How To Write A Magic System In 18 Steps (With Examples)
Ever wanted to create a magic system for your fantasy world but weren’t sure where to start? Well, you’ve come to the right place! In this blog post, I’ll walk you through how to write a magic system in 18 easy steps.
Whether you’re creating a hard or soft magic system, looking to add some limitations or expand the possibilities, these steps will help guide you through developing a unique and coherent system of magic for your world and characters. With a bit of thought and creativity, you’ll be conjuring up wondrous magic in no time. So grab your wand, crystal ball, or mystical amulet, and let’s get started on how to write a magic system!
- What Is A Magic System?
- What’s a Hard Magic System?
- What’s a Soft Magic System?
- Hard vs Soft Magic System: Which One To Choose?
- The Key Elements of a Magic System
- How To Write A Magic System In 18 Steps
- Step 1: Define the Purpose of Magic
- Step 2: Establish Rules and Limitations
- Step 3: Create a Source or Origin
- Step 4: Types or Schools of Magic
- Step 5: Magic Users and Abilities
- Step 6: Costs and Consequences
- Step 7: Symbols and Components
- Step 8: Cultural and Historical Influence
- Step 9: Conflict and Opposition
- Step 10: Balance and Harmony
- Step 11: World-Building Integration
- Step 12: Character Development
- Step 13: Symbolism and Themes
- Step 14: Experiment and Iterate
- Step 15: Show, Don't Tell
- Step 16: Research and Inspiration
- Step 17: Name Your Magic System
- Step 18: Beta Readers and Feedback
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Is A Magic System?
A magic system refers to the rules, limitations, and mechanics that govern how magic works within a fictional world. It establishes what magic can and can’t do, how it’s accessed or controlled, and what the costs and consequences of using it may be.
Essentially, the magic system sets the boundaries for how supernatural phenomena can influence the world and characters. A well-developed system lends credibility and coherency to the story, rather than having characters wield infinite power without explanation.
Magic systems can vary greatly in their complexity. A soft magic system is more mystical, with few defined limitations. This leaves room for a sense of wonder and mystery. A hard magic system has clearly established rules and limitations. This allows both the writer and reader to strategize use of magic to influence plots and action.
Ultimately, the magic system gives structure and guides the role of magic within a story. Defining these rules is an important early step in writing fantasy fiction. It establishes expectations for characters and creates opportunities to build compelling narratives.
What’s a Hard Magic System?
A hard magic system has clearly defined and strict rules that limit its use. The constraints placed on how magic works must be consistently followed. This creates structure, consequence and strategy around the use of supernatural abilities.
In a hard magic system, abilities have costs as well as benefits. There are prices to pay for power, often literally. Magic is treated more like technology or science, with established boundaries that cannot be broken without repercussions.
Readers can anticipate what characters are capable of, allowing suspense and strategy to develop. Loopholes in the rules rarely appear, maintaining credibility. Examples of famous hard magic systems include:
- Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series – Users ingest and “burn” metals to gain magic powers, but metals are finite resources.
- Sympathy in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle – Sympathetic bonds allow control over objects, but energy can’t be created from nothing.
- Magic in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter – Spells have limitations and wand use can be tracked. Magic tends to be complex and subtle.
- Nen abilities in Hunter x Hunter – Nen users choose an affinity which shapes their powers, but overuse depletes their life force.
Hard magic systems lend themselves well to creative problem-solving and action. The defined limitations create opportunities for strategy and believable victories. This provides a structure for crafting plots that hinge on magic use.
Hard Magic System Example
A prime example of a hard magic system is Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn fantasy series. Allomancers can ingest and “burn” specific metals to gain various powers, but face limitations.
There are precise rules around which metals provide which effects, how long powers last based on the amount of metal burned and the side effects of overuse. For example, pewter provides enhanced strength and speed, but burning too much can cause exhaustion or broken bones.
An Allomancer’s powers are restricted by how much metal they can carry and afford. The magic requires exact measurements, resource management, and strategic planning. There are severe consequences for breaking the established rules.
This structured system allowed Sanderson to craft intricate action sequences and plots centred around the strategic use of defined magical powers. The logical limits placed on Allomancy make the magic feel believable while still allowing for creativity within the bounds of the system.
What’s a Soft Magic System?
