Magic Systems: A Guest Post From Joshua Palmatier, AKA Benjamin Tate


Leaves of Flame, by Benjamin TateToday we welcome back to MW Joshua Palmatier, who also writes as Benjamin Tate. Joshua/Benjamin is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf and a few short stories, and is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies.  As Joshua, he has written the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy—The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne.  Now, as Benjamin Tate, he has written Well of Sorrows and has just released Leaves of Flame. He has short stories in several anthologies and has co-edited After Hours:  Tales from the Ur-bar and (soon-to-be-released) The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity (March 2012).  Find out more about his work at and  Please join me in welcoming Joshua to MW. [Wild applause]


Magic.  It’s the heart of every fantasy, in some way or another, and if it’s removed from a true fantasy novel, the novel should fall apart.  It’s what draws me to a novel, and if the magic isn’t interesting, I generally feel the novel falls flat.  Coming up with a cool magic system is essential for the success of a fantasy novel in my book.

So how do you do that?  How do you come up with a magic system that is cool enough to draw the reader in and make them believe, while still allowing a story and characters to develop around it?

My answer is to keep it simple.

Your magic system doesn’t need to be complicated with tons and tons of rules in order for it to be cool and interesting.  All it needs is a rock-solid base, a good foundation, and some room to grow.  I’d like to talk today about both of these aspects, in particular the growth aspect.  Because the creation of your magic system is going to play off of the world you’re building and vice versa, and as a writer you need to put some serious thought into how the two will reinforce and enhance each other to create that unique world that your readers will fall in love with.

But first, a word or two about my process:  I’m an “organic” writer, meaning that I sit down to write first and allow the world—magic system and all—to grow and change and morph as I write.  Any inconsistencies that arise from this writing process regarding the world and the magic system are taken care of during revisions.  This is the process that works for me, but it doesn’t work for everyone.  Some people need to plan and outline and such before they can sit down to write.  They need to have their world and magic system figured out ahead of time.  Both processes are equally valid methods for a writer, but this post if written from the “organic” perspective, because that’s what I know and understand.  So take that into consideration while you read this; my suggestions and thoughts may not work for your own process.

OK, when I sit down to write, I already have the foundation of the magic system in my head.  The foundation is necessary to make the reader comfortable, and this is the part that needs to be simple.  You should be able to state the magic system in a simple sentence or two.  For my current series, starting with WELL OF SORROWS and continuing this month with LEAVES OF FLAME, the magic system is based on a network of Wells that contain the Lifeblood.  This Lifeblood gives the drinker immortality (as far as the characters can tell) and the ability to manipulate time.  That’s it.  That’s the foundation for my magic system.   Of course there are rules and limitations to this, sometimes blatantly obvious and sometimes subtle.  Finding those rules and limitations is what the growth is for, and that’s what happens for me as I write the story.  I place myself in my world and within my characters and then I start writing to see what happens.  As I write, I ask myself questions about the world and the characters and the magic, and the answers to these questions are how my world and its magic system get developed.

For example, in WELL OF SORROWS, I have the characters being forced into exploring the newly discovered continent in wagon trains due to political, societal, and simple population pressures.  They have no idea what they will find as they head out into this new world, but I know that they will run into one of the Wells that contain the Lifeblood.  One of my characters, Colin, drinks the Lifeblood, which I know makes him appear immortal and gives him powers over time.  But as soon as he drinks the Lifeblood, I begin asking myself questions:  How does he feel?  Does it change his body in any way?  Does he have any inkling that something has changed within himself and that he has these powers?  Assume not.  How is he going to find out about these powers?  Will he discover them on his own, or will he need someone to explain them to him?  How will he react once he knows he has these powers?  Will he resent them?  Revel in them?  Abuse them?

All of these questions are essentially character questions, exploring how this character will react/change based on the magic I’ve introduced.  The answers don’t necessarily reflect on just him, though.  If I say that Colin resents, but finally accepts these powers and attempts to use them in a beneficial way, I can have another character revel in them and abuse them for his own ends as well.  So thinking about how the magical power will affect others is part of the process of figuring out how it will affect Colin.

