Playing God: Developing a magic system

Magic is one of the key elements in fantasy fiction, and developing an interesting yet consistent system is a vital step in world-building for any fantasy novel involving magic. In today’s Playing God post, I explore the main types of magic, some important considerations, and give a sneak peak at the system in my own WIP!


SERIES CONTENTS

👍 Introduction | 💡 Creation | 🌟 Cosmology | ☯ Religion🔮 Magic🌍 Geography🌦 Climate & Weather | ⏳ History | 🎭 Race & Culture | 💬 Language | 🎵 Music, Art & Writing | 🏠 Infrastructure | 🤴 Government | 📜 Laws | 💰 Economy


Magic is rife in the fantasy genre—and for good reason! It is an excellent driver for the plot, adds nuances to characters, enriches world-building, and more. The type and source of magic can vary considerably from book to book, and can be classified in multiple different ways. While I highly doubt I’ve captured them all here, some of the key magic types / sources encountered in fantasy novels are as follows:

🧞‍♂️“Internal” forces

One common type of magic in the fantasy genre is that which comes from some kind of “internal” force within particular individuals. What I mean by this is magic whose source is a person’s mind, or soul, or even some part of their body. Examples of this which immediately spring to my mind are the way magic comes from the blood in the Shades of Magic trilogy, or seems to be attached to the soul in the Throne of Glass books.

🌍“External” forces

Another very common type of magic, almost opposite to the type described above, is that which exists as an “external” force. Here, the source of magic is within the outside world (or maybe a god or deity) rather than people, but can be accessed by individuals considered magic-users. The One Power from the Wheel of Time is an excellent example of this; split into male and female halves, it emanates from the True Source which is the driving force of creation.

💬 Spells & incantations

Perhaps a more traditional form of magic is that derived from verbal spells and incantations. Depending on the story, these can be successfully employed by only specific types of people or even by anyone who possesses the correct spells. Examples of the former are the system in Harry Potter, where only witches and wizards can perform spells, or The Books of Pellinor, where those with the Speech can control nature through specific words. Can you think of any examples of the latter?

Runes & symbols

Some stories take the route of magical forces being wielding through runes and/or symbols. In this situation, specific runes or symbols drawn in specific ways generate an associated effect. Examples of this form of magic use are the practices of sygaldry and Artificing in The Kingkiller Chronicle, or the glyphs known as the ikinri’ska from the A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy.

🔮 Object-based

I’m sure that at some stage you have come across types of magic which centre around or come from special objects. They are everywhere in the fantasy genre, from the One Ring and the palantir in Lord of the Rings, to the Subtle Knife from Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. One could argue that the magic system in Mistborn is object-based, since the magical abilities are fuelled by the ingestion of metals.

📊 Science-based

The last type of magic I will touch on here is that which is “science-based”. Perhaps this is not a category all of its own, but I find the idea of intertwining science and magic to be intriguing. In the Grishaverse, the magic system is called the Small Science and is based around the art of manipulating matter as an extension of natural processes. Similarly, magical practices in The Kingkiller Chronicle are closely related to scientific and engineering processes.

When developing a magic system for your fantasy novel or series, you can make it as simple or as complex as you like. The more complexity you add, however, the more considerations you must make to ensure the system is consistent and makes sense. But regardless of complexity, if you decide to incorporate magic, you should give some thought to the following:

Capabilities

What is the magic capable of doing? When considering this question, you might think about types and sources of the power as discussed above, as well as the nitty gritty of how it actually works. Yes, it’s magic, so of course you can stretch boundaries, but the best magic systems have internally consistent rules and the way it works actually makes sense.

Limitations

Conversely, what can’t magic do? This is one of the most important considerations, in my opinion, because if there are no limitations on the use of magic, then arguably any magic-users could do anything, and you wouldn’t have much of a story. Here you might consider limitations such as range, time, quantity, strength or any other individual characteristic you deem important.

👥 Practitioners

Who is able to use magic, and how / why? Are magical abilities innate—that only specific people are born with (if so, is this by chance, fate or determinism?)—or is it something that can be learned by anyone under the correct conditions? Do magic practitioners have a particular name or title, and what techniques must they use to wield the magic effectively?

