Worldbuilding: Creating Magic

Magic is often central to many fantasy worlds, but it can be difficult to come up with something fresh and new. It's very easy to get stuck in what's been done in the past or to lean on the magical theories of our world. Often fantasy cultures think about these things the way we do, whether it’s based on the four elements or the ritual magic of drawn circles and lighted candles. However, these are all concepts that have been explored before, and unless you can put a truly original spin on it or add depth, it probably isn't going to do anything for your story.

It might not hurt anything, but it won't add much either. However, an interesting or original magic system can draw the reader in, characterize a world, and add depth to a culture. The best way to do that is to make it as deeply a part of the culture as you can. The more entrenched in your world the magic is, the more unique it becomes. When you tailor even a general magic system, it shows it in a way that is new and different. Especially if you've given depth to the cultures and/or species with which you've populated your world.

The basic magic questions are fairly straightforward. Where does it come from? What does it require? Is it a learned skill that can be practiced by anyone, or is it something only some people can do? Is it a limited resource, or an infinite power?

But there are other questions that deserve answers which are just as in-depth and thought out. Consider how your characters feel about magic. Not just the ones who use it, but those you can't or don't. What does it require of those who do use it? How does it affect their daily lives? What about the daily lives of those who can't or don't use it? How do their daily lives affect it? What terms do they use to define it? How does it connect to the other aspects of their lives? If asked to explain it to a child, what would they say? As Einstein said, if you can't explain it to a child, you don't really understand it yourself.

Let's start with terms. There are a few things that you'll likely need to find terms for when creating a magic system. What are the people who use magic called? Is there a name for those who can't or don't? What is the act of working magic called? Sorcery? Enchantment? Do your people cast a spell, or summon the elements, call forth the powers? What is an individual work of magic called? A spell? A charm? A working? Are there any objects needed? Does it require strict rituals or certain materials? Words? Gestures?

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to entrench the magic in the culture or species you're creating. If they're fond of singing, perhaps they were their magic in a similar way. If they're big on math, perhaps those are the terms they use to describe what they do with magic. Do they think of it like science or like religion or like art? Is it a means to an end, or an end in itself?

Different cultures from our world have different ideas about magic, and while it is often linked to religious beliefs and rituals, it doesn't have to be. Alchemy is an interesting blend of science (chemistry) and mysticism, and even scientific minds such as Isaac Newton found it a worthwhile pursuit. While many magic systems require rituals there's a distinction between ritual magic and religious ritual or psychodrama. Not every culture will link magic and religion and there may even be conflict between the two--as there has often been among cultures on Earth.

Magic isn't always nice, either. And by that, I'm not referring to "dark arts" or "necromancy" or uses for magic which may not be culturally approved. Often we see the ability to do magic as lifting one section of the population above the rest, unless it is outlawed. However, there is always the possibility that instead of being respected for their ability to do magic, magic-using characters might be reviled for it. That could be because it's considered a defect or because the materials necessary are considered dirty, or simply because magic itself is considered base. All of these factors can help to add a deeper element to even a simple magic system, making them feel fresher.

So, when creating a magic system, think a bit outside the box. Perhaps your culture doesn't recognize four elements, but eight. Perhaps they consider it a discipline that only scientists engage in, or they limit its use to only particular activities. Perhaps no one can have a spell worked on them unless they have consented to it, or perhaps enchantments laid upon a person can be traded and have become a separate form of currency. There aren't any limits when it comes to magic, which makes it a great place to really stretch your creativity!


Krista said…
Excellent post! For me building a magic system for my stories is the hardest - and funnest - part!
Mike said…
Often we see the ability to do magic as lifting one section of the population above the rest, unless it is outlawed.

That's an insightful phrasing; I'd never thought of it in quite those terms before. Mix it with Clarke's Law ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") and you've got a pretty apt summary of the stereotypical red-state view of science.

I'm always surprised at how rarely writers scavenge historical magic systems. They're a great source of unexpected ideas, and are easily disguised by transplanting them to cultures based on different historical precedents. Take Bujold's 'Curse of Chalion', for example - vanilla Western European analogue setting, but with a magic system (uncomfortable divine possession) that seems to owe more to Voudoun than anything else.

