Writing Magic in Fantasy books

Fantasy worlds are defined by different races, history, conflicts and events, characters that move our stories forward, but also, magic. Magic is one of the things that separates your world from a regular medieval setting. It defines and shapes what you've created, and it also allows your characters, your mages, wizards, warriors, regular citizens, to interact with the surroundings in a unique and interesting way.

Nenad Vučković

Fantasy worlds are defined by different races, history, conflicts and events, characters that move our stories forward, but also, magic. Magic is one of the things that separates your world from a regular medieval setting. It defines and shapes what you've created, and it also allows your characters, your mages, wizards, warriors, regular citizens, to interact with the surroundings in a unique and interesting way. 

We can say: "A good fantasy world always has a good magic system."
This statement is true because that magic was present from the beginning in your world and shaped it in a different way than our history shaped us into humans of today.

But what is a 'magic system'? Does my fantasy world really need magic? Do readers really care if my magic system is unique? And how do I implement a good magic system in my book? 

The goal of this blog is to help fellow writers answer these questions. So let us begin with the first question. 

What is a "magic system"?

A lot of people have read 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Harry Potter', two books which have different settings, but also different magic systems. One book has Gandalf, a mighty wizard who is prohibited from using his true power, yet wields a staff and throws fireballs like it's nothing. The other has Dumbledore, a wizard with a wand who usually casts his spells by saying some magical words and swinging his wand. 

Despite the information provided about these two wizards, we have yet to answer one important question about their power: where does their magic come from? 

In those two settings, magic is a variable, an unknown entity, a thing only selected few can use. And we as readers are never sure what spells those characters can cast. And this is a magic system we like to call a light magic system. More on this later. 

Let us now talk more about recent examples. Two series are very popular with the youth and a bit older readers like myself: 'Mistborn' and 'The Kingkillers Chronicle'. In the first series, Vin is the main character who has a certain set of powers depending on the liquid she has to drink. Her powers come from a known source, explained later in the book, and that magic has a set number of rules that it needs to follow. If our main character drinks "steel", she has the power to push metal, but she can't perform any other type of magic while "steel" is being burnt in her body. As stated, her magic follows already established rules. Unlike Gandalf, the reader is always aware of the power Vin possesses, and we always know what she is capable of. 

The second character from 'The Name of the Wind', Kvothe, has the ability to manipulate his surroundings using his mind. Patrick Rothfuss explained how his character needs to split his mind into two parts, one control one object and the other the second object, and so the energy is being transferred between those two objects, using nothing but Kvothe's mind. So the main rule behind this magic is that: "Energy can only be transferred, not created from nothing." And later in the book, we also find a history behind some of the magic. (Important to notice here is that I was not talking about 'name' magic in this part, only the 'Sympathy' magic, because 'name' magic is a light magic system.)

Now we talked about two complex systems, with rules and history we are aware of. The characters in these two books always have the same power and the reader knows what they are capable of doing. This type of magic system is known as a hard magic system. More on this later too. 

So in the end, we have established that different books have different types of magic systems. Some follow rules and are of the known or unknown origin, and others follow vague and unidentified rules. 

In the end, we can define a magic system as: rules, limitations, and conditions magic needs to follow in order to work. 


Does my fantasy world really need magic?

The short answer is: "No." 

But let us see why we would like to have a magic system, and why not. 

The world is only a part of three major pillars every story needs. Those three pillars being: 

1. Settings
2. Characters
3. Plot

and a thing that connects them all: Conflict. 

The world and the magic fall into the settings department... Or does it? 

Magic can also be a part of your character. Or magic is something we can implement into a plot. Or maybe magic is a cause of the great disaster which forced our characters to act, and thus magic is a part of the conflict. 

Yet, many books (especially non-fantasy) have amazing storylines without any magic. 

What has already been stated in the beginning, a fantasy world is not defined just by magic. It is defined by the environment, characters, races, history, etc. and magic does not even have to be a part of it. 

You can tell a story about a brave knight who fought and killed a dragon, without involving any magic at all. People will be hooked to your book just knowing that there are different beings there. 

A story about a Hobbit is an old but popular one, despite there being only one magic in it; the magic of the Ring. And yet, we have phones that can tell you the weather all around the world, so a magical ring does not really appear that "magical" now, does it?

Everything depends on the type of story your want to write. 

So... how does having magic in your world help you if you can write a story without it? 

The magic, if done right, can make your world more unique, make your characters more memorable, and your plot more mystical. It can give a reader a sense of something alien and yet to be explored.

The proof of this is, wait for it, kids. I know, I know, I have some explaining to do. 

Let us look at some popular characters in today's medium. Kids like to play spiderman, superman, doctor Strange, Harry Potter, Gandalf-- because these characters have unique magic associated with them. 

Just like kids, readers of fantasy stories are also there to experience different magic, to be kids again and imagine in their heads different characters who can perform different feats based on their unique abilities.

We like to read about places burned by the Magma Gods, vast planes protected by the Magical Mother Nature, rocky mountains and caves built by the magic of the Earth gods. It is always fascinating what writers can come up with when their mind is free. And even non-fantasy books hold magic that charms us and makes us read on. 

That is magic in the real world.


Do readers really care about magic being unique?

For this question, I will step away from literature and talk about a tabletop game everyone knows and likes (well, maybe not everyone): Dungeons and Dragons, or for short, DnD.

