2 October 2014 - 7:55 pm

Making Magic

Shapeshifting might be your chosen form of magic. So work out how! (Picture by unknown)

Shapeshifting might be your chosen form of magic. So work out how!
(Picture by unknown)

If you’re writing fantasy, whether it’s urban, epic, far-future, alternate dimension, there’s likely to be some magic in it. The thing with magic is that it can do anything, right? Well, yes, but a better answer is ‘no, it can’t do everything (and here’s why)’.

An undefined magic system that can do anything is the sign of lazy worldbuilding and is often used as a ‘get out of jail’ free card when the plot gets stuck. It’s a symptom of bad writing.

Let’s be better than that. To be a system, it has to be defined, have rules of some kind, and make internal sense. Yes, it might be magic, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t make logical sense! It can be kick-ass and consistent.

But where to start? Let’s see if we can narrow down what we’re going for here.

What type of magic is it?

The term ‘magic’ covers a whole spectrum of fantastical possibilities. Here’s a list that is probably far from exhaustive:

  • Elemental (fire, water, air, earth, metal, etc)
  • Psionic (mind manipulation: illusions, control, communication)
  • Telekinesis (manipulation of matter or energy by the brain: physical objects, fire, electricity, etc)
  • Wards, enchantments, and curses (places or objects imbued with power, temporary or permanent)
  • Alchemy (concoctions of awesome, transmutation)
  • Shapeshifting (manipulating one’s own matter to take another shape, voluntarily or otherwise)
  • Necromancy (raising the dead, spirit talking, spirit wielding)
  • Clairvoyance (visions across time, divining)
  • Science (if it’s fantastical enough, it’s just like magic!)

Okay, I’m not going to talk about the last one so much, but you get the idea.

You’re not restricted to any one of these types; mix and match at will. You might even want all of them, but be aware that everything you include needs to have the mechanics figured out, one way or another.

Where does the power come from?

Magical effects have to be driven by some kind of power. It’s worth thinking about what kind of power or energy this is, and where it might have come from. Some options are:

  • Blood
  • Life (or death, or both)
  • Nature
  • Deities (singular or plural)
  • Mystical or magical energy (sometimes magic is a power in itself)
  • Sacrifice
  • Spirits
  • The caster or user’s own self
  • Objects

Some of these can easily cross over with each other: a blood sacrifice; the magic user’s own life force; the use of a holy talisman that draws power from the deity that blessed it.

What is required to use this magic?

This can be closely linked to the previous question: what does someone have to do in order to cast a spell or activate a magical effect? Think about all the different ways that magic is cast. Here are a few ideas:

  • Words (chanting, magical words, commands)
  • Gestures (by hands, wands, or any body part; maybe even a dance)
  • Ritual
  • Physical ingredients or components
  • Music
  • Actions (more than just a gesture, like the spilling of blood, the taking of a life, breaking an object, etc)
  • Patterns (alignment of stars, seasons, planets, the position of the moon, or something created manually, like the positioning of the four elements at the four compass points)
  • Symbols or runes
  • Talismen or objects imbued with power

These might be required to unlock the power already identified, or they might be used to shape that power into the desired effect, or both. Many magical systems combine several of these elements; for example, the style of magic in the Supernatural TV show can involve physical components, words, gestures, and runes drawn on the ground, all to perform a single spell.

Who can use magic?

Restricting the use of magic is not unusual, but there must be some rhyme and reason to it. This is where you’ll be able to spin out its effects on the people of the world most directly, as access to power tends to has a lot of impacts.