A soft magic system is more mystical and vague in its rules and boundaries. There is a sense of wonder and unlimited possibility in the capabilities of magic users. Soft magic is often symbolic, spiritual or metaphorical.
Limitations and costs are not clearly defined. Magic feels boundless, ethereal and subject to interpretation. It evokes mystery and awe rather than science and strategy.
Readers cannot predict the extent of magic or its consequences. Magic users appear to wield power only limited by their own morality or circumstances, not hard rules. This frees the narrative from the constraints of a rigid system.
Soft magic systems lend themselves to themes of faith, spirituality, self-discovery and cosmic forces. Magic feels transcendent and subjective rather than material and objective. Examples include:
- The Force in Star Wars – The spiritual energy field guides users but its full capabilities are never quantified.
- Magic in Lord of the Rings – Magic seems to follow unclear rules linked to morality, artefacts, and an unseen higher power.
- Bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender – Bending arts have foundations in real martial arts but few defined limitations.
- Stands in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure – Stand powers are wildly diverse with few governing rules or costs.
Soft magic systems evoke a sense of wonder and mystical possibility. This frees creativity and ties magic to more symbolic themes. However, it can risk credibility if magic arbitrarily solves problems without cost. Finding the right balance is key.
Soft Magic System Example
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings exemplifies a soft magic system. The capabilities and limitations of magic in Middle Earth are vague. While there are magical objects and beings, the rules of how and why magic works are unclear.
Gandalf the wizard wields great power, yet the full extent of his abilities is never defined. The magic appears largely symbolic, such as the Rings of Power representing temptation and corruption. Magic is associated with the spiritual force created by the Valar. It is used sparingly, often to represent hope, resistance to evil, and the possibility of divine intervention.
The lack of structure adds mystery and mysticism. Magic directly impacts key plot points, like destroying the Ring, with few explanations of limits.
This softer system allows Tolkien to imbue magic with spiritual significance without restricting how it can influence the story. The fantasy feels grounded in cosmic forces beyond human comprehension, giving it an ethereal quality.
Hard vs Soft Magic System: Which One To Choose?
So how do you decide whether a hard or soft magic system best fits your fantasy story? Here are some key factors to consider:
A hard magic system works best when:
- Magic directly impacts plot, action, or problem-solving. Clearly defined abilities allow for creative strategy.
- You want to craft clever resolutions that hinge on the clever use of magic. Limitations force innovative solutions.
- Your story values structure, consequences and well-foreshadowed outcomes. The system provides credibility.
A soft magic system works best when:
- Magic has symbolic or spiritual significance. Vague abilities evoke wonder, mysticism and personal interpretation.
- You want to focus on themes of faith, self-discovery, or cosmic forces beyond human control.
- Your story values awe, emotional resonance, and a sense of unbounded possibility. The magic feels transcendent.
- You want magic users to wield power based on their own morals and strength of character rather than hard rules and costs.
Of course, you can also blend a hard and soft system by having defined rules for some magic users, while others tap into more mysterious cosmic forces.
Overall, decide what role you want magic to play. Is it a power to strategize, or a spiritual force to inspire? Your answer shapes whether a hard, soft or hybrid system best suits your narrative vision.
The Key Elements of a Magic System
When developing a magic system, there are some fundamental elements to consider:
- Limitations – What are the boundaries, costs, or weaknesses? Limitations create strategy and consequences.
- Powers – What can magic do? Define each ability and its effects. Consider offensive, defensive, utilitarian, and ritual magic.
- Source – Where does magic come from? Genetics, deities, objects, or training? The source shapes how it is accessed.
- Accessibility – Who can use magic and how is it obtained? Is it an inborn talent or requiring study? Is it limited to certain bloodlines, social classes or environments?
- Price – What is sacrificed or risked to access magic? Life force, sanity, social standing? Does using magic corrupt or consume the user?
- Growth – Can magic users improve their abilities with time and practice? Is there a scope for new applications of power?
- Culture – How does the presence of magic impact society, politics, conflict, technology, etc? How is it viewed morally?
- Aesthetic – What visuals, symbols and designs represent different types of magic? This creates a consistent style.
By answering these key questions, you create structure, limitations and purpose around the magic. The system should tie into the themes, tone and conflicts of your world. Build in costs and consequences so abilities remain balanced and credible. Refine until the magic complements your storytelling goals.