🤢 Side-effects

Another interesting thing to consider is the side-effects caused or costs accrued by the use of magic. Perhaps the use of magic takes a toll on practitioners, in the form of tiredness or pain or weakness or illness, especially in systems where its source is “internal”. If the source is “external”, on the other hand, maybe using up the magic has some kind of impact on the physical or spiritual world.

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Magic in society

Finally, how is magic and its practitioners incorporated into society? Is it worshipped, or hated, or simply accepted as a part of everyday life? Are there any social structures built around magic use, such as magic schools or special arms of the military or government? Considering these things is a vital step in world-building and understanding magic’s place!

While the term “magic” is never and will never be explicitly used, the “magic” system plays a central role in my WIP fantasy series Graceborn. The nature of the system came to me fairly early in the planning phase, but has gone multiple revisions and expansions as I grew to understand the story and the world in which it takes place. The key features and characteristics of the “magic system” in Graceborn are explored below!

Overview: The thing that amounts to magic in my story is the world’s energy force, which is known as “Grace”. Corporeal Grace is that which exists in the physical world, emplaced there during the Making, whereas ethereal Grace is the primordial energy that lies beyond the physical plane.

Capabilities: Both corporeal and ethereal Grace can be manipulated by certain individuals. Corporeal Grace can be converted between various physical forms and expressions (e.g. heat removed from the air to spark a flame) and pulled into the body to heighten strength, senses, and energy. Ethereal Grace can be accessed via the khma (i.e. the soul) and used for more metaphysical purposes, such as reading the minds or emotions of others, or seeing the future.

Limitations: The use of Grace is governed by the Law of Preservation, whereby it cannot be created nor destroyed. Corporeal Grace is finite, so only limited amounts can be extracted from a component of the environment in a given location, and individuals can only use so much before it causes physical damage to their body. Ethereal Grace, on the other hand, is infinite, but its users can only withstand so much of it before it overwhelms their khma and can drive them mad.

 

Practitioners: Those who are able to manipulate Grace are called the Graceborn. More specifically, those who manipulate corporeal Grace are known as Weavers and those who can access ethereal Grace are known as Adepts, which also have specific names depending on their ability (e.g. those who can read others’ minds are called Telepaths). A Graceborn’s ability is known as their Talent, which usually develops in early adolescence through a process termed “awakening”.

In society: Graceborn are generally accepted by society, except in the east where they are reviled as abominations. Due to the ancient Treaty of Volund, all Graceborn “belong” to the city-state of Asphodel, where they undergo years of training before being employed across the lands to help and advise each nation. The Treaty provides the Graceborn protection from persecution, but also details laws on the use of their Talents.


Do you have a favourite type of magic? Have you developed a magic system for your WIP? What do you think are the most important considerations?

  One thought on “Playing God: Developing a magic system

  1. 22/03/2019 at 10:33 PM

    The magic in my novel and its sequel in progress is interwoven with Nature. In a way I’d say it’s both internal and external in that it connects those who have it (driadors) with the natural world, and enables them to feel and in a sense “speak” with wildlife (but not control them), heal with their hands, and summon the elements, as I feel it’s important that they respect and venerate Nature, not think themselves above it (like the villain).

    Liked by 1 person

    • 25/03/2019 at 2:43 PM

      I love it when magic is connected with nature and the elements! It’s a theme that never gets old to me and I love reading different interpretations of systems like that 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 01/04/2019 at 3:11 AM

    I love reading your posts about magic, not only does it have great books as examples but it allows me to consider the different ways magic can be used and to discover what its limitations are, and what consequences there might be.
    I also loved having a glimpse into Graceborn. I can’t wait to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 01/04/2019 at 8:13 PM

      Thanks so much!! Magic is so much fun to read about, write about and discuss, and I’m glad my posts have been helpful. Progress on my own fantasy WIP has been a bit slower than I expected, but I’m in it for the long haul so I know I have to pace myself! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

      • 02/04/2019 at 6:01 AM

        I find everything to do with writing goes slower than planned. You can rush a master piece.

        Liked by 1 person

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