"This is an Emergency Test of Your Magic System" by Josh Vogt - An image from MISTBORN: BIRTHRIGHT
Creating a new magic system isn’t all that hard. Do I hear a few dissenters in the audience? For the sake of the next exercise, let’s assume I do. Time to play a quick round of Magic Mad-libs!

Fill in the blanks:
“In a(n) adjective world populated by noun, practitioners known as made-up-word can call upon energy source to fuel a form of noun magic.”

What’d you come up with? In a forested world populated by squirrels, practitioners known as fuzzummoners can call upon mystical oak trees to fuel a form of acorn magic? Me too! Weird.

Once a basic concept is pinned down, it’s still not difficult to flesh out the system. There are so many types of magic systems swarming the shelves these days, they’ve started to lump into familiar categories. Here are a few common approaches:

  • Beakers full of fairy dust – This is magic as science. The fuzzummoners exist within a universe that has an extra level or two of physics, with established rules that govern their acorn spell-casting. (Think pretty much any book by Brandon Sanderson.) Or the fuzzummoners have stumbled across mysterious, ancient—possibly alien—doohickeys that are so far beyond their comprehension it might as well be magic.
  • The mythology wood-chipper – Fuzzummoners are just one supernatural faction alongside Norse gods, dragons, trolls, vampires, and whatever else gets thrown into the mix for variety’s sake. (Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series is a great example.) Bit of a magical free-for-all where anything goes (Also look at T.A. Pratt’s Marla Mason series).
  • Is that a D20 in your pocket? –The fuzzummoners magic originates from a roleplaying world with game mechanics complicated enough to boggle Jeopardy’s Watson. Whether a tabletop or video game, the gameplay came first, the stories came later. (Look to the Pathfinders Tales series as a current example, plus plenty of other media tie-ins.)

If creating the magic system isn’t hard, what’s the difficult part then?

Making the magic matter. Arcane acorn bombs and fire-wielding fluffy tails are all well and good, but if the reader never gets beyond the “Oh, that’s kinda cool” reaction, something is wrong.Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

What, then, makes magic meaningful? It must be part of a tripod. No, not a War of the Worlds-style tripod. Let me clarify.

There’s a debate that pops up every so often in writerly circles. Which is more important to a novel: the plot or the characters? The answer, of course, is both (argue that in the comments, if you want). For fantasy novels, though, I submit that you’ve got to add a third element. Which is more important: the plot, characters, or magic system?

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

All three must be equally invested in and reliant on each other; otherwise, you end up with an off-balanced or toppled tripod. When working on a novel, I ask myself a number of questions regarding the balance of characters/plot/magic. They usually run along these lines:

  • Is magic just a tool for the characters, or does it impact them on a deep mental, emotional, or spiritual level, fueling their growth and change throughout the story?
  • How do the plot and characters affect the magic system? Does magic gain a “personality” of its own or offer its own internal landscape for readers to navigate?
  • If the magic system substantially changed, would it impact the characters or plot, or would life go on its merry way unaffected?
  • Could the events of the plot occur without any magic whatsoever? If so, why am I including magic in the first place?
  • Do the magical elements basically comprise a mystical Rube Goldberg machine that exists just to force characters and events to end up where I want them?

If these questions are truly taken into account and addressed, magic can become much more than just a few nifty ideas cobbled together. Readers can be engaged by the magic because it’s intertwined with characters and events they care about, rather than sitting off in its own little corner, waiting to be called upon when the story demands.

If not, though, a magic system can devolve into a handful of glitter and a few golden stars stuck to the page, able to catch the reader’s eye but quickly revealed as little more than window dressing.

And, call me crazy, but I think most readers prefer books that don’t leave their clothes covered in glitter. My next guest post will research this vital issue further: Glitter-dispensing fantasy novels…yay or nay?

This concludes the emergency test of your magic system.

Written by Josh Vogt

Josh Vogt

Josh Vogt has a passion for reading and writing speculative fiction. He's seen all sides of the publishing industry and is currently working with a literary agent to get his novels published. He wants to share his love for the genre, plus help aspiring writers in their quest for publication. Visit his fiction website, his writing resources site, or follow him on Twitter @JRVogt.

Discussion
  • Paul (@princejvstin) July 23, 2012 at 4:21 am

    Bonus points to you, Josh, for a Malazan picture in this article. Talk about a group of complicated magic systems, and that’s before book 5.

    Also, the “in a world” bit is straight up Don Lafontaine :)

  • JRVogt July 23, 2012 at 5:55 am

    I do admire that the Malazan books force you to figure out how the magic works as you go, rather than sitting you down and explaining everything. Makes it more satisfying when things finally click halfway through a story.