How To Write A Magic System In 18 Steps
Step 1: Define the Purpose of Magic
Determine how magic fits into the world and the story. Is it common or rare? How does it impact society, politics, and daily life? What role will it play in the plot?
Defining the purpose and prevalence of magic sets the foundation for the rest of the system. Decide early on if you want magic to be an everyday part of life or something obscure and mystical. This will shape how it integrates with the world and characters, determining whether magic opens new story avenues or mainly creates conflict. Keep this core purpose in mind as you build out details.
Example: In Harry Potter, magic is hidden from non-magical people, creating a secret, parallel magical society. Magic impacts everything from government to sports and games. The story revolves around a magical boarding school. This premise establishes magic as a core part of the world that shapes how characters live. It opens up unique story possibilities in a school setting while also creating conflict between magical and non-magical worlds.
Step 2: Establish Rules and Limitations
Magic should have clear rules and limitations to maintain consistency. Decide what magic can and cannot do, what its costs are, and how it is accessed or learned. Limitations can create tension and conflict in the story.
Rules give structure to magic and prevent it from becoming an overpowered deus ex machina that resolves everything too easily. Limitations make characters problem-solve within the system, leading to more creativity. It also makes conflict and stakes authentic when magic has defined costs. Keep developing interesting limitations.
Example: In Avatar: The Last Airbender, benders can only control one element and require martial arts movements to bend. Each element has strengths and weaknesses relative to others. Overuse drains a bender’s energy. These limitations force characters to think creatively in battle rather than simply overpowering enemies. It also creates natural story conflict between nations aligned with different elements.
Step 3: Create a Source or Origin
Think about where magic comes from. Is it a natural force, divine power, or something else? The source can influence the nature of magic and how it’s used.
The origin shapes magic’s place in society and the characters’ relationship to it. A divine source may make magic seem sacred. A natural source makes it more mundane. Think about how your origin influences these dynamics and the personality of the magic system.
Example: In Mistborn, magic comes from ingesting and “burning” metal alloys, making it a scientifically explorable power source. This contrasts with a more mystical divine magic system and creates an industrial feel to the magic. The metallic nature of the source limits what it can do while also grounding it in real-world materials.
Step 4: Types or Schools of Magic
Consider different branches or types of magic within your system. These can be elemental (fire, water, air, earth), thematic (healing, illusion, necromancy), or something unique to your world.
Different types of magic allow for specialization and diversity among magic users. They also offer more depth and creativity in how magic manifests. Types can derive from personality, culture, strategy, ideology, and more. Align your branches with themes in your story.
Example: In the Wheel of Time, magic users are divided into Aes Sedai who can heal and manipulate the classical elements, and Asha’man who wield combat magic. This magic specialization leads to factional tensions, social hierarchy, and strategic implications during conflict. It also makes individual mages feel distinctive based on their talents.
Step 5: Magic Users and Abilities
Decide who can use magic and how they acquire these abilities. Is it innate, learned, or granted by external forces? Explore the diversity of magical abilities within your system.
Varying access to magic can create interesting social dynamics and character archetypes. A mage’s journey mastering magic can drive their development. Make sure acquisition and mastery align with your characters’ emotional journeys.
Example: IIn Name of the Wind, arcanists have innate talents but still train for years in magic schools to develop specialized skills like naming and sympathy. This apprenticeship process provides built-in character progression. Differences in talent and potential create an academic hierarchy. The path to mastery drives the protagonist’s growth.
Step 6: Costs and Consequences
Determine the costs or consequences of using magic. This could include physical exhaustion, aging, moral dilemmas, or societal stigma. Consequences add depth to the magic system.
Overpowered magic is boring. Costs create meaningful decisions and prevent magic from solving everything instantly. Consequences drive conflict as mages deal with backfires. Build costs that force tough choices and push characters in interesting new directions.
Example: In Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy requires equal exchange – to gain something, mages must sacrifice something of equal value. This law prevents alchemists from creating anything easily and limits healing. The protagonist’s drive to bypass this rule creates his moral downfall.
Step 7: Symbols and Components
Consider the use of symbols, gestures, words, or physical components (like wands or staffs) needed to perform magic. These elements can add cultural richness to your system.
Components allow magic to interact with the physical world instead of just being abstract forces. Unique symbols, tools, and gestures also provide cultural flavour. They lend a sense of reality and visual style. Consider how implements enhance your system.