Has anyone based a fantasy novel on the mainstream mediaeval "magic via possession of bits of dead saints" system? If not, why not? Too bizarre to be believable?
Marion Sipe said…
Krista - I know what you mean. It can be frustrating, but sooo rewarding!

Mike - Thank you! I think that it's especially important to tailor your magical system when you're borrowing from history. Historical magic systems can be great for starting the ball rolling, but if they don't make sense in the world you've created they can be really disorienting, you know?

Offhand, I can't think of a book which uses relics and reliquaries (specifically) for its magic system, but that could be great! I don't think it's to bizarre at all, or too hard to find believable in fantasy context.

Plus, it would give a good, organized system that could be well understood by readers. So and so is the patron saint of healing, therefore their relics imbue people with healing ability. Neat idea!
Mike said…
I think the fun of that one would be in really stressing the weirdness - if you avoided comfortingly familiar terms like "relic", "reliquary", "saint" etc you ought to be able to convince the reader that this is a particularly gruesome brand of necromancy. (And it often was gruesome; there are several recorded instances of locals murdering holy folk who showed signs of being about to move away, so as to be sure that their relics would stay in the community.) Setting intentions and applications aside, is there any magic-mechanical difference between a saint's fingerbone and, say, a Hand of Glory?

Your phrase "a good, organized system" touches on a huge question which you left out entirely: to what extent should a magic system be "organized"? To the worldbuilder there's an undeniable appeal in formulating coherent, consistent rules of magic, but I can't help feeling that you lose a lot of mythic flavour and general sensawunda by presenting them that way. Even if magic in your world is real and follows laws, why must those laws be completely and correctly comprehended by the inhabitants? Real-life physics follows laws, but their operation was apprehended only in the fuzziest and most muddled of terms until very recently, and large swathes still elude full understanding even today. Chemistry, pharmacology, medicine etc in the Middle Ages were almost entirely ritualized, following traditional recipes with no (or entirely wrong) understanding of basic principles.

Maybe understanding of magic is similarly weak. Maybe most or all of the ritual and trappings surrounding it are completely unnecessary. Maybe several seemingly contradictory approaches all get different aspects right.

Thinking back, I suspect that presenting magic as completely capricious and arbitrary works best in children's books, such as Alan Garner or Susan Cooper. Children are used to not understanding the whys and wherefores and are typically fiercely loyal to the Rule of Cool. I wonder if the ideal for adult fiction might be a colourful glaze of muddle and mystery, but with tantalizing hints of a systematic structure behind it, which the characters may or may not perceive.

Man, this is turning into a long ramble. There were some other points I wanted to bring up, such as how systematized magic ought to supplant at least some aspects of "actual" cultures, but I'll call it a night for fear of clogging the tubes.
Marion Sipe said…
Oooh! Discussion! I *love* discussion! :-D (splitting this into two commments because of length.)

I think that would be very interesting! And I can absolutely see there being conflict over such items, because of the power they grant. I actually have a short story planned around a woman who has the ability to heal, but it comes from a stone she has rather than from herself, and the fighting that happens because of it. I think that's an interesting point to raise in such a narrative! In general, I'd like to see more discussion about all of this from the characters' points of view. So often, I find, we see discussions of the social repercussions of magic limited to one view point, or to the conflict between two extreme view points (i.e. magic all good vs. magic all bad or good magic vs. bad magic).

However, there are so many social questions that could and would arise around a magical system. The ethics of it (not just whether it is ethical to use it), the way it could be used to separate one group of people from another, even the fact that--if some people can use it and some people can't--it could create a very real fear in those who can't. Especially if there's no way to defend themselves without the ability to use magic.

Well, I think that you have to take the reader's understanding of the magic system into account. An organized system is much easier for a reader to understand. If you have to spend half the story explaining how the system works, you have to make those explanations extremely interesting and relevant. That's not to say that such a story can't be good, but it's more time and effort than a lot of writers want to put into it. And, while random--or seemingly random--magic is just as realistic as non-random/ordered magic, it makes it very hard for the reader to understand what can and can't happen. It makes a story feel less foreshadowable and (though I really hate to use the word) predictable. What I mean by that is that the reader can start to feel like the author is just pulling it all out of their ass, and that they can make anything happen any time they want. Which can make a reader lose confidence in the author, and lose patience with the story.

