World Building: Magic Systems

Nat RussoBasics, How-To, Magic, World Creation, Writing 41 Comments

As a Fantasy author, the subject of World Building is near and dear to my heart. If you’re going to build a convincing fantasy world, you may be thinking about developing a magic system. In Necromancer Awakening (now available on Amazon), I went through a painstaking process to build a unique magic system involving “Life” and “Death”.

While I was constructing a magic system based on necromancy, it occurred to me (in hindsight) that there are three things a writer should know before attempting this at home:

1. Know The Purpose

It’s difficult to quantify where ideas come from. I can describe how I develop ideas (and I have: here and here), but there is a chance you have a completely different system. And that’s ok. Sometimes we start with an abstract idea and flesh it out until we have a story. Other times we have a solid plot in mind and just need surrounding matter to flesh the world out. Neither way is wrong.
But one thing is certain: whichever way you begin, your system of magic needs to serve your story, not the other way around. That’s not to say you can’t begin by developing a system of magic and work a story out from there. I’m merely saying that your story should dictate what you include and what you exclude. Your magic system shouldn’t exist merely to exist, any more than a setting in your world exists merely to exist. 

You’re a writer, not a special effects artist.

If your magic users are casting spells for no other reason than to show off their abilities and your prowess at world building, then you’re being self-indulgent. By all means let them show off their abilities. But do so within the context of your story.

2. Know The Rules

Every system of magic has a set of rules [again, I’m speaking of systems of magic]. If not, the very absence of a set of rules is itself a rule that needs to be spelled out. 

Spell out any plot-impacting rules as early as possible.

That last bit is crucial. If you withhold a critical rule/ability of your magic system until it conveniently gets your characters out of a plot jam, your readers will throw up their hands and give up. You need to foreshadow the use of critical abilities, and there’s pretty much only one way to do that: know what is going to be needed and when it is going to be needed. In other words, know your story.

If Johnny is going to confront the Beastly Brigand Bipsbah of the Bipsy Brotherhood, and the only way to destroy the Bipsbah’s Bipsmatic Bippity Bopper is through a clever combination of two magical abilities, it would be a good idea to have scenes early on where Johnny uses those abilities independent of one another. This will allow him to be a stronger, more intelligent hero. It will allow you to take the reader through Johnny’s thought process as he has his “eureka!” moment. And the reader will feel smart as well, because they’ll “put two and two together” around the same time that Johnny does, and everyone’s a winner. Well, everyone except the Beastly Bipsbah and his Bippity Bopper.

Some finer points you might want to keep in mind when considering the “Rules” you’re developing:

  • What is the nature of your magic user’s power? Is the power natural, mystical, arcane? Does the power come from within or without? If external, does the magician’s distance from the source matter? Why? Why not? 
  • Is the magic hereditary or acquired? Is it something that anyone can do with the proper knowledge and training? How does one go about obtaining that knowledge/training? 
  • Is your magical society hierarchical? If so, how does the magic user advance? If not, are your magic users recluses, avoiding one another whenever possible? 
  • Society at large will probably have an opinion about this magic. What is it? Is it accepted, rejected? Are magic users exalted members of society or are they pariahs? Keep in mind that people usually fear what they don’t understand, unless they *believe* they understand it, either through religious or academic means. Do your magic users work in harmony with your culture’s religious leaders, or are they at odds with one another? 
This list of questions is hardly exhaustive, but it should give you a place to start. You need to ask yourself a lot of questions, not only about your system of magic, but also about its place in your world at large. 

Never…EVER…violate the rules of your magic system once they’re established, unless your magic system allows for the exception. If there is an exceptional case, make absolutely certain that the exceptional case is declared as early as possible, and perhaps subtly repeated several times to foreshadow its use.  

Did I beat you over the head with enough bold text? If you’re going to change things up, you’d better foreshadow it. If you don’t, the reader is going to call “foul” and throw your book in the trash.  

The reader will accept the impossible long before they accept the implausible. 

If your magic system declares pigs can only fly on Wednesdays, you’d better not have it flying around fixing your plot problems on a Tuesday without that foreshadowing I mentioned. There’s nothing wrong with the flying pig in and of itself. The flying pig is merely impossible. That whole Tuesday business…now that’s unfair. That’s downright implausible! You cheated, and I’m never buying anything you write ever again, you bait-and-switch artist! 