Example: In Doctor Strange, magic involves intricate hand gestures and mandalas. Wands in Harry Potter choose their witch/wizard, affecting their magic ability. These physical components allow magic to interact with the world more visually. Unique tools also provide cultural flavour and a sense of history.
Step 8: Cultural and Historical Influence
Think about how magic is perceived across different cultures and societies in your world. How has it shaped history, rituals, and beliefs?
Magic as a historical influence creates a believable backdrop. Cultural attitudes add nuance and realism, sparking story conflict. Build context about how magic has impacted your world’s past, politics, and perceptions.
Example: In Dragon Age, magic is feared due to historical abuses. Apostate mages are harshly persecuted by the Chantry religion. This backdrop of prejudice creates story conflict as mages struggle to survive. It also makes magic feel fully embedded in the world rather than detached.
Step 9: Conflict and Opposition
Create opposition to magic. This could be in the form of anti-magic factions, magical creatures that threaten society, or rival magic users. Conflict drives the plot.
An interesting magic system creates great power but also great conflict. Rival groups competing over magic create endless story possibilities. Build competing philosophies and make sure the factions relate to the protagonists’ journey.
Example: In Slayer, magic users are organized into competing clans defined by combat abilities. The protagonist struggles to avoid faction politics and stay neutral as tensions rise. This conflict adds immediacy while also questioning the need for violence.
Step 10: Balance and Harmony
Explore the balance or harmony within your magic system. Are there checks and balances to prevent misuse or abuse? How does magic affect the natural order?
Balance prevents any side from abusing magic and maintains interesting tension/struggle. It also creates ethical dilemmas for those tasked with preserving harmony. Use balance to drive challenging choices.
Example: In Avatar: The Last Airbender, spirit magic balances the four elements. The Avatar maintains harmony between the physical and spirit realms, preventing misuse. This responsibility creates great pressure on the Avatar while also raising ethical dilemmas about preserving balance.
Step 11: World-Building Integration
Ensure that your magic system seamlessly integrates with the overall world-building of your story, including geography, politics, technology, and culture.
Magic shouldn’t feel tacked on, but woven into every aspect of your world. Consistency creates immersion. Think through how magic has shaped culture, technology, geography over time. Use it to flesh out your world.
Example: In Harry Potter, magic impacts everything from government to school subjects to sports. Spells and magical objects are incorporated into daily life. Things like secret passages in Hogwarts Castle, flying broomsticks used for transportation, and moving portraits all reinforce that magic is an integral part of the wizarding world. This makes the magic feel fully embedded rather than detached.
Step 12: Character Development
Consider how your characters’ relationships with magic evolve. Their growth and struggles in mastering or rejecting magic can be central to the narrative.
Characters discovering their powers provides built-in development. Their magic reflects their personality and values. Make sure your characters’ magical growth ties deeply into their emotional arcs.
Example: In Name of the Wind, Kvothe’s mastery of naming magic parallels his growth from street urchin to Arcane University student. His magic progression reflects his education and character development. It also evolves with setbacks that humble his prodigy talents.
Step 13: Symbolism and Themes
Think about the thematic elements of your magic system. Does it represent certain themes, such as the balance of power, the consequences of choice, or the nature of good and evil?
Thematic resonance gives deeper meaning to your magic system. Use it to physically manifest your story’s messages. Align types of magic, sources, and conflicts with your central themes and character journeys.
Example: In Avatar The Last Airbender, bending the four elements symbolizes mankind’s relationship with the natural world. The types of magic represent key philosophies that characters struggle to balance. This makes the magic a representative of the story’s themes
Step 14: Experiment and Iterate
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your magic system. It’s okay to revise and refine it as you write and discover more about your world and characters.
A magic system will evolve just like the characters and plot. Let yourself discover the system through writing it. Allow revisions to capture new inspirations and fix problems. Iteration leads to richness.
Example: J.K. Rowling had to restrict time-turners in Harry Potter to prevent plot holes. Brandon Sanderson tweaked his magic systems across novels to fix inconsistencies. They let the magic evolve organically during writing.
Step 15: Show, Don’t Tell
Rather than explaining all the details upfront, reveal aspects of your magic system gradually through the story. This keeps readers engaged and curious.
Show magic’s impact on characters and the world rather than explaining every technical detail upfront. Leave readers always wanting to learn more. Let the sense of wonder and discovery unfold gradually.
