A Few Quick Tips to Help You Create the Perfect Magic System for Your Story
That‘s what I learned while creating my magic system
Lately, I‘ve been working on a TV show that includes magic and witches. And for that I needed to create my own magic system.
Well, I always was a fan of magic and fantasy so I thought this couldn‘t be too hard. Yeah, ... that‘s what I thought.
I‘m not saying that it‘s super hard but you definitely need some time to research and figure your magic out. You need to define its use, limitations, consequences and influence in your world.
To research all those informations, took me quite some time and brain power. So, I decided to give you a shortcut with a few quick tips to create your own badass magic system.
1. Do you want to have SOFT or HARD magic?
The best way to start your magic system is that you need to decide what kind of magic you want. Or in other more nerdy words:
Do you want “Gandalf” or “Hermione”?
The difference between these two kind of systems is simply said one word: Rules.
Soft magic is magic that is used but we don’t really know how and what the rules are. Like Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings”, he’s a great wizard and can do pretty cool stuff with magic but we don’t really know what his limitations are.
It’s vague and mysterious. There’s a kind of wonder around magic.
I mean, there’s a hint that as Gandalf the Grey he’s not as powerful as when he becomes Gandalf the White. But his magic is never explained. We never know if there are any consequences or limitations to it.
If you want to know more, I recommend you to watch the video essay by Future Me. He explains it in a great and funny way.
I know he mentions Harry Potter as a soft magic system but it’s because it’s kinda in the middle of soft and hard. There are definitely parts that belong to soft magic but mostly I’d say it’s hard magic.
But before we start a heated discussion about it, just watch the video and make up your own mind.
If you want a good rule of thumb for soft magic, Brandon Sanderson comes to the rescue with following description:
The really good writers of soft magic systems very, very rarely use their magic to solve problems in their books. Magic creates problems, then people solve those problems on their own without much magic.
Use the magic for visuals and for ambiance, but not for plot. (Unless it’s there to screw up things for the characters. That’s always okay.)
A hard magic system is based on rules, principles and costs. We exactly know how it works, like in “Harry Potter”. Hermione needs a wand and knowlegde for potions and spells to execute magic.
There are clear limitations to using magic and we know exactly what the cost will be.
Brandon Sanderson describes it like that:
The magic itself is a character, and by showing off its laws and rules, the author is able to provide twists, worldbuilding, and characterization.
If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems.
2. Beware Brandon Sanderson’s Magic Laws
Ha! Yes, you might have wondered why I always talk about Brandon Sanderson.
Well, well, well ...
Brandon is one of the greatest fantasy authors in our time and because he loves to write about magic, he developed magic laws and systems. Thanks to him we actually say “soft” or “hard” magic system.
There are three laws for using magic in writing by Brandon. If you want to read in more detail about those laws, I’d recommend to click this link.
But I think as a quick tip you should definitely consider the first law:
A writer’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
What does that even mean?
Don’t worry. I got you!
It means whatever magic system you choose, you as a writer need to think about how important magic is for solving a conflict. And if it feels authentic to your viewer or reader in the magical world you created.
If there’s a moment when someone goes like “Huh? Why did that happen? Seems way too convenient” or “Magic saved the day!? O come on, that’s lame!”, then you might reconsider how important your magic compared to your character is.
Because as cool as magic is, the characters are still the pumping heart of your story!
And your writing should be truthful to them, not to magic. It also shows weak writing if you don’t know how to solve a conflict so you just insert some magic.
For example in “Lord of the Rings” when they fight in Helm’s Deep and charge out into sunlight, Gandalf comes to the rescue. Which is a little bit “deus ex machina” but it’s great and epic! It’s a wonder! A mircale!
It’s fitting for the soft magic system that is used in “Lord of the Rings” but that doesn’t mean Gandalf comes around every single time to save the day. Those are rare moments, that keep us wondering about the magic but it doesn’t define the story as much as the characters.
I personally believe that there should be consequences when magic is used. There needs to be a price.
This can go from “just” physical exhaustion to an exchange of a life or some other kind of sacrifice. Or maybe you lose your soul of you use a lot of dark magic?
It doesn‘t need to relate to the magic itself but for the user there needs to be a consequence or an impact. Something that changes the user‘s life or their character. Something that brings conflict and tension in their life.
When you think about your magic system, also ask yourself:
What impact does magic has on my characters, the world, the economy, ...etc?
What are consequences when you use it?
It‘s always good to ask a lot of questions when you create a magic system. These questions can be super random but also be very specific, depending on your story and your magic.
For the best questions I recommend following articles:
Hope that helps you as much as it helped me!
If you feel inspired and/or magical, leave a little tip for me so I can keep create my magic. I’d appreciate it with endless gratitude.
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