Worldbuilding: Magic Systems
Today we’re going to have a look at the creation of magic systems. The internet has many in-depth resources on this topic, so my aim here is to keep it simple, outline some basic principles, and apply them to the fictional fantasy world I have been building throughout this series.
The majority of fantasy books do include magic, although it’s not always the main focus and may be treated as more of a background item. You probably have your own preference for the amount of magic and how it’s used, and a rough idea of the emphasis you will place on it in your fantasy world.
Keep magic simple – If your magic system is so complicated it takes many pages of explanation for your readers, consider taking the complexity down. Readers are there for the story, and you don’t want to overwhelm them with technical infodumps that don’t integrate into the plot.
Keep magic consistent – Your magic system must have rules and internal consistency, and it must adhere to those rules throughout the entire plot. Make the rules as clear as you can, as early as you can, otherwise you run the risk of pulling what seems like a deus ex machina later in the book.
Give magic limitations – If anyone can use magic to do anything, it’s boring. Ensure your magic has restrictions, limits or consequences for the users. The magic should help drive the tension, not make things too easy for your characters.
Link magic with the surrounding society – Ensure the type of magic you choose is appropriate and natural for your society. For example, magic based on science may not be appropriate in a medieval setting. Consider the effect magic has had on the operation of society in your world. What inventions and technologies does magic supersede? Consider the everyday person’s perception, usage of and reaction to magic.
Types of magic systems
Let’s have a think about the different kind of principles on which you can base your magic system. Remember, you can mix and match and invent to your heart’s content. However, the all important rule, keep it simple, must not be forgotten.
Magic from life force – Create magical power based around the life force and energy that emanates from humans and other living things, both plants and animals.
Magic from the gods – Create magical power as a gift from the gods. It could take any form, and the power provided can be dictated at the whim of the gods, or subject to certain rituals.
Magic from organic ingredients – Create magical power based on combining ingredients, such as plants, to make spells or potions.
Magic from words – Create magical power based on either the written word or spoken word, i.e. spells.
Magic from the elements – Create magical power around manipulation of the elements, traditionally being air, earth, fire and water. Other elements could be added.
Magic from physical objects – Create magical power from particular physical objects that only certain people are able to obtain or use.
Magic from rituals – Create magical power based on certain rituals being performed in a certain order or at particular times.
Magic from supernatural forces – Create magical power based around the spirit world, or utilising the power of other beings such as angels or demons.
Magic from the mind and body – Create magical power based around enhanced powers of the brain and body, such as mind-reading or enhanced strength.
Magic from the user – Create magical powers based around the character of the magic user and their natural skills and talents.
When considering your magic system, have a think about the following issues and use them to shape the detail and add interest.
Who can do magic in your world?
- Those who have been taught?
- Those with the right genes?
- Certain races?
- Holy or religious people?
- People in a certain environment or state of mind?
- People who can afford it?
- How do people without magic view people with magic?
- What status do magic users have in society?
What does your magic do?
- Is it strong or weak?
- What, precisely, can it manipulate? Physical items, elements, etc.
- Do different people have different types of magical powers or skills?
- Can people improve their magic skills or are they born with the power they have?
- Are people aware of their magical powers?
- Do people automatically know how to control their magic or do they need to be taught?
- Is magic rare or common?
- What are the limits on magic – the things it can’t do?
What is the source of magic?
- How did magic originate in your world?
- How do people replenish their supply of magic or their magical power?
- Will magic ever be taken away?
- Does anything stop magic working?
- Are people in general aware of the origins and source of magic, or is it a mystery, or known to a chosen few?
- What stops people with magic being all-powerful?
How is magic performed?
- Does your magic require certain rituals or physical objects to work?
- Does magic come naturally, or require a lot of effort and training?
- Can magic only be performed under certain conditions, or not if certain conditions are present?
- What is the cost of using magic to the user?
- How often does magical power have to be replenished?
- What happens to magical powers or the effects of magic over time?
- How does the strength of the magic affect the cost to the user?
- Does magic require speech or writing or recalling information?
- Does the user fully understand the magic, or is there some element of chance or mystery?
- Does magic comply with the user or have a separate presence or will?
The Lannerain Chronicles
Back to my own world now. I have created a fantasy world based in a medieval setting. I have already specified that I want to have wizards, and specifically have the characters of an elderly castle wizard and a young man learning to be his apprentice. So I already know some things about my magic system:
- Some people can be trained to use magic
- Magic has to be learned
- People who can use magic are designated as wizards
I have decided to create a magic system based on linking magic from life force with magic from words. Spells are a traditional kind of magic that suit a medieval world and linking it with another kind of magic gives a different twist.
I like the idea of drawing magical force from within, perhaps based on some kind of chakra system specific to my world. So, we can have certain centres of power within the body of a person, which can be drawn on if a person knows the right spell to say in the right way. Each chakra could perform a different kind of magical power.
Magic based on the energy of the body would be drained based on the energy reserves of the person, and would need some kind of energising ritual to restore. Perhaps a specific chant, or some kind of meditation exercise, that needs quiet and time alone.
I need to think about this system a little more to develop it, but at this stage, that’s going to be the bare bones which I intend to work with.
If you have any further thoughts about things to consider when creating magic systems, let me know in the comments. Stay tuned for the next post in this series.