Example: In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe watches his teacher make a coin slowly roll across a table without touching it. The narrative focuses on Kvothe’s sense of wonder and curiosity as he tries to understand what force could cause the coin to move. The magical act hooks him emotionally and leaves him determined to unlock its secrets. Only after this does the teacher explain sympathy as linking objects via Alar, the strength of will. By showing the magical effect first before the system details, it emphasizes the emotion and maintains a sense of discovery.
Step 16: Research and Inspiration
Draw inspiration from real-world mythology, history, and science to make your magic system feel grounded and believable.
Great magic systems remix real-world magic traditions and scientific principles as inspiration. Thorough research fuels creativity in developing something unique yet believable. Study both the fantastical and practical.
Example: Alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist mixes ancient alchemy with symbolic chemical processes and law of equivalent exchange. This blending of real-world principles creates a seemingly plausible system.
Step 17: Name Your Magic System
Choose a fitting name for your magic system that captures its essence, cultural relevance, or uniqueness. This name should be memorable and resonate with your readers, enriching the identity of your magic system within the story’s world.
A good name sticks in the reader’s imagination, encapsulating the essence of the magic. It may also hint at the origin. Choose a name that resonates emotionally and highlights your system’s distinctiveness.
Example: “Alchemy” brings to mind ancient science and transformation. “The Force” evokes an omnipresent energy field. These names summarize key traits while capturing the imagination.
Step 18: Beta Readers and Feedback
Share your magic system with beta readers or critique partners to get feedback on its clarity, consistency, and appeal.
External feedback identifies plot holes, inconsistencies, and areas for improvement. Betas also gauge reader interest and engagement. Get critique on strengths/weaknesses before finalizing your system.
Example: Brandon Sanderson had alpha readers vet his magic systems. Based on feedback, he made Emperors Soul’s magic more visual and consistent. This improved reader engagement.
Remember that a unique magic system should enhance your story and contribute to the overall narrative. It should be an integral part of your world-building and character development, adding depth and intrigue to your novel.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Structure a Magic System?
To structure a magic system, start by defining its purpose and basic rules. Decide on the source of magic, costs, and limitations to create a logical foundation. Build out different schools of magic, users, abilities, tools, and historical/cultural contexts. Develop factions and conflicts that drive plot. Maintain balance so no aspect becomes overpowered. Allow characters to grow through mastering magic. Keep the system aligned with central themes. Revise and refine the magic as you write to create an organic, living system.
How Do You Make a Unique Magic System?
To make a unique magic system, blend familiar elements with creative twists. Borrow from diverse fields like science, culture, and linguistics for inspiration. Develop symbolic representations of magic that feel distinctive. Design novel magical materials, creatures, and tools. Focus on emotional experiences rather than just mechanical details. Establish philosophical debates within the system. Emphasize wonder over hard magic rules early on. Allow real-world research to shape your magic into something that resonates while also feeling fresh.
How Do You Write a Good Soft Magic System?
A good soft magic system maintains an air of mystery. Reveal specific magical rules and limits gradually rather than all at once. Hint at a complex magical world without explaining everything. Focus on the experience and emotions magic evokes before delving into technical details. Allow characters to discover magic alongside the reader. Keep fantastical elements mysterious rather than predictable. Prioritize sending characters on journeys of wonder over defining firm boundaries. Leave room for the unknown.
How Do You Explain Magic System?
To explain a magic system, reveal information on a need-to-know basis through scenes that demonstrate magic organically. Avoid dense exposition dumps. Convey details through character discoveries, mentor-mentee training, magical objects with history, ritual ceremonies, and debates between contrasting magical philosophies. Each new story beat can unlock a new facet of how magic works. Slowly answer questions about limitations, costs, origins, and relationships between types of magic as characters explore their powers.
And there you have it – 18 easy-to-follow steps with examples of how to write a magic system! There’s a whole spellbinding world of magical possibilities out there. So get creative blending elements from your favourite fantasy stories or real-world myths. Experiment, take some risks, and refine as you go. Don’t be shy about asking for feedback from your readers too. The more you polish your magic system, the more immersive your fantasy world will feel.
Now I’m eager to hear your thoughts! What are your favourite parts of magic systems? What advice do you have for aspiring fantasy authors? Drop your comments below so we can keep the conversation going and learn from each other! Looking forward to geeking out over magic with you all.