3. Know The Limitations

This is going to give some writers and world builders heartburn, so let me just come right out and say it. The limitations of your magic system are far more interesting than the abilities of your magic system.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Take any situation where your magic users cast a fancy spell to get out of trouble, and I can guarantee it won’t be as tension-filled and exciting as placing them in a situation where their magic doesn’t work.
[UPDATE 05/10/2014] In Necromancer Awakening, for example, I use proximity to a power source as one of several limiting factors. This ramped up the tension in several scenes where my main characters were cut off from a power source, and readers routinely mention this in their messages to me. You want to learn who your characters really are? Take away whatever super power you’ve given them, just temporarily, and see how they manage. 
I said this already, but I’m going to repeat it: You’re a writer, not a special effects artist. Your magic system serves your story, not the other way around!
Was there more drama in Harry Potter when he had his wand and his abilities, or when he was outside of the school and forbidden to use magic? Using the floo powder was a really cool method of travel. But it was FAR more interesting when Harry screwed it up and traveled “diagonally” instead of to “Diagon Alley”!
Limitations on magic are not merely interesting, they’re vital. If your system has no limits, you have no drama. If you have no drama, you have no story. If you have no story, you’ll have no readers.
Gandalf is second only to Merlin in mythology as being a powerful wizard. Yet how many times did Gandalf use magic in Lord of the Rings? I bet you’ll only need one hand to do the counting, and you’ll probably have fingers to spare. But does anyone deny or question his power?
One parting thought before I close: do your world building. But don’t feel as if you have to include everything you’ve built. Your world is rich for what you put into it. But your story is often far richer for what you leave out. Though you leave out a bit of world building here and there, the weight of its presence is still felt, because it’s in your mind as you’re writing. It’s in the minds of your characters as they move through your world and interact with the setting and each other. No, the reader might not know why the world feels so rich and vibrant, but there’ll be no denying the feeling.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 41

  1. I completely agree that sometimes a story or indeed a character can be richer without excessive use of magic. I have often thought about Gandalf and how, despite only using magic a few times, he is still undoubtedly a great wizard, and for me, the glimpse of power rather than the grand display makes a character so much more compelling, memorable and, well, magical!

    Thanks for the great advice!

    1. Thanks, Melissa!

      I was just chatting with a fellow about the very subject of Gandalf and Tolkien. The suggestion was you don’t need a well-defined system of magic because obviously it worked for Tolkien.

      I had to point out that the reason it worked for Tolkien was because he never used magic to resolve his story question. He merely sprinkled magic in like salt. I’m convinced that if your ultimate story question is going to be resolved through the use of magic, the magic needs to be well-defined for the reader to buy it.

      Of course, much of this is subjective. But I know that I would feel cheated, as a reader, if the writer threw in some crazy use of magic that was never implied as possible in order to resolve the story.

    2. Love the blog man but I have to say Gandalf dying and suddenly coming back was the thing that always turned me off about Lord of the Rings. I love the story up to his death because it is noble and heroic and unexpected of such a central character so early in the story but his resurrection is a prime example of what you’re talking about.

  2. I agree that there need to be fairly serious limitations on what magic can do in general. I also think it works to have there be things your character can or cannot do that are not the norm to create drama. Not all artists create art in the same way

    1. Very true. I think the key is to avoid deus ex machina, or other “convenient” ways of getting yourself out of the plot corner you’ve backed yourself into. It’s a letdown for the reader and a symptom of lazy writing.

  3. I’m in the process of finishing an outline for a fantasy novel and I’ve been working on these exact things. It’s good to hear from another writer the exact reasons I’ve told my wife I can’t just dive in and start writing: without all the rules of the fantasy world hammered out, I can’t write something that’s cohesive. Love the writing, thanks for putting it out!

    1. Thanks, James.

      I agree completely! Speculative fiction often takes longer to plan due to the world-building requirement. I spent close to 4 months building Erindor before jumping in to the prose. And prior to writing chapter 1, I decided to write an experimental short story so that I could exercise a couple of characters and move them through the world I had just created. It was well worth it!

