Building a Magic System

Open book, blue crystal ball, fairy lights.What is magic, and how does it work? Is magic something done by wizards with wands and pointed hats, or is it the mystical force you encounter in the fae realm? Magic systems are an essential element of most fantasy worlds, but they can look very different in different stories. Let’s explore a few questions you’ll want to consider when building the magic system for your next fantasy world.

What role does magic play in your story?

Before deciding anything about the magic system of your world, it’s important to think about why it’s there in the first place. What is magic adding to your world, and what role does it play in your story? Is it there to make a world feel more whimsical, more alien, or more fantastical? Is it there to create and/or resolve conflict? Is it a metaphor for other forms of power? Is magic a central element of your story, or is it just there for flavor? Determining this from the start can help you answer the next questions about what form your magic system will take.

Hard vs. soft magic

In this article, Brandon Sanderson describes two ends of a spectrum for magic systems: hard and soft magic. Hard magic systems have consistent and well defined rules and limitations of operation that are clearly described to readers. Soft magic systems are intentionally obscured from readers and rely on wonder more than rules. For example, magic in Tolkein’s world is soft: it is powerful and present, but we don’t get the full picture of what it can and cannot do. This makes the world feel expansive and wonderful. On the other hand, magic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is hard: each superhero has well defined powers and the rules of these powers and the universe are consistent (or at least are intended to be). This brings viewers in on the magic, and allows characters to use magic to solve problems in a way that is engaging. Sanderson’s first rule of magics is “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” So depending on how you want to use magic in your story, you may want to make it hard, soft, or more likely some combination of the two.

Who does magic?

Who has the ability to perform magic in your world? Is it just humans, or can other species (elves, dragons, etc.) also use magic? If so, do they use the same magic system, or a different one? Among humans, can everyone use magic, or just those born with it? How do people learn to do magic? How does magic using interact with other identities, such as race and class?

How do you use magic?

What does one have to do to perform magic? Do you need a wand, speak a spell, or concentrate your energy? Are there magical artifacts, potions, or plants? How does one person’s magic interact with another’s? How does magic interact with the physical world, and with other living beings? What does magic look like? Sound like? Smell like? Feel like?

Origin of magic

What is magic made of? It could be like the Force, in Star Wars, a power that is everywhere, waiting to be tapped into. It could also be intrinsic to people, a part of being a witch, wizard, etc. Where does magic come from? Is it a finite resource? It could be granted by the gods, written into DNA, or simply a part of the world, like gravity. 

Limitations and dangers

How far can you go with magic? There has to be some limitations or risks to prevent magic users from becoming all powerful, and to maintain some challenge for magic using protagonists. Maybe magic users run out of strength or energy to perform spells (think “spell slots” in Dungeons & Dragons), or maybe there are risks involved in using magic that is too powerful (like when Ged summons a shadow creature in A Wizard of Earthsea). Maybe using too much magic corrupts the user (like Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), or maybe there are things magic just can’t do (for example, how Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration dictates magic can’t be used to create food out of thin air in Harry Potter.)

Magic in society

How is magic integrated into the societies of your world? It might be a largely accepted and normalized part of life, it might be stigmatized, it might be controlled by an elite class, it might be secret and exist only in underground communities. It might also be different in different regions. The way magic is integrated or separated from society can be a source of conflict, an aesthetic choice, a plot element, theme, or metaphor, and certainly a compelling component of worldbuilding.