How to create a magic system

What is a fantasy without magic?

The thing with magic though (and pretty much all fantasy elements), is that it has to be realistic. But what's the point in that? Fantasy is fantasy for a reason.

Without rules, magic easily becomes too powerful and uncontrollable, creating plot holes and basically ruins the entire fantasy world you've created.  A world without rules simply doesn't exist. A system of magic with no limitations is just not compelling. But give it too many, and your characters won't be able to save the world using magic.


First, decide why your story needs magic. What significance does it hold in the story? The rules governing your magic system will affect everyone in your world. We all know that Earth's rules. Gravity, for one, keeps us from floating into space. The law of gravity sucks if  one wants to fly away, but comes in handy when you're going for a run. The same should apply for the laws of your magic system. They should both work in your characters' favor but also against them. The limitations of your magic system should reflect your story.

Yep, I know. This all takes a lot of braining to figure out. So it makes sense to spend some time on this, doesn't it?

Second, define where the magic comes from. How magic came to be will have a big impact on how it is now, what it is regulated by and who wields it. If it was given by gods to the creatures of your world (like in my novel), then the gods have decided on the laws and rules. The magic can be a set of spells or even prayers to certain gods to answer the prayer using magic.

Other sources of magic could be nature, technology, oneself, life energy... By reading lots you see how certain types of magic work in specific settings, and you'll be able to mix up and combine different magic systems to create a set of rules and source of magic that are unique to your world and work for your story.

How magic is used and performed depends highly on where magic comes from and how it was born, so when you've got that figured out, the rest is pretty easy. If your magic draws from nature, it makes sense that the one using it must be near a forest or a growing organism of sorts. If it was given by gods, magic could be used by saying chants and prayers, as I said earlier. 

Is it physically straining? How does it affect the person performing magic? How does it affect the people surrounding them? 

One of the most important rules to set is of course deciding who can use magic in your fantasy world. There are many options here as well:

  • A specific race, supernatural entity or group of people.
  • Everybody or anyone who studies magic.
  • Nonhumans.
  • The magic chooses at random. (Works for a "The chosen one" type of story.)
Now, back to the rules of magic. What can and can't your magic do? Just like we can't fly, there has to be something that is impossible to do with your magic. I have a pretty good idea of what the magic is like in my novel Poison Fire, and don't ever even have to think about the rules while writing, but my story has been dwelling in my mind for over three years now. So if you're newer to the world in your own story, it'd be a good idea to get it all out on paper or a Word document--a list of all the rules and laws of your magic system--so that you won't have to stop to try to remembering. (Check this video out on story bibles and why they're absolutely essential for any fantasy writer)

Is there a finite amount of magic in the world? How many spells can someone say before being physically or mentally too tired to continue? Maybe certain spells require extremely specific materials that are hard to find. Maybe they require your soul. Maybe one person's magic blocks another's somehow. If the magic is only recently discovered, it could be a big risk to use it because you never know for sure how it works in new surroundings.  There are so many possibilities, I'm getting a headache...

The main thing to remember here is that once you set rules, don't break them.

The last, and the thing most people forget when creating magic systems, is thinking of how the magic affects the structure of society and how the world is run. 

I also recommend reading Brandon Sanderson's Three Laws of magic.

And at all costs, avoid Deus ex Machina. 
Please.

Happy worldbuilding!!
Em.

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