A Brief Dive Into Magic Systems

By Noemi Arellano-Summer

Fiction writers are always looking for ways to make their writing distinctive from everything else in the submission inbox. I’m doing this right now, with a story I’ve spent five years working on. How do I help my European-inspired fantasy novel stand out from all the other European-inspired fantasy novels? For me, that’s where the magic comes in, and the systems that govern it. I have magic in my story, currently in small increments, and I’m sure many of you do too.

So, our first question is, what is a magic system? Basically, a magic system is the set of (or lack of) rules that guide magic in a fictional setting. Systems can have hard rules, meaning there are set rules that govern magic and they can be broken. On the other hand, systems can have soft rules, basically meaning there are no rules whatsoever, or if there are, they’re very ill-defined. There are also plenty of systems that fall in-between the two, seen as hybrids.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson consistently writes hard magic systems, which can also be known as ‘Magic A is Magic A’. Magic will follow set rules, and won’t deviate from them. Here’s a good example: Sanderson has created three laws of magic, guiding creators in how to worldbuild magic. They are: 1) An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. 2) Weaknesses (also Limits and Costs) are more interesting than powers. 3) Expand on what you have already, before you add something new. If you change one thing, you change the world. Sanderson puts plenty of stock into the world’s consequences due to magic, as well as the necessity for the reader to understand the universe, which includes its magic. On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien serves as an example of a soft magic system. The titular ring is evil, but in a mysterious way; no one really knows its restrictions or uses. Magic isn’t held by many, and its rules and limitations aren’t well known. Magic also tends to make problems worse, rather than solving them. For certain creators, having a clear-cut stance is the way to go: a hard or soft system is how magic will always work in all their fiction.

Hybrid systems include the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, especially (in this case), because the author didn’t have everything completely organized by the time she started writing. Some magic does have rules, though the rules occasionally change, and other magic doesn’t follow the same rules. For example, the Patronus spell, introduced in the third book, is the only spell that specifically needs an emotion to power it. For a discussion in another medium, the Avatar: The Last Airbender television series also includes a hybrid magic system. The magical art of bending is well-known in this steampunk world, and is treated more lightly than it could be, though this is probably because of the show’s young audience. Bending seems to give more than it takes, however. Consequences over the course of the series are generally due to characters’ actions and decisions, rather than the universe’s magic. Hybrid systems seem more realistic in terms of what a creator would really make, and that is probably why they’re most fun to discuss later on.

Other authors cover multiple types of magic, where certain methods can be clear and others are less so. Garth Nix, for example, uses many magic systems in his Old Kingdom series, such as handbells, marks sketched in the air, and music. However, it’s made clear that only the Abhorsen, who makes sure the dead stay dead, can wield the bells. Charter marks, on the other hand, are available to many other people. Tamora Pierce also includes multiple methods for magic in her two universes. The Gift is open to those who possess it, which includes many characters in the Tortall series, just as ambient magic is a skill that multiple characters have in the Circle of Magic universe. Both magics include manipulation of parts of the world. The Gift is more traditional and mysterious, while ambient magic involves magic with a specific thing, such as thread or the weather. On the other hand, in Tortall, Beka Cooper is the only character to possess the power of speaking to the dead that ride on pigeons. The Circle series also includes more traditional magic (sorcery, spellbooks, etc.) but the reader sees very few of those users, as the series is so focused on ambient magic, which is rarer in-universe. Systems with multiple types of magic are also quite common, since it’s fairly realistic to have options with different aspects of worldbuilding.

There are various types of magic systems, and they all bring something different to the story being told. What a creator decides to use depends on how they worldbuild, as well as what they’re going for. My story, currently, has just a few characters who possess magic, even though it’s well-known in-universe. If you don’t want to be super detailed, a soft system is probably your best bet. On the other hand, if you want options, go for a hybrid or multiple system. If you have everything nailed down (unlike me!), full steam ahead for a hard rules system. For fantasy universes, you are the creator, and the universe is completely up to you.

Noemi Arellano-Summer is an arts and culture journalist currently working in the Boston area. She has experience as a writer, editor, copy-editor, photojournalist, and arts critic. She is passionate about arts, history, culture, entertainment, film, and literature. You can often find her roaming through a bookstore or working on her novel at a cafe.