Worldbuilding: Designing a Magic System
Updated: Sep 16
Magic! The possibilities are literally endless! That being said, that doesn’t mean you can go mad and let your character turn the whole world into chocolate (actually what I wanted to do as a child…). Magic needs to be carefully written so you don’t end up with a world where anything is possible, all problems are easily solved, and the ultra-powerful cannot be defeated. Dare I say it, but your magic needs to be believable!
In this post, I’ll be going through the things that you need to be considering when writing magic into your story.
Now, I don’t mean you have to go back to the dawn of time (unless it’s relevant), but you should have a good idea of the broad outlook of your magic society. You should be able to answer these questions:
How does your magical society fit into the rest of society, or are they the only society in your world?
Are they feared or revered by non-magical races? And on that note, do they live in secret or out in the open?
Do they have royalty, government or hierarchy that keeps them in line? Are there multiple royal families and/or governments across the geography of your world?
Knowing these details about your world is important, as they are your first boundaries to prevent your realm of possibility from getting out of hand. Your characters may need to be wary of revealing themselves to mortals, or they might quite simply have laws to follow.
You might want to be able to answer:
How did the magic race come about?
Do magicals follow a specific religion?
Do conflicts exist within your magical community? Whether they be based in families, politics, races, geography, etc.
Are there any ostracised groups within the magical community? Why are they ostracised and by who
Whether you choose to answer the above or not will depend on your plot. There’s no need to delve into the details above if they don’t contribute to your plot in any way. If conflicts exist within your community - which they do in most, to be honest - you have your first possibility for a plot point, even if it’s only a subplot. Religions have their own implications (see my post on that here), and the origins of your magical race could be something that comes back to bite your characters in the butt.
What are your magical people called? Come up with a name for your race, but keep in mind that they may have different tiles based on gender, or where they stand in a hierarchy. Some examples include:
Wizard / Witch / Warlock
Enchanter / Enchantress
Sorcerer / Sorceress
Caster / Spellcaster
Also, do your magicals have a collective name for mortals? And do derogatory terms exist for ostracised members of the community?
If you are writing a novel where somebody comes into their powers, this part is important, whether or not they actually go to school. Start off with establishing answers to these questions:
Are people born with magic, or is it a learned skill that anyone can master?
At what age do magical powers usually start to show? (I say usually as there may be a reason why your character’s powers are stunted.)
If your characters go to school, the design of the place and its classes is completely up to you (though I swear, if I see another castle next to a forest/lake in the middle of the countryside, I might scream.) More broadly, however, you should be able to answer these questions:
At what age do magicals start school?
How many years of schooling are there?
Before starting at magic school, do magicals go to mortal education, or are they simply homeschooled by their parents?
Knowing the answers to these questions will allow you to better characterise the differences between your protagonist and any new magical friends they make - especially if they’re entering magical society for the first time.
How does magic work?
Are there different types of magic (E.g. time, telekinesis, elemental, healing, telepathic, necromancy), or is it just magic in general? Can people specialise in, or only access one, or multiple? Are some forms of magic more rare than others?
Do different spells require a certain amount of power/expertise?
Is using magic draining or painful?
Are spells cast using movements, thoughts, or incantations? Perhaps a mixture?
Is any magic forbidden or impossible? What’s the punishment for performing illegal spells?
At this point you need to be making sure that your magic has limits through rules and what’s possible on both a character and worldwide basis. Establishing what is illegal or impossible is a good start. Following this, make sure to establish what spells are difficult, and avoid letting your newborn magical character use them. Letting your magic be draining or painful is a good way of limiting your characters’ use of magic and potentially blocking them into some difficult situations - but that is one that will depend on how you want your magic system to work.
Decide on where your magic comes from. Some options are:
Wands / Staffs
Hands / Eyes / Hearts / Minds
Amulets / Talismans
Books / Tomes
Gods / Religion / Rituals
Umbrellas (shout out to Hagrid!)
Some sources will take longer to master or set up than others. Praying to gods for magic will obviously take some time, and if the gods are in a bad mood, they may just turn a blind eye. Setting up rituals also will not be useful if your characters are under time constraints. Minds might require your character to be calm at all times, which might be more difficult for some than others. Wands and staffs could easily be broken, and amulets and talismans easily misplaced or stolen. Consider your source carefully, and make sure to also consider its implications in your wider story, and how and when it can be used. Take advantage of its limitations to create obstacles in your plot.
Another thing to consider is:
Can an extra artefact be used to boost the original source’s power?
If so, be careful about creating overly powerful characters. A good way to ensure your ‘power boost’ isn’t too advantageous is to give it a drawback for every positive. For example, the user may become drained much faster, casting spells may be extra painful, the artefact may break over time and use, a memory might need to be sacrificed with every use, or users may lose a portion of their sanity with every spell.
You will also want to think about how vulnerable your character is without their source. Can they summon it, use weak magic without it, or are they essentially mortal without it? Is it possible to transfer magic from one person to another?
Giving the source limits is also a good way to prevent characters from being overpowerful. Allowing magical transfers also gives way for some interesting ‘stolen power’ plots points, or even ‘combined power’ ones.
Levels of Power
Decide what each character powerful (or not). The power in a person’s magical abilities can come from one or more of these three places:
Knowledge: May also be associated with age. This is simply the amount a person knows about magic, so they’ll likely be more practiced at conjuring quickly and effectively.
Blood: These people are born into power. They may be descended from a god of some sort, be half nymph, or simply be a member of a powerful bloodline. Main characters often fall into this category, so if you’re wanting to be a little different, choose one of the other two.
Object: These characters are only powerful due to an object they hold. It may be the source of their power, such as a wand of staff (such as the Elder Wand from Harry Potter), or it could be an addition to their person that enhanced a power naturally within them.
Each of your characters will have a certain power level, and it’s up to you to decide where that power comes from. All of these options have different implications, but they are not necessarily any better than another when all at their most powerful. For example, a person powerful by blood may be defeated by a person powerful by knowledge with the right spell. A person powerful due to an object could be disarmed and killed by a person powerful by blood.
What else is involved in your magical world? Think about including (or not)...
Magical creatures / Plants / Minerals
Potions / Alchemy
Modes of Transportations (Magic carpets, broomsticks, teleportation, gateways…)
Foods and Drinks
Blessings / Curses / Prophecies
Can magic integrate with modern technology?
Can objects be sentient?
Remember: Everything you bring into existence should impact your plot, but make sure to lay out the foundation of its existence before introducing it to solve or become a problem. One of the most common issues I see in works involving magic is when the character finds themself in a difficult situation, and then somebody whips out an object that can solve everything. This always comes across as too convenient and cheapens your conflict, so make sure to introduce that object to your story early on. Make your readers aware of it (but don’t let on that it will become useful, of course).
And there you have it. Answer all of these questions and use those answers to create a rulebook for yourself - stick to it, and get writing!
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