How to Design Magic Systems

Souldancer of FIre
When two magic systems love each other, sometimes they hug.

A speculative element is what sets the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror apart from literary fiction. There’s no element more speculative than magic, and it’s become a common term of art to speak of an SFF universe’s “magic system”. By reader request, here is my philosophy of magic in genre fiction–with advice on how to handle magic in your secondary world.

Changing depictions of magic in SFF

Historically, there have been two general approaches to depicting magic in speculative fiction.

  1. The old-school way: Magic is mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.
  2. The new-school way: Magic works like a technology that we can systematize.
The first way can be seen in works as late as Tolkien and going back to the Matter of Britain and before. Tales like these make little if any effort to explain where magic comes from–other than perhaps hinting at divine (sacramentality; not magic) or infernal origins. Nor do they define any explicit limits on what magic can and can’t do.
Wizards in these stories are almost never central protagonists. Instead they pop into the narrative at key times to aid and advise the main protagonist before exiting the stage for lengthy intervals. Think of Gandalf and Merlin, and you’ll get the idea.
In terms of story mechanics, the reason why wizards like Gandalf and Merlin don’t protag much  is due to the needs of dramatic tension. A well-made story should elicit suspense in the reader over how conflicts will be resolved. Being on the edge of your seat wondering how the hero will get out of this one is the main ingredient for good pacing.
The difficulty with old-school wizards in lead roles is that there’s no inherent reason why they can’t just magic themselves around obstacles. Sure, you can set limits on a wizard’s magic to set up situations he can’t just cast his way out of, but you’ve got to establish those limitations early on to avoid cheating the reader.
And if you do set limits on what magic can accomplish, guess what? You just systematized it a little.
That’s why Tolkien’s wizards are kind of old and new-school hybrids. Gandalf is a superhuman spirit, but he’s explicitly forbidden from drawing upon his angelic power. Instead he’s got to work with the skills available to his human form. That’s a pretty big limitation!
New-school, aka Sandersonian magic
No, Brandon Sanderson didn’t invent contemporary SFF magic. But he is the most prominent advocate for new-school, systematized magic, so I’m sticking with the “Sandersonian” description.
A better candidate for the father of new-school magic is the venerable Jack Vance (though yes, others did it before him, but again, he’s more popular).
If you’ve ever played D&D, you know how Vanceian magic systems work. Magic spells are 5th dimensional formulae of such complexity that a human mind can only hold a limited number of spells per day, and when the knowledge is actualized, i.e. a spell is cast, it’s totally purged from the caster’s mind. If a Vanceian wizard wants to cast that spell again, he has to memorize it all over again.
The upshot of this system is that it allowed Vance to use his transient amnesiac wizards as protagonists while maintaining dramatic tension. A Vanceian wizard can still use magic to escape from sticky situations–but not if he’s used all of his daily spells or memorized the wrong ones.
Categories of Magic
I like to put the various types of magic systems into a few broad categories.
Actual Magic: the original meaning of the term “magic”, using preternatural powers to achieve natural ends. In its archetypal form, magic means asking demons to do stuff for you with their superhuman powers. Old-school authors usually meant this when they wrote about magic.
Technology: this can be anything from Clarke’s sufficiently advanced tech to methods of turning invisible or making things go boom that are otherwise indistinguishable from actual magic. The key difference is that the users aren’t petitioning demons but manipulating “forces”.
Here;’s the tech vs. magic litmus test: if your characters are channeling and shaping created or emergent energies, they’re dealing with an esoteric technology; not real magic.
The vast majority of “magic systems” these days are actually cosmic force-driven technologies. The Force and Sanderson’s allomancy are examples of technology-style magic systems.
Superpowers: this category is rather nebulous and tends to overlap with technology-based magic systems. I distinguish between the two as follows: technological magic is a skill that can be learned. Superpowers are abilities beyond the natural powers proper to humans which are intrinsic to a character.
Super strength, invulnerability, psychic mind-powers, super intelligence, unaided flight, eye lasers, etc.–all are commonly recognized as superpowers. But like I said, sometimes this category overlaps with technological magic systems, such as Star Wars characters who are born with Force-sensitivity (an innate superpower) that lets them learn Jedi skills (a technology).
Designing your own magic system
To design an original magic system for your book, ask yourself these questions:
  • How do I want the presence of magic to affect my story’s mood and tone?
  • Will there be magic user-protagonists?
  • Is my cosmology purely material, or are there beings that transcend the natural?
  • In my world, is magic the result of a pact with preternatural entities, a skill which harnesses natural forces that anyone can learn, or innate to certain characters?
The answers to these questions, in light of the info we already covered above, should give you a basic starting point for setting up your own magic system–if you want a system at all.
It’s also perfectly fine to have multiple magic systems. The Soul Cycle series features all three categories of magic, because I’m greedy that way.
Priests and Teth disciples deal with gods and demons.
Factors learn how to draw on cosmic prana energy to fashion Workings.
Nexists are born with the power to directly affect the world by will alone.
And because clearly delineating these systems would be too simple, there’s considerable overlap between all of them.
Here’s the takeaway: in magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader. Dramatic tension is a key ingredient of fun, so if you’re going to put magic users in lead roles, make sure to give them obstacles they can’t just magic their way out of. And if you’re going to limit their magic, make sure you clearly lay out what magic can and can’t do as early as possible.
I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. See these principles in action in my award-winning Soul Cycle.

And the Soul Cycle tie-in short story “Elegy for the Locust”, available in the new best selling anthology Forbidden Thoughts!


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About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.
  • In my YA fantasy project, (if I ever get around to finishing it) I also have all three – one that is a combination of two – extremely long-lived shapeshifters who can only shift between two forms – an inherent ability but one that they have to petition supernatural entities to gain in the first place and also each time they use it.

    Standard petitions can be made by anyone who knows the old trade language (and etiquette) of the beings known in that language as the ‘realities behind nature’ or even the ‘reality behind the realities’, though that language is now known to very few.

    More extreme requests have time limits on them, they can only be ritually petitioned for once a year or once a decade, and are also only available to certain lineages (e.g. royalty).

    A skill/art that can be learned is herbalism, the study of the properties of plants and the teas and potions that can be made from them, which in many ways function like modern drugs. (Plants with opposite and mutually counteracting effects often grow together in the same location, e.g. tea made from the petals of a sunpointer is a ward against hypothermia, and its nectar is a powerful stimulant, next to sunpointers grow moonbeams; a tea from its petals will reduce a fever and its nectar is a potent sleeping potion).

    • Intriguing. I wasn’t sure if a viable hybrid of category 1 and 3 magic systems could be done, but you’ve come up with two clever examples.