In Colin’s case, I had him figure out that he’s “immortal” by having him resent his powers so much that he tries to kill himself.  When he survives, he realizes he’s going to have to live with these powers and turns his thoughts on to how to use them.  He learns he can manipulate time from another character, one of the mysterious Faelehgre who saved him by having him drink the Lifeblood in the first place.  Once he knows he can manipulate time, a whole new batch of questions arise:  Can he go back and change past events?  Can far back in time can he go?  What are the consequences of manipulating time for him?  Does it drain him?  Could it kill him when more general methods don’t work?  What are the limits of this manipulation—could he travel forward in time and see the future?  As I answer each question, I ask further questions.  Let’s say he finds he can’t change past events.  How will this affect him as a character?  When he discovers he can’t save his parents, will the fact that he can travel back and see their deaths over and over again torture him?  Will it destroy him?  If he can’t change past events, what can he use the power for?  In fact, how will he use this power in the long run?  How will it affect the events transpiring in this world at the moment?

Every magic system will impact the world, and that’s one of the main questions every writer must ask themselves when they introduce their magic.  How will it affect society?  How will it affect individuals?  Every time a new piece of technology is introduced into our own world, it reshapes and reforms how we interact with each other and the world.  Magic will do the same thing.  You have to ask yourself about the mundane ways in which the magic will be used.  Or will it only be something used by the elite, by those in power?  Even then, how will THEY use it?  Humans take advantage of every shortcut in their everyday lives that they can, and they’ll do the same with magic.  If you can heat or cook with magic because it’s cleaner and easier than using wood and fire, then you’ll use magic over fire.  So you have to take into account how resourceful people will be when magic is available for use.  If you don’t want people to use it for such every day, mundane work, then you have to introduce limits or significant consequences for its use.  If it costs more monetarily to heat/cook with magic, people won’t use it; if it requires a blood sacrifice . . . well, some people would probably still use it over wood and fire, but you get my point.

All of these questions—how the magic will affect character, how it will affect society, what its costs and limits are—all of that and the answers I come up with as I write are the growth elements I mentioned earlier.  As I answer those questions and implement them into my world, that world grows and becomes more complicated and rich and deep.  Characters change, the society in which they live takes on nuances, and the magic system morphs as they all interact with each other.  For me, it’s an ongoing process, even through an entire series.  My magic system is changing even now as I write the third book in the series, following the same rules I set up in the first two books, but growing as the characters and the world explore their boundaries and edges, as they push their limits.  This ebb and flow, questions rising as characters, plot, and setting interplay is what makes the writing interesting to me.

Those who are not “organic” in their approach to the same extent I am do the same thing, I think—ask questions, answer them, allow those answers to alter their world and setting—but they do this before they sit down to write to a much larger extent than I do.  

So when you’re creating your own magic system,  keep those two things in mind, no matter how organic of a writer you are:  ask yourself if your magic system is simple enough to be stated in a few short sentences, and then ask yourself if there’s room for you to explore and grow from that simple foundation.  If the answer to the first question is no, then you’re probably making the magic system too complicated.  It doesn’t have to be complicated at the start; it can become more complicated as you explore and grow from that base, asking those questions.  And if the answer to the second question is no, then your system may be too constrained to keep the reader interested and to keep their imagination alive.  If there’s no room for growth, no creative boundaries to explore, then what are you going to use to keep that fantasy novel interesting, not just for your reader, but yourself as well?


15 comments to Magic Systems: A Guest Post From Joshua Palmatier, AKA Benjamin Tate

  • Hi, Joshua.

    I lean more towards outlining, and did quite a bit of planning my magic system early on. However, as I’ve been writing, new ideas and ways to tweak the system have occurred to me. (So much so that the revision is going to be huge!)

    I love the questions you ask as you’re writing and see that outliners can benefit from this as well! Thank you for this glimpse into your process.

  • Hi Joshua. Thank you for for being here. This post fall under the category of, “Now you tell me!”

    How I wish I’d had this post when I was devising the magic system for the Rogue Mage world. Keep it simple stupid would have been great. Instead I have a system where every magic user gets to use different methods. Sigh… :)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you. This is a very lovely post with lots of good stuff for my brain to chew on. Unfortunately, I am one of those heathen people whose WIP is a fantasy with almost no magic in it. I would argue that the story *would* fall apart without it, but that’s mostly behind the scenes stuff and is only barely hinted at in the first book. However, some of my upcoming story ideas have much more direct magic, and this post gives me some really great things to think about to flesh those ideas out.

