Spell and curses, potions and enchantments. I just love magic, don’t you? It makes the worlds and stories in the books we read just come alive.
But creating that magic takes a little more effort than waving a wand and saying “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo.” Not everyone makes their magic systems the same way, but I thought I’d walk you through some of the more common approaches, as well as my own approach.
In general, magic systems are categorized in one of two ways: hard or soft systems. Hello Future Me, a channel on YouTube that I highly recommend for writers, does a great deep dive into hard and soft magic systems. I’ll give a quick overview here.
Hard Magic Systems
Hard magic systems are all about rules. The magic in these worlds operates under very specific conditions. Writers who create hard magic systems have to understand every detail about what makes their magic tick. Author Brandon Sanderson explains that in hard magic systems, magic is just another weapon, another tool. In order to be used effectively, it must be fully understood.
A great example of this is the show Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Their magic, called alchemy, works almost like science. It’s built on the law of equivalent exchange: nothing can truly be created or destroyed, only changed into something else. To create something, you must know every part of what makes it up. Water is not just a liquid: it’s comprised of specific ratios of atoms and elements. You have to know and understand them in order to manipulate it.
Soft Magic Systems
In soft magic systems, magic is a presence, but it is nebulous and unpredictable. Soft magic systems rarely see the main character using magic, sometimes because magic is more spontaneous than controlled and sometimes because magic is too big to be understood or directed. That being said, I personally think that an author should have an understanding of how their magic works, even if that information is kept vague for the readers and characters.
Take The Lord of the Rings, for example. Magic exists. It shapes and defines the world. And yet, we don’t really know all that much about what it’s capable of or how it works. And when magic is used in big ways to solve problems, it often causes even more complications, like when Gandalf uses his power to defeat the Balrog, only to be taken out of the series for almost an entire book as a result.
It’s important to note that, while there are two categories of magic systems, it really functions as more of a sliding scale. Most magic systems are a mix.
My Essential Questions
In my work, I’ve noticed that my magic systems, while being a mix of both systems, lean a little more into hard magic. I like knowing what makes the magic work.
For me, creating a magic system boils down to two basic questions (though there are more questions within each to help further refine the process): what does magic do, and what does magic cost? Let’s take a closer look at those, shall we?
What Does Magic Do?
The first thing I try to determine is the function of magic. What is it capable of? Can it do big things, small things, or both? Is it rare or a part of everyday life? Does it occur in nature or only when people produce it? Are there things magic can’t do?
If magic is controlled or produced by people, is it consistent (does a specific action or invocation always produce the same result)? Do power levels vary from person to person? Does the magic itself vary from person to person? Can people pool their strength or increase their own power?
What Does Magic Cost?
Once I have an idea of what I want my magic to do, I need to figure out what sort of price must be paid to use it. Obviously that can mean physical energy, as is often the case, but cost can take other forms too. Maybe spells require physical ingredients. Maybe practice is required to master certain skills. Maybe time must be spent in some sort of preparation before magic will work. Some spells might require an immense force of will (you have to mean it). Some types of more nefarious magic might even come with a social stigma or moral cost.
Something else to consider is availability. Does everyone have access to magic? Is it something a person is born with or can it be learned? If knowledge is needed to create or increase magic, how accessible is that knowledge? Who is in charge of regulating it? For people who can’t use magic, can they buy items imbued with magic?
Keep in mind, this is all subjective. Every writer makes magic differently. Again, most systems are a mix of hard and soft rules. Plus, a story, setting, or world can have multiple magic systems in place, all with different rules and foundations.
What are some of your favorite magic systems?
Until next time, word nerds!