I’ve always been fascinated by stories with innovative magic systems. So when I realized the world of my current work-in-progress novel took place in an alternate world, I seized the opportunity to add some interesting magic. But how do you create an interesting magic system? What separates the good from the bad?
What is a magic system?
According to our dear friend Wikipedia, a magic system is “a set of rules that magical effects follow in a fictional setting.”
While most commonly seen in fantasy, you can actually find magic systems in ghost stories, superhero narratives, even a lot of science fiction. The magic system doesn’t necessarily have to govern magic – it’s simply the rules and limitations of the fantastical elements that separate the story world from our own.
When can the ghosts appear? How can superheroes gain their powers? What blocks are included in the robots’ programming? The answers to these types of questions are all dictated by the type of “magic” system in place within each fictional world.
Research round-up time!
Nat Russo summarizes the writer’s approach to creating magic systems with three simple rules in the article World Building: Magic Systems. The rules? Know the Purpose, Know the Rules, and Know the Limitations.
Brandon Sanderson is regarded by a lot of people as the master of developing innovative and intriguing magic systems. He’s developed three laws of magics:
Sanderson’s First Law states that “the author’s ability to use magic to solve conflicts is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” So if your magic system is largely undefined to heighten a sense of wonder, don’t use it to miraculously save the day.
Sanderson’s Second Law is simply: limitations are more important than powers. Stories are so much more interesting when there are limits to what the hero can do with their magic.
Finally, Sanderson’s Third Law is to “expand what you already have before you add anything new.” This will add depth to your world-building rather than overwhelming the reader with too much new stuff.
I also found that TVTropes has an excellent how-to guide to Write a Functional Magic System. The article guides you through a set of questions designed to create your magic’s rules. Questions include “Where does the magic come from?” and “What can’t magic do?”.
There were more sites I looked at too, and all of them seemed focused on getting one message across: to have an interesting magic system, the limitations and costs of the magic are just as important as the magic itself. Which makes sense: after all, the best stories are always about characters overcoming weaknesses and obstacles. Why should the workings of magic systems not be the same?
Consistency is key
Whatever rules and limitations you end up creating for your magic system, it’s important to stick with them. Breaking the rules to get your characters out of a jam is also likely to break your readers’ suspension of disbelief. If you have limitations and costs, don’t suddenly introduce a new power to get around them. Work with your rules and limitations to push your own creativity, and you’ll end up with a more powerful story.