Wizards, witches, mages, sorcerers, magicians--whatever you call them, there's nothing more synonymous with fantasy than people who use magic. But despite it seeming like a catch-all solution for any plot issue, writing magic can be complicated. If plugged in however seems convenient in the moment, magic becomes a confusing hindrance rather than a fun and thrilling piece of your world.
In comes the magic system: the set of rules that defines magic within your story. By developing your magic system ahead of time you not only avoid inconsistent usage throughout the story, but create an interesting piece of worldbuilding that pulls a reader in.
So where do you start? Magic systems can be broken into four basic questions--the who, what, where, and how--and answering them will give you a solid starting point.
This is an easy question to start with: who can use magic? But there are a lot of pieces to dig into. Start by asking yourself some of these to flesh that idea out:
- Who can use magic? Is it accessible to anybody or only a select group of people?
- If only some people can use it, what defines who those people are? Genetics? A higher power? Some kind of tool they must possess?
- Can certain people use only certain types of magic? What determines what types they can use?
- What role do these people play in your world? Are they revered or looked down on? Do they live by the same rules as everyone else, or do they have their own? Do they hide or live in the open? This is a great way to tie your magic system into the culture(s) of your world.
There are endless ways to answer these questions, and every combination will give you the basis of an exciting system to work with. Even one tweak can set you up for an entirely different dynamic to play with--for example, in both Arcatraissa and The Ruin of Snow, magic is genetic. However, any of the fae of Arcatraissa can inherit magic, while in the world of The Ruin of Snow only females can inherit it. While males can carry the gene and pass it on, they can't practice magic themselves. This sets up magic in The Ruin of Snow to play a very different role in their society and give witches a very different life than in Arcatraissa, even to the point of some witches considering themselves superior to men.
This question is, again, a pretty basic one that needs defined early on: what can magic do? I find it best to decide on a base to build off of--such as the four elements (water, wind, fire, and earth), your classic old-school witchcraft, or a piece of mythology that ties into my concept for the story. From there I can flesh out the details. Try considering questions like:
- Can magic be used in everyday life, and if so, for what?
- Is magic split into multiple schools or types, such as different types of elemental magic, or dark and light magic? What is the difference between each type?
- Can magic be used for taboo things like to kill or control people, or does it have natural boundaries? (Note that this part of worldbuilding isn't about society or law, but about what magic can do, even if illegally.)
- What can't magic do? What is simply beyond its reach, no matter how skilled the user?
I personally like to make lists here. I'll brainstorm all the possible things magic could be used for, and what limitations come with it. Then I can rule out ideas I don't like or that don't work with the story, and begin to tweak and refine the rules for what ideas are left. Which leads straight into...
Now that we have a solid base for our magic system, it's time to get into the details. The how--how magic is used or performed--will bring your magic system to the next, realistic-feeling level and give you clear rules for when you're writing. Try considering things like:
- How does a magic-user "switch on" their magic? With intent? Magic words? What distinguishes between magical and non-magical behaviors?
- Does magic need to be channeled through something, and if so, what? Does the magic-user have to speak, use a wand, or touch their target? Are tools used to perform certain spells?
- Are there specific, established spells that must be learned and used, or does the magic-user improvise? How are these spells performed, if they exist?
- Can magic be used accidentally and if so, what triggers it?
- What is the cost of magic? Is it simply tiring, or does it take a toll on the user's health or sanity? How high is the price for each spell or usage?
As you can see in almost any fantasy book you pick up, the how of your magic system gives you a long list of things to play with in your story. If magic in Harry Potter was channeled through speaking, huge pieces of the story--Ollivander, the Elder Wand--would be very different, if not gone completely. Don't be afraid to work the how of your system into your plot and let it give your characters both advantages and disadvantages.
Though you can get away without exploring the where of your system--where magic comes from--it can give your world invaluable depth and realism. Whether you take a scientific, religious, or even mysterious and unknown approach to this question, it just makes sense for your world to have at least considered the origin of magic. Try considering:
- What are your world's beliefs? Are there any religions that tie into their beliefs about magic?
- What role does science play in your world? What may scientists have discovered about the origin of magic?
- Are there any legends that may be used to explain it? Gods, heroes, curses, or something else that created the first magic-users? Are these considered fiction or truth? Regardless of what people think, is there a seed of truth to them?
- Do different people or societies believe different origin stories about magic? Does this cause conflict within the world or your story?
It can be fun to explore these questions, and can be a great excuse to dig into real-world mythology for inspiration--as well as to help develop religions or cultures of your world. Don't shy away from creating your world's own mythology and legends, it can be daunting but fun once you get into it, and makes your world feel more real and developed. After all, every world has its own stories, even fictional ones. I favored the mythology route in The Ruin of Snow, with the most common belief being that witches are granted their power by the dark goddess Nalcai--in fact, an alternative name for witches is Daughters of Nalcai.
Remember, a magic system is important and has to be consistent and defined--at the very least in your own mind--but that doesn't mean it can't be fun to build. Get creative, think of what you've read before and how you can flip it on its head, and make your system your own. It's a big task to take on but if you dive in you'll find it taking on a life of its own (or at least I always seem to, and I hope it's the same for you.)