Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 7, 2023

Building Sufficiently Advanced Magic in your World

by Joseph Lallo

magician conjuring magical visions

Fans of speculative fiction have no shortage of things to argue about when it comes to dividing fantasy and sci-fi into subgenres. If something has wizards and takes place in Boston in the year 2003, is that Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, or Contemporary Fantasy? But one thing that reliably separates fantasy from sci-fi is the presence of magic.

Some people prefer fantasy over sci-fi both as readers and writers because magic is a one-word solution to making any fantastical thing possible and plausible within a setting. It takes the limiters off, allowing a shortcut into exactly the sort of story you want to tell. But anyone who relies too heavily on “a wizard did it” runs the risk of removing the stakes from a story or frustrating readers with inconsistent, unsatisfying plot elements.

So what do we do? Do we avoid magic entirely? Do we stick to the most minor of mystical elements? No! All we need to do is make sure we construct our magic system with drama and consistency in mind. Today, we’re going to talk about how to avoid the pitfalls of bad magic by going through elements of good magic. Because all it takes is some consistent and compelling rules and limits, a reasonable bar of entry, and some well-thought out components.

Let’s start from the top.

Rules and Limits

Some of you may look at this requirement and scoff. What’s the point of magic if you’re going to go slapping limits on it? But hear me out. If magic is truly unlimited, truly all-powerful, then the only story you can realistically tell is the story of someone trying to acquire it. Because if the villain already has it, the world is instantly their plaything. And if the hero has it, there are no challenges, no obstacles.

Now don’t get me wrong, the story of a hero trying to acquire unlimited power, or to stop a villain from acquiring it, is extremely time-tested and compelling. But when you’re working with that, you're looking less at a magic system and more at a McGuffin. Apply some rules and limits, though, and now magic is just one of the tools in the toolbox, one of the weapons in the arsenal.

An Example

An example, as usual, is helpful here. Disney’s Aladdin, despite featuring a being of phenomenal cosmic power, lays out some pretty classic and rigid limits right up front. Only three wishes, no killing, no resurrecting, and no making someone fall in love with you.

  • A wish limit provides us with the all-important “rarity” which we’ll talk about later.
  • The no kill rule prevents the genie from simply seeming like a weapon and installs some basic morality to its actions.
  • A no resurrection rule makes sure that threats to life and limb is a genuine threat. The no resurrection rule ensures that any threat to our hero's life and well-being is genuine and irreversible.
  • And the no love rule–aside from avoiding the unfortunate implications of taking away someone’s free will–also ensures that the main plot of the story can take place. Aladdin will need to find some way to get Jasmine to fall in love with him, and so the story can be told.

Consistent = Believable

If you do nothing else with your magic system, make sure it has rules, and it follows them. The people who hate stories with magic often hate them because they view magic as being “anything goes.” We're all familiar with the quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For our purposes, we’re reversing that. The best magic systems are effectively their own new science. And science isn’t just a set of rules, it’s a set of rules that we didn’t make. These are rules we can’t break, because they are enforced by the universe itself.

Your job in creating a good magic system is to play the role of scientist. Your job is to discover the unbreakable rules and limits. It will make it feel more real, more like what we’re accustomed to from reality, and it will keep you from using magic as a crutch.

What makes for a good rule or a good limit? A key consideration for the rules of your magic system is how they will make the story more interesting. You want the rules to create weaknesses which the heroes can exploit to conquer the villain and which they must overcome when using the magic themselves.

An Example

A classic limitation like this is the inability for shapeshifters to change their eyes. By installing a simple rule like that, a thousand storytelling elements open up for you. Suddenly anyone with their eyes hidden is suspect. Maybe it’s just a normal person who likes to shade their vision. Maybe it’s a changeling with glowing red eyes hidden behind that blindfold. Another limitation is the requirement to know someone’s true name to target them with a spell. Now, before we can strike the villain, one must go on a quest to learn their name. Or maybe the hero, to prove their bravery or hubris, proclaims their name for all to hear. You want rules that aren’t insurmountable, but that take a clever mind to overcome. It means that magic can’t solve every problem, and sometimes solving the problems of magic becomes a big part of the story.

Bar of Entry

Once you’ve established what your magic can do, it’s time to figure out who can use it. This is a bit of a sliding scale, because you want to match the power of the magic to its rarity. If something can shape the world and rewrite history, you want it to be profoundly rare.

A world where the ability to poof one’s enemies into ash wouldn’t last very long if you could acquire the means to do so at the nearest market. If magic is equivalent to nuclear weapons, it should be as tightly regulated as nuclear weapons.

Conversely, if magic is little more than parlor tricks–minor illusions and the like–feel free to dye it into the wool of the universe. Think about it, in modern times we have the ability to contact virtually anyone we want at any time and access the sum-total of human knowledge with a rectangle in our pockets, and life is STILL anything but easy, so a little widespread magic isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Something you do want to think long and hard about is through what means magic is made inaccessible.

An Example

A popular one that I’m not terribly fond of is to have only certain special individuals capable of it. It’s very effective and provides you with story elements like a society split between the haves and have nots, but personally, I don’t like the idea of magic being utterly inaccessible to some people simply by a trick of fate. I prefer to make it akin to singing. Some have a natural affinity for it, and some are uniquely bad, but few are willing to put in the time and effort to learn to be truly phenomenal at it.

Of course, you could also make magic dependent upon artifacts or materials that are hard to come by, which takes us nicely into…

What about Mechanics?

How does your magic work? While it can be a mystery in the story itself, it’s useful if you know where the arcane power originates. There are two broad options here, and they each have their dramatic value.