    Would you say that most of your story ideas seed from your initial basic-magic-system idea? For my WIP it was very much the other way around, where certain story elements required coming up with a subtle magic system that would convincingly tie them all together. I’m not sure that it was a great approach, but it’s what happened.

  • PeterLast

    Mr. Palmatier,

    Thank you for the article. It contains an approach to writing that I never really considered before. I was always more of the type of person who set in stone a system before using it in my book. Considering what you have said, however, I may have to try your method as it seems to work well for you.

    Peter Last

  • sagablessed

    When I first wrote my WIP, I sent it to a professional editor. Her reply: “I need to know more about your magical system…” As I have written more -she wants 150 more pages- it has evolved. I have found differences in the Big Three, and hope what is written is not too complicated for the reader. (EarthMagicks pull power from the elements, HighMagicks pull power from the Tides of the Day and Stars, ShamanMagicks pull power from the spirits.) There are other types, but they are mentioned only in passing, as they have no relevance to the story itself. Each style of magic has a Cost and unique method of use that creates limits. In my head, the rules are complex, but on paper I try to keep it simple, adding explanation as needed.
    And each style of magic adds to the character’s impetus and world view.
    So I guess I am an organic writer.

  • Razziecat

    These questions are very useful to me in my current WIP. My outline dealt with the main events but not the basics such as the magic system. Once I figured out how magic works, I realized I had a pretty simple system in place. I have two things on the back burner that take place in different worlds, with different systems, but judging by the questions you mention, I think I’m on the right track (and no one is more surprised than I am by that!) :)

  • Thanks for another great post, Joshua. Always good to see you here at MW. I hope that Leaves of Flame is a huge success. I find when working on a magic system that I need to set my rules ahead of time and make them ironclad, because sometimes the urge to break my rules to fit my plot is just too strong.

  • TwilightHero

    A fascinating post. Though I fully agree that magic is the heart of every fantasy, I never thought of it in such depth before. I’ve just come up with a basic idea and gone with whatever followed, working out the rules as I go along. Guess that makes me more of an organic writer too.

    Let’s see here…

    While my magic system deals mostly with the manipulation of matter and the laws surrounding it – gravity for instance – at its core there are two halves, a light side and a dark side. The light side is weaker but has beneficial side effects, and is used extensively; the dark side is stronger but has detrimental side effects, and its existence has been all but forgotten…until now.

    There. Kind of long, but it’s still two sentences 😛

  • First, a quick apology to everyone. I spent most of my day traveling to Boston for Arisia, so haven’t had a chance to check the comments here. I’m glad to see so many responses! Let’s see if I can answer a few of the questions:

    ekcarmel: I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Yeah, I think outliners can take away something from my process, mostly regarding allowing your system to grow and change when you finally do sit down and begin writing. But as you point out, it usually ends up increasing the amount of revisions!

    Faith Hunter: Glad to be here, Faith. I’m certain having every magic user have their own method can get complicated after a while, depending on how many magic users you have. But isn’t the magic itself simple, only the way the magic users access the magic complicated? Or is this a case where each magic user has their own specialized talent (sort of like superheroes)?

    Hepsebah ALHH: I would say that my ideas come from the magic, rather than the other way around, now that you mention it. All of my ideas start with some initial image involving magic. For the Throne series, it was an image of white fire, for the Well series, it was Colin drinking from the well, etc. So the initial spark was magic oriented in nature and the story grew from that.

    PeterLast: Setting the magic system in stone first is a perfectly valid approach, and there are many writers out there who do just that. I’m just not one of them. I don’t think it would hurt to try writing something where you let things evolve more as you write though. You may learn something about your writing or about storytelling that you hadn’t discovered/noticed before. Perhaps your voice will relax and get more loose and free. Or perhaps you’ll find it just doesn’t work for you and the “set in stone” approach is the best. It’s always a good idea to experiement and stretch those writing muscles.

    sagablessed: Well, you certainly described your three magics in a single sentence, so I’d say you kept them simple. *grin* Filling in the details and nuances are what the story is supposed to do as you tell it, IMO. In the end, as you say, the system ends up being complex, once you work in the costs and limits.

    Razziecat: It’s great to find that you’re on the right track, isn’t it? Sometimes the organic writing feels like you’re just flailing in the dark. When you look back and realize that what you’ve been flailing over is actually pretty solid is already a good feeling.

