How to Build Your Novel’s Magic System

If you have specific rules for how magic works in your world, you can do some pretty fun things with it. A couple weeks ago, I analyzed 5 unique magic systems and why they’re interesting. Today, I’m giving some suggestions on how to build your own!

Ask Questions About Your World’s Magic

  • How do characters gain magical abilities? Are they born with them? Do they receive abilities through worshiping a deity? Can they learn them through study or science?
  • What is the source of magic? Is it an all-surrounding energy, like the Force in Star Wars? Does it come from certain elements, like in Avatar: The Last Airbender or metals in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series? Is it based on music, colour, nature, light, time, space, or something abstract? Is it a mystery?
  • What are the limitations and costs of magic?
  • What is magic primarily used for?
  • What are magic users called? Wizards? Mages? Elementalists? Something unique to your story?
  • How are spells cast? Is a wand, staff, book, or other object required? Do they need incantations, hand, or body motions? Do different types of magic users cast spells differently?
  • How does magic affect societies and cultures in the world? Are magic users respected or not? Are they involved in politics or leadership? Are they outcasts? Do people know they exist?
  • Are there magical groups or a hierarchy of magic wielders in the world?
  • How has magic impacted the history of the world?

Study Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic

Sanderson’s magic systems are renowned for their intricacy. He’s an author who knows what’s what, where magic is concerned, so studying his advice is worthwhile!

Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Sanderson writes about soft magic, where the rules of magic aren’t very clear. Think J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, where magic is a mystery and is very seldom used to solve problems. He then compares this to hard magic, where the rules of magic are explicitly stated. Think superhero powers or his Mistborn series. When readers understand how magic works, magic can be used to solve problems because it’s a tool that the characters can figure out how to utilize in a variety of ways. Then there are systems somewhere in between, like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where there are some laws and rules but readers don’t completely understand how magic works.

To decide where you want your magic system to exist on this scale, figure out what is the most fun for you to write. Do you like knowing every nuance about how magic works, or do you prefer a bit of mystery?

Sanderson’s Second Law: Limitations > Powers.

To put it simply, solving ALL THE PROBLEMS with magic is boring. This is mostly why I find Superman an uninteresting character—because he has many abilities that make him near-invincible. Sanderson posits that Superman’s weaknesses, his code of ethics and sensitivity to kryptonite, are what make him interesting.

When you grant your characters magical abilities, make sure they have limitations and weaknesses as well. It is often the cost of magic that makes it more interesting, rather than the super amazing abilities it grants your characters. It is the weaknesses and limitations of your characters and how they overcome them that make them heroic, not the powers.

For example, Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender has many challenges to overcome in the series even though he’s the Avatar and able to use all four elements, unlike any other magic-user. His weaknesses include the fact that he’s a child, his moral code, and his difficulty learning earthbending because it’s the opposite of airbending.

Sanderson’s Third Law: Expand what you already have before you add something new.

Simply put: don’t load on the worldbuilding too soon, and consider what Sanderson refers to as “deep” worldbuilding instead of “wide” worldbuilding.

Often, the more interesting facts about magic are how it affects societies and the world as a whole. In Garth Nix’s The Seventh Tower series, the world is covered in a veil that has enshrouded it in complete darkness. This has made Sunstone magic invaluable and created classes within society where the “Chosen,” who use magic, are elevated and the “Underfolk,” who do not, are servants.

Expanding on how your magic affects the universe and interconnecting its powers so there are common themes can help you streamline your magic system.

Consider the Effects of the Cost

The more specific you can be about the rules, the more possibilities open up for the story. For example, say the cost of magic is blood. That could mean:

  1. A mage pricks her finger to cast a small spell, but makes deeper cuts for bigger ones. Thus, the more scars a mage has, the more powerful they are perceived to be.
  2. A mage sacrifices an animal to cast a spell, and many decorate themselves with pieces of the animals they’ve killed (teeth necklaces, cloaks made of hide, etc.).
  3. A mage cuts someone else to cast a spell, making the slave trade a big thing in magical societies because mages need living bodies to mutilate.
  4. A mage kills someone else to cast a spell, causing them to be incredibly feared and distrusted.

The possibilities are vast, but the more specific you are, the more you can play with how magic affects your world’s culture. Now, go forth and make magic!

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