiritual energy to advance the plot of the story.
An example of this overarching magic system is The Mortal Instruments, where the Shadowhunters believe they got their gift to use heavenly magic from angels. That is, with the main purpose of bringing a sense of peace to the human world.
A Few Extra Nuggets on How to Make a Magic System
Magic systems are in no way perfect. But, that doesn't mean that you can't strive towards the asymptote of perfection, right?
So, to really excel in your world-building journey and to create the perfect balance of both soft magic and hard magic, you will need to pay attention to a few key pointers.
Decide on the Tone When Writing Magic Systems
No, as with hard and soft, there is another comparative coming your way! This is a choice of whether you want your fantasy world to be "high fantasy" or "low fantasy."
Let's explain! A story that deals with dark lords and their potential to create so much trouble that the world has the potential to end is a "high fantasy" system. For example, The Lord of The Rings has a story that is quite low on magic but high on fantasy.
On the contrary, an example of a novel that has a high use of magic but a "low fantasy" tone would be that of Discworld.
But you may be wondering what the significance of the tone of magic and fantasy is for your novel. Well, if you have a high fantasy and low magic story, the characters cannot just use a spell to get them out of sticky situations.
No, they actually need to think about what they can manually create! This provides a form of anticipation for the reader, especially when the point in your story arises where disaster strikes! This is also the point where you can see how experienced certain fantasy writers are.
Make Sure Your Types of Fantasy Magic Are Consistent
The magic systems that you choose, whether they are made of soft magic or hard magic, need to be consistent throughout your story.
What does this mean? Well, if you are using a wand or staff to create a spell and wield your magic, keep it that way! Halfway through your story, don't make a random few characters who don't need the prerequisite items to fully perform magic!
Drop your staff or wand, and you're in a bit of a sticky situation. How will your characters get out of this situation? Well, that is all up to you!
A key point to consider here is that consistency has some difficulties in certain settings. For instance, let's take a look at Doctor Strange. He can literally do anything, from turning back time to flying into the distance.
What rules does he abide by? When you start asking this question, you know a plot hole is present in your story.
Make Sure You Actually Need Fantasy Magic
Inserting magic systems into your story is not compulsory. If your story does not need magic, then why put it in? Yes, it can spice up your plot, but is it worth it if your readers are more confused than ever?
However, if you believe that magic is required, begin by considering soft magic to add some spice here and there! Only if you decide to create a world where your story is purely based on the interactions between the magic-wielding potential of citizens should you think of incorporating a hard magic system.
Where to Go For Inspiration?
There are so many people that want to create their first novel with magic systems present, but they feel lost, confused, and have absolutely no idea where to start!
To really understand a magic system, you need to delve into its different applications across an array of different literature types. Let's go through a few examples that can really inspire you to create your own unique magic system.
Jumping Into Anime and Manga
Japan has played host to some of the most adoptable literary cultures known to man! With Anime and Manga, you can only think and believe the supernatural and the vast array of powers that characters can manifest.
A few good examples where you can really tap into your imagination include Bleach, Fairy Tail, Dragon Ball Z, and Sword Art Online.
With the different genres of Anime and Manga that exist, you may want to fine-tune your search based on whether you want soft magic or hard magic.
For instance, Fairy Tail is all about people born with inherent magic abilities, creating guilds, and fighting against the forces of evil. But, their are evil guilds that also exist, with magic choices dictating their life's choices.
On the flip side, Sword Art Online provides everyone that plays a specific game with the opportunity to use vast arrays of magic. Yes, they are not born with the potential, but depending on which class their character chooses, the types of magic available at their disposal will alter.
The Presence of Magic Systems in Video Games
When game designers try to create the best video game possible, you can be sure that magic will show up at some point in the game's story.
Final Fantasy, Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, and Skylanders are perfect examples of the use of basic magic systems and how these systems can develop as their individual stories progress.
Be Unique and Different!
You can either use all the information you have just learned as a bulletproof way to incorporate magical systems into your next novel or ignore it. Or, you can use it as a foundation to create your own new magic system!
If you are confident in your abilities, then we would recommend the latter. A unique magic system will generate loyal readers who are excited for the next part of their favorite character's journey.
If you use the same systems as many other classic fantasy novels, unless there is a gripping plot, your magic system will most likely be overshadowed by the other, more well-known titles.
One of the ways to ensure your chosen magic system is unique is by structuring in the backdrop of a time period that you have a marked interest in.
For example, do you enjoy the medieval period? Where the secrecy of magic-wielders such as witches was punishable by death?
Or, do you enjoy all the intricacies and politics that come with the Roman empire?
Imagine combining the two, and then adding your own unique spin on the use of magic within that context. As soon as you write about what you enjoy, your writing potential will skyrocket!
If you found this post helpful or you find yourself a bit stuck regarding which magic system to incorporate, head on over to The Urban Writers and let our qualified fantasy writers give you that experience that will turn your novel into the next best-seller.
As you think of including magic in your next novel, make sure to think of each domain that can affect its use.
Whether it be an object producing lightning only on Wednesdays or a special stone having the ability to raise the dead once every ten thousand years, you need to know the intent and powers that anything to do with magic has!
Embedding a magic system into your novel is never a bad idea. If it fits, allow it to flourish as your characters grow to wield more powerful magic.
Allow yourself to grow with your characters. Tap into types of magic that you never thought were possible, experiment with different combinations, and create unique battles and spells.
The world of fantasy fiction is at your fingertips, and you have the ability to dictate the direction that you wish to follow!