Creating Magic


Today’s post comes to us thanks to my good friend Stuart Jaffe (of “The Eclectic Review” fame) who emailed me a few days ago to discuss the creation of magic systems.  This is something I’ve done quite a bit, and it’s one of the things I enjoy most about writing fantasy.  Magic is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of works in our genre.  Yes, I know:  We often say here at MW that character and plot and voice are the most important elements of good storytelling.  But the fact is that fantasy wouldn’t be fantasy without magic.  And besides, making up magic systems is really fun to do.

But contrary to what some people think, creating a magic system is not an anything-goes endeavor.  It takes serious thought and careful planning, not to mention a good deal of imagination.  There are, of course, a thousand different ways to use magic.  I’ve had magic systems that are based in a psychic bond between a mage and a familiar, usually a bird of prey. The power actually flowed from that connection and was focused through a third element, a crystal.  I’ve also had psionic (mind) magic.  Power was basically as immediate as thought.  I’ve used spell magic, blood magic, sacrificial magic.  There are endless possibilities.  When I’m working on magic systems, though, I like to keep three things in mind.

1)  A magic system has to have limitations.  You don’t want unlimited magic because then your story becomes a contest between mages (wizards, sorcerers, insert your favorite word here) with near God-like powers.  Magic should be taxing in some way.  It should tire the people who use it, or it should have some other kind of cap that keeps it from being used all the time, for everything, without end.  That said, as with everything we talk about here, there are exceptions to this “rule.”  You can, of course, write an effective story in which your mages have unlimited power (others have done it), but you need to make certain that you pay attention to the ramifications of this decision.  If there are members of your society who don’t have magic, they’re going to be second-class citizens in nearly every way, unless your magic-wielders are uncommonly (and perhaps unrealistically) benign.  Call me a cynic, but I believe that unfettered magical power will lead to unfettered political, social, and military domination.

2)  In my opinion, magic should have a cost.  For me, it’s not enough that magic be limited or bounded in some way.  It should also have repercussions.  In the Forelands books, for instance, the Qirsi who use magic shorten their lives with every conjuring.  The book I’m working on right now has a kind of cool, different system that I’m not ready to discuss in detail, but those who use magic eventually go insane.  In my thief taker series there’s no real physical cost, but there is a social one.  Conjurers are outcasts.  They’re hated, feared, and persecuted, and so they have to be careful where and when they use their power, lest they be arrested, tortured, and put to death.

3)  And finally, (this is pretty basic) a magic system has to be internally consistent.  You have to establish rules and then those rules have to be as iron clad as the physical laws of our natural world.  I know that sounds self-evident, but you’d be amazed by the number of writers who don’t get this one, who allow their magic to work as deus ex machina again and again.  Once you set up your system of magic, you have to write around it.  As soon as you start messing with it to fit the needs of your characters or your plot, you undermine the credibility of your world.  Just as you wouldn’t start changing your world map in the middle of series to fit the travel needs of your characters, you shouldn’t change the rules of your magic system.

As writers of fantasy, we ask our readers to suspend their disbelief every time they open one of our books.  We are saying, in effect, “This couldn’t really happen, but I’m going to create a world that feels so real to you that you’ll come to believe that it actually could.”  Magic, of course, is part of the fiction we create, and it has to be every bit as “realistic” and believable as the rest of our worldbuilding.  You want your maps and your histories to seem credible.  Your magic should, too.  It shouldn’t be a perfect, boundless, painless tool.  It shouldn’t stretch and bend to meet the needs of your characters or your plot. That’s too easy, and it will make your work less interesting.  Limitations, costs, consistency:  In my opinion, these are the hallmarks of a workable magic system.

David B. Coe

27 comments to Creating Magic

  • While I understand and agree for the most part, there are situations even in fantasy where what is called ‘magic’ isn’t really magical. In other words, what people perceive to be magic isn’t magic at all. Hence no need for limitations or cost other than the ‘feared and persecuted’ point that you raise. People fear what they don’t understand so if they perceive that what you’re doing is magical, they will do all they can to rid the world of you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not really magic but only a learned skill.

    Thanks for the read.


  • David, this is Great! It should be in the front of every *how to* book on fantasy writing. And I also hate you, because I now realize I screwed up in my last book. Page proofs are going to be a *tedious problem* (much nicer words than what I am thinking BTW) unless I can find a work around… Sigh…

  • Thanks, Faith. Magic is a fuzzy term and in many ways I think that the bad rap our genre gets from those who aren’t really familiar with it stems from that fuzziness. Some people see that we use magic in our books and they assume that it must become a crutch of sorts, a way of avoiding hard narrative choices, and a substitute for strong characters and good prose. Of course, we know better. Making up convincing magic takes time, thought, and, often, trial and error. I hope that the rewrites go well.