      In my experience over the last few years, writing the prose was the shortest (and easiest) task. It took only 90 days for me to write the 1st draft. That was back in late 2011. I’m still editing 🙂 Now THAT’S the hard part 🙂

  4. When I sat down to write my novel, I just did cursory world building. I guess this was a beginner’s mistake. After my first draft was complete, I started really crafting my world. I realized I needed to do that. Of course, I’ve had to go back and rework some stuff, but luckily everything is falling into place. I’ve had to add new chapters to the beginning of the manuscript to set some things up. hehe

    Love the blog, Nat. I’m going to skip through older blogs and see if I can’t find something on juggling a large cast of characters…and deciding POV. I really am doing everything backwards, it seems. I guess this is why it’s taking so long for me to finish my revisions. hehe I’m sure a lot of beginners can relate. I hold on to George Martin’s success, and he juggled a lot of characters and made his world just sing. Hope I can pull that off, too.

    (Sorry about the deletes. I realized I had typos and couldn’t edit. It just made sense to start over.)

    1. No problem on the deletes. Happens to me all the time, and I run the blog! There doesn’t seem to be a way of allowing comment editing, as far as I’ve found so far.

      So glad you’re enjoying the blog! I’ve yet to write a PoV post, but I just might do that now. I had to make some serious PoV decisions in my own novel. The first draft had a subplot that was written from the PoV of my antagonist. But it just didn’t work when I re-read it. Something about it was sapping all of the tension out of those scenes.

      My solution was to promote a minor character to a larger role and rewrite those scenes from his PoV instead. Not only did it work wonders for the tension/suspense, but it created what turned out to be one of the best character arcs in my story.

  5. I think that this post could be applied to forensic crime/counter-terrorism dramas. ‘Pixilate’ come to mind when the writers run out of good ideas, and need a way to move the story ahead quickly.

    1. Very true. When you watch CSI, look for those machines that say “Thermo” on them in red letters. That’s the company I work for. I’m actually on the software development team that writes the software for the GC/LC MS systems they use on the program (they have units on loan from us to add realism to their labs).

      Problem is, during the lab montages where you see them using the machines, it’s not our software you see on the screen. It’s a figment of someone’s imagination that a real chemist would never be able to use to achieve the results they’re looking for. Scientific software is not in the least “flashy” 🙂

  6. Great post!

    “Never…EVER…violate the rules of your magic system once they’re established, unless your magic system allows for the exception. If there is an exceptional case, make absolutely certain that the exceptional case is declared as early as possible, and perhaps subtly repeated several times to foreshadow its use.”

    This is extremely important for writers wanting to avoid the dreaded DEUX EX MACHINA. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Katie!

      Nothing can get a reader to toss a book through the window faster than pulling a rabbit out of the hat to solve a plot problem. 🙂

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  7. I’ve had a great story in my head for a few weeks that I’ve been working on … Fleshing out the details etc. But its the first one I’ve attempted where magic is everywhere. I so needed to read this right now!

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      Foreshadowing is crucial in cases like that. If you’re going to use magic to solve a problem later in the story, always be sure to foreshadow its use, otherwise it comes across as pure deus ex machina.

  8. Good stuff here Nat, couldn’t agree more with everything you have stated. Especially the bit about the magic’s limitations. I am working through the 2nd book of my Beating Back the Darkness series. This book really delves into at least one aspect of the world’s magic and I am at the point in the book where I am really working to lay that groundwork. It can be a long process to make sure you have all the rules and limitations in place, but it is essential to do it right.

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      Thanks for stopping by!

      I’ve always believed the limitations of magic are more interesting than the abilities, in many cases.

      There’s another segment of fantasy writers who opt for a more loosely defined structure to their magic system, probably the most famous of which would be Tolkien. I enjoy these stories as well. But I always tell writers who intend to build an actual magic system that they have their work cut out for them. It’s easy to get wrong! 🙂

  9. I have been exploring the abilities of Sorcerers in my “Barbarian” WIP, but had not considered explaining the limitations. In one scene, the Number Two Wizard is in a battle using Magic mixed with a bit of knife throwing against marauders of the Frozen Wastes of the North. I won’t expand here, but one can see it on my blog. ( )

    I have other skirmishes where Magics are used, and try to keep it at least plausible. The Power comes from the Æther, centering in the gut of the wielder, to be pulled to the surface with stern concentration (as “seen” in the excerpt); for the “good guys”, that is. The evil Wizard draws from the Abyss a much darker Power. Though neither is more Powerful, directing it properly and timely can win the day.

    Thanks for another informative post!
    Keep putting the excellent articles out there, Nat!

    — John

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  14. Excellent points. I usually boil limitations down to magic has to have a cost. If it doesn’t it makes it way to easy to make it Deus ex machina. This is because in the real world even very limited magic would be a huge advantage.

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