Tips For Building Realistic Systems Of Magic

Ever read a story with a character who has a power or ability he or she doesn’t fully understand, and they spend a good amount of the plot finding people and clues to help them “figure” it out? And when they do finally learn something, it’s often steeped in murky legend, a product of generational hearsay, and kind of comes off like a Hail-Mary-at-the-bottom-of-the-second-half moment when it works out, and the heroes win?

Yeah, that’s what I call a weak system of magic, and it drives me bananas. So I’m here to help.

More Than One Way To Categorize

More often than not, writers categorize different types of magic in their worlds according to the people who use them (seers, shapeshifters, conjurers, etc.). It often runs in families, and there tends to be a lot of “societal rules” that dictate how the different groups fit together.

It’s simple, familiar, and overused, which makes it an easy system set up for writers to fall back on. But it’s also the depth a lot of these systems stop. Many writers will tailor it to fit their specific world, which is nice, but tailoring is not the same as developing. And therein lies the problem.

Without more than a simple surface redevelopment, an overused idea will never be anything other than an overused idea. When magic is structured this way, it creates a label. And because there’s not a lot more to this type of system outside the label, that label makes up a large part of a magic user’s identity. And how this system influences your characters’ treatment of each other is not that different from a magical-equivalent of systematic racism.

Now, that’s all fine and dandy if grappling with a theme like that is what you’re going for. But I’ve noticed more times than not, it not actually what the author is going for. It ends up a side note to the actual plot and doesn’t do much of anything outside of existing. That’s because the only purpose it serves is to give the system the appearance of depth.

That’s the keyword right there: appearance.

When you do this (i.e., stick in a detail/flaw/strength/etc. to make something seem more real or relatable, but don’t do anything else with it), all you succeed in creating is superficial depth. It’s a lot like going, “hmm, how do I make my not-real-because-it’s-magic fantasy world seem realistic and believable? Oh, I know- I’ll add [insert social issue]! Everyone knows something about that. Look at how real and current I am.”

Yes but no. Your idea might be great. But unless you do something with it in the story, unless you let these ideas have purposes that influence your story, they will fall flat every time. If it’s not doing anything, it’s only weakening your idea. Get rid of it.

Magic Is A Pseudo-Science

Not many people understand that. It is pseudo-science. Magic cannot, will not, and should never be the same as, a product of, or explained by modern-day science.

Magic came first. When you were sick, you went to a healer for rituals and natural potions. Eventually, we moved from magic to science, and now you go to a doctor for man-made medications. If there’s no cure, if science can’t help up, we pray. Do you see the distinction there?

If you include magic in your story, it should sit alongside your modern equivalate of science like two halves of a coin: related to one another but never touch. When I see an author attempt to explain magic with modern-day science, I often stop reading shortly after since it’s usually the first of several plot points held together with literary duct tape.

Here’s the thing about magic:

Before modern science, weird things would happen, and we wouldn’t know why: things like how the sun moved or why people got sick. So, we came up with this idea of magic to explain these things we otherwise had no way of making sense of.

Thanks to science, we now know the sun sets because the earth rotates on an axis, not because an invisible man in a chariot pulls it across the sky. We also know people get sick because of germs, not witchcraft, and we don’t need to burn our neighbors in the town square for giving us something. Just wash your hands.

Magic cannot be explained because once you do, it stops being magic. It’s why science fiction and fantasy are two separate genres.

To use our modern understandings of science to explain why magic is possible is going backward. It’s reinventing the wheel but making it a square this time. It also makes your job so much harder than it needs to be.

Why? Because we don’t need an explanation for magic in real fucking life to buy it. Religion, Astrology, Spiritualism- none of that has any scientific backing. People pray for miracles every day without a scientific justification for doing so. Stop overthinking it! It leaves you vulnerable to mistakes and plot holes.  

The Laws Of Magic

So how do you take something you can’t explain and describe it in such a way that it makes sense to a reader? Easy. Stop thinking about the why and focus on the how.

Isaac Newton couldn’t explain why gravity worked when it struck him (ha!), but he did have a basic understanding of how. The apple was fine as long as it stayed attached to the tree, but as soon became a free object, something (gravity) pulled it down until something (his head) stopped it.

Determine what specific laws govern the magic of your world, and stop trying to tell me why those laws govern it. I promise you; I don’t care that much. I’m here for a good time, not a long time.

