Tips for Writing Good Magic Systems

Magic is a tricky subject when it comes to any story.  Whether you’re writing an epic, medieval fantasy or a space opera, you have a high chance of creating characters who are capable of feats beyond our normal, mortal means.  Unfortunately for beginners, magic has a high risk of becoming too over-powered, too confusing, or too plot deviced.  There are a plethora of ways magic can go wrong, whether you’re writing it for a novel, game, or anything else.  It is not a topic for the faint of heart, as the saying goes.

That being said, however, there are certain mindsets that can help you create better magic systems for your stories.  In this article, I’ve chosen three tips that, at least for beginners, should be kept in mind while developing your world.  Before we begin, I will note that like most “rules” in writing, they can be broken.  These tips are not set in stone; rather, they should be used as guidelines to help you along the process.  With that out of the way now, let’s begin.

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  1. Understand how your magic system works, and convey that to the reader.

One thing you definitely do not want to do with magic is make it up as you go.  Sure, for a while Wizard Boy can peacefully shoot fireballs, ice spikes, and grease, but eventually some reader is going to ask questions about how it works.  Why can Wizard Boy do magic and not Warrior Chick?  How does Wizard Boy do magic?  The moment these questions start being asked, the moment the world starts to crumble if you do not have a concrete answer.

Thankfully, there are a myriad of ways to handle this area.  You can use a mana based system (like what most RPGs use for magic) that involves pulling energy from the area or from inside yourself to turn it into some sort of magic.  You can have the magic be reliant on incantations instead of just a wave of a wand.  You can even have something more out there like with Mass Effect’s biotics (i.e. space magic), where humans have specific implants that allow them to use it.

There are just numerous ways for you to go about magic creatively, whether it’s something you make up yourself or something inspired from other fictional works.  The important part is to have a clear understanding of it.  In general, you want to know where the energy for the magic comes from, who can perform magic, how magic is performed (incantations, wands, sheer willpower, etc.), what magic can do, etc..  The more rules your magic has, the better you will find yourself able to utilize it in a story.

However, you must also make sure you can convey this information to the reader.  Now of course, you don’t want to info-dump a ten page monologue from Wizard Boy to deliver the information.  Dropping tidbits at appropriate moments, though, is something that should be strived for.  The better you can put the reader on the same page as you, the more immersed and real the world will feel to them.  It also creates a world where the reader won’t get distracted asking their questions that you cannot answer without a well-established system.  So, whether your magic system is shallow or immensely deep, make sure you have moments the reader can understand it as well.

 

  1. Keep in mind advantages and disadvantages

Another way to title this tip would be to say make sure the magic in your story has limitations.  This is a point I cannot emphasis enough and is often the point I see that’s most broken, even by professionals who have monumentally successful series.  When it comes to magic, there is nothing that opens up a plot hole faster than a magic system that is limitless.

For example, if you established that characters aren’t limited by something like mana or anything else to produce magic, everyone is going to start to wonder why Wizard Boy didn’t just magic them out of that dungeon.  It’s at this point that more introspection is triggered, and readers may come to dislike your story for not having enough balance as far as character power dynamics goes.

As such, it is extremely important you establish some limitations.  Perhaps, like in Baldur’s Gate, characters can only use spells a certain number of times per day.  Or, like in numerous RPGs, characters only have access to a certain amount of energy (i.e. mana) to cast their spells.  As you can guess from my analogies, I highly suggest taking a look at games and analyzing how they limited magic via the gameplay mechanics.  While not the easiest to translate over to pure writing, for gameplay mechanics putting limits on magic is extremely important to creating a balanced game.  Taking inspiration from their ideas may give you a better idea of aspects you could utilize to limit your own story’s magic system.

On the flip side, however, let’s briefly talk about advantages.  Now while I don’t see this point broken often, there are times where a story will make magic horribly weak (until the plot demands it fix something at least).  As important as it is to give magic limitations, one must also remember magic should have some advantages.  To example, the most common advantage magic has is range, and magic users are generally very powerful as long as they stay out of close combat.  This is something you can easily utilize in a story.  Either way, magic should have a point of being in the story, and not be so weak it’s worthless.

Balance is key when it comes to magic systems.  Pros and cons must both be present, but in so doing you will have magic using characters who fit into the world smoothly.

 

  1. Keep rules and lore consistent

The last tip I have for writing magic is to have consistent rules and lore.  One of my first posts on this blog was basically a rant about how Dragon Age: Inquisition’s magic system broke immense amounts of lore.  Fortunately in that game’s case, however, it could be overlooked because gameplay mechanics generally take precedence over good lore.

Unfortunately for the subject of this post, though, that is a huge no-no.

For a reader, breaking of the lore and/or rules sticks out like a sore thumb.  If you establish, for example, that only fire nymphs can use fire spells, don’t suddenly tell us Wizard Boy can somehow use them too even though he isn’t a fire nymph.  Breaking rules and/or lore will generally and immediately pull a reader out of the story.  They will question why this was broken, and unless you have a compelling reason for why, you’re risking it coming off as a poorly written plot device.

Once you establish your magic system, you should try to stick to it like glue.  While you can slowly throw wrenches into the system, the heart of it should continually remain the same.  The reasons for this are largely related to the reasons for the first tip: you want to give the reader something concrete to understand about the magic system.  If you start throwing in wrenches willy nilly, you destabilize the system you developed, and more or less wind up back at square one.  Do not create rules unless you intend to follow them, because it’s the consistency that will help ground your world.

 

Thus are my baseline tips for writing magic.  Magic can be a high risk endeavor, but the reward for its presence can be interesting as well.  It’s not something that should be thrown together on a whim; it should be given some deep thought to create a world that is logical to the reader.  Of course, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to try magic out either.  Eventually, you will come to learn your own tricks of the trade for magic, and will create something that nobody else has before.

Before closing out this article, I would highly suggest checking out Avatar: The Last Airbender (the show, not the terrible movie).  This show pushes the boundaries on these tips I’ve given, but does so in a way that’s well-written.  As I mentioned at the beginning, these guidelines are just that: guidelines.  There are ways to push and pull at the guidelines and still create a well-written story; so, if you need an example, that is the show to check out in my opinion.

 

Image: Wizard from Pixabay by GraphicMama-team.