Adventures in World-building: Devising Magic Systems

A complex fantasy world isn’t built in one day or seven days. In fact, fantasy writers may find that their secondary-world isn’t complete until after their story comes to an end. This is a daunting concept to consider, particularly for writing-perfectionists with a tendency towards completeness. Even more daunting is the process of creating a magical world where the traditional features of society are completely altered by a unique force unknown to those of us living in the real world. As the world-builder, you are tasked with creating a system of magic that is consistent and believable. Without consistency, you risk losing the repeat-fantasy readers and the new recruits. Some considerations:

Types of Magic

Magic has a tendency to feel abstract and disconnected when the reader has no idea of its function and what it’s used for.  I’ve identified a number of magic types one might find in a typical magic-based fantasy. This list is not comprehensive and is not organized in any particular order:

  1. Elemental Magic
  2. Animism or Shamanism
  3. Illusion
  4. Psychic Magic/ Future Sight
  5. Spell and Ritual Magic
  6. Sorcery/Witchery
  7. Shapeshifting
  8. Necromancy
  9. Sacrificial
  10. Summoning/Conjuring

Any given fantasy world may include more than one type of magic—this is preferable for me, the reader. I enjoy complex systems and I believe they do very well. Despite the easy-reading vibe and colorful settings, Rowling’s Harry Potter has a complex collection of magical styles including, but not limited to: wandwork (sorcery/witchery), transfiguration (almost like shapeshifting), animism (those scenes with Buckbeak count, right?), and reanimation (necromancy). This collection of magic is vibrant and exciting, but most of it is grounded in wand-based magic and natural ability, which is the starting point for Rowling and Harry Potter. The importance placed on his acquiring a wand educates the readers on the rules of magic performed in Rowling’s world.

Magical Use & Purpose

While Tolkien’s Middle Earth possesses a similarly complex system of magic, he categorizes magic by user and determination. Gandalf and the elves use magic to defend Frodo and his companions from nazguls and other horrors, whereas Saurumon and Sauron use magic to inflict death or terror in their quest for power. This establishes a light and dark magic system with visually-apparent contrasts: the city of Rivendell is bright and beautiful whereas Mordor is a vile and hot hellscape.

Developing purpose is incredibly important. As in The Lord of the Rings, are your protagonists and antagonists motivated to use magic to change or maintain the fate of the world? Or is the use of magic less epic-heroic, like the kind performed by Ged in LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. Ged, or “Sparrowhawk,” travels the archipelago of Earthsea defending the people from dragon attacks. The act itself is of course, heroic, but we do not get the sense that the world’s fate is at stake. Only those citizens of Earthsea and Ged himself are in immediate danger, and magic seems to be a normal method of protection anyway.

Other fantasies may see magic used by ordinary people for ordinary things. In the way that the internet, with all of its capabilities, is used by the average person to watch videos of cats, a society may use magic, with all of its capabilities, to put on light displays and play pranks on neighbors. Some people may use magic for chores, while others may use magic to enhance weapons technology. When you find a purpose for magic in your world, you’re setting yourself up for consistency.

Straight From the Source

Finally, magic in fantasy must erupt from somewhere. In Tolkien’s work, magic appears as a natural way of being depending on race. Gandalf, a lesser-divine supernatural being called Maia, has numerous magical abilities as one of the five wizards (called Istari). Elves also poseses magic, and a number of magical beings possess magical affinities, although not all of them manifest as traditional spell casting.

For Rowling, magic is primarily passed through genetics although occasional witches or wizards are born with non-magical parents. Many of the creatures are magical by definition; their existence could only be possible in such a fantastical world.

Other stories may see magic as a blessing of the gods or a natural affinity of an unknowable origin, the latter being the case in Kristin Cashore’s contemporary young-adult fantasy, Graceling. Some fantasies may also present magical objects as source wells—interacting with them may grant a character new powers.

Magic System Flow-Chart

My current project combines a number of these ideas. To tie together all of the ideas discussed above, I maintain a magic system flow chart for my fantasy world. Below is a crude version. I update as my story unfolds and uses for magic change. Of course, other considerations will be at play, and every story will have its own unique model. In mine, magic comes from the gods and is filtered down through multiple channels where it reaches mankind. I encourage flow-chart use in all kinds of world-building project, not just for defining magic-use. Create a similar chart, like mine, or devise your own.

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