Why You Should Think About Your Magic System
If you’re a story gardener like me, planning your story from start to finish can be hard. You just want to plant the seeds and watch the story grow! The strict plans take the fun out of the writing! I get that! But if you’re going to plan anything in a fantasy story, make sure it’s your magic system.
Some of the best fantasy stories have amazing magic systems. They can be creative and fun and really help you to put your mark on the fantasy genre. I mean, look at Skulduggery Pleasant! The idea of there being power in your name is so unique and wonderful! Then there’s the fact that “the wand chooses the wizard” in Harry Potter. It starts out as such a small touch and then becomes a huge part of the final story.
It doesn’t matter whether you choose to make the magic hard or soft! If you put the thought and care into how magic works, it can really make your story shine.
Bad Magic Systems Break Stories
One of the worst things about a bad magic system is how it can mess with your story. In many ways, it is the same as most other parts of your story: plot, characterisation, setting, and so many other essential parts of your story. All of these things can really mess up your work if you don’t put enough thought into them!
The thing about magic is that it’s a lot worse, in my opinion. If you mess up your magic system, it is going to be a hell of a lot more noticeable than if a minor character does something a little odd. It underpins the whole of the story! So if you mess up too much, you’ll have people asking things like “why didn’t they just do this?”
You need to take the time to get a good grip on how magic works in your story. Your reader doesn’t need to know all of the details. Neither do your characters, for that matter! But you need to feed the reader with enough info so that you can show that your story world makes sense. Show them that they can trust you! Otherwise, your magic system will be broken and you’ll spend the whole of your story trying to put out fires.
If you take the time to think about how your magic system works, you will have equipped yourself with the tools to make sure that you can combat anything that comes your way.
One of the worst things about a bad magic system is the fact that it can introduce lots of plot holes. Let’s face it: magic is a very powerful thing! I don’t just mean in your story world, either! It acts on your characters in some unique and interesting ways. So, when it is too powerful, you can leave your reader thinking “why didn’t they just use their magic to solve all fo the problems?”
If you are serious about making sure that your magic system doesn’t break the whole plot, you need to spend time finding reasons why your characters don’t just use magic to solve everything. This means giving your magic system some limitations and costs that mean it isn’t just a catch-all way to solve every problem ever.
I will be writing a blog post on how to write good limitations for your magic systems very soon, so watch out for that!
Lots of magic systems in games have a magic gauge that goes down every time you use it. So, when you use up your magic, it will take time to recharge. Of course, that’s if it recharges at all!
Other stories treat magic like exercise: the more you do, the more you tire yourself out. So, you have to work out your magic like a muscle to be able to use it for long periods of time.
Then there’s a really simple solution in Aladdin. Three wishes. No bringing people back from the dead. No wishing for more wishes.
Once you’ve made it clear what your magic system can’t do, you can use this info to create tension and stop your readers from asking why magic doesn’t just solve everything.
Well, they might still ask, but they won’t be right!
Deus Ex Machina
This is very similar to the plot hole issue, but is much more about not taking the time to explain what your magic can do rather than what it can’t.
You see, when you don’t give the reader enough of an insight into how your magic system works, it can seem as though the magic just comes out of nowhere to solve all of the issues in the plot.
In other words, a bad magic system can become a Deus Ex Machina! Poorly developed magic can sometimes appear like a giant hand coming out of the sky and pushing the characters in the right direction. And as I mentioned in my post on the subject, Deus Ex Machina can completely kill immersion!
If you do magic well, you can use it to shock your reader in the right way. You give them hints that magic can be used in a certain way. That sets up the magic like Chekhov’s Gun. Then, when the pay-off comes and the magic is used in this new way, everything makes sense! It works well and everyone is happy.
Look at Game of Thrones! They spend a hell of a lot of time showing that Daenerys doesn’t feel heat and isn’t hurt by fire. She gets into hot baths. She doesn’t get burned by a hot egg. So, when she sets fire to the Khalar Vezhven and lives to tell the tale, it makes sense!
Imagine if we weren’t given the hint that she didn’t feel heat and fire before that? We’d be like “what?” We need to see the set-up or the magic will seem way too fake. It takes good planning to make sure that you hint at what magic can do before we get to that special scene.
One of the most important things about a good story is the stakes. Stakes make you care about what your character is going through. If they grow and struggle, we get invested in their story and want to see them succeed. If they don’t have to struggle at all, then what’s the point of the story in the first place? To stroke the author’s ego?
Remember that stories have to be a give and take. If you expect people to read what you’ve made, you have to make it worth their while. Stakes do just that. They help to give your story structure and, well, they are pretty much what the story is about.
