Craft · Feature

In A World: A Pondering of Magic Systems

In A World… is a series of posts about world building, where our contributors share strategies and tips for creating well-rounded worlds.

In my opinion, world-building in a fantasy book is broken into two main categories: 1) the setting, and 2) the magic system. For as much as we love magic, it’s not a topic we discuss as much in the YA community, especially in comparison to adult fantasy books. I find that very disappointing, because I’m exactly the sort of person who loves to sit around trying to explain what is literally meant to be the unexplainable.

If you’ve read my books, you probably know I’m a big lover of weird, complicated magic systems. In fact, the more complex and systematic, the more likely I am to love them. I’m the sort of reader who likes a challenge. I want to sit up and be told to pay attention. I want to find that explanation for the unexplainable.

If you’re also that sort of person, maybe this rambling post will give you some food for thought, because it will otherwise be me pondering myself into circles.

Branden Sanderson has already written a very interesting post about magic systems here. He summarizes the post with this idea: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. He went so far as to name it a law after himself, which I find somewhat amusing and ridiculous, to create a scientific law for something the opposite of science and give it your own name. (But my excel outlining method has been called the Foody method so I guess I’m not one to talk.)

To break that statement apart more, picture magic being like a science. You can have a soft science or a hard science. The more rules and logic you give to magic, the more your characters can believably use it to solve problems without it seeming overly convenient or deus-ex-machina. For instance, in HARRY POTTER, we as readers become experts in all the spells and their uses, so it’s no surprise to us when a death curse does, in fact, kill someone. But if you have a magic system that leans more to the whimsical, the stuff of clairvoyants and psychics only trying to glimpse, like in THE RAVEN CYCLE, you wouldn’t expect to see characters using a step-by-step magic method everybody already understands to solve their woes.

It’s true–magic doesn’t have to be inherently understood, and the less your characters rely on it, the less your reader will need to understand it. And it’s definitely an idea to stew about for a few hours with a glass of wine, but there still remains the question: what is magic?


Types of magic

Magic, in theory, is an explanation for phenomena not provided by science. It is a force or system that goes beyond any that exists in our world.

This is an incredibly broad definition, but as readers, particularly as YA readers, we are accustomed to seeing it in a few forms.

  • Creature magic: magic that originates from being a non-human, whether the creature is inherently magical or can perform magic, or both
  • Elemental magic: magic that is structured based on an elemental or affinity system

The list goes on, but you get the idea. I’d say these are by far the most common magical systems, and even within those categories, there is a broad range of how you can spin them. But you are not limited by them. Let’s talk about what other magical themes are common in books, and questions we can ask ourselves when creating our own systems (or, alternatively, when drinking wine alone and your phone battery has died).


Is magic a person, a place, or a thing? Or something else?

Magic can be a person, a gift possessed among the elite few, or perhaps the unlucky few. Or perhaps everyone.

Magic can be a place, a world you could slip into, somewhere hidden and sacred and ancient. Or commercialized and mundane and everywhere.

Magic can be a thing. It could be a resource you dig up out of riverbeds and burn in your fireplaces to ward off evil, or to wear in jewelry, or to put in magic soup.

Magic can be a force, unable to be understood or practiced entirely, but still existing. Or entirely understood, like another science.

Basically, magic can be a lot of things, but nine times out of ten, we are given the first option, though every option presents in itself a basically endless amount of ideas and opportunities. I don’t claim this leaning is necessarily a bad thing (as much as I would delight in more of the weird), but I am certainly curious as to why such a trend exists. Why are we more interested in a thing we can do as opposed to a place we could go or a thing we could own or experience? That’s probably the topic of some other post, or at least another pairing with a glass of wine.


How is magic used?

If magic is a person, is the person themselves magic, or can they simply use magic? Is it a skill they have practiced or a power more innate? Is it strong enough to win wars or quiet and tricky, for making life easier? Does it have a price?

If magic is a place, is it everywhere or elsewhere or somewhere? Can it ever be found? Can you walk inside it? What makes the place magical–does it grant wishes? Do the phenomena simply not make sense there? Is it secret or known? Is it a place to long for or a place to escape from? What makes you different before and after you visit?

If magic is a thing, is it abundant or rare? Is it ready for use or does it need to be in someway first altered? Is it easily accessible or only found in dangerous, hard-to-reach places? Is it transportable and lasting? Is it alive or dead? Does it have a market value? Can anyone use it?

If magic is a force, is it benevolent or malicious? Does it intercede on your behalf or not? If yes or no, why? Does everyone believe in it? Can you ever tangibly experience it? Can you use it?

You begin to see with these questions how easy it is to blend types of magic systems. For example, take a magic system defined by a force, that a select few have the ability to control but only with years of mastery. That would be the Jedi in STAR WARS.


Magic as an extension of the story

When choosing your magic system, there are a lot of factors to consider. Does it suit the vibe for the story? Does it blend with the plot? How does it work with the setting?

I believe part of the reason people-based magic systems are so popular is simply the result of what else is popular. For instance, the YA fantasy movement swallowed a lot of themes from the older dystopian movement, including chosen ones, revolutions, and dystopic (whether or not futuristic) settings. If we’re talking one very young protagonist leading some sort of grand movement, they probably need to be special or powerful in some way. That’s one potential hot take.

People-magic also lends itself to an easy arc for character growth, if a magically weak character becomes magically strong by the end of the story.

And most importantly, it is both super broad in what it can mean and at the same time, very familiar. I imagine the other options could be equally as broad, but since they’re less common, it can be a little harder to imagine what those systems might look like, and thus for us to easily produce a wide variety of such ideas. To me, of course, that sounds like quite the challenge, because I will never lose an opportunity to overthink something until I make it weird.


Are you a fan of weird magic systems? Has this post given you a few ideas? Have you written a magic system you’re proud of? Do you have a favorite sort of magic system? I’d love to hear in your comments below!

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