Those who use magic could be:

  • Anyone. Maybe it’s common enough that everyone is able to do it. Can everyone use it to the same extent?
  • Born with it (it’s probably not Mabeline). Is it genetic? Inherited in some way? Passed from one bearer to the next, or multiplied by having many children?
  • Adults. A certain level of physical or emotional maturity is required to access it. Linking it to puberty and coming of age is not unusual and tends to work well.
  • Children. It can be something lost at puberty, instead of gained. This is often linked to the loss of innocence (but doesn’t have to be).
  • Ritually imbued. A person has to go through some kind of rite to gain access to the power, like a spirit quest, a ritual, or a challenge.
  • Educated. It’s a learned skill that requires study, usually many years of intense activity and training.
  • Pure. Spiritual, emotional, or physical purity could be linked to the ability to use magic. Sin or sex could cost someone their ability to wield true magic.
  • Divine or pious. Magic might require devotion to a deity or religion.
  • Mutilated or mutated. Having a certain physical attribute or physically changing the body might be the way to gain access to magic. It could be natural or fabrication, like losing a finger, castration, a third eye, or symbiosis with another entity.
  • Bearer of a gift. Perhaps it’s an object or ability bestowed by a person or entity. It could be a physical object, a mark, or something less obvious.

The definition of the group who can use magic (and its related power) tends to be important to a world’s society and political setup. Think about all the ways that the restrictions around who can use magic might impact the power balance in a particular type of society. Think about their relationship with those who cannot use magic. Are they equal? Are they blessed or cursed?

Who controls magic and its use?

The answer to this may seem obvious, given the previous question, but it isn’t always straightforward. Do the magic users govern themselves, or is there an external party? A caste system? Rules and laws they must follow? Are the magic-users slaves to a group, god, or system (for example, in the Dragon Age games)? Do they serve the government? Do they sit outside of it? Do they run their own state or country, independent of the magicless ones entirely (like in the Harry Potter world)? Who pulls their strings, and how?

Think back over your answers to the above questions and consider how someone might have control over the magic-users. If certain substances are required to use magic, the source or trade of those substances becomes an essential link in the chain. Access to specific locations or objects could be controlled to leash users.

Consider also how magic users interact with other parts of society. Are they well-thought-of? Feared? Despised? Envied?

The answers to these questions will pick out how magic shapes this world you’re building, as well as how the world shapes the use of magic.

What are the limits of this magic?

Magic can, potentially, do anything. However, it really shouldn’t be able to do everything. To avoid it becoming over-powered and swamping your world and story with too many implausibilities, and to make it fundamentally more interesting, give it some limits. Having a character have to figure out how to best use a small amount of magic to solve a problem is far more interesting than a character who can fix any issue with the wave of the hand.

There are lots of ways to put limits on magic. Think about things like:

  • What’s required to use it. Things like components, blood, and even life tend to be limited sources.
  • The source of the energy. If drawing from something like nature or a mystical energy, local sources might need some time to recharge.
  • Fatigue of the user. If the user is a conduit for the magic, mental or physical fatigue (or other cost) could be a natural limit.
  • Natural laws. Magic’s limits could simply be defined by the physical laws of your world.

There are lots of other options. Be creative! And be clear.

What are its weaknesses?

Balance is important. If something is powerful, it should also have a weakness somewhere.

Is there a way to protect against magic? Tinfoil hats, cold iron, a pentagram drawn the right way up? Is there something a non-user can do or use against magic?

Protection against magic is only part of it; what advantages do non-magic users have against magic users? Do magic users have an Achilles heel? Think about ways to destabilise magic or its use, and things that magic users might be susceptible to. For example, cold iron often burns magical creatures in some mythologies (for example, some faerie magic systems) and they cannot defend against it at all.

Weaknesses add interesting and fun complications to a world, and your story. Embrace them, play with them, and they’ll do great things for you.


Got all that? Good. Now you should have a defined magic system and lots of elements to throw into your story.

Go crazy, do fantastical things, and most of all: have fun.

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  1. Lee S. Hawke says:

    Great post, it’s good to see magic systems broken down in this way!

    October 14th, 2014 at 8:02 am

  2. Mel says:

    Thanks, Lee! Glad you found it useful. 🙂

    October 20th, 2014 at 12:44 pm