However, I do think it would be interesting to read a story in which the author is very clear that the character's understanding of magic is limited and growing.

A story, for instance, in which one of the characters is a magical researcher, working to gather new bits of magical understanding, could be really fun! I did that a bit with Born of This Soil. The main character lives in a nation where the magic-wielders tried to take over another nation and so were conquered. The knowledge of magic that remains is sketchy, and the main character is working without a net, trying to figure out how to use it to do the things she has to do.
Marion Sipe said…
For me, I think, it's very important in such a narrative that the reader still feel as if the magic system is cohesive and for it to have internal consistency in a way the reader can understand. It should feel to the reader as if it all belongs together and pulls from the same sorts of theories and practices. Once you lose that cohesion, I think it's hard for the reader to follow.

Also, I don't think that a logical basis has to lose the mysticism and mythic quality. A lot of mythology has a very real logic to it, although it can sometimes be hard for us to see. Take, for instance, the Greek idea that the gods fed on the essence of sacrifices, the smell in particular. There's reason behind this. The Greeks needed much of the animals they sacrificed for their own tables, and so they often burnt the bits they couldn't use in offering to the gods. But, to explain why the Greek gods were not offended by getting the useless bits of the animal instead of the best, the Greeks theorized that the physical form didn't matter. The gods fed off the essence, and the useless bits had the best essence. :-D The belief and practice spring from a logical basis, but create something that--out of context--feels very ritualized (that there are specific bits you offer to the gods).

Hmm, very interesting. Would that mean that, since they all get different aspects correct and different aspects incorrect, they all come out with slightly different results? It would be interesting to see a story in which two groups which feel they are completely different, find that working together actually completes their magical systems in some way.

Oh, I definitely want to talk about that! Clog the tubes!! :-D (And realize that my parts of this discussion will probably become another blog post at some point!) Technology, medicine and science slot into all sorts of places in our life that, in their absence and the presence of magic, could (and would) be filled by magic. Making our lives easier is largely what people do, and if they can't do it with technology, they'll do it with whatever else is laying about. Innovations which have, for us, come about because of technology could have come about because of magic. However, I think it's important that such things grow from the cultures themselves. So that they make their own innovations, rather than simply "copying" ours. (Although, that in itself could be an interesting premise.) There are a thousand different permutations of how a world can evolve, and I think that entrenching it all in the culture itself is the most logical way. Although, it can also help to throw a dash of the random--or seemingly random--in there at times, you know? Just to attempt to mimic chaos theory's effect on evolution. (Which is a pretty hilarious concept, really, but what can you do? :-D)
And it's not just technology. A culture which has magic may well build their religion around it, their philosophies of life, their economy, even their entire social structure. It depends on what their views of magic are, which I suppose is dependent upon the individual systems of magic that they use.
Mike said…
... the reader can start to feel like the author is just pulling it all out of their ass, and that they can make anything happen any time they want. Which can make a reader lose confidence in the author, and lose patience with the story.

I share the sentiment, but can't help suspecting that we're projecting our distaste onto readers. Look at LotR, for example: what can Gandalf do? Whatever the plot requires, and (crucially) no more. The same goes for most of the LotR imitators. And yet readers aren't exactly hurling these books away with snarls of disgust.

Hypothesis: stories about learning or understanding magic need a coherent and comprehensible system. Stories just featuring magic, as special effects or Macguffins or dei ex machina, don't.

Where I think my sensawunda concern comes into play is in stories where magic appears specifically as a counterpoint to the organized, the mechanistic, the predictable. Sensawunda is about pushing the audience's notions of what's possible, and it's hard to do that when everything is already on the table.

My 'supplanting' point was actually fairly simple: too many fantasy worlds are just rebadged historical settings with magic slapped on top. If magic is rare and/or unpredictable, you can get away with that. If it's common and systematic, you can't. If magicians can throw fireballs about, why would anyone bother training and paying conventional armies? If they can summon animals, how does livestock-rearing make economic sense? If they can place wards, would locks ever have been invented? And so on and so forth. There are certainly possible counterarguments to any of these examples; the fundamental point is that sufficiently well-understood magic is indistinguishable from technology, and should have similarly disruptive effects on cultures and economies with access to it.

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