  • AE Marling July 23, 2012 at 6:46 am

    Magic plays a pivotal role in the fantasy novels that interest me. Though I don’t object to pages filled with glitter, magic must have rules if it’s to aid the protagonist in the final act. Otherwise it might as well be a fairy godmother deus ex machina.

    Also, I suggest that magic come with a price. Rather than just years of study, I believe magic in stories is more meaningful and poignant if its users pay for it. My acid test is that if a normal person (in a fantasy world) might reasonably choose to pursue other careers rather than a magical one, then the magic is likely well balanced. “No thanks, not interested in sacrificing my firstborn sons to cast a few fireballs, so I think I’ll be a blacksmith.”

  • JRVogt July 23, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Absolutely. Magic must have a price of some sort, otherwise it easily tips into wish-fulfillment. Of course, figuring out what that price is and how it’ll tie into the story and characters gives plenty of room for the imagination and potential conflict.

  • Inkedexistence July 23, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    I seem to be missing something here.

    You seem to be saying that magic has to be well-defined and understood, integrated into plot and character. That its origins, effects, and limitations, must be explained to some degree. And judging by the other comments, this is definitely the meaning most people have taken from your post.

    How do you respond to the fact that many of the most popular and critically acclaimed fantasy stories completely disagree with this?

    Off the top of my head: Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, American Gods, Neverwhere, The Black Company (I could go on)…. all fail to follow your advice.

    Nowhere in those books is magic explained, nor are its limitations fixed or easy to grasp. Often the manner in which characters and plot relate to it are likewise mysterious or inexplicable.

    Is the magic in these novels “a handful of glitter and a few golden stars stuck to the page” or “window dressing.”

    You be describing a very specific style of fantasy novel (Brandon Sanderson), where the role magic plays is such that its “system” must be well understood… and then expanding this small category to encompass all of the genre.

    Did you just accuse Lord of the Rings of leaving your clothes covered in glitter.

  • JRVogt July 23, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    I would argue that many of the books you listed actually do explain their forms of magic…to enough of a degree that it has substance and feels like an integrated part of the world in which it exists. The magic still has rules and costs and the like, though it may not be as readily evident as in other books.

    Lord of the Rings has a substantial magic system based on the rings of power, the mythology of the Maiar and so on.

    American Gods draws on familiar mythology and figures in a very ceremonial fashion, with specific oaths that must be sworn and specific roles that must be played out.

    A Song of Fire and Ice also has its own rules, such as certain spells requiring sacrifices, royal blood, or other bloodlines to empower them. The magic is sparse and subtle, especially in early volumes, but it’s there and it is increasingly central to the story and characters.

    I wouldn’t actually say it must be “well-defined.” Just because magic isn’t laid out in fine detail on the page doesn’t mean there isn’t a solid structure backing it up, even if just on the author’s end. I would say it must be defined or demonstrated *enough* for the reader to accept it as part of the characters and the story. Some authors may not play according to hard rules or limits and that’s fine.

    So no, Lord of the Rings didn’t leave me covered in glitter. Magic was practically the centerpiece of the entire trilogy, what with the One Ring needing to be destroyed and the huge impacts it left on major characters. Take away the magical elements and you’ve got a story about…well, a bunch of folks who hated gaudy jewelry, I suppose.

    (Hope that clarifies it some.)

  • Thomas Swift July 23, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Has anyone here ever seen Doctor Who? Okay, it exists across this border between sci fi and fantasy, but when it was relaunched by tv writer Russel T Davies he had a perchant for seemingly Deux Ex Machina endings. In actual fact hints were always distributed beforehand if you looked. But he seemed to be of the opinion as long as the characters went through an emotional sacrifice that was fine. Example: series 1, Rose ABSORBS the time vortex and destroys all the bad guys. Cost: she’s dying. Doctor saves her at cost of his own life. Exactly how? Ill defined, never explained and completely unexpected magic. Yet, somehow, it worked.
    Of course novels and tv are fundamentally different but I always enjoy parallels.

  • Inkedexistence July 24, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    JRVogt-

    No, I’m sorry but that doesn’t really clarify anything for me. I’d like to say in advance I’m not attacking you personally, but trying to point out a bizarre inconsistency I see in your magical system theory.

    I’ve read the Lord of the Rings, several times, and while I’m aware there is an extensive mythos present behind the books, in the trilogy itself there is almost ZERO elaboration on the magic system. How were the rings created? What specifically do they do? Where does Gandalf’s magic come from? What are Gandalf’s limitations and abilities? How does magic relate to the wider world? etc. etc. etc.

    None of this is expressed in any detail, much less the specificity you seem to suggest is vital.

    In American Gods, the magic is more obvious and central to the story, but no better understood. Everything is left vague and nonspecific. Sure, in this case some requirements are given, some allusions to rules and details are made…. yet nothing is really known for certain. Magic works by fiat, without explanation, and the book is no worse off for it.

