Magic systems—how magic works in a fantasy setting—is a pretty big subject, and one I’m not delusional enough to think I’ll “cover” in one blog post, but let’s at least dip a toe in that water, seeing how important it is to the fantasy genre—in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the presence of magic is the defining feature of the genre.

Magic is what makes a story a fantasy story in the same way that some imagined technology is what makes a story a science fiction story. That’s not to say, of course, that that means all fantasy has to be full of lots and lots of magic, any more than a science fiction story has to be loaded down with tons of gadgets and gizmos. I’m, personally, just as happy in a “low magic” setting like, say, Game of Thrones as I am in a decidedly “high magic” setting like the Forgotten Realms world. The quantity of magic is, to me—and I have a feeling this is true of the vast majority of your potential readers, too—secondary to the story itself.

In my online course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, I’d start things off, week one (of four) talking about technology (in science fiction) and magic (in fantasy), with this statement:

Every story is about characters in conflict, and everything about the setting should be purpose-built to move that story forward, not the other way around. Though you do want your readers to be awed by your magic, and lust after your technology (I want a light saber so bad…) it’s compelling characters and a surprising and satisfying story that will keep those readers in your world from prologue to epilogue. Invent just enough magic and technology—just enough “world” in general—to move your story forward.

So whatever your relative quantity of magic, however it works, ultimately, the story’s the thing. But then how to invent a system of magic—something that (sorry, folks) does not actually exist in reality—that feels “real”? I’ll fall back on what by now you’ve heard me repeat at least a few thousand times: forget realism, what you’re going for is plausibility.

As soon as someone waves his hands around and a lightning bolt shoots out, realism is right out the window. But if that character conjures a lightning bolt in the same way every time, and we (your readers) see it working consistently throughout the story, then it feels plausible—it works within the imagined rules of this fantastical world.

Those rules can, of course, be anything you like—a low magic world where casting the simplest spell is nearly impossible and so a true rarity, or a high magic world in which spells fly through the air like the average game of D&D—but those rules can be difficult to establish, and even more difficult to adhere to.

In the same way that a lot of stories, even most stories, start with theme—with the thing you have to say—magic systems (and other components to your worldbuilding) should start with some thought as to what you want it to do for you, story-wise. What are you tying to say with it, or what does it highlight and/or challenge in your characters? As author D.P. Prior wrote in “My Dysfunctional Relationship with Fantasy”:

I struggled with “the rules” of magic for quite some time, perhaps nowhere so much as with the tendency to slavishly rationalize things that, for most of us who haven’t pored over medieval cabalistic grimoires (cough), are inherently occult and mysterious. I wanted magic to be magic, not some kind of pseudo-science. I wanted demons, spirits, divinity—Arioch and the Lords of Chaos, not the mechanistic meta-narrative that explains away all such phenomena in the manner of Doctor Who.

Start with a magic system that makes sense to you, to your story, to your characters. And then comes the real work, as author David Mack writing in the Portalist confronted in “Does Realism Matter When Creating a Fictional Magic System?

There are a lot of variables to consider when developing a magic system for a game or a literary or cinematic series. Who is able to wield magic? What is the source of its power? How much training is required to become a magic-user? Does it involve incantations, material components, and/or specific gestures? Is it dependent upon details of time and place?

I had to consider all of those questions as I codified the rules for the fictional magic system used in my new Dark Arts novel series, but perhaps the most important question of all was this one: What are magic’s limitations? Knowing what magic could not do proved more important than trying to imagine everything for which it could be used.

And that’s great advice. If magic can do (effectively) anything and (effectively) anyone can use it (effectively) any time they want to… well, that’s a storytelling challenge to say the least. It’s Superman vs. Superman in a battle to an inevitable stalemate. And I think we can all agree that most readers of fantasy don’t come to our writing looking for that.

And a final caution: Certainly spend time and energy, and most of all creativity and originality in setting up the rules for how magic works in your world, but keep in mind, too, that there’s an invisible line between plausible and regimented, or between believable and soulless. Keep in mind what David Farland wrote in “Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 1”: “…most authors tend to fail as writers of fantasy and science fiction primarily because they don’t arouse a strong sense of wonder.”

Make it plausible, but keep it magical!


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Adam says:

    I’m reminded of Brandon Sanderson’s 3 variables for magic: who can do it, what preparations are necessary, and what price/toll it takes. His theory went that the less exacting one parameter is, the more steep one of the others must become. One of the best examples was the concept of the One in Matrix, where someone could essentially do anything, with no prep, and no cost/toll, but since only one person could do it, the rarity of the ability balanced it out.
    I also think there is a way that, if it’s the villain, they can do anything, but the hero/protagonist must have limitations or the story resolves too easily.
    One of the more interesting issues in the Matrix trilogy is the matter of “how do we still have a conflict if The One is an active character wielding such an over the top power?”

  2. mjtedin says:

    I like the advice you gave elsewhere. If you give someone enough magic to get something done in one part of your story, you can’t write them into a position where they fail to use that same magic to get them out.

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