The problem with a broken magic system, though, is that it completely ruins those stakes. The main character has to fight the big bad? Well, why does it matter if they can just wave their magic wand and fix all of their problems? Magic solved all of the plot issues. End of story. Close the book. Why should I read on?
And then when you don’t think about the fact that the magic is way too broken and try to make stakes out of nothing, it feels artificial. Why are we watching this character struggle to climb a mountain when they could literally just fly or teleport themselves to the top of it? You’re wasting our time!
Taking the time to think about and plan your magic system is the best way to stop this from happening. When you plan your magic, you can make sure that there are some costs, limitations and weaknesses that make the magic in your book feel real. Planning helps your magic system to make sense and be an important part of your story.
Making the Story Realistic
For most stories, exploring how magic works is like looking into the physics of your story world. If things don’t add up, the world can’t exist! Sure, your reader doesn’t need to know all the ins and outs. Your characters don’t need to know either! But if they aren’t there or they don’t make sense, people will start to question if they can trust the world you’ve made.
Sure, you might say that magic and fantasy aren’t realistic and so you shouldn’t worry too much. Lots of people tell me that all the time! But then what is it that separates a good magic system from a bad one? Why is it that some fantasy stories stand the test of time while others fall flat? I’ll tell you what it is: plot, characters, themes and magic system.
There is a fine line when it comes to creating your own magic world. On one hand, you might want to make a world that is very different from our own. On the other hand, it does need to be realistic.
So, you need to keep asking yourself “does the magic system make sense in the story?” Is it logical in the world you’ve made? If not, then what is the point? Why should anyone even bother reading your story?
Like with every other thing I’ve spoken about here, the best way to make sure that your magic system makes sense is to plan and test. Sit down and write down the main parts of your magic system.
Ask yourself questions. Let other people ask you questions. The more your magic system is tested for resilience, the better. Then, when it is faced with true strain in your story, it will always be something the readers can rely on.
Good Magic Systems Make the Plot Interesting
I spent a hell of a lot of time researching magic systems for this post. It is now going to be at least five different posts because there’s just so much to say! In all of the blog post and books I read, though, I can say that there is a running theme: they all say that a good magic system helps the story to be amazing.
It doesn’t matter whether you choose to have a soft or a hard magic system. There is a way for you to use your magic to build your story up and make it work so well. You chose to make a fantasy story for a reason, after all! If you want your world to involve magic, it is a good idea to make it a good part of the plot.
This may mean that the magic is used to create a sense of wonder and make the characters feel as though they are part of something much bigger than themselves, as Brandon Sanderson said about the magic in The Lord of the Rings. Or, as a tool that both the heroes and villains can use like in Skulduggery Pleasant.
Your magic system can be great if you give it the chance! That’s why you need to take some time to think about what magic means to you.
Set-Up and Pay-Off
I have talked a lot about set-up and pay-off in my Chekhov’s Gun post. It’s all about giving the reader the key information they need to get why things happen in the story. If you show that there is a gun in the back of the room, we get how a character pulled out a gun and shot the other person in the scene.
Plus, it makes it clear that all of the things you draw our attention to will matter in some way. If you spend a lot of time describing that gun in the room and it doesn’t ever become useful, you will be wasting time and words.
When it comes to magic systems, the same thing applies. All pay-offs need a set-up to feel real and satisfying. If your main character gets the power to fly out of nowhere and they use it to climb the top of the mountain, the reader will feel like they were cheated. You made them care about something you clearly don’t care about yourself! However, if you spend the time hinting that the character may be able to fly, it will make your readers excited when that comes true.
The same applies the other way around, too! If you hint that they might be able to fly by the end of the book and this doesn’t happen, your reader will wonder what the hell the point was.
If there is no set-up, then there is no pay-off. All you’re doing is showing a random thing that happened. Sure. However, using that to solve a huge problem will frustrate and anger your reader. You’ve made them invest in something that doesn’t get a fulfilling resolution!
Building on the idea of set-up and pay-off, you have extrapolation. This is when you let the readers use the information you give them to come to logical conclusions about how the magic might be used next.
For example, your air-using character loses every single battle they fight against a fire user. Up until now, they have only used their air power to push and pull things. However, your readers know that fire needs oxygen to burn. So, the air user starves the fire user’s flame of oxygen! While it’s a new way to use the power that the reader has never seen before, it makes sense with all of the info that they have been given!
The reader knows Fact A and Fact B. So, it makes a lot of sense for them to add those together to make Outcome C!
This makes you look smart. It makes those who figure out how the magic will work feel smart, too! Then, they will want to read more of what you write to see if they can use extrapolation to solve the next big plot problem.
