Creating a Fantasy Magic System from Scratch [3 STEPS]
If you're a fantasy reader, chances are that you've read books with killer magic systems.
Harry Potter, anyone? Mistborn—okay, anything by Brandon Sanderson?
Writing fantasy offers two unique challenges that other genres often don’t: world-building and magic systems. World-building (especially fantasy world-building) is another blog post altogether, but today I want to talk about the magic system I created for Sparks and Shadow and the Rising Elements series—and how YOU can create a magic system from scratch too! I’m laying it all out for you here in 3 (not so easy) steps. Let’s dive in!
Step #1: Understand the Basics
I’ve been reading fantasy books for over twenty years. You’d think I would know a thing or two about magic systems by now… but creating one myself? That was a whole new ball game. Before I could create a system myself, I had to understand the building blocks. So I did the research!
During my Google wanderings, I came across an excellent article by Hannah Yang from ProWritingAid. Hannah outlined the types of magic systems, when to use each, and how to build your own.
In most schools of thought, there are two types of magic: hard magic and soft magic. Hard magic has defined rules, logic, and boundaries, while soft magic is more atmospheric. The reader doesn't know all the limitations of soft magic, but it doesn't detract from the story (think Harry Potter, which is somewhere in the middle of both magic types - we know some spells Harry can do, but we don't understand the exact limitations).
If you think about a recent fantasy book you read, you should be able to identify whether it uses hard or soft magic. Once you can differentiate the two, you’re ready for step 2!
Step #2: Decide on a Magic Type
The ultimate question isn’t “to be or not to be,”… it’s “to use hard or soft magic.”
Hannah from ProWritingAid suggests choosing your magic type based on your story, and she has a great graphic to help you choose:
This is a great place to start when you’re considering your magic system. Do you want a magic that is defined by its rules and limitations? One that your protagonist can use to solve his/her problems? Consider a hard magic system. Or do you have a scary, all-powerful antagonist looming over your character? That might be a great opportunity to look into a soft magic system.
For my book, Sparks and Shadow, I’m doing a hybrid of the two. My elemental magick system is hard magic, with set rules and limitations. But my antagonist uses something called elemental technology, which is soft magic-based.
Step #3: Brainstorm
Now for the fun part! Once you know what type of magic you’re looking to build, you can brainstorm all the details.
If you’re building a hard magic system, you’ll have a few more details to think about in your brainstorming process. Where does the magic come from? How does it affect the world? What does it cost? Hard magic is known for its limits, so building in a cost will naturally create problems that your protagonist must solve throughout the story.
You can start by writing a list of all the magic types you can think of—ones you’ve seen and ones you haven’t. The more specific you are, the better. What effects can each magic have, and what problems can it create? Consider combining different types of magic that you’ve seen before. If you want to see a fantastic list of magic types from existing books, check out that article by ProWritingAid. It breaks it all down for you!
For Sparks and Shadow, I wanted to create a magic system centered around the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire - plus a bonus fifth element I threw in for fun), but I had to be sure that my magic system took that common trope (elemental magic) and twisted it into something new.
Source: In the world of Faery, the Fae worship a goddess known as Seraphine. She is the mother of the forest, a benevolent goddess who believes in balance above all else. If you perform a ceremony called the Rite and she finds you worthy, Seraphine grants you a bond with a single element. It appears in the form of a tattoo somewhere on your body and allows you to control that element.
Effects: To use your element, you must draw upon that element from within your own body. For example, if you're bonded to water, you draw upon the water in your own body to fuel the magic. Water users have to drink absurd amounts of water; earth users are always hungry; air users are constantly out of breath; and fire users are always cold. The overall magic has become ingrained in Faery culture—they use it to grow their food, water crops, defend themselves, and more!
Limitation: Seraphine's magic bonds you with your element forever. If your tattoo is broken—AKA cut, pierced, burned, etc—you will lose your bond with that element and it will kill you. And the more powerful you become with your element, the more your tattoo (and thus your Achilles heel) grows.
Building a magic system from scratch isn’t a walk in the park, but there’s something amazing about twisting common ideas into something new. Plus, a great magic system (especially hard magic) will practically write your plot for you!
What's your favorite magic system you've ever read? What questions do you have about my magic system in the Rising Elements series? Let me know in the comments!