If there is any form of magic in your story, chances are it’s a fantasy or some variation of of fantasy. There is an infinite amount of ways to do magic, but it has to be executed well. In this section, I’ll talk about magic in fantasy.
If you’re going to have magic in your world, it has to be integral part of the story. It can’t be a miscellaneous detail that is there for the sake of being “cool”. It must have a large bearing on the plot otherwise there is no point in it being there. So before you even consider putting magic in your world, think on it very carefully.
First things first: Your magic system should have rules.
Think of your magic system like the laws of physics in the real world. There are some laws that just cannot be broken. Now, obviously science and “laws” are based upon patterns we see in the universe and not things that are imposed on the universe. Scientists are discovering new and weird stuff all the time that doesn’t make sense with what we knew before, but this isn’t a science site, and for our purposes we’re just going to go with 9th grade physics.
I saw a movie recently that used perpetual motion machines (on Earth) for the plot, this is fine and all, but in our world, as we know it, perpetual motion machines are impossible. As such, your magic system should follow certain rules or laws. These are the fundamental building blocks of your system.
Questions to ask yourself:
- How powerful is this magic system?
- What type of magic can people do?
- Is there a trade off to practicing magic?
- How far does magic extend/what exactly is it capable of?
There are more, but those will be more specific to the context of your work.
Magic should have limits.
Whenever you write a story that gives characters fantastical abilities, you also have to write the weaknesses of these abilities, whether it be wizards, superheroes, or super intelligent people.
Superman is really powerful on Earth, but kryptonite is his Achilles’ Heel. In Harry Potter some wizards and witches are more powerful, or at least better at magic, than others, and magic cannot bring the dead back to life at least not how they were before or without terrible consequences.
Just the same, if you have a story where magic can do anything and everything, and solve all the world’s problems, you’re likely to have a not very good story. There should be problems in the world that magic cannot solve. Give it limitations.
Who can practice magic?
In Harry Potter, most of the characters we encounter can practice magic other than muggles and squibs. It’s also genetic here, where you have to be born with the ability to practice it.
In The Witcher series, magic is practiced by people who may be more or less ordinary, but they have to have some aptitude to it in order to master it well.
If magic is not commonplace are there consequences for that? Do characters have to hide their abilities from others (as in the Muggle world in Harry Potter)? Do they have to undergo physical changes that impact them (in The Witcher mages are infertile, but live longer)?
If you want it to be commonplace in your world, again you need limits. Not everyone can be a super powerful mage. It has to be far more mundane, and there should be some cases where some are much better than others.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Who can practice magic and how?
- Is it very common for people to practice magic or is it rare?
- Is it very difficult to master?
- Are abilities or aptitudes genetic/are people just born with it?
- Is it given to a person who is blessed or somehow chosen or is it random?
- Does magic vary by culture/location or is it universal?
- Is there a hierarchy in the magic system? (an arch mage figure.)
- Is there a league or governing body of mages? Do they write all the rules and laws of magic? Do they have their own agenda?
Where does magic come from?
Superman was alien so that’s where his superpowers came from, even though they’re normal on his home planet. In Lord of the Rings magic is super old and was tied to specific people and specific races. In A Song of Ice and Fire magic is really convoluted and varied by place and culture. Certain “old” races have these abilities and at the time of the series, magic is starting to make a come-back, so to speak. It’s reawakening. There are a few characters who have some form of abilities or powers, but otherwise it’s very mysterious.
So where does your system come from? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is your magic system inherit in the world/nature?
- Does it come from a god or gods?
- Is it more scientific? (as in trying to master the powers of the universe from careful study over hundreds or thousands of years.)
- Is it tied to specific races? (Elves are usually popular in this regard.)
- How old is it?
- Did some event happen that caused changes in the world which made magic possible? (Planetary alignments and such.)
- How much do people know about magic? Does it just kind of happen sometimes without explanation? Is it a very serious or more scientific thing?
How does magic tie into the rest of the world?
That is to say what is the cultural or social impact of magic?
In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim there is a big school where people can go to study magic. A long time ago a disaster happened that destroyed much of the area that school is in, but the school was not harmed, leading many to suspect the mages to have a hand in it. This leads some people (and races) to deeply mistrust magic, even though they acknowledge its existence.
In the Avatar: The Last Airbender world, the abilities are pretty common place. They’re used for mundane everyday life at times. This is similar to Harry Potter where Molly Weasley uses magic for housework.
Now if it is commonplace or a lot of people can master it, there should be some people who are either better at it than others or have some legendary ability that isn’t feasible for normal magic practitioners. In Skyrim, that’s the Dragonborn. In Avatar, that’s Aang. Even in The Witcher (although witchers aren’t very common and are not sorcerers) Geralt is considered one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, witcher ever.
If its not commonplace, then think of the impact. In our world, there are some people who deny certain scientific things (climate change or the age of the Earth, for example) and then go on to deeply distrust science and scientists.
Personally, if magic exists in your world, it has to have some social impact. It will have a huge bearing on the history of your world, life on that world, and so on. Even if its generally accepted by the population or considered “normal life”.
So think of the social or cultural impact in your world.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is practicing magic even legal? What is the punishment if it isn’t?
- Is it socially accepted or is it forbidden?
- Is it tied to other social issues like discrimination? (Can only women do magic, leading to mistrust? Is it more tied to specific races, leading to hate targeting that race?)
- Why does the general population feel the way they do? (Did a really bad mage cause a disaster? Did one save the world? Did one have good intentions, but screwed up bad? Is it just seen as unnatural?)
