Magic systems: ideas and guiding principles
Updated: Apr 22
Magic systems are an important aspect of worldbuilding, and it’s important to get them right.
Reveal too little, and your ideas for magic systems can feel contrived or confusing to the reader. Reveal too much and you can bore the reader, or take away the magic system’s wonder or mystery.
When writing your novel, there are several important points to consider. Here’s my summary, which is based on Stephen Aryan’s presentation at Alex Davis’s Realms of Fantasy workshop.
Magic systems: who can do magic exactly?
If anyone can do magic all the time, and they never get tired, then the magic would have few boundaries. Characters could use it to do pretty much anything. In turn, this would annoy many readers, as when characters did not use magic to solve a problem, the reader would ask why they didn't use it.
This means that you should ask:
Who can do magic in your novel?
The Chosen Ones?
Among those who can do magic, are they all equally good at it? Do some people have a talent for it? Do they have unlimited capacity, or do they get tired quickly?
What is the magic system’s impact on the world?
You should also relate the magic system to other aspects of worldbuilding. A magic system that involves creating a telepathic bond with an animal is very different to a system based on incantations, written spells, or alchemical elements. Your magic system's ideas will shape the tone and mood of your world, and vice versa.
Hard magic systems
One important distinction is the difference between hard and soft magic systems.
Hard magic is structured and the rules are made clear to the reader in the book. It is clearly defined and there are limits to it. It’s predictable, much like modern science.
Aang’s magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender is one example. This magic has clear rules.
Advantages: The magic system's ideas and parameters are consistent and logical, and people can problem solve with it.
Disadvantages: Hard magic loses some of the spark and fantastical elements to it. It can be difficult to add new points to that magic system, and you certainly shouldn’t do so late on in the book, as then it will appear contrived.
Hard magic is advisable if the use of the magic system is integral to the plot.
Soft magic systems
A soft magic system is one whose inner workings are not revealed to the reader. As an author, you may have built a whole system, but you only receive bits of it to the reader.
Gandalf’s magic from LOTR is one example.
Soft magic is advisable if you want to deepen your worldbuilding or sense of place, and when the magic’s use is not integral to the plot.
Advantages: It appears exciting, awe-inspiring, divine, and mysterious.
Disadvantages: It can easily be a MacGuffin. It is prone to ‘handwaving’. The magic could just appear and mystically solve a problem at a key point in the story.
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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
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