  • For both you and Faith I have this book recommendation. It was written by British author and game designer Phil Masters for the RPG GURPS and is known as GURPS Thaumatology.

    It all about designing magical systems, and magical systems with costs and limitations. For the purpose of making said systems work in a game, but useful for most any sub-creation with a bit of adjustment. I think you’d find it useful.

  • Erick, I agree with you. “Magic” can be in the eye of the beholder. What is simply a skill or known technology to one person can seem “magical” to another. I was just laying out some basic rules that I follow when I’m writing and creating an actual system of magic for one of my worlds. Thanks for the comment.

    Alan, many thanks for the link and the recommendation. Sounds like a useful book and also a fun one to look through.

  • Hi David,

    Those are very helpful tips on writing fantasy magic! :)

    Big Thx,
    Sabrina )O(

    PS: I re-tweeted your link! 😉

  • Great post. One thing I notice in a lot of stories in writing workshops is characters with limitless magic. I like limitations, costs, and consistency.

    Initially, I tried to stay away from assigning numeric values to the magic in my world, but I found it hard to determine who had the capability to do what. I eventually buckled in and wrote up a brief number system to help me keep track of character abilities and potential power. Unfortunately, it started to like a gaming system, so I try to avoid looking at it unless absolutely necessary. I have heard other authors using numeric values for their systems, particularly those who are also professors.

    Any thoughts on numeric magic systems?

  • Thanks, Sabrina! Glad you found them helpful.

    Dave, thanks for the question. I have done very little gaming, so I come at magic from a strictly fiction-oriented perspective. Perhaps for that reason, I don’t like the idea of giving numerical values. To me, that would be akin to rating my characters’ looks or morals on a similar scale, which doesn’t work for me either. That said, for writers who do come at this from a gaming background, I’d imagine that a number system could be very helpful for keeping track of which mage is most skilled or most powerful. But I would think that it would be most valuable as a tool, rather than as something actually written into the story. I think as soon as you introduce some kind of numerical rating into your story you run the risk of having it read as a gaming story, which might hurt you with some publishers. On the other hand, as with martial arts, you may come up with a system that acknowledges the achievements of wizards by ranking them on various levels. As long as the standards are consistent and the rituals of graduating wizards from one level to the next are appropriate to your world, that could be a really cool basis for a magic system.

  • One of my biggest issues with magic (and other abilities) in gaming is the rigid structure involved.

    Of course, there need to be rules. And trying to circumvent those rules should have extensive repercussions. But, unlike in games, a character in a story should be able to push those boundaries. He or she should pay a hefty price, perhaps even an irrevocable one, but the option should be there.

    I’m working through the structure of my magic system, even though I don’t consider it magic in the context of the universe I’ve created for my books. A numerical scale has some benefits as a quick reference point, but I tend to go with training and real world experience as being just as much a factor as sheer power or ability.

    How rigid or loose you present the magic depends on whether the magic is responsible for the plot or a tool of it. Either way, as long as the rules provided are followed properly it should work.

    In the end, as long as you don’t pull some ability out of a hat to get the protagonists (or the antagonist for that matter) out of a jam, things should end up believable to the reader.

  • This is a timely post for me as this is a topic that I am struggling with currently. Thanks for the very useful advice, David!

  • Thanks, David. I wasn’t thinking of using the numbers in the story, but briefly they helped me determine who was more powerful than who, and by how much. Especially since the channelers of divine power in my story can either use up their daily amount in one shot, or spread it out throughout the day.

    I just need to give it a stronger cost to go with the limitation. Making them tired doesn’t seem to cut it.

  • CE, I think that you raise a great point. One of the things I love best about fantasy is that moment when a character pushes the envelope with magic, or strength (physical or mental) or emotion. We, as authors, have to make certain that the breakthroughs and epiphanies work within the larger structure we’ve already created, and often this involves him or her incurring a heavy cost for whatever happens. But as you say, something too rigid to allow that kind of breakthrough can have a stultifying effect on what we write. Thanks for the comment!

    And thank you, Mark, for the kind words. Glad you found the post helpful. Can you tell us a bit about what you’re wrestling with right now? Without giving too much away, of course.

    Dave, I think using numerical values as you outline here makes a ton of sense. There are lots of tools I use to keep track of things in my notes that are of great help to me, but that I’d never actually put into a book. Still, I also think that having mages ranked in some way — levels, belts if you will — could be a nice addition to a magic system.

  • Thanks for the offer, David.

    My issue right now is when the system is held up against your 3 Hallmarks, I feel it is lacking #2 and #3. I have limited it by making it purely a constructive magic, it cannot do harm to most all living things since it is the residual Power of Creation left over from my world’s god. However, I don’t have a real “cost” right now, and I haven’t quite worked out the actual mechanics of it though I am thinking along a Psionics/funneling of energy path.