- Did some other group get the population to hate magic? (A religious order? A political movement? Think of the fear and hatred of “witches” that stemmed from fear of pagan religions in the middle ages.)
- What impact does the social structure have on magic? (Do mages practice in secret? Is it acceptable and they’re welcome in royal courts? Are they considered mysterious? Are they considered like saints? Is magic straight up gone?)
- Do attitudes on magic vary by culture/race?
- What is magic’s place in politics? (Do mages fight in wars or are they neutral? Do they advise royalty?)
- Are people just scared of it because they don’t understand it?
- What do normal people do when they encounter mages? (“witch hunts”, burning at the stake, ask for help from mages, etc.)
How difficult is magic to practice? What are the consequences?
As I’ve said, any ability we’d consider “superhuman” or “magical” in a story should have some sort of catch or consequence. It can be a cultural thing (see above) or it could go deeper.
In The Witcher, witchers in training have to undergo mutations that kill most of the trainees. It gives them abilities like heightened senses, extended life spans and such, but renders them infertile, the mutations are painful, and in Geralt’s case, his skin and hair lost pigmentation. In this world, many believe rumors that witchers have no feelings or emotions as a result of mutations (which is untrue). Even mages/sorceresses in the series undergo changes that also render them infertile.
So in your world are there consequences for practicing magic? Does it change the person either in personality or in appearance, or something else?
Think of how difficult magic is to learn and master. In Harry Potter wizards and witches have to go to school to learn how to control it. In many stories where a character does have an incredible ability, they usually have to learn to control it somehow.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do aspiring mages have to go to school to learn it? How long does it take to master?
- Are some students just better at it than others?
- What consequences (internal or external) do magic practitioners face?
- How strong is magic? Does it start as an aptitude, but needs to be worked at to harness and master? (A person in our world may be a good basketball player, but if they want to be a pro, they have to train really hard.)
What are the variants?
In Harry Potter there were all kinds of “fields” of magic (Defense Against the Dark Arts, Divination, Herbology, Magical Creatures, etc.) Think of how that plays into your story. Think of the kinds of magic and who practices them, if variants exist.
- How many subfields of magic are there? (Potions, weapon-style magic, alchemy, healing, transforming/transfiguration, fortune telling, elemental magic, etc.)
- Who practices them? (Are potion mages nerds? Are healers very peaceful and anti-war? Are fortune tellers considered super weird?)
- Are there certain types of magic that are forbidden? (Unforgivable curses, like murder, torture, or mind manipulation. Necromancy. Using magic for personal power.)
- Do mages use tools? (Wands, staffs, crystal balls, broomsticks, herbs, etc.)
What is the power structure? Who is more powerful than others?
Science has codes of ethics, and magic should too. As stated above, things like necromancy and using your powers for bad things, are usually forbidden in fantasy fiction stories. Think of what is considered good and bad in your magic system.
If your character is a figure who, for whatever reason is more powerful than most, if not all, magical folk they should have a weakness. Whether this is a personal flaw or something that has to do with their abilities is up to you, but they shouldn’t just be able to rush in and save the day, at least not easily.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Are there powerful mages who are more powerful than anyone else? If so, how did they get that power? Did they study hard? Turn to dark arts? Did the acquire/make a powerful magical object? Is it some sort of legendary thing that only happens once every few millennia?)
- What is considered “evil” and what is not? Why is considered that? (Is necromancy just unethical or does it corrupt a soul?)
- What are the consequences of mega powers? (Can these powers cause disasters and mass loss of life? Do they inhibit the character’s ability to do other things? Do they lose empathy?)
- What are the weaknesses of ultimate power? How difficult is it to take advantage of those weaknesses? (Sauron and the One Ring/Mount Doom. Voldemort and his horcruxes.)
- Is there prophesy involved?
- How does the character feel about their mega abilities or role in the story. (Harry Potter wasn’t a super powerful wizard, but he had a lot of angst about his life, for valid reasons. Does the “chosen one” hate being the chosen one? Do they love it?)
- How does this impact the characters’ lives? (How do their loved ones feel about them? Are they scared? Do they want to take advantage of the character’s abilities for their own ends? Are they exposed and therefore corrupted (Boromir in LOTR, for example)?
- Good magic systems are deep and complex no matter what its source is. Just as science to us is deep and complicated. Think on it before including it and don’t make it an after thought. Your magic can be mysterious, but it must be incredibly important to the story.
- If magic is integral to the plot (as it should be, in my opinion) it must have flaws, it must have consequences, and it must have limits.
- If your protagonist is a prophesied chosen one, they need personal flaws. They need to be humanized. Do not define them by their abilities. The antagonist should be, at least at the beginning, more powerful then your protagonist, and not defeated easily. It should also take a huge toll on your protagonist. Think of Frodo’s journey. They should also have a goal that isn’t just about defeating the bad guy: Harry Potter just wanted to be normal, go to school, and be with his loved ones. He was thrust into a position where he needed to stop Voldemort.
- Read other work. Read about other magic systems, see what those did. What did you find interesting? What made you hate it?
- If your protagonist is a “chosen one” don’t have them be able to do EVERYTHING, or at least not easily. They need to struggle with something, there should be people who know more than them, are better at some things than them, etc.
- If you’re going to use prophecy, make it messy, make it hard to figure out. Make it convoluted. Or make it something that everyone forgot about, almost mythical or like a folk tale.
In parting, here are some resources to help you build better magic systems:
- How to Create a Magic System? Worldbuilding Reddit Thread
- Elder Scrolls Lore: Magic
- Magic in Fiction Wikipedia
- Types and Subcategory of Magic and Powers: Superpower Wiki
- Magic Building Reddit