    DavidBCoe: Yeah, the temptation to break your own rules can be tough to resist. I find this especially hard in second and third novels of a series, where a rule you set up in book one is suddenly extremely inconvenient. *grin* That said though, I’ve found that solving the problem by finding a way around the rule, WITHOUT breaking it, often creates a much more interesting plot thread as well as a much deeper magic system. That’s what happened with the Throne books, when I stated that the Mistress was tied to the throne and had to physically remain in the city. Later, I needed her to leave . . . but she couldn’t. I’m particularly proud of the way she ended up “leaving” without really leaving in that series.

    TwilightHero: I SUPPOSE we can count that as two sentences. *grin* Seriously, it does sound like a good simple base to start from, and I’m certain that as the story progresses the reader learns the nuances that make the system complex in the long run. And that’s the whole point, at least in my opinion. Simple to state, with complexity in the details.

    I’ll check back again tomorrow during a break in the con and answer further questions/comments if there are any! Feel free to ask anything you want, guys!

  • Unicorn

    Hi Joshua
    Thank you for a very interesting post.
    During the first draft of my WIP, the magic system was basically nonexistent, but now in the second draft I’ve been fleshing it out and converting it into something much more solid. It’s simple, but probably too simple – I still need to figure out the details, especially the cost of using magic. Basically, there are two kinds of “magic”. One is called Dark Magic (but I should probably find a better name), evil by definition, a giant power accessed only by humans and monsters. The other is commonly known as the Gift; some humans and all “good” enchanted creatures (like dryads and pegasi) are born with it. Dark Magicians and the Gifted are always in conflict.
    The idea of Wells and Lifeblood sounds fascinating. Thanks again for the post.

  • Vyton

    Joshua, I really enjoyed your post. I like the discussion of how magic affects the mundane and everyday life. Like you said, in a world where magic is widely available (a large population of witches and wizards), it will be used for everyday tasks. As an example in our world, look at all the apps that have popped up for smart phones. I think restricting who has magic and how it can be used makes for a more interesting story.

  • […] (Joshua Palmatier, over at Magical Words – one of my favourite sites – has a bit more to say on that side of the subject) […]

  • Oh, cool, so more responses! Let’s see:

    Unicorn: Yeah, you definitely need to determine what the costs of the magic are and make that believable and solid before you get that final version of the novel. All magic should have costs or restrictions. If there aren’t costs, then why doesn’t everyone use it? If it’s restricted to only a few people, why and how? And how are these people viewed by society? Are they hated, feared, revered? But that’s what the fleshing out is for, determining the answers to these questions.

    Vyton: I think you can have an interesting story even if everyone has access to the magic, but it becomes much more complicated to make that world believable AND you really have to figure out how your society would have incorporated it into their everyday lives, more so than if the magic is restricted to only a few. However, as I mentioned in Unicorn’s response, if it is restricted to only a few, then how does the society view those few? Feared, hated, revered, etc? So in either situation, you still have to do some serious thinking about the magic, the world, and the society.

    Keep those questions coming, guys!

  • Thank you for the post. I am working on a fantasy novel and I realized that while I’ve organically been allowing my magic to develop I hadn’t gone in and written down what my characters had been telling me so that I could keep up with the rules. My biggest problem now is making sure there is enough magic in my story, especially at the beginning when my MC hasn’t really come into her own magic. How much is enough at the beginning? And, when does it become too much?

  • Shaman: Thanks for the cross-link!

    Jenny: I think the question of “how much magic” is really dependent on the story. For example, in the first book of my current series (the one involving LEAVES OF FLAME), There really isn’t any active magic in the first third of the book. The magic isn’t introduced until that point. There are hints of magic, and it’s obviously a strange new world, but the characters don’t use magic of any kind through that section. However, once the magic hits, it’s a whammy. *grin* The story didn’t need magic in that section, so it wasn’t there. Later on, it’s needed and is used, of course.

    I’d say that you have “too much” magic when it becomes convenient or easy for the characters to resolve their problems with the use of magic. Magic should help resolve problems, but it should never be easy and it should always have significant consequences. If someone can simply wave their hand and their problem is solved, then at that point the magic has overstepped the bounds of the story and either the problem needs to become more complicated in some way, or the magic needs to be toned down (or the consequences of using it raised).