    A Song of Ice and Fire is easily the strongest example (and currently most popular series). Its magic has rules? Really? I can think of one example where it is claimed (unproven, questionable) that a royal sacrifice needs to occur. What about the Dragons? The House of the Undying? Wargs? The Faceless men? The Greenseers? The White Walkers? The various prophecies? The impossibly long seasons? The horn of Valaria? These and a dozen other examples have zero explanation, nor is their relation to the world or the characters clear.

    And you’re right, magic is becoming more central to the cast and characters as the story progresses. Yet while this happens, it remains an unknowable, mysterious force, with specific details existing only in rumor and myth.

    Magic is central to the story, and even its most basic qualities are utterly unknown.

    Contrary to what you suggest in your article, this very mystery is exactly what give magic its power. Not knowing is critical. Wonder provides a stronger reader interest than any system or rules and regulations.

    Claims that the author has to have some secret system which he uses but hides from the audience are likewise absurd. Both because its what exists on the page that matters, not what might be hidden in some unpublished notebook, and because several fantasy authors (including GRRM) have made explicit statements that their magic is magic and requires no rules or explanation.

    They have no plan, no secret system. They simply tell a story that thrives on wonder and mystery rather than explanation as far as the magic is concerned. You don’t need a system of rules to do this, you simply need to understand how something like magic functions within a narrative.

    The unspoken meta-rules of storytelling are what is important, not some fabricated system invented for a given story.

    Pertaining to Lord of the Rings, you argue that without magic you’re left with a story of a bunch of folks who hated gaudy jewelry. I don’t know when anyone talked about removing magic from the series. You’re absolutely right, it is the center piece of the series. Its a centerpiece that is mysterious, unknown and unknowable.

    The magic is there to provide requirements of plot (little more than a McGuffin) and a sense of wonder to setting. Not to provide clever solutions to plot problems.

    In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books (to use one example) magic is a swiss army knife. Its a tool, a cool tool, and the reader gets to watch as characters use this tool in clever and creative ways.

    That’s fine.

    In Lord of the Rings or in Game of Thrones, magic is something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, compelling the reader to wonder and read on. It rarely offers solutions, instead it allows the reader to dream.

    That’s epic.

    Its the difference between being shown the trick behind a Las Vegas magic show and appreciating how clever it is, and lying awake late into the night, wondering how what you witnessed was possible.

    Or, to offer another example and cross genres: there is a reason why Star Wars started sucking the moment George Lucas uttered the word “Midichlorian” and decided Jedi powers should be used every five minutes in each movie.

    Strip magic of its mystery, drag it out into the light and open it up like some clockwork toy, and you can still tell a good story, but you sure as hell can’t tell Lord of the Rings.

  • L.B. Gale July 25, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I understand what’s being said by both sides above. What I would say in defense of JRVogt is that while Tolkien doesn’t explain the magic system in LOTR, he doesn’t contradict it. He doesn’t tell us that there were 3 rings for elves, 7 for dwarves, 9 for men and the one that ruled them all: Sauron’s ring–only to reveal at the end of RotK that there was yet another–unknown–ring. The ring of the Maiar that controls ALL rings. This ring then helps destroy the one ring when Frodo fails to throw it into Mt. Doom. Etc.

    It’s the deliberate breaking of the set rules that constitute a problematic ‘magic system.’ Tolkien sets his rules for the ring in Fellowship (rules that are a bit different than what it appears to be in The Hobbit) and holds true to those rules throughout LOTR. Same thing with Gandalf. We don’t know what his magic really is, but it’s clear that he cannot just throw down with magic whenever he wants. He has to hold back for the most part, and he stays true to that as Gandalf the White. This is a rule for Wizards in general, which we see by observing how Saruman breaks the rule.

    I agree with Inkedexistence that magic is best when the rules are not spelled out from page one as though the novel is a handbook to magic. But I feel like a fantasy author should be consistent throughout the books as to what he/she has set up. There’s a big difference between introducing new magical ideas in a later book of the series that are more or less consistent with the world that’s been set up and introducing a deus ex machina that throws out previous rules in a way that’s obviously done to fix a narrative problem.

    I quite like Harry Potter (which I guess some more ‘mature’ fans of the genre ignore) but there’s no doubt that throwing in the Time Turner causes untold amounts of trouble. More than that, the Time Turner is used to save the life of Buckbeak. The question remains for the rest of the series, why not use the Time Turner to go back in time before Voldemort returns, kill the fetus version of him and save the people he kills? Or why not go back further. I understand that she can explain it away in any number of ways but it still remains obvious that the narrative device trumped the importance of the magic being consistent. Still….I enjoyed the narrative, so does it really matter that the magic was inconsistent?

