Picture this, if you will, for a moment. Imagine a young man, an author. Well, a writer who has just recently become an author, having successfully published his first book. He’s just been invited to a big convention, where to his excitement, he will be on a panel alongside some of fantasy’s greats in writing (if I’m being sparse on details here, forgive me as I don’t remember all of them).
Anyway, our young writer sits down, understandably a little nervous considering the plethora of talent stretching down the table—many of whom he has read and enjoyed. The panel begins, and the spokesman fields the first question from the audience: A question about writing magic and how they start. And, for whatever reason, perhaps fairness, youth, or simply his place at the end of the table, the spokesman looks at this young writer and calls on him first.
Nervousness is probably a little higher now, but understandably so. Nevertheless, determined to make a good showing at his first panel, answers with what seems to be a reasonable response: ‘Well, to start, magic needs rules.’
Cue explosive “What!?” from the other members of the panel, all of whom immediately disagree in various manners and are ready to tell this young upstart where he’s gone wrong.
Now, this story? This actually happened, though not exactly as presented here, as I am retelling it, having only heard the story from that then new author’s point of view.
But that new author who gave what seemed to be a such an innocuous answer? A then little-known fantasy writer by the name of Brandon Sanderson.
Yes, you may have heard of him.
Now, why do I tell this story—which, now that the twist has hit, I can explain I heard from Sanderson himself during one of his writing classes? For roughly the same reason that he did: To explain that there are different ways to see and treat magic in your work. Some authors love magic being this mysterious, misunderstood force that often doesn’t make logical sense nor seems to have limits. They like the magic to be opaque. Unexplainable. A phenomenon.
And to them, that makes magic what it is. Something special. Something not understood, nor explained, nor quantified. And this is just fine. Don’t think that simply because of what I’m about to write about, you can’t go for the unexplained or mysterious magic systems. Far from being a negative, such a system can be a positive. After all, do we ever get an explanation for how what little magic Gandalf uses works? Yet he remains a beloved character, and the universe around him a classic of fantasy, despite us knowing very little of the “rules” of what governs what he does.
So, you don’t need to have rules governing your magic, that much is clear. There are plenty of books that have amassed truly titanic audiences with almost no explanation of their magic whatsoever. In part because that audience enjoys the obscurity and unknown of what magic is. That’s part of the charm. And that’s what they want to read.
Right, so that’s been said. You don’t need to have a system for your magic. Not for some people.
But for others … well … It’s a bit like hard and soft sci-fi: There’s an audience for both, and you need to decide which one you want to write with each project. But as to me, and to the topic request at hand …
Let’s talk about the process of creating a magic system.
So, let’s start with the basics. What is a magic system? It’s pretty easy to understand, actually. What I talked about above, where magic is this unknown, mysterious thing that few understand with powers unspeakable?
Well, it’s the opposite of that.
No, really. It may help to think of a magic system as another form of science.
“What?” you might ask. “Wouldn’t that make it science?” To which I reply “Yes … and also no.” See, just like Arthur C. Clarke proposed with his oft-quoted third law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”), if a magic follows any sort of set rule, than the study of those rules would be a discipline of science.
Now, I can already hear a few readers asking “But wouldn’t that be science-fiction?” No, not at all. It could be … but we’re not getting into the mixing of genres here today, so no. Fret not, but studying a magic system doesn’t make it science-fiction. It’s still fantasy, because after all, it’s something fantastical, like the ability to reshape matter when half-asleep, eat metals to gain various powers, or absorb and redirect certain energies.
No, when I say “Think of it as a science” I mean in the sense that this is something that people would try to understand. No matter how crazy or dangerous it might be. This is a force of some kind (after all, it is magic) that when used in a certain manner, produces results. So, your story involves a decrepit old wizard wiling his hours away in a tower studying magic, with book after book documenting spells and cantrips? Congratulations. In a way, he’s a scientist, seeking to understand how magic works—or at the very least attempting to get what he wants out of it.
As are you, the writer. If you want to create a system of magic, you need to understand how that system works. What it does, where it starts, how it’s used, and the like. Because once you know how something works, then you can take it apart, redirect it, or find different ways to use it.
For example, when I set out to create a magic system, I ask myself two things. First, what goes into the magic. In other words, what powers it? Everything expends energy after all, where does that energy come from? How does someone tap into it? Is there something they need to do in order to access it?
Second, I ask myself a companion question: What do they get out of it? What result are they achieving? Is it based on what goes in? How “it” goes in? How they let it out?
