If you are new to reading fantasy, this question has most likely come across your mind at some point in time. Magic systems are fundamental to fantasy narratives. They can make or break a story depending on the quality of its originality and creativity.
In this article, we will be exploring what a magic system is as well as some of the more prominent examples of magic systems in fantasy.
A magic system is a set of laws that govern how supernatural powers are utilized and created within a fantasy novel. The majority of fantasy novels base their world around a distinct magic system. It is a common distinguishing factor that separates a fictional narrative from other fictional works.
The concept of the magic system is a complicated subject to grasp at first. There is an endless amount of routes an author can take when it comes to designing a magic system.
Below, we will be exploring the characteristic elements of what defines a magic system along with several concrete magic system examples.
Definition of Magic
In order to thoroughly comprehend the ins and outs of magic systems, we have to get some definitions out of the way. The first of which being magic itself.
In this article we will be using the following definition of magic:
“Magic is defined as the capability to directly shape the outcome of situations via supernatural means.”
If you believe this definition is ambiguous, you are right. Magic is meant to lack specificity. This provides writers and readers with the freedom to shed their own creative spin on the meaning of magic.
It is rare that a novel is able to grant such creative freedom regarding such a massive literary feature. Writers and readers are drawn to this artistic flexibility, which is why magic systems continue to trend in popularity today.
Definition of Magic System
Now that we have explicitly defined what magic is, it is time to turn our attention to defining the overarching concept of this article: magic systems. We will be applying the same definition to a magic system that was introduced earlier in the article:
“A magic system is a set of laws that govern how supernatural powers are utilized and created within a fantasy novel.”
Again, the definition of a magic system is broad. It encompasses a vast umbrella of potential topics that can fit under the label of a magic system.
There is an immense spectrum of subjects that can be categorized under magic systems. Even with this extensive range of topics, there are a few staple characteristics that typically characterize magic systems.
Characteristic Elements of Magic System
The subsequent elements are considered to be the distinguishing features that solidify a magic system. The following list does not encompass all of the characteristics of magic systems. This list only acknowledges the most common aspects of magic systems.
Explicit Purpose of Supernatural Forces
The first order of business for authors looking to incorporate a magic system into their work is to identify the explicit purpose of magic in the story.
Certain novels do not require a magic system. If a writer cannot find a definitive purpose for integrating a magic system into their narrative, the magic system should not be included in the work.
As aforementioned, magic systems have the power to make or break a novel. Readers are smart. They are able to sniff out magic systems that add no value to the story. A reader is much more likely to reject a novel if they find that the author is just writing in “fluff.”
Thus, the purpose of the magic system is repeatedly the very first element that the author addresses in their story.
This clears up any potential confusion that could occur down the line and validates the inclusion of a magic system into the fictional narrative.
Definitive Mechanism of Wielding Magical Power
Once the purpose is explicitly addressed and out of the way, the author typically shifts their efforts toward defining a precise mechanism of wielding magical power.
This is where writers can really take showcase their creative ingenuity. The manner in which magical power is utilized and created can take on any number of forms.
Mental telepathy, materialization of tangible substance, and physical shapeshifting are just a few examples of routes writers have taken to describe the process of supernatural power.
It is standard for novelists to provide a precise description of how this process works. That being said, novelists also leave a portion of their magic system up to ambiguity.
This hints at the fact that there may be magical arts that go beyond what the reader has been physically exposed to. Keeping certain sections of the magic system up for interpretation leaves the door open for creative magical possibilities in the future.
Finding the middle ground between concrete magical details and supernatural articles of ambiguity is an art in itself. The most renowned fiction novelists have a knack for finding and retaining this happy medium in their work.
In short, the inclusion of an explicit description of how the magic system works provides the foundation for how the magic system will interact with the structure of the story.
Legends Behind the Origin of Magic
It is standard for fictional authors to include historical excerpts that explain the origins of the magic system itself.
These historical descriptions can be specific or vague or somewhere in the middle. It is up to the discretion of the writer and what kind of image they want to paint for the reader.
Outlining the explicit origins of a magic system in a clear and concise manner is a tall task.
It requires much thinking and planning to create an accurate timeline of events that fits into the narrative cleanly. An author must also take into account the possible elements of foreshadowing that these historical allusions provoke.
Every little historical detail must be premeditated and calculated to suit some purpose. Otherwise, the historical references will take away from the essence of the novel rather than add to it.
A clear, specific history typically quells many questions that the reader may have. This pleasure and satisfaction carries over into other aspects of the fictional narrative, which pulls the reader deeper into the story.
Describing magical origins that are more vague in nature is no walk in the park either.
