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Writing Tip 33 - Magic Systems


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This is another of my SaScon notes from 2020(?) I believe.

Regrettably, I don't remember the name of the person who did this presentation, but whoever they are, they were excellent.

Before we get started, a little tip from myself: Don't treat your magic system like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Try to make your magic, make sense.

Your magic should have solid internal workings that you as the writer understand, even if they don't make any sense lol.

Your readers don't need to know all the rules (it can be great for mysteries or foreshadowing if they don't), but you have to understand them, and your world has to follow them because believe me, a reader can tell when it doesn't.

This is your ruleset. If something isn't working for you, change it. The more thought you put into it, the happier you will be, and the easier it'll be for you to understand how to get the story going where you want it to.

The following are my refined notes and step-by-step for creating magic systems, based on the SaScon presentation I attended.

Now, onwards!


Magic Made Easy

- How to create a magic system without breaking a sweat.

There are a handful of components you need, to put together a working magic system:

  • The source of the magic's power
  • The methods required for use
  • The limitations on the power
  • The capabilities of the power
  • And, the weaknesses related to using the power

Start with the basic structure, and do the complicated stuff later; it will save you a lot of headaches.

Who is this magic system for? You.

That's not a motivational cap answer.

Make the system work for you, so you understand it inside & out, and it's structured so that it works for your story. Whether that means stricter rules (Hard magic system) or looser ones (soft magic system).

What makes a system hard or soft is how well the author explains it to their audience, but both have their set rules that aren't broken. Which I will explain in more detail in the Limitations and capabilities step below.

Now, once you have an idea or list of rules that are absolute for your world, we can start building.

Source - Where does the magic come from?

There are three basic kinds of sources. Internal, external but intangible, and external but tangible.

♦ Mana Bars - an internal source. It comes from within. This can mean mana, life force, spiritual energy, ki, etc. 

♦ Magical Milkshakes - external but intangible source. This is the type of magic source used by clerics, warlocks, and paladins in d&d. Their magic comes from outside of them, from a source they cannot grasp. Whether that means it's granted by deities, absorbed and directed from the universe itself, or granted to them by some unknown nebulous force.

♦ Magic Rocks - an external but tangible source. This means a vessel of some kind is what contains the magic and the user directs it, and the magic cannot be used without the tool. This could mean literal magic rocks or crystals, Gandalf’s staff, the wands in Harry Potter, a witch's grimoire, magic and/or enchanted objects like amulets, weapons, or books, etc.

There's a lot of room for variety in these sources, and they can even be combined. For example, combining mana bars with magic rocks. Using a magic rock to direct a person's internal magic force (mana). This is the system that Harry Potter uses, as evidenced by the fact there is such a thing as wandless magic, even if it doesn't play a large role in the story.

Once you have decided on your source and how you want your magic to be used by the world and/or its inhabitants, we can move on to the next step.

Method - How do people access this power and how do they direct it?

Like Avatar the Last Airbender, Marvel's Dr. Strange, and cultivation - The Chinese version of wizardry (you may have heard of shows like The Untamed, which showcase this).

The magic method of these worlds is all tied to martial arts, which makes for an interesting visual effect and tasteful flavor to the stories.

A method like this gives the audience a feel of a flow being followed that they cannot see, and a sense of structure that can be easily grasped even if they don't understand everything that's happening.

It can also highlight that magic is not something just anybody can do. It requires dedication, study, discipline, and practice. Which makes it more impressive when the characters are able to perform certain feats using this magic, and gives perspective on how difficult it is to accomplish them. In other words, it showcases just how big of a mountain the characters are climbing.

Another method is that of stories like BBC's Merlin, where magic comes from both within, and objects that have been imbued with it in one way or another, and is commanded by words. This means that just like with singing, language, pronunciation, and schooling as well as personal limits, play a huge role in whether someone is able to use magic at all and how effectively. It highlights how much learning is involved in using magic, and how you can learn to cast any spell, and how many spells + how well you remember them is often what determines how powerful you are. And it encourages creativity and creating objects that make using complicated magic easier.