Can anyone learn it, or do you have to be born a magic-user? Are you stuck with a specific ability you’re born with? What determines a person’s potential/powerfulness? Fate or competency? Do they use complicated spells, gestures, words, wands, etc.? If I had to fight against a certain ability, what would I have to do to beat them? All these things should form your principles of how it works, and they should not be giant question marks for your characters who grew up using them.

Explain them with words as little as possible and find opportunities to demonstrate them. I cannot stress that enough.

The more you know about how your magical system works, the more real it will be to read about it. The more you tell me why your system of magic works, the more I’ll think you’re full of shit. Think of your reader as a magic student; are you 100% sure a lecture is how you want to play it?

Make It Make Sense

This sounds a lot harder than it is. One way to do it is to model the system after something people already understand. For example, if potions are a thing, modeling it after cooking is a strategic move.

Most people understand the basics of how cooking works: you put the ingredients together to make something, certain ingredients work better together than others, there’s measuring involved, and sometimes it turns out like yuck. Adding in a little chemistry, which is more like baking than cooking, is a bonus because of the dangerous reactions.

Another trick is utilizing logic in every way you can. For example, alchemy uses scientific concepts to achieve more magical outcomes, like turning lead into gold. In order for it to work, it must obey Conservation of Mass (a real scientific principle). It means for one object to turn into another, both need to take up the same amount of space because mass can’t just pop in and out of existence. It has to have somewhere to go. Duh, everyone knows that, right?  

You know what I don’t need, though? The author explaining to me in detail why the lead turns into gold. It’s not something that can actually happen. Literally, scientists spent thousands of years trying to figure it out and can’t. There is no explanation you, a writer of WORDS, can give me. It’s an invalid waste of my time and yours.

I don’t care about the why. Magic. That’s why. So get back to showing me the cool stuff I came here for.

Approach Magic As A Discipline

Riddle for you: what do Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther all have in common? They prove that if something is big, powerful, and the key to understanding the universe as we know it, man will devote their lives to studying it.

So, the category-based-magic-free-for-all system that is rampant in urban fantasy becomes even weaker when you think about it. What kind of modern society would be totally okay with keeping such a limited, status-quo understanding of a life-governing force on par with mathematics, religion, and medicine? You expect me to believe every magic-user I’ve encountered up until page 200 has a 3rd grade understanding of something you gave a legendary origin story of?

Long story short, if magic is an important part of a user’s identity, daily life, and world history, your characters should have a broader understanding (or a formal education even) of the system and how (not so much why) it works. It shouldn’t be that hard to find an answer or an expert in a certain study field. And the same laws that govern their subgroups’ abilities should also govern other subgroups and not be so unfamiliar.

Example To Draw From

Books like Harry Potter and the Magicians have magic users attend school to learn the craft in order to use it. Because of the academic setting, we (the reader) get a good look into how the system works and what goes into using it as the characters do. Often there are many different forms of magic to study, and experts in magic tend to specialize in one particular field, but they do know about others. They’re not totally useless.

Name of the Wind also has an academy for students to attend, but it’s not a requirement, and it’s not the only way to learn magic. Its purpose is more to further the understanding of magic. It’s separated into specialties, each with its own nuances, and is more a place for knowledge than for practical usage.

Other, more-high fantasy plots might even reference a council of scholars who enforce magical law. The point is, there are people in your world who should know, and people should know they exist. Not everything has to have a murky, unknown element. Not all answers need to be so inaccessible to be compelling.

Users who had to learn how to use magic before being able to use it have more agency than characters who subscribe to the “powers they cannot control” trope. I can hit a keyboard with my fist to make loud sounds, but I have to learn to play the keys before music is possible.

Characters who are educated actively use magic to get the desired outcome, whereas uneducated characters are acted upon by magic that is outside their control (usually to avoid an undesired outcome). In sum, active characters control magic; passive characters are controlled by magic.

Just a heads up: under no circumstance should your main character ever be passive in your plot. It’s a great way to ruin your story from the start. I’m not saying you can’t ever have a character who’s not in control of their magic, but I am saying do so strategically and with a surgeon’s precision.

What do you think about this guide to building more immersive systems of magic? Dissenting opinions and discussion is always encouraged! I’m sure you know already how much I love hypotheticals.

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Moira is a self-identified space cadet currently trapped in the desolate wasteland of Upstate New York. She was first published at the age of nine in an anthology for children that still lives permanently on her bookshelf. Her hobbies include wine, television, and overthinking everything.

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