This game has a fantasy setting and a magic system. There are rules for different classes, or playable characters, which is why this game is considered a fantasy game, and not simply a historical simulation. 

Many have played a bit of DnD, some a lot. Despite the magic always being the same, people continue to play it. The simple reason being: it is important how you use magic to interact with the world. 

I will use the spell "fireball" as an example. A simple player may use fireball to hurt their enemies, but a more experienced player knows that fire can make the water boil, burn wood to warm themselves, etc. 

And so the rule applies in books too. A writer can come up with the magic so unique and awesome, but if their characters use it in a boring way, the reads will feel that the said magic is boring. It is all about how that magic is displayed in your world and how you present it to your readers. 

Simple magic can be unique and complex magic can be boring, so let your imagination loose and allow yourself to create fun and entertaining scenes for your readers, and let that fireball spell be used for more than just a means to hurt someone. 


How do I implement a good magic system in my book?

This question more refers to whether a light magic system is more for your book, or if a hard magic system floats your boat better, and when and how to implement them. In this section, I will go into detail about how these two systems work so that you may have an easier time picking a type more suited for your story.

Light magic system

A light magic system (LMS for short) is a system that is all about the vagueness and the unknown. If you want your magic to be surrounded by mystery, where a reader can wonder about how it works, then choose LMS. This system is all about capturing your readers in that enigma, but this is also a system you use if you don't want to put too much emphasis on your magic, or simply said, if magic in your book is not the main focus or the means to an end. When you write about LMS, make sure you never truly explain it or its true potential. It should be magic that seems like it can do little, but with practice or knowledge, you can move a mountain with it. Battles in LMS are not about outsmarting your enemy, but rather casting a stronger or better spell than your opponent.

A classic example where magic is not in focus is, again, Gandalf.

Do we know the full extend of Gandalf's power? Not really. He keeps surprising us every time and in every scene. We see him form a magical shield, throw a fireball, use telekinesis, and so much more. 

This is the epitome of LMS. The fact that our character has unknown powers and that magic in this system can do anything.

Another classic example is when The Fellowship of the Ring enters the Mines of Moria and Gandalf just created light with his staff.

So our character can use whatever magic they want, and situations are simplified because we can say his magic works like deus ex machina? That doesn't seem like a fun magic system. Readers might feel cheated when a big battle occurs and a wizard solves it with a spell we've never seen before. 

The solution to this problem is Harry Potter, in whose world magic is in focus. The magic in his universe can also do anything, but J.K. Rowling did something very smart, making that "readers will feel cheated" statement reduced to dust. 

Yes, magic is all-powerful, but we followed Harry Potter on his journey and we know what spells he learned and has at his disposal.

This is an amazing strategy of keeping your readers always aware of what your characters can do, and what he is capable of doing. 

And the final point which can be made on LMS is: nowadays, more and more writers tend to avoid it. This does not mean that you should not write it, it just means that some people think we have stepped away from unknown magic. This all goes with human psychology: most things today are known to us, so why should magic be any different. 

We explored the world using math, physics, biology, chemistry, and so on. And we tend to be attracted more by something that is known rather than something unknown. Do not let this discourage you. If mysterious magic is something that will benefit your world or characters more, then definitely go for it.

Hard magic system

The polar opposite of LMS is a hard magic system (HMS for short). The magic here is governed by rules it always has to follow. No exceptions. Your job as a writer is to familiarize your reader with the capabilities of your magic so that they know at any time what it is capable of. There is no mystery surrounding this magic, or some hidden capabilities, but rather only a person's imagination on how to use it. Battles with this kind of magic are mind battles, ones where characters are trying to outsmart each other, rather than just throwing a stronger spell. 

So let us first give some examples here, as in LMS. I will go with the book 'The way of Kings' and elaborate on how magic was explained in one of the first chapters. 

A character is sent to a palace to do a job. There is something called a "stormlight", and once our character absorbs this, he can perform magic. One of the things he can create is a sword made out of the mist, and another thing he can perform is changing the direction of gravity. He can make a ceiling his new floor and be attracted by it, the same way the Earth pulls us down. 

From this point onward, we know that whenever such a character absorbs this "stormlight", they can use these skills. 

Another example would be Vin from the 'Mistborn'. As stated, when she is burning steel, she can push any metal. So her magic allows her to take a metal coin and push it, making it fly like an arrow. But what if the object is heavier than her? Then she is being pushed back because it's heavier. Something more interesting, what if the object is right under her, and she cannot push it down anymore? Then she is being pushed back, or in this case, up, and to some, she might even be able to fly, if she constantly keeps pushing with her magic against that metal.

So yes, HMS is bound by rules, but those rules are what makes that magic fun. So many times I was impressed by how writers tend to make their rather limited magic appear even more, well, magical than the magic with no rules appear to be.

So, if you are looking for complex magic which always follows the set number of rules, and which we know how is used at any point in time, then HMS is what you want to have in your book. 

Conclusion

Magic systems are extremely fun to think and write about and something you need to make sure does not have any structure holes, or that is always consistent. Though, unless your main conflict includes them, try not to spend too much time thinking about them.

In the end, I would also like to leave you with two video links that go into more details about light and hard magic systems.

1. HMS

2. LMS

Hopefully this topic was interesting to read and helps you implement a magical system in your book that will shine and stay with your readers for a long time.  ​

Thank you for reading.

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