Basically—and yes, make no mistake, this is basic, but as I said, it’s where I start—I ask myself what goes in so that magic can come out?
For example, to look at some examples from my work, let’s take the rune magic from the Unusuals Universe. For the uninitiated, runes are a form of magic on display in the Unusuals books in which someone with training can scratch a magical symbol on something in order to achieve a magic effect, everything from draining life energy to warding off unwanted vermin.
But what goes into it? Well, first of all, the creator of the ward has to have a knowledge of what rune they want to create. The runes are described as being, in essence, magic circuits. Energy flows through them and creates a result. So one who wants to create a rune needs to very carefully, with as few pauses or interruptions as possible, inscribe a very specific design for the magic to follow; a pathway in other words. Just as laying circuits in the real world can take a lot of practice and education, so does it in the Unusual universe. For instance, Jacob Rocke, who uses runes from time to time, mentions that he’s spent hours upon hours practicing the few he uses so that he can create them effectively.
But even once the rune has been etched, there is no result if the user hasn’t put their own magic into it as they etched it. It doesn’t need to be much (the point of a rune is for those with weak magical ability to be able to expand their capabilities), but it does need some, sort of like a jump start. So a rune creator will need to keep themselves focused, essentially pulling energy from their own body to “kickstart” the rune, which will then cycle that energy with what’s ambient to produce a faint effect until it eventually burns out.
Phew! That’s a lot of work, isn’t it? But that’s what it takes in order to create magic with runes in the Unusuals universe. The creator of the rune puts in practice (lots of it) and what little magical energy they have), and in return they get something fairly simple and straightforward (as the more you want a rune to do, the more ridiculously complex it becomes, very quickly), like a light.
But that’s the way magic tends to work in the Unusuals. It’s complex and requires a lot of effort to work. And much of it is not understood. Runes, for example, are constantly being experimented with as people try to work out what works to create one effect and why it doesn’t work when you make certain small changes.
So, lot’s of practice and a bit of personal energy (the kind you can get back with a good meal or some rest), and you get magic! Practice and personal energy in, various small effects out!
Let’s look at a different example from another work of mine, this one from the World of Indrim (featured in Ripper in Unusual Events, and the setting of the soon-coming Shadow of an Empire): the boilers.
So, in Indrim, we’re introduced to “the gifted,” a select percentage of people who have the strange but very useful ability to absorb and later re-emit forms of energy (recognize this from earlier?). Specifically, each gifted can have one of a certain number of “affinities” for forms of energy we see in the world around us. Amacitia Varay from Ripper, for example, was a muffler. She had the ability to absorb sound around herself and then later emit it once more in whatever form she chose (that form still being sound, of course). So, in order to have this ability, Varay needed to have collected sound at some point earlier. Sound goes in … sound comes out.
Okay, I think most of you see what I’m going for when I say “What goes into magic, and what do they get out of it?” So, let’s move on. Because that’s where I start, but it’s certainly not where I end.
So, I’ve got what has to go into my magic system, and I have what comes out of it. Once I have those two things, I add a third element. A modifier, really, that effects both of these other two aspects. I step back at them, look at each one, and then ask myself “Okay, what limits either of these?”
In a way, this question certainly outlines my roots and my experience with Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic, but it’s still a valid application. Before, when I’ve spoken of underpowered and overpowered characters, I’ve pointed out that while overpowered characters can be entertaining in the short term, underpowered characters are more entertaining in the long run because they’re forced to work with the limitations they or their powers have, which leads to creative solutions that entertain readers. After all, readers will not be long entertained by a character whose magic can simply solve every problem presented to them with a wave of a hand.
So I ask myself “What limits will this magic have? What requirements does it place? What keeps it from being a central force that solves all the world’s problems? Or does it?”
Basically, to use a term familiar to tabletop players, I munchkin the new magic system I’ve created. I look for loopholes. Ways it can be abused that can be incredibly powerful. And then I think of ways that it can be limited.
For example, with the gifts in the Indrim stories, they’re limited by the “power” of the individual. There are individual limits to how much energy one can soak up at a time, as well as how much they can store, and how much they can output in at a constant rate (or all at once). So, for example, while most boilers (heat users) can absorb excess heat, going further and actually cooling something requires a lot more effort. Actually freezing something is even more difficult. Mentally, I compared the use of the ability to the use of muscles: If the power is used, it can be used regularly and even improved, but if it’s not used, it can weaken.
