Writing magic systems is arguably one of the most fun things to do when you’re writing a fantasy story. You can let your imagination go wild and come up with all sorts of cool things.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that your magic system should still serve a purpose. Apart from the fun and the mystical air, your magic system should intertwine with the story you’re telling. This creates a stronger narrative and theme for your story.
Below, I’ll discuss some differences in magic systems, how you can define your system, and how you can create a unique magic system.
What makes a great magic system?
In my mind, your magic system should support your story. The magic within your story is either going to cause trouble for your protagonist or help them solve problems (or both). You don’t want your reader to feel like a certain type of magic or power is too convenient. That’s why you need to define your magic system.
Defining your magic system
I’m a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s view of magic systems. He’s made a few “Laws” that you can follow that will help you develop your magic system. I highly recommend reading his articles on the topic (read about his first law here) and watching his lecture on YouTube.
I’ll just reiterate Sanderson’s First Law here: “an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”
This means that the better your reader understands your magic, the more you can use it to solve problems for your protagonist. It’s a scale as to how “soft” or “hard” your magic is. In other words, whether you can use magic to solve problems depends on how well you’ve defined your magic system.
What is a soft magic system?
A soft magic system occurs when magic is introduced to give a sense of wonder. The reader is never sure what dangers the characters will encounter. The characters themselves don’t even know this.
The soft magic system occurs in a lot of fantasy. One well-known example is Gandalf. As readers, we have no idea how his magic works or how powerful he actually is. This also isn’t necessary for us to enjoy the plot. It’s not about Gandalf; it’s about the Hobbits.
With a soft magic system, the magic itself is rarely used to solve a problem. The main characters themselves often don’t have magical powers, either.
Gandalf doesn’t just fly Frodo to Mount Doom with magic. That would make for a rather boring story. And if we don’t exactly know what the magic can do, and the writer uses it to solve problems, then as readers, we’d feel like the magic is used as a convenience. It’ll make the plot feel weak. The magic then undermines the plot.
If anything, the magic should create problems rather than solve them.
What is a hard magic system?
With hard magic, writers describe the rules of their magic system. The reader understands how the magic works, what it can do, and what it can’t do.
Here, you can use magic to solve problems, as it’s not mysteriously making it all better. The magic is a tool that the characters can use to solve the obstacles they come across.
Keep in mind, though, that when you write the laws and restrictions of your magic, you can’t violate them. If something wasn’t possible with your magic before, then it can’t suddenly be possible later just because it’s more convenient.
This doesn’t mean you can’t expand the magic system. Characters can learn new things about their magic or learn to use it differently than before. Make sure that readers have seen characters do this before you use it to solve an issue, however.
Soft or hard magic system?
Whether you choose a soft or hard magic system depends on your goal with the magic. If it’s mainly there for a sense of wonder and to show the reader the characters are up against something larger than life, you could use a soft magic system.
If, however, you want to have your protagonist use magic to solve problems, then you should use a harder magic system.
As said before, it’s not an either/or type of situation. You can look at this as a scale. That means that your system can be closer to hard magic or closer to soft magic. But it can have elements of both.
It’s also possible that you have more than one magic system within your book. I wouldn’t recommend this when you just start out with writing, though. If you’re still learning and writing your first few novels, it’s better to hone in on one specific magic system and do this really well.
As you build your skills, you can create more magic systems within the same story.
How do you make a unique magic system?
If you’re not going for a very soft magic system, adding costs and limitations to your magic is vital. Not just that: it’s what makes things interesting.
If anything, this is what will make your magic system stand apart. If you want to write a unique magic system, think about what it might cost the practitioner to use their magic. Or come up with instances where it’s not possible for your character to use their magic.
Show the consequences of using the magic. Show how inconvenient it can be when it’s not possible to use it, or how using it makes things worse. This forces characters to make difficult decisions when it comes to their magic. It’s not just a tool of convenience anymore. This is what creates conflict in your story.
When coming up with these costs and limitations, consider the type of story you want to tell. What do you want to plot to revolve around? What’s your theme?
For instance, in my book Illuminated, mental illness plays a big role. As a result, my protagonist has a power that allows her to view people’s emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and memories. However, she can also alter them. Whenever she actively changes something, however, she becomes vulnerable to a type of addiction—altering any of those things gives her a dopamine rush that makes her crave making more and more changes.
This brings to question whether helping someone by forcing a change is actually helping or not. It also shows how having a type of power over people can become addicting and how it can be difficult to keep a sense of right and wrong.
Here, her powers are in the psychic domain because I wanted to highlight mental illness. She can’t do anything outside of this. She wants to use them to help people but feels she can’t because of the cost it has when she uses it in a specific way. This causes challenges, conflict, and ethical dilemmas.
Consider your story.
What is it about?
What theme is important to you?
How does your magic system factor in?
What type of limitations can you give (these can also be things your character won’t do even if they could)?
What type of costs would add conflict to your story? What questions will this raise?
The consequences of your magic system
Once you have an idea of whether you want a softer or harder magic system, and you’ve considered which limitations and costs go along with your magic, you want to make sure the magic is integrated into your world as well.
Is magic common knowledge within your world or not?
If not, how does it affect the people having magic?
Is magic something that’s rare?
Is there a type of secret society?
If magic is common within your world, is this magic something that can be used by everyone?
A select group of people?
What's the status of this group of people?
How does the type of magic affect everyday life?
Once your magic system is integrated with both your story and your world, you’ll have a much tighter narrative and more interesting plot.
Start creating your magic system
It can take a while to brainstorm your magic system. Consider the type of magic you find interesting (e.g., elemental magic, psychic powers, or divination), and build from there. Remember these steps:
Pick how hard or soft your magic system will be (depending on the goal of your magic).
Define the limitations and costs of your magic system.
Integrate your magic system with your plot and theme.
Integrate your magic system within your story’s world.
If you need some guidance on how to plot your fantasy story, have a look at this series of articles with examples: