Magic is an enormous part of what makes fantasy so fantastic, and while I believe one can create a fantasy (and a good one) without magic, I more firmly believe that it is nearly always better with magic than without.
This talk on magic will come in two parts. In this one I’ll talk about what magic systems are, how to classify them, and how they are used in fantasy. In part two I’ll give you some steps and tips for crafting your own magic system.
A magic system is a set of supernatural (or magical) effects and the rules specific to said set of effects.
That’s my definition, which isn’t law, but helps us out when we think.
In the world of Harry Potter, the readers, along with Harry, become familiar with Expelliarmus, the Disarming Spell. This particular effect is the disarming of your opponent. The rules are as follows: a person must 1) be a wizard, which in this story means a person with innate magical power he or she was born with, 2) have a wand, and 3) know and recite the incantation. This is an example of J. K. Rowling’s magic system.
Think of any magic system in any fantasy story. You will likely be able to pick out effects and rules. Some systems, however, have noticeably fewer rules (and often much more vague rules) than others. This is where we start categorizing magic systems.
Hard Magic vs Soft Magic
All magic systems lie along a spectrum. One end of the spectrum is what many (including Brandon Sanderson, to whom I give credit for much of my magic-related knowledge) call “soft” magic. On the other end is “hard” magic. Both are equally valid forms of magic, but they are used in very different ways.
A hard magic system is one that has an internally consistent set of rules and logic that it follows throughout the course of the story, and never breaks. At some point in the story the readers will have learned these rules and understand how the internal logic of the system functions.
The aforementioned Brandon Sanderson’s Allomancy, from Mistborn (a spectacular read) is a great example of a hard magic system. Allomancy gives the user (the Allomancer) supernatural powers like super durability, super strength, super senses, and the ability to telekinetically push and pull metals, among others. In order to use these powers, however, the Allomancer must ingest metals, usually in the form of dust stirred into an alcohol solution and held in a small vial. Different metals grant different powers. Tin, for example, enhances all five of the user’s senses.
The most basic rule of Allomancy is essentially “no metal, no power,” though there are many, many other rules that make the system more complex, and throughout Mistborn Sanderson explains in detail how to use Allomancy and what it feels like.
I like to think of a hard magic system in this way: you want the reader to know how to use this magic, well enough that they feel they could actually be a magic-user if they were in your world. I could totally be an Allomancer, because Sanderson showed me how, and I know his rules. I know how to cast Expelliarmus, and if you’ve read Harry Potter, so do you.
The other side is the soft magic system. Its rules are a mystery to us as the readers, and almost always to the characters as well. These kinds of magic tend to exist to create a sense of wonder, whimsy, or awe in the reader, and give them that fantastical feeling that comes from fairy tales. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass are perfect examples of soft magic. It makes no sense whatsoever, but it is so very wonderful I can’t help but be in love.
Nearly ever (if not every) Studio Ghibli film showcases soft magic systems. Spirited Away? Incredibly soft magic. Why does Yubaba have three weird green heads just hopping around in her office? Because magic. That’s it.
Many magic systems fall somewhere between these two extremes. While I used Harry Potter’s magic system as an example for hard magic, in reality it sits much closer to the middle of the spectrum. There are many rules that are given to us and explained, but some things in Harry Potter are simply there because magic is cool. They are never explained, and serve to create in us a sense of wonder. Why can brains strangle people? Because magic, and because it’s really cool.
Most of us are bound to like one type of magic system more than the other, and that’s perfectly acceptable. All of my favorite magic systems, both to read and to write, lean more toward the hard magic end of the spectrum, and yet I am in awe over Studio Ghibli every single time I see their very, very soft magic systems. What it comes down to when you create your own magic system (which I’ll talk about in part 2) is what’s best for the story you’re trying to tell.
Magic in relation to the world
Magic never exists in a bubble. If someone is using this magic, you can bet your golden dragon egg it will affect something. Even if your protagonist is the only person in the entire universe who can use this magic, it will affect the protagonist, the people around the protagonist, perhaps even the actual, physical landscape around the protagonist—to sum it up, every single thing your magic system or its users come into contact with will be affected by it.
If everyone in your advanced magical future society is telepathic, no one is going to be carrying around a cell phone. They don’t need to, they can hold long distance conversations with their brains. Now, if the laws of your system state that telepathy has a range of 15 feet, then you have a different story. If telepathy had that limited of a range, would anyone ever really talk? With their vocal chords, face to face?
Carrying on with the same examples as before, the wizarding world of Harry Potter has a ton of crazy magic that is used for the convenience of the users. Magic can wash their clothes and dishes, act as a transporter, and can even function for long distance communication. The result? Wizards have no washing machines or dish washers, they have no telephones, they don’t buy plane tickets to get to their cousin’s wedding on time. They just cast a spell, or send an owl, or use Floo powder.
