What is a magic system?
When writing speculative fiction, one of the writer’s most important jobs is to establish the new rules for their world. In many branches of speculative fiction, especially fantasy and even horror, this is magic, though it can also be technology and alternate scientific rules for science fiction. Whatever alternate fact(s) or reality you utilize to make your fictional world possible, that qualifies as a “magic system.” Your magic system is most often defined by what it can’t do rather than by what it can.
Why do I need a magic system?
When writing speculative fiction, it’s usually assumed that something about your world is different than ours. That can be a small tweak or it can be a complete dismantle-and-reassembly of physics as we understand it. Whatever system you choose to implement, it needs to have internally consistent rules. If, throughout the course of your book, magics begin to contradict each other, then it will disturb your readers suspension of disbelief. You don’t want your awesome magic to yank your readers from the believability of the story. But…most important of all…you have to establish some sort of rules and limits in order to prevent yourself from pulling a deus ex machina. No one likes a poorly executed deus ex machina. Few people like a well executed one (is there such a thing?). If you have rules, limits, cost, built into the magic or technology of your world, then you establish something that is not only nuanced and interesting, but believable.
Why write speculative fiction if I have to create and follow all of these tedious rules?! The real world has rules enough.
It’s true. But following your own rules and following real worlds aren’t the same thing. Lots of you have probably heard the little saying, “Give your world a Flux Capacitor.” If you think about it, Back to the Future’s Flux Capacitor doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not explained. But we accept it because it’s magic. And when Doc says, “Here’s this thing. It makes time travel possible.” We accept it because it’s a simple alteration. He doesn’t try to use it to do more than what is initially established. It never breaks that rule. It’s not used to get Marty out of an impossible situation, defying any previous understanding of the technology. That’s why it works.
So where you do start?
First, you need to probably choose what type of magic you will use. Will be elements based? Or energy based? Spirit? Physical? Time and Space? What things is your magic summoning/manipulating/drawing from?
Now you’ll want to focus on the parts that make your magic yours. Sure, elemental magic has been used half a zillion times, but it can still be interesting if you do something new with it. The best way to do something new is to alter its limits, change the cost, give it a new spin that makes your regular ol’ fire magic something intriguing.
You can do a little bit of research into ancient forms of magic, into other literary uses of magic. See what those before you have done and use it as an inspiration.
If you’re having trouble knowing where to start, I’m here to provide you some thoughts concerning the skeletal-assembly of your magic system! Use these prompts as you see fit!
What does magic use/alter/manipulate?
- visible energies
- laws of physics
- water, only, in all of its forms
- fabric of space
- elementary particles
- items of specific color or texture
- plant life
- the dead
- magnetic forces
Who possesses magic?
- random lucky people
- the elderly
- anyone who’s ever petted a dog
- specific animals
How is it acquired?
- at birth
- intense study and training
- through random action
- through a ritual
- as one ages
From where is power drawn?
- internal mana
- heat energy
- alignment of the stars
- physical contact with _____ (the earth, another life force, a drawing or rune)
- kinetic or potential energy
- the moon(s)
- other realms
- movement of tectonic plates
- spiritual energy of those nearby
- consumption of specific foods/drinks/elements
Watch out for more of the Brainstorming Series, coming soon!