Ambiguous historical records leave the door open to interpretation. It leads the reader to assume things that may or may not be true.
For this reason, the author must take extreme care in ensuring that they are conveying the exact message they wish to communicate. Since the author chooses not to utilize concrete details and events, it is more likely for the reader to misconstrue the meaning of what the author is trying to say.
Ambiguous origins also create an atmosphere of mystery. Time and time again, this draws the curiosity of the reader. The lack of specifics evoke readers into concocting all sorts of elaborate plots and conspiracies that would explain the history behind the magic system.
This provocation of thought gets the reader thinking about the story even more. Books always benefit when readers interact with the story.
Specific Restrictions that Hold Magical Users Back
There are almost always specific restrictions in place that hold magical users back.
Authors include these restrictions on purpose. Magical restrictions check the power of those who possess supernatural capabilities. Without these restrictions in place, these same magicians would being running rampant throughout the fictional universe with nothing to stop them.
Invincibility means no conflict. And no conflict means no story for the readers. Thus, magical users cannot do everything under the sun.
What are some examples of these restrictions you may ask?
One of the most common magical restrictions is that magical users must draw their power from a specific source.
This source varies from novel to novel. The source could be external, such as the environment, or the source could be internal, such as the strength of their will.
Another typical magical restriction is a lack of knowledge.
To access the full extent of their supernatural capabilities, magical users must first learn how to hone in on these skills. It is often difficult for magical users to find an experienced mentor or a valid academic resource that will help them expand their spellbinding repertoire.
Potential Pitfalls of Magic
Magic is not all sunshine and rainbows. It comes at a cost.
Magical users that take things too far learn this lesson the hard way. It is seen in almost every fictional novel that encompasses a magic system.
The story usually goes something like this…
An ambitious young character is looking to prove themselves worthy and capable. As a result, they pursue some grand feat that will showcase their power. They allow their ego to get the best of them, causing them to overextend themselves and unintentionally inflict self harm.
This signature characteristic of magic systems adds an element of danger to the equation. It demonstrates that magic resembles real life in that everything has consequences, good and bad.
This subtle connection to reality allows readers to better relate to magic systems on a genuine level.
Distinct Magical Users
It is an absolute must for writers to address who the magical users are in their fictional universe.
If a reader is kept in the dark about the precise nature of the magical users, it will be challenging for them to holistically embrace the magic system.
Information is typically provided on how rare magical users are as well as the manner in which they acquire their supernatural powers.
Are the magical users born with their powers? Is there some sort of genetic inheritance that stimulates these powers? These are the sorts of questions that an author must specifically answer to clear up any potential confusion.
This is not to say that magical users must conform to some strict persona where no individuality exists. Magical users can be just as dynamic and individualized as characters without any supernatural power.
Magical users still retain the same basic human feelings and emotions that is seen with any other fictional character. What must be expressly considered is the effect that magic can have on the magical user.
In certain novels, magic is strongly tied with the mental psyche. This has the power to strengthen or deteriorate the mind of the magical user. As you can probably guess, magic serves as a strong characterization tool in these types of magic systems.
This is why so much attention is aimed toward explicitly detailing what makes a magic user different from the normal, average character.
Societal Perceptions of Magic
Establishing the precedent of magical users early also presents valuable insight into the workings of the fictional society and culture.
For instance, it provides information on whether magical use is a societal norm or a violation of the cultural code.
How the magical users are treated typically reflects the attitude society holds toward magic.
If these supernatural individuals are beaten and imprisoned for their magical capabilities, you can bet that the general public hates magic. In societies where the magical users are worshipped as divine entities, this is probably not the case.
Societal perceptions of magic have major plot implications that are frequently overlooked.
These societal perceptions influence potential conflict down the road for supernatural protagonists.
Protagonists that have the loyalty of the general public at their backs will have a much greater outlook on their journey than protagonists who are not so fortunate. Societal resources can be a major aid or an extreme hindrance in the journey of the main characters.
These plot implications have forced fictional authors to at least acknowledge the societal perceptions of magic in their writing.
Hard versus Soft Magic Systems
To further describe magic systems, fantasy fanatics have begun categorizing magic systems into hard and soft magic systems. This distinction is helpful in further specifying the exact makings of individual magic systems.
Where did this classification system come from?
Brandon Sanderson made this classification system widely popular in the fantasy community. His work with the Wheel of Time series brought attention to this method of categorization, which fantasy authors later adopted into their own writing.
Hard Magic System
What is a hard magic system?
A hard magic system has a set of strict established laws that regulate how magic is used and produced in the fictional universe.
The backbone of a hard magic system is consistency. The supernatural powers of a hard magic system are not intrinsically volatile. Hard magic follows concrete statutes that leave no room for ambiguity.