While looking at these limitations, I also have look at the culture and society they’re in to see how each change will affect them. Again, this is one I learned from Sanderson when he spoke about magic, talking about how in many “classic” worlds, magic is something that oddly enough stands apart from the world its stuck in. In Dungeons and Dragons, for example, magic is hardly seen in everyday life … which as he pointed out makes no sense. A level 1 wizard, he pointed out to our class, could use the basic spells available to them to have hot and cold running water, or cook food, or provide endless light. There’s no reason, he pointed out, for the DnD world to not have magical light sources, warm indoor plumbing, or magic barbecues (okay, that last one might be my own addition, but still).
The point is, many worlds keep their magic separate from the world, the creators instead presenting someplace that’s ordinary and commonplace when in fact what they should be doing is letting the magic shape it.
For instance, going back to Indrim, we have a set of people gifted to absorb and emit heat. How will that effect the development of their culture?
Well, for one it gives them greater access to steam power. The capital city of the empire, Indrim, is actually built into the side of a geothermally active mountain so that legions of boilers can descend into hot springs at the start of their shift, suck up as much heat as they can carry, and then go out to function as literal boilers to power the empire (hence the name). Trains then, are powered by these individuals rather than coal engines. Pneumatic systems across the empire are powered by steam, all supplied by these gifted. Places without access to geothermal hotspots have other solutions (like glass hothouses in the outlands) to allow a steady supply of heat for boilers.
But there are other effects as well. Due to the steady power provided by a trained boiler combined with their compact size, steam engines can be larger, meaning trains can be bigger (wider and taller) right out of the gate. Icehouses (commonplace before freezers were invented) can be more effective. Rudimentary air conditioning can be a thing (got a luxury spot you want kept cool? Hire a boiler to suck the heat from the air!).
This is just a small sliver of what giving the populace the ability to absorb and emit heat can do to change the culture and society (and this is one of five powers featured in Indrim). But as you can see, it already changes quite a bit in the day to day of how things will work and what they will look like.
If I seem to have segued into a different topic, I haven’t. My point is that you need to look at the limits of what you’ve created not just with regards to how it will affect your character, but how it will affect your world. I’ll be honest, there are plenty of fantasy books out there where a piece of average magic should be life-changing for everyone but isn’t simply because the author never questioned it.
But the thing is, there are plenty of readers that will put two and two together.
So, consider the limitations. Look at the possible effects of your magic, and if it does something to your world or characters you don’t want it to do, change it. Scale it back, if necessary, or modify it.
Does this mean you still can’t do clever stuff? Of that you have to have a world that recognizes what your magic can do? No, of course not. Crud, if I wanted, I could write a novel set in the Indrim universe that was about the rise of the gifted and the discoveries of clever people finding ways to make use of their powers that would lead to the Indrim shown in Ripper and Shadow of an Empire. Just because something is discovered doesn’t mean that all the uses will be—case in point look at how long the world knew of electricity before we figured out what we could accomplish with it. There was a waiting period.
Right, I feel I’m perhaps treading off topic, so let’s recap and bring everything back in. I create a magic system by first asking what goes into it (ie what the user has to put into it), and then what result comes out (ie, the magic of some kind). I then look at limitations, extrapolating ahead to ask myself how what I’ve created might change the world or the characters. How can these powers be used with the limitations I’ve set? Can they still be abused? Are they too hard to make good use of now? Can that be worked into the story?
And from there … well … I start playing with things, experimenting in my head or on paper to see what kind of results I can come up with. I still want it to be fun and imaginative to the reader. With the limits in mind, I start setting “ground rules” that shape how the magic will be presented in universe. I build a “fantasy science” out of it, with its own rules, uses, and discoveries. And before long, I have my magic system, ready to go.
Now look, this is the system and order of progression for magic that I use. But it doesn’t have to be yours. But if you want to create a magic system of your own, there’s no need to follow my steps. However, I do think that following the concepts behind each of those steps can be beneficial. Think of your magic as a form of fantasy science, with researchers eager to uncover its secrets and put it to use. Think of what makes it tick, what makes it work, and how it will not only affect your characters, but the world you’ve created as a whole. If this sounds like work, well yeah. You may even need to do research to see how our modern “magic” (such as the telegraph) has changed our world to get a better idea of how your magic can affect yours.
But when you sit back and start writing it into the world you’ve created, the payoff will come. And it’ll all be worth it.
Good luck out there, now go get creating!