Because knowledge is limited, there are few sorcerers who get to the level of being serious threats, but it also highlights and how knowing even the smallest amount of magic can turn the tables when used creatively. Magic in Merlin mimics science and follows many similar it not identical principles, and has to be studied. There are many times when they need to do research to figure out what kind of magic they are seeing. The characters themselves often compare the two as if they are two sides of the same coin.

Harry Potter is similar in these aspects, that wizardry requires several years of schooling, a genetic component in order to use magic, and in most cases a tool to channel it. In this world, magic is closer to physics. Both theoretical and applicable. There is even a rewrite of this take that you may have heard of and I highly recommend if you haven't read it, called Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality. The premise is Harry is raised by his aunt who married a physicist instead of Vernon, and thus Harry grew up a child genius, understanding the world to a greater degree than most, through physics.

Once you've decided/created your method(s) of madness & chaos, we can move on to the final stage.

Limitations and Capabilities - What stuff can this magic power never ever do? And what is possible to do with this magic power?

These are for you to use when story plotting.

These are the hard rules that don't change despite what the audience believes can or cannot happen.

Things like dead things are dead, they cannot be brought back. And it can be very interesting to see characters try to fight and defy hard set rules like this, to no avail.

A fantastic example of this is the anime, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. Where alchemy is the magic they use, and above all, there is "The law of equivalent exchange." I won't spoil anything for you, but this rule dictates that to get something, something of equal value must be given in turn.

This magic system functions more as the rearranging of matter than your traditional fantasy fireballs, and the story centers around the concept that death is final because there is no equivalent for the human soul to exchange.

Hard rules are meant to set the limits of what your magic is capable of, and therefore what it is used for; which often determines whether your magic users are seen as good or evil by the people of the world.

For example, necromancy is a common thing to have a world frown upon, and healing magic is a common thing to be revered.

Weakness - What are the downsides to using this magic power?

All good systems are balanced. Just like with the law of equivalent exchange, there are always two sides to a scale. You cannot get something without giving. Whether this means, sacrificing time, energy, effort, and resources into studying and mastery, getting physical blowback to using magic such as draining your life force or being injured should you fail to perform it correctly.

The weakness can even be the conditions themselves of using the magic. For example, in the anime My Hero Academia, every 'quirk' has drawbacks. One of the main characters, the class homeroom teacher Eraserhead, can turn off someone else's quirk who is within his line of sight. The drawback is that he cannot blink, and must keep his eyes on them, which results in conditions like chronic dry-eye and needing to protect his eyes.

In Dungeons and Dragons, the cost of magic is spell slots and they can only be cast a set number of times a day.

In Merlin, you cannot cast a spell if you do not know the incantation and how to pronounce it.

In Harry Potter, study and practice require them to sacrifice many years of time effort to use magic.

For cultivators, it varies slightly from story to story but the main concept is they must spend lifetimes dedicated to their morals, martial arts, and training in order to use their magic arts. All cultivators strive to achieve immortality, where they will ascend to the gold realm or 'heaven', and even if they make it there, they will spend the rest of their existence cultivating. Spending thousands upon thousands of years to increase their power in order to climb the ranks to godhood.

The gist is everything has a cost.

An example of one of my own magic systems is:

Source - Soul; Mana bar system.

Method - Intent to do something.

Capabilities - Souls can be extracted and contained within objects, and if the object is worn, the residing soul can take over the host body.

Weaknesses - Souls can be corrupted by the use of magic and rot the physical body. Souls can be separated from their bodies and lost. Taking over another body can cause the soul to reject it and destroy the body from the inside out, resulting in an even shorter lifespan than usual.


And there you have it. Your very own, well-thought-out magic system(s) ready to reign chaos & order over your worlds, and hinder your characters as much as help them.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, remember to like and leave a comment. See you next time!

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