    But I guess my main sticking point would be #2 Cost. So far, there is not a cost to use it.

  • Mark, something to think about is that a cost doesn’t always have to be an end-user cost. The cost could simply limit the availability or usability of the spell (ie, spells that require ample amounts of scarconium, which is, of course, scarce). What David talks about got me thinking (thanks David) that as long as there exists some kind of cost, it’ll work for the better, particularly because the cost has the potential to create conflict and dramatic tension if you so choose.

  • Okay, let me start with the usual MW caveat: My hallmarks are just that — mine. Just because your magic system doesn’t conform to all three of them doesn’t mean in any way that there is something wrong with what you’ve got. I like the origins of your system and the built in limitation — that’s a nice backstory for the system. Very cool. It may be that you don’t need a cost, although if you intend to warp this power in some way for the purposes of your story — in other words, if there is going to be some bad guy who comes along and manages to twist the power into something dark — having a cost might be handy for your story line. Or if you have been feeling on your own that there is something missing, then having a cost to the magic might fix that. But you certainly don’t need a cost just because I say so. Make sure it’s something that will truly add to the story and the world before you add in an element of that magnitude. Looking forward to seeing your work in print, Mark!

  • Stuart makes a good point. In a way, he’s tying cost to limitation, which could also work in your cost, Mark. The magic can only be “constructive”. But who’s to say what that means. If this were a political discussion, you and I would have very different ideas of what constituted “constructive change.” History is littered with people who did great harm in the name of what they thought was good. Maybe that’s your cost right there: competing visions of what is constructive leads to conflict, chaos, perhaps bloodshed. The potential for cost is already built right in to exactly what you have.

  • Thanks David and Stuart! I do feel better about my magic system now. I guess now that I think about it, the “cost” could be the inability to strike your opponent with a fireball. You have to work around the “no harm” rule. So I think I will continue working along these lines.

    Thanks once again you two! *smile*

  • Of course, it helps if you know the system. I know one where these parameters apply.

    1: How much energy you can use depends on your traits (Mental, Physical, and Spiritual).

    1.1: It also depends on which aspect of your traits the energy generating skill allows you to draw upon.

    1.2: Furthermore, it depends on how well you know the skill.

    2. Casting based magic requires that you either know, can recall, or have the casting down on paper to be read.

    3. Magic is designed according to one of seven laws. Usually the law which costs the caster the most in the terms of energy.

    3.1: These laws are; the Law of Sympathy, the Law of Antipathy, the Law of ritual, the Law of Change. the Law of Emanation, the Law of Conduction, and the Law of Obstruction.

    4: The more difficult the magic, the less the caster’s chance to actually cast the dweomer. The more the caster learns about the casting skill, the easier it becomes to actually caster the magic in question.

    4.1: Basically, the more the casting is called upon to do, or the more difficult it is to affect the effect desired, the harder it is to cast.

    4.2: The law involved also plays a role, for a casting governed by the Law of Obstruction is more difficult than one governed by any other law.

    Speaking of game systems—the above comes from the Mythus fantasy RPG, the story has it that the magic system in the game Ars Magica was drawn in large part from early work on objected oriented computer languages. In GURPS Thaumatology this is restated as syntactic magic, using a noun-verb structure. Though note that the words used in syntactic magic are of necessity somewhat more involved, with more precision in usage required. Think five dollar words from an ancient language, spoken with precision, in full knowledge of their meaning. Mumbling a syntactic spell could be fatal to the wizard.

    Hope this helps with ideas.

  • Cool stuff! Thanks, Alan!

  • As an example,

    One disease wizards especially hate is athletes foot. They hate it because it feels just like the itching they get from casting. They hate it because the itching is in the feet, which is where the itching from casting starts. So when a wizard has athletes foot it feels like he’s been casting, and should he keep casting the itch will intensify and spread.

    Wizards use a lot of fungicides.

    Hope this gives people ideas.

  • I love that, Alan!! And then the evil lord Lotrimin shows up and all hell breaks loose….

  • David,

    When would you introduce the hero Desenex?

  • Right around the time I bring in his nemesis, the beautiful and alluring…Tinactin!

  • And all the while the mysterious FungiCure awaits his chance to strike!

  • Very helpful. I found this after looking at wiki and the now deleted term “limitless magic.” The same guidelines apply to any quasi-extension of reality in a novel. I am applying these rules to the relationship that God has with mortals in my current book, and will keep them in mind for the next. Next book depends heavily on consistent, limited, and non-zero-cost guidelines for using a new technology that provides one person with abilities that might seem like magic to the general public.

  • Thanks for the comment, Marc, and welcome to the site. Good luck with the books!