This is an old post I did last year on my blog when I was blogging about writing. I figured it was popular back then so I’d repost it here now we are blogging on the Roundtable site. I hope people enjoy it.
As an avid reader of fantasy, one of the aspects that can draw me into a world, is the magic system.
There have been some fantastic ones over the years, from great authors like J.R.R Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson.
Tolkien gave Gandalf mysterious powers, and never really explained how they worked. George R.R. Martin has several, again, fairly mysterious.
Robert Jordan decided to go further with his magic. His Aes Sedai were linked to most aspects of the world. In the case of the Source, tying it to the land itself, at one point, breaking the entire world due to it’s misuse from crazed male users of the magic. It was also linked to the nobility, diplomacy, healing, the weather and even the economy.
Brandon Sanderson is a modern master of magic systems. Every one of his is linked to his “Sanderson’s Laws of Magic.” By building his systems around these laws, he has managed to create memorable, interesting and unique magic systems. It has also helped him become one of the modern masters of fantasy writing.
In his Mistborn trilogy, the Allomancers, drink vials of metal. They use stores of metals in their bloodstream to interact with their environment in different ways. He made the system flawed. It can only be used based within the existing laws of physics.
It’s finite. They can run out of metals and essentially be helpless.
He tied it to the economy. The metals cost money, sometimes-large amounts. He made some metals, such as Atium, extremely rare and under the control of an evil god tyrant. People were assassinated over it. Whole noble houses fought, and were destroyed, for control of it.
Why is any of this important?
It’s important because by linking the magic to the world, and giving it flaws and limitations, it helps the reader accept it. Fantasy worlds are just that, fantasy. It can be hard to immerse someone in your world, so why make it harder by crafting a ridiculous magic system, that makes no sense.
There is nothing like a magic user that can access their mysterious ‘force’ at will, never get tired or find themselves unable to use the magic, never run out, and never have it fail on them. It makes them less interesting as a character, it also makes it hard to suspend your disbelief.
In creating my own, I have taken on board what the masters did with theirs, especially modern fantasy authors, like Sanderson and Rothfuss.
In The Name of the Wind, the magic system is complicated by the fact that you need to spend years at the University to learn it, even then it’s fairly difficult to master. Some parts of it are so complicated that nobody even remembers how to learn or teach it (e.g. naming).
His main character Kvothe is a genius. He succeeds at everything. Kvothe is arrogant, going as far to be hard to like for most of the book. He is interesting because even he struggles to come to terms with mastering the magic systems. This weakness and difficulty made the magic interesting and made him easier to like as a character. As a reader, that’s important.
So if you are crafting your own, what things should you be considering?
Make it flawed
Maybe it doesn’t always work for your magic user. Maybe it can only be used at certain times of day. Maybe only left-handed people can use it. Maybe it fails if you are drunk? Maybe it makes you sick, or can even kill you, if you use it too often.
Anything that can make your hero fail, just when they need the magic most is going to bring conflict. That’s a good thing.
Make it finite
If your hero can seize hold of their magic system whenever they like, never run out of it, and can continue standing there throwing fireballs for hours on end, then there is a fair chance you have lost me as a reader.
Maybe there is only so much of the magic available, with only a certain people able to access it at once. If someone is wasting it on heating up their cup of tea, a warrior-mage is dying over the over side of the world. Maybe it needs resources to make it work, like the metals I talked about above. Maybe it can only be used on a Tuesday. Maybe it causes damage to your hero, or someone else. They might be reluctant to rain down a fiery shit storm on their enemies if it causes their sister to go blind.
Make it part of your world
There is nothing puts me off more than when a magic system is irrelevant to the world. If it’s just there, what’s the point? It has to effect things in the world. If we create new technology, it affects the way we live. Sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in major ways. Magic is just like a technology, so it shouldn’t be any different.
Maybe you do something similar to Mistborn. The users have to buy the resource to make the magic work, sometimes at great cost. This could affect the economy by having someone charge large amounts, either in the open, or in a black market. Maybe the users charge for their services, making themselves rich. Who says they have to all be heroes? Maybe some of them are entrepreneurs out to make a quick buck off their talents.
Maybe using it causes damage to the environment, killing things around it as it draws the power, like plants or animal life. Maybe if you use it too much, it could destroy the entire world. What do you do if you need to kill the big Dark Lord, but by doing so, you may destroy your homeland in the process? Conflict central.
How do people react to your magic users? Are they scared of them, like the Dragon Reborn in the Wheel of Time? Maybe they love them, treating them like gods.
With great magic, comes great responsibility
Whatever you decide to do with your magic system, you better be sure it makes sense. It better be both interesting and engaging.
Nobody likes to read about a hero with god mode on, with unlimited ammo.