Unique magic systems are a great way to hook readers. Plus, they’re so much fun to create. Whether magic has detailed rules or its source is a mystery, the way it impacts the world is fascinating to explore. Here are five of our favourite magic systems and their creators:
When it comes to magic systems, Brandon Sanderson knows what's what. In his Mistborn series, allomancy involves the "burning" of metals by ingesting them and using them to fuel various abilities. Iron allows you to pull on nearby sources, of metal, pewter will increase your strength and speed, zinc lets you feel others' emotions, and so on. The magic system is revealed to be more intricate as the series progresses, and allows for some really fascinating fight scenes.
The magic in Harry Potter is interesting because while there are many rules about how it works (waving wands, saying incantations, making potions, etc.), there's a lot of mystery surrounding it as well. Readers learn the rules of magic along with Harry, which is a brilliant method for introducing things slowly and not throwing in too much worldbuilding at once. We also love how magic causes more problems than it solves, because using magic to solve everything is boring. Plus, Rowling somehow made wands and pointy hats cool again—a feat we thought impossible.
Whether you consider it science fiction or space fantasy, the Force works as a magic system. Simply put, the Force is telekinesis, telepathy, and a dash of divination (plus lightsabers), but it's so much more complex than that due to the society built around it. The contradictory philosophies of the Jedi and the Sith are what make the Force so interesting, and its mystery is part of its intrigue no matter how often Lucas tries to explain it away with midichlorians.
Garth Nix created one of the most unique magic systems I've ever encountered. In a world covered by a veil of darkness, people called the "Chosen" wield light magic by using objects called Sunstones. Different colours of light are used to weave different types of spells, and the Chosen's society is also based on a hierarchy according to the colours of the rainbow. In addition, the Chosen swap their shadows for spirit shadow companions, bonded to them and forced to do their bidding. Most of them are arrogant enough to believe they are the only people living on the planet and their magic is the only magic. Little do they know...
Magic using the basic four elements—air, water, earth, and fire—is not a new idea, but Avatar adds some new twists, including the addition of martial art-type movements to accomplish spells. The really interesting part is how society has formed around these magical abilities. The societies built around water, a healing element, are small, tribal, and separated from the rest of the world; the air nomads are extinct; and the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom are at war. Avatar uses the aggressive potential of Fire, healing power of Water, defensive capabilities of Earth, and spiritual premise of Air to define the four major nations of the world and create a monstrous villain.
Some of these magic systems are accompanied by an intricate set of rules, while others rely more on mystery—we don’t always need to know how the magic works, just that it does. However, the most interesting aspects of these magic systems are not the powers themselves, but the way societies, beliefs, and history have formed around them. When you’re studying other magic systems for inspiration, consider the “What if?” questions the creators must have posed and how groups of people are affected by magic’s existence.
In a few weeks, we’ll talk more about how to build your own magic system. Until then, write on!