Magic is one of the defining characteristics of the fantasy genre. Whether your characters need spells to cast, can control the elements, or something else, your magic system can be as defined or loose as you want/need.
Before we get into this topic, it’s important to remember that your way of creating a magic system isn’t wrong. Every writer has their own approach. That’s okay! That’s part of what makes our stories unique.
Use these guidelines to help you if you’re feeling overwhelmed or just aren’t sure where to start. Crafting a believable but still fantastical magic system is possible with imagination, time, and effort.
The spectrum of magic
Magic systems are typically split into three categories: hard magic, soft magic, and hybrid magic.
Hard magic systems have specific rules, including a costs and limitations. In this system, magic may influence the world, from culture to government to religion. Magic can be used to solve problems. Predictability and consistency are key. / Example: Alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist
Soft magic systems don’t have specific rules, and they’re more mysterious. Magic is not the solution to conflict, and magic can even make things worse. / Example: The Force in Star Wars
Hybrid magic systems are somewhere in between, blending elements of hard and soft systems. / A great example is the magic in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Though much of the magic is clearly defined, its impact on the world varies, and some parts of magic aren’t ever fully explained to the audience.
Striking a magical balance
Finding the right magic system will depend on your story and your world. To get started, ask yourself a few questions:
- How does magic manifest? What abilities can magic users have?
- Does everyone have magic?
- Is there a limit to magic use? Can magic be suppressed? What fuels magic?
- How could someone without magic defeat a magic user?
- Can magic be used destructively? For healing? Both?
- How has the world been affected by magic? (Think about historical events and the current setting.)
- Is magic accepted in your story’s world? If not, why not?
- Can (or will) magic be used to solve problems?
Many popular franchises and books use a hybrid magic system, so don’t be afraid to combine elements of both and find your place on the spectrum of magic.
Author Brandon Sanderson has three laws for magic that can serve as guidelines when creating your own magic system:
- The author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the readers understand that magic.
- Weaknesses, costs, and limits are more important than the actual magic powers.
- The author should expand on what is already part of the magic system before adding something entirely new.
You can read more about this on his website.
What is magic good for in a story?
Magic can serve a few purposes in your novel. It can be there purely for fantastic purposes, but it can also help you explore themes. Consider what lessons magic might teach characters (and readers).
Perhaps you want to explore some kind of spiritual transformation. Maybe magic will teach your characters about belonging, the quest for knowledge, or moral ambiguity.
Whether you plan it or not, magic often reveals something more to you, the characters, and the reader. Take note of what you find!
Expanding your magic system later
Sometimes we need to add or expand on our magic systems in the second or third book of our series. That’s okay!
How much you can expand will depend on the system you’ve already established. Turning a rigidily-defined system on its head may be hard for readers to believe, but creating overpowered magic in a soft system is all too easy.
Ask yourself why you need (or want) to expand your magic system, then brainstorm ways you can make this change and present it to readers.
Wrapping it up
Though it may feel complex, creating a magic system can be one of the most fun parts of worldbuilding.
Be sure to ask yourself tons of questions about the system you have in mind as you begin the process. Being thorough in the beginning will help you as you draft.
Enjoy the process, get creative, and have fun!
If you’re preparing to publish your manuscript and need an editor, head over to my contact page to set up your free consultation.