  • Xyz August 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    This is a great discussion. If they haven’t already seen this, folks might be interested in Brandon Sanderson’s thoughts on the matter:

    http://brandonsanderson.com/article/40/Sandersons-First-Law

    He touches upon many of the same themes and problems that appear in the last few comments.

    My view: What sets fantasy apart from other fiction is that its narratives feature physics (in the sense of properties and phenomena) that are otherworldly. That is what we call “magic.” Although magic has to be apparent to the reader in some way, I agree with Inkedexistence that it doesn’t need to be explained or even to follow any apparent logic. The important point, as Inkedexistence and L.B. Gale point out, is that magic not violate rules of narrative. One of these basic rules is that narrative be coherent, and it is that basic rule of storytelling (rather than any particular rule pertaining to magic) that can make blatantly incoherent or contradictory magical events feel unsatisfying. The aversion to using magic as a Deus Ex Machina results from most readers’ aversion to contrivance and general appreciation for conflict; again, not limited to magic.

    So, I would say that there are no rules for magic beyond the general narrative considerations that apply to any story. You can create stories where magic is a “swiss army knife”; that’s fine. You can also create stories where the author has no rules beyond communicating the “otherworldlyness” of the setting; that’s fine as well. Regardless of which approach is taken, however, fantasy writers (like all other writers) risk losing their readers’ faith and interest when they blatantly abuse the rules of narrative.

    (Aside Building on L.B. Gale’s comment about Harry Potter: I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but my personal view is that they are enjoyable DESPITE the often contradictory and inconsistent use of magic, and that the books would be much better if they had retained the whimsy while imposing a bit more discipline on the uses to which magic is put.)

  • Brian August 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I believe that it depends on how intrinsic magic is to the main character(s) to how much the author needs to explain it to the reader. Bilbo didn’t need to understand how sting worked magically, he just needed to know what it was capable of same thing with the ring. Frodo did need to know the dangers inherent in using his ring however, and Tolkien explained those dangers clearly.

    The point I’m trying to establish is that there are very few successful fantasy novels written from the point of view of the magician where magic is not clearly defined (at least on the authors end). You can write fantasy novels about warriors and thieves till you turn blue and never have a need of clearly defining your magic system to a reader if you do it right, but to actually write a novel where the reader sees a spell slingers POV regularly without a clearly defined system would be much much harder.

    I’m pretty sure Tolkien was well aware of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in his magic systems. He spent twenty years on the world building phase of his books. If Gandalf was the main protagonist he would have had to spend more time explaining how magic worked in his world.

    J.K. Rowling started writing her novels without a defined magic system, and eventually found a need to correct that. The lack of foresight on her part led to more than a few inconsistencies in her work.

    This of course brings up another factor to consider. Something mentioned incidentally. It is far easier to write a stand alone novel without a magic system than it is to write series of stories in the same world. The more stories you write in a world, the more imperative it is to the writer to ensure he knows the laws of that world. Those laws would include the ‘laws’ of magic. The strengths and limitations of the creatures that people his world, the politics, religion, etc. Failure to do this on an epic level would almost certainly lead to epic failure.

    So yes, you could write a stand alone novel about a warrior or a thief who are required to deal with and overcome magical issues without explaining much more than that magic is dangerous and can kill you, but even then, you would be wise to have a good idea of what magic can and cannot do or you will eventually run into inconsistencies if you keep writing in that world.

  • Scott October 3, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    There is a difference between a story centered around the practitioners magical rules and/or limitations and an magical objects rules and/or limitations.
    Tolkien uses both , and both examples have their own rules and limitations. But the main story is centered around the ring.
    If a magical object is destroyed naturally, like fire in this instance, the magical objects seems to lose it’s “mysticism.” Thus the ring’s limitations was easy to grasp.

    Magic is a very touchy subject. Would a person say that technology(objects and other things that don’t have shape) that have not been made yet in the real world, magical? I would but you might not. The Artemis Fowl series is an example of “magical technology”.
    In conclusion, a story can not only be explained or not explained, but can be explained in half, or in three fourths. Even more confusing is the fact that authors can add more magic in a series to make the explained magic have more depth.

  • Scott October 3, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    To L. B. Gale-On The Time Turner Inconsistency:
    One turn equals one hour. In order for them to go back in time to kill Voldemort, they would one, have to know the exact hour he killed each person, and two, imagine how many times they would have to turn that darn thing. yikes lol.

  • Vanessa December 14, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    I would also like to mention that the Time Turner is used in a way where they are required to live out that time until it lapses and they are once again in real time. If this were the case then they would go back to the time of Voldemort’s birth (around 1920’s if my memory serves), defeat him, then have to wait the 70 or so years until time lapsed to once again resume current time. So i would have to disagree that this is a flaw in the magic system, it may work in a theory but in practicality of the magic system presented it’s not logical.

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