The first is for the magic to have an exterior source. Perhaps spirits must be called upon to perform the spell’s effects. Maybe magic is simply an ambient power that can be harnessed. Ancient artifacts, not fully understood? Mystic herbs or minerals? These forms of outer strength can help drive the story in a number of ways. A limited source of magic can make it a valuable and sought-after resource, creating a conflict.. If it isn’t limited, it has the effect of putting all of the characters on a level playing field, with the skilled application of the magic determining who will be victorious.

Alternatively, the source of magic can come from within. The soul of the caster. A mystic bloodline or arcane heritage. This allows the story to focus more on the innate or intensely trained skills of the individual. It harkens back to the limitation talk earlier, allowing you to apply magic only to those who have the knack, or who have trained over a lifetime. It makes the caster more important than the spell.

Putting it together

Now that we know what it takes to make a good magic system, let’s follow the steps and see how I made one of my more recent systems, “Paper Magic” from The Greater Lands Saga. In that story, a paper mage is able to produce magic by writing in an arcane language. The words must describe in precise detail the effect of the spell, the time it will be cast, the place it is being cast, the target of the spell, and the nature of the one casting it. Paper mages can cast spells using any ink, paper, and quill, but the more potent each of those components, the more potent or concise the magic can be. Casting a spell destroys it, consuming the ink and/or paper in arcane flame. There are shortcuts, such as replacing the ink with the blood of the target or the caster, but they take a terrible toll on the caster.

The limits here are many and varied. Because the spells must be written, and the timing of their casting is a part of the spell, one cannot simply cast a spell spur of the moment. The spell must be prepared, its need anticipated in advance, but not too far in advance. Because of the complexity of the language, while anyone can learn paper magic, few can master it. Consuming the materials with each casting means one can realistically “run out of magic” by consuming all of their paper or ink. The limits on the power are actually fairly broad, as if there is adequate time to prepare and enough expensive paper and ink, a paper mage can assemble a truly remarkable effect, but such will be a rare occurrence.

Spread the Word

A final point to consider, related to the creation of a magic system but not directly associated with the magic itself, is how you’ll teach the reader about the magic system. You don’t technically have to teach the reader anything. It’s entirely reasonable to shroud the mechanics in mystery. The fact you’ve laid out the rules for yourself means the magic will still be consistent, though you should take care to demonstrate its approximate range of power and its relative rarity early on, lest your well-crafted magic system suddenly show some of its more powerful aspects late in the tale and come off as a deus ex machina.

If you want the reader to understand it, so that they’ll be in on the struggles and challenges of the spell casters, there are a few ways to do it. The most thorough way is to have one of the characters learn the magic as a part of the tale. Making a character an apprentice, or having them discover a knack for magic along the way, will provide an organic way to lay out the nitty gritty details of the magic without it sticking out. This was basically the entire purpose of my first book, The Book of Deacon.

Another tried and true technique, which meshes well with the hero’s journey, is to have someone come into the world of magic as an outsider, such that they must discover the nature of the magic, and through their discovery we will learn. The last choice, one that is very dangerous, is to simply info dump by the narrator. It is not impossible for you to do this in a way that the audience will enjoy, but it is very tricky.

Have fun with it!

If you’ve absorbed the lessons of this essay, you’ve got all the pieces necessary to build a fun, dramatically useful magic system. All that remains is to put it to use! Come up with some frustrating weaknesses of the magic and have the heroes find clever ways around them. Have an apprentice become a master. Explore every last law of metaphysics and bend your own system into shapes even you didn’t think it could achieve.

What’s your favorite distinctive magic system, and what stood out about it to you?

* * * * * *

About Joseph

Joseph Lallo

Joseph R. Lallo took a crooked path to authordom. He was educated at NJIT, where he earned a master’s degree in Computer Engineering, and paid his bills in the world of Information Technology until Sept of 2014, when he finally became a full-time storyteller. The international bestseller The Book of Deacon defined his early career, and he has since written dozens of novels, short stories, and novellas. These include the critically acclaimed Steampunk series Free-Wrench and the thrilling sci-fi adventure saga, Big Sigma

Outside of writing, he has co-hosted multiple self-publishing podcasts over the years, including the Six Figure Authors podcast with Lindsay Buroker and Andrea Pearson and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing podcast.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr | Wattpad

Top image by Deleyna via Midjourney.

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13 comments on “Building Sufficiently Advanced Magic in your World”

  1. Hi Joseph!

    I am a big fan of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Wizardry in the real and not-so-real world.

    I'm working on an MG story with tarot cards, orbs, time travel, an heirloom that's a magical crystal, and a cat named Chairman Meow.

    No spells though.

    Lots of esoterica here, but I believe it falls under magical realism. It takes place in a modern day suburb.

    I'm not sure how this fits into a magic system.

    Super interesting blog!

  2. Bringing magic into my fantasy world has been surprisingly hard for me. I'm still hard at work on figuring out how everything works, so this is great! Thanks!

  3. Thanks for sharing this essay! It takes us into a personal perspective of you, the author and gives a great perspective of how you view and approach your work. Not to mention the value you bring as a teacher to other writers. As always, love your work and an avid fan!

  4. Great article, thanks.

    My favorite magic system is Ursula LeGuin's system in the Earthsea Trilogy. It hits the sweet spot, showing enough that the reader understands what the fuss is about but not enough that it reads like a Chilton's manual for magical.

  5. Such a useful analysis! I've written (not yet published) one fantasy novel which does follow your guidelines, but now I want to go through it, bearing them in mind, and pick up flaws, before I start the sequel.
    One reason I prefer Diana Wynne Jones to Rowling is that DWJ's magic has believable structure and rules, while the entire Rowling corpus is disappointingly sloppy.
    Thank you for an extremely useful post!

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