Thus, hard magic systems are rather predictable. These kinds of magic systems have a sense of rationality to them which makes them appear more believable to the reader.
Any and all blunders that occur with hard magic systems are a direct result of the mistakes of the magical user, not the unstable nature of the magic itself.
Soft Magic System
What is a soft magic system?
A soft magic system lacks a precise set of guidelines that regulate magical use and creation in the fictional world.
Hard magic systems are specific. Soft magic systems lie on the more ambiguous end of the spectrum.
Soft magic systems encompass the wondrous, thought-provoking side of magic. Often times in this type of a magic system, not even the characters are aware of the true extent of supernatural power that exists in the world.
The dangers of this type of magic are often unknown. The threat of crisis always haunts both the magical user and the reader whenever drastic supernatural measures are required. You never know what hidden perils lie within soft magic systems.
The mystery behind soft magic systems creates an aura of unpredictability around the supernatural. It is often impossible for the reader to predict what sort of potential magic will manifest itself as the story goes along.
Hybrid Magic System
Pure hard and soft magic systems are a rarity in literature.
An author typically includes at least a couple definitive guidelines for the magic system. This provides the reader with a path of logic to follow.
In addition to these definitive guidelines, an author typically leaves some of the magic system up for interpretation. This allows the author a bit of room for creative freedom that will prove useful in the latter portions of the novel.
More often than not, the magic system in question is comprised of both hard and soft magical elements. Thus, it is more useful to think of magic systems on a sliding scale rather than classifying magic systems as purely one or the other.
So what is the main difference between a hard magic system and a soft magic system?
A hard magic system adheres to an established set of concrete rules. A soft magic system has a more abstract nature, lacking a definitive set of rules that governs every magical application in the fictional universe.
Examples of Magic Systems in Action
Here are a couple of novels that showcase some of the most prolific magic systems in fiction.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
This fantasy work encompasses multiple branches of magic into its magic system. These magical disciplines include naming, alchemy, sygaldry and sympathy.
It is certainly one of the more sophisticated magic systems that I have come across, but it is presented in an easily understood manner.
The foremost of the magical disciplines is naming. The premise behind naming is that the true name of an element of nature holds unbridled power.
When an individual speaks this true name aloud, they hold unconditional control over the environmental element for a short period of time. It is extremely challenging to learn these true names, however, it is possible.
For example, speaking the true name of the wind will allow a magical user to loft safely onto the ground after tumbling from an immense height. The wind swirls around the supernatural individual, slowing the fall.
*If you are interested in reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, check out my book review here!
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
The magic system described in Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb is renowned for its originality.
The magic system of this novel even has a specific label deemed “The Wit.” Those who possess “The Wit” have the power to communicate telepathically with animals.
This telepathic connection ventures beyond just the mere social sphere. Both the human and the animal share the thoughts and feelings of the other. In addition, they experience the same senses that their counterpart experiences.
The human-to-animal connection essentially makes one mind of two completely separate creatures.
This metaphysical link is a staple of this fantasy work and is one of the major reasons that this book has been propelled into stardom.
*If you are interested in reading Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, check out my book review here!
Why are Magic Systems Considered Fundamental to the Fantasy Genre?
All fantasy novels incorporate supernatural elements.
Magic systems are the means of presenting these supernatural elements to the reader in a way that they can easily understand.
Without the organization and structure of magic systems, the supernatural additions would appear to be written in a haphazard fashion.
The magical features would lack substance. No plausibility or reason would support the supernatural occurrences in the narrative if magic systems were excluded.
The definitive template of a magic system makes fantasy a reality.
What I mean by this is that supernatural events are made more believable when magic follows a logical progression. Magic systems illuminate the murky areas where a reader would likely get lost. They address the big questions that the readers are asking themselves.
In summary, the ease with which an individual is able to immerse themself into the supernatural elements is largely due to a definitive magic system. Without it, the overall comprehension of fantasy narratives would suffer terribly.
Are Magic Systems Exclusive to the Fantasy Genre?
Contrary to popular opinion, magic systems are not exclusive to the fantasy genre.
Magic systems are commonly associated with the fantasy genre. As aforementioned, fantastical magic sets the foundation for any good fantasy story.
What you may not know is that magic systems are also present in other fictional genres as well. Different sorts of magic systems are present in science fiction and horror for example.
These magic systems may not encompass the elaborate magical powers you are used to. Other literary genres do not typically build the plot around a magic system like fantasy genre does. The magical elements are more subtle.
Nonetheless, magic systems that are considered simple and subtle still qualify as magic systems.
Are Magic Systems Really Necessary?