Plus, it adds to the re-read value of the book: many people like to go back and read stories to try to see if they can find out where the big plot twist was foreshadowed before it happened. If your story does that, you’ll get that excited “ohhhh” when people realise that you’d planned for this outcome all along.
While you don’t have to use extrapolation in your story for it to be good, it might be something you want to think about. That’s what planning is for!
For more info on extrapolation in magic systems, check out this Mythcreants post.
Shocking the Reader
Once the reader knows the basic rules of how your magic system works, you can use what they’ve got to shock them.
You see, some “shocking” scenes fall flat. They don’t really shock the reader in the right way. They rely on the writer saying “Aha! You know nothing about the magic system! Now I can throw more stuff at you and there’s nothing you can do about it! Muahahaha!”
This is especially bad when it’s the main character who does it. As a writer, you lose all of the trust that you’ve spent a long time building up in the reader.
It is really said best in an Atsiko’s Chimney post:
“When the magic breaks a promise to the reader, such as that you can’t bring back the dead, it’s like cutting one of the ropes holding the bridge up over the chasm. If you cut enough of the ropes, even if there are still some there, the bridge comes loose and drops the reader into the chasm of broken trust.”From the Atsiko’s Chimney blog.
But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t shock the reader. Heavens, no! It just means you’re better off using foreshadowing, set-up and extrapolation to do it instead.
The good thing to do instead is to make sure that you don’t shock the reader out of nowhere. Use Brandon Sanderson’s Third Law to guide you: see if you can use the rules you have already created to create the shock factor you are looking for. Otherwise, you might up confusing things too much and your story might be too unreadable.
Good Magic Systems Make the World Feel Real
If you want readers to suspend their disbelief and buy into your story while they’re reading it, it is a good idea to make the magic feel real.
Don’t mistake this for the point I’ve already made. There is a huge difference between a magic system that feels real and a magic system that is realistic.
Sure, it is important to make a realistic story where the rules you’ve made make sense in the world you’ve created. However, it is just as important that the magic system doesn’t seem like it exists in a vacuum.
What do I mean by that? Well, it’s magic! If it exists in your world, it will affect the way that the world works and it will make things different from the real world. It’s the same as the invention of electricity or the internet: once people know it’s out there, it will change their lives – for better or for worse.
If you plan your magic system well, you’ll have control over how the magic affects the world you’ve created. Does everyone know about magic? Can everyone do magic? If everyone knows but only a few people can do it, then won’t that create a class divide of some sort? The magic users might see themselves as superior. Or, they might be worshipped as gods or feared. If none of those things are true, why not?
If there are mages who can magic up food at the drop of a hat, surely there will be no food shortages! And if you want there to be a food issue, you should think about how.
In my world, humans fear faeries. They imprison and enslave them for their magic. How will magic change your world?
Magic Systems Can Reflect Story Themes
The use of themes is the thing that separates a good writer from a great one, in my opinion.
Every story has themes! Not just the ones you read in your Eng Lit class at school. It’s all about whether you choose to take control of yours and use them with purpose or allow them to poop all over your work.
What does this have to do with magic systems? Well, everything! It is up to you to make sure that your magic system and the themes you want to show off in your writing are consistent.
Let me give you an example. You decide that free will is a big theme in your work. Great! If you decide to say that all of your wizards have free will and their choices matter, that might not work if you make a magic system where magic controls them, and they don’t get a say!
If death is a huge theme in your story, you might want to experiment with necromancer magic! A story with happiness as a theme might want to play around with magic that controls people’s emotions, or that make you feel different emotions once you use it!
These are very simplistic examples, but I’m sure you get the point!
Other than that, it is important that you have fun with your magic system! And it’s just as important that your reader does, too! Take time to plan and think about your magic so it doesn’t frustrate and write you into a plot wall that you can’t get out of.
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Ooh, thanks for this post! It was really helpful. I find going into stories with a magic system without a plan always seems to backfire because you can inadvertently create a plot hole without noticing as well, so I’m glad you brought it up. It really takes from the immersion, which things like the foreshadowing (which always I feel is necessary for any shocking moment because it not only makes sense but feels a lot more gratifying for those who theorized it would happen) and other things you’ve mentioned had worked to build up. Overall this is really, really helpful and I’m surprised there aren’t more people commenting on that (unless there are and I’m being blind 👀)
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I love the comment on how magic can reflect the theme! It can really show your theme throughout the whole story that way. I hate it so much when magic systems create major plot holes or otherwise detract from the narrative. Magic systems are so often weirdly executed and unbelievable, it’s really important to think about how the system works. I’ve found this to be even worse in societies with technology, because the two should have to interact somehow, especially if there’s very little or no cost to magic.
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