Magic affects everything. People, places, technologies, cultures. Keep that in mind.
Magic as a plot device
Magic can be a really good plot device, but only if you know how to use it well.
Be careful when you decide use magic for the sake of the plot.
If your characters can use magic to get out of every single predicament and overcome every single obstacle, we (your readers) are going to get bored. It’s much more fascinating that Frodo can’t put on the Ring without being seen by the enemy than if he could simply use it whenever he wanted and just “invisibled” himself out of every conflict.
Brandon Sanderson, with whom I agree in almost every respect regarding magic systems, presented it very nicely in his lectures on magic systems (which you should watch as soon as you finish reading. Just follow this link).
Magic should create more problems than it solves. This is especially true when dealing with soft magic systems. Since there are few to no visible rules for the magic, it seems cheap for that magic to solve the protagonist’s problems. It’s like a deus ex machina. We don’t like that. We like it when that magic turns the protagonist’s parents into pigs and sweeps her off into a bizarre and unknown world.
A hard magic system is much easier to make work as a problem solver rather than a problem maker. Still, it can’t be used to solve all the problems, and it’s much better when it continuously creates at least as many problems as it solves.
To bring back another example, we can look at Allomancy. Pewter is the Allomantic metal that enhances the users physical abilities and strength. They can work and fight for longer, carry more, run faster, tolerate more pain, hit harder, and are just generally much more physically powerful. By itself this can get boring pretty fast. But in order to activate Allomantic powers, one must first ingest the metal, in this case pewter, and then they must use their innate abilities to do what Sanderson calls burning.
The Allomancer burns the metal inside of her and gains the powers assigned to that specific metal. The burning process, however, consumes the metal, and once she’s run out of pewter all the exhaustion and pain and stress that she was putting her body through without feeling it comes crashing back into her, and it’s awful. Once she runs out of pewter, she’s vulnerable. That raises the stakes, creates conflict, and makes the magic far more interesting than it would have been without any weaknesses. Which brings me to my last topic.
Strengths and Weaknesses
A magic system is just like a character. It has traits and flaws and strengths and weaknesses, and if there are no flaws and weaknesses it’ll make for a boring magic system, just as a flawless character is a boring one.
Now, a magic’s weaknesses might be different than a magic’s flaws. These terms are really just arbitrary things I like to use to help me think about it. Brandon Sanderson does something similar, but whether he does it the same was as I do or not, I can’t remember. Just bear with me as I use these words, and if others use them differently, feel free to do it their way. Disclaimer over.
In my process, a flaw is something within the magic system itself that makes it weaker, balances its strengths, or creates loopholes that, generally, hurt our protagonists (loopholes that help them can and often are a good thing as well, but are part of a different conversation).
A weakness, on the other hand, is a more external sort of thing. For example, Superman’s powers are a magic system. Yes, it’s not technically fantasy, but it is a magic system. That system’s weakness is Kryptonite. It’s flaws are… well, there’s probably a flaw in there somewhere.
The point is, weaknesses are like a hole in the armor that someone can shoot an arrow through in order to bring the system down. One of the armor’s flaws is that it gets rusty when you sweat, and thus impedes movement when you wear it too long.
Within flaws and weaknesses are costs and limitations. These are rather self-explanatory.
A cost is, well a cost. What does it cost me to use this magic? The cost of Allomancy is metal. You must pay in metals, for Allomancy consumes metal.
In Eragon the cost is physical. If you try to do too much with your magic, it could kill you, because the physical toll of the magic is so high.
In the animated television show Adventure Time, magic is part of a trio: magic, madness, and sadness. Once you have all three of these things, you are a wizard. The more of one of these things you get, the more of the other two you have to accumulate. Powerful wizardry is a tragic thing. Some of Adventure Time’s most beloved characters are people who went a little too far into magic and lost far more than they gained.
Limitations are simply what a magic cannot do. Certain Allomantic metals allow the user to move metals with telekinesis. This power, however, is split into two metals, and each is very limited. Steel allows the user to push metals directly away from their center of gravity. Iron allows the user to pull metals directly toward their center of gravity. Use of “steel-pushing” and “iron-pulling,” then, becomes much more of a task than simply moving metal with you mind, and takes more creativity and cleverness to use well.
Limitations in magic allow your character to shine as a person, for when their magic fails, their character stands.
Once the pewter runs out we see what she’s really made of. Without her supernatural strength we can see her internal strength shine.
These are all guidelines. They’re just things to help you think about magic. None of it is law, and not every single magic system needs to have carefully set out laws, weaknesses, flaws, costs, and limitations. These are pieces of a puzzle that has no one right answer. You get to take these pieces and make whatever picture you want.
In the next post I’ll give you some tips and pointers from my own experience in making magic systems.
For now: read a lot, write even more, think hard, sleep well.
I’ll see you next time!