The concept of the magic system is a fundamental aspect of the fantasy genre. Fantasy plot structures are meant to be based around magic systems since the supernatural is interwoven into the fabric of the fictional world.
Thus, magic systems are necessary to the fantasy genre.
The same cannot be said of other reading genres however. Although science fiction and horror do occasionally accommodate a magic system here or there, it is not the norm.
In other reading genres, magic systems are considered more of a supplementary feature than the a centerpiece to the novel. They are typically meant to add flair and glamour rather than serve as the main attraction to readers.
In summary, the only reading genre that must at least acknowledge the presence of a magic system is fantasy.
What are Some Magic System Cliches?
There are bound to be some cliches that go along with a literary aspect as big as magic systems. Here are some of the biggest magic system cliches I have identified in my own reading. To access my full article on magic system cliches, click on this link!
Lost Ancient History Behind Magical Arts
It is common for magic systems to have a foggy history.
Refusing to unveil the hidden secrets of magic up front creates intrigue. At the end of the day, intrigue is what keeps the reader around.
Thus, writers repetitively conceal at least a couple of magical nuances from the reader.
The ancient legends behind the origins of magic also serve as a stumbling block for protagonists.
It is burdensome for protagonists to grow and develop if they lack the resources to do so. Without access to reliable magical knowledge, protagonists are stuck in no-man’s-land.
For this reason, supernatural protagonists are desperate to get their hands on any vital magical tools they can. The magical unknown serves to push the main characters out of their comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory.
Verbal Spells and Incantations
Audible spells and incantations are another major cliche with magic systems.
The use of verbal triggers, such as spells and incantations, lets the reader know that magic is about to happen. This is especially helpful during scenes where there is a lot going on, such as combat scenes.
It is much more challenging for a reader to follow the sequence of magical events if there are not any of these audible magical prompts present. Thus, an abundance of fantasy novels have adopted this feature into the magic system.
Not to mention that these creatively worded spells tend to stick with the reader. To this day, I still remember Harry Potter repeating the spell “expecto patronum!”
Inherent Instability of Supernatural Powers
Magical powers are routinely flawed and unstable in fictional stories.
This inherent instability of supernatural powers is purposefully depicted to illustrate that the magic system is imperfect. These shortcomings reveal that the magic system is flawed just like everything else in the universe.
These weaknesses of the magic system make it appear more sensible. These foibles hold back magical users from wreaking absolute havoc upon the physical world and everyone around them.
If there were no inherent instability to the magic system, magical users would be unstoppable. There would be no conflict to speak of. Only endless bloodshed.
How Should I Go About Creating a Magic System?
If you are just venturing into fictional writing, going about creating a magic system can be overwhelming. It is tough to even know where to start. Below is a general run down of how you should go about creating a magic system from scratch.
Before we delve into these tips, however, I just want to stress how important it is that you seek a secondary opinion on the draft of your novel, whether it pertains to your magic system or not. If you’re looking for a professional editing service to analyze your fantasy novel, check out the Scribendi website. Their editors specialize in critiquing, proofreading, and editing book manuscripts, so they’re perfectly suited to the job of making your novel fit for publication.
Read About Other Magic Systems to Draw Inspiration
Exposing yourself to other successful magic systems is never a bad idea.
Reading classic fictional works that base their stories around magic systems may provide the creative spark that you need. It can be burdensome to craft an innovative idea from the ground up.
Take after works like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and branch out from there.
This way, your magic system can be a blend of successfully proven magical concepts and experimental ideas on the supernatural. A compromise of this nature tends to appeal to the reader more often than not.
Address Each Signature Element of Your Magic System
All of the characteristic features of magic systems that I listed in the “Characteristic Elements of Magic System” section should be acknowledged in your magic system, starting with its explicit purpose.
Determining the explicit purpose of your magic system is priority number one. It lets you know if it is necessary for you to incorporate a magic system. If the magic system serves no fundamental purpose, it is not needed.
Following this, go down the line and specifically address how the magical users wield power, how magic originated in the first place, what restrictions are in place to check magical power, etc.
Accomplishing this will require some creativity on your part, which brings me to my next point.
Take Into Account Magical Cliches
Often times when new fictional authors lack creativity, they turn to cliches as the answer to their writing problems. This applies to the literary aspect of magic systems as well.
This is not to say that all magical cliches are bad. Magical cliches are cliches for a reason. These notions have been proven to be successful in the past which is why contemporary writers have adopted these mystical approaches into their own work.
It becomes a problem when there are no original ideas at work.
Readers are able to see through a lack of originality now more than ever. Thus, you must make an effort to keeping the magical cliches to a minimum. Your own original magical concepts should take precedence over previously thought of ideas.