Worldbuilding 101 – Making Magic


Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble…
~Shakespeare’s MacBeth
In this long-delayed (and for that I do so apologize. Deadlines, you know) continuation of my Worldbuilding 101 series, we’re going to talk about creating credible magical systems for your world.
Because magic is by definition the most fantastic element of your created world, creating the specifics of your magic system can either fascinate readers or destroy all suspension of disbelief. That’s why it’s imperative you devote appropriate time, attention, and detail to the creation of a plausible and well-defined magic system.

I’m big on “discover as you go” but the basics of the magic are the one concrete foundation I absolutely MUST establish from the get go. Don’t do this, and woe betide you.

The Magic Must Make Sense

The number one rule when creating magic is this: create your rules, then follow them.

It doesn’t so much matter how your magic works but that it works the same way, every time. In other words, be consistent.

This does not mean you cannot have surprises or have your characters learn new magical techniques. But don’t have “The Door That Cannot Be Opened” suddenly be opened at will, without effort or struggle or some logical explanation.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to begin building rules for your magic system:

  • What can your magic do?
  • What can your magic not do? As always, limitations are just as important as capabilities.
  • Does your magic require totems, wands, potions, or other paraphernalia, or can your conjurers work their magic at will, without accoutrements?
  • Is there a limit to how much magic someone can wield? A physical, mental, or other price to using the magic (or particular types of magic)?
  • Where does the magic of your world come from? Is is inherent in all living things? Is it a gift from the gods (or devils?)? Is it a byproduct of some other activity? Is it passed genetically?
  • Who can wield magic and how do they get it? Is it a genetic trait or something that is studied? Do they use it instinctively? Must they train to use it? Do different races wield different kinds of magic?
  • Can a person lose his / her magic? How? Once lost, can the magic be regained?
  • Can magic be counteracted? Spells be broken? Often times, particular environmental / physical “nullifiers” cause particular magics not to work.
  • Are there specific dangers / vulnerabilities magic wielders possess? Think the evil witch in Wizard of Oz who melted when water was thrown on her. Garlic holds off vampires; silver bullets kill werewolves. What are the threats to your magic wielders?

One trap to watch out for (and it can be easy to fall into) is the lure of creating “all powerful” beings. Do not! Be sure even the most powerful magic wielders in your world have a vulnerability. (Remember from my earlier post: Bambi v. Godzilla. No contest.) Your magic wielders should not be gods – unless, of course, you’re writing a story about gods (but in those cases, the antagonists are not likely to be mere mortal).


Types of Magic

There are many different types of magic. when you are choose what type of magic system to use, consider what your story is about, consider the theme of your story, and chose a magic system that will help you illustrate that theme. If all you do is throw cool magic into your book, you’re missing half the value and purpose of using it!

Many vampire novels, for instance, are really books that explore the themes of humanity and godhood, sin and salvation, redemption and damnation, life and death, light and dark. For that reason, most vampire magic throws those themes into conflict. Vampires have eternal life, but in a dead body.

Here are a few ideas for types of magic:

  • Elemental Magic. Earth, Water, Fire, Air. This could be the ability to manipulate nature (ie., control an existing fire, make a river suddenly roar up like a herd of racing horses, etc.) or it could be the ability to use the elements and “create” something that doesn’t exist (make water fountain in the desert, raise mountains, start fires, etc.).
  • Demon / Djinn Magic. Magic worked by summoning demons or djinns. Ofetn involves knowing “names” of demons/djinns and using some sort of summoning spell to enslave them. The demon/djinn is often collared or cuffed (with magical enslavement manacles) and often tied to some physical device.
  • Witchcraft/Wizardry. Usually involves spells, potions, wands etc. Typically considered a “craft” in that study improves abilities, but most witches/wizards are born with magical ability.
  • Psy Talents. “Magic” worked through mental powers. Includes telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, precognition, etc. Genetic manipulation, some sort of “awakening event” (ie, near death experience, radiation, etc.) or hereditary influence are three common causes for psy talents.
  • Weather Magic. Ability to control or manipulate wind, storms, rain, lightning, etc.
  • Beast Magic. Often involves communication or control of animals, birds, and/or fishes. Sometimes includes shape-shifting. Sometimes merely allows the user to see through the eyes and senses of animals. Some forms of “beast magic” take the form of “totem animals” where a particular beast spirit guides the magic-wielder or has some sort of psychic connection to him or becomes the type of animal a magic-wielder can shift into.
  • Rock/Crystal Magic. Ability to wield magical powers using crystals. Often used for healing, scrying, etc.
  • Metallurgical Magic. Magic tied to specific types of metal objects (often swords, mail, sheilds, etc have special magical properties. Typically, metallurgical magic is imbued by special forging / smelting techniques. (Dwarven axes, Elvish swords, etc.
  • Astrological/Planetary Magic. Magic tied to the movement of the stars, moons and planets in the heavens. Often used for precognitive events and for “special days” where certain magical events can only happen during specific planetary/solar/universal alignment events.
  • Blood Magic. Blood is frequently used as a vital component in performing magical rituals. As, literally, the liquid of life, blood frequently has inherent magical abilities. Often used for “sacrificial” magical spells.
  • Necromancy. Magic associated with the ghosts and spirits of the dead.
  • Bone/Relic Magic. Runes are frequently etched on the bones of animals, witches, saints and used to fortel the future. Holy relics collected and presumed to have “holy” magical abilities were bones of saints, bits of cloth from clothes they wore, splinters from the cross, etc.
  • Creature Magic. Magical creatures often can transfer certain of their magical powers to individuals who have/use part of the creature. Dragon scales, for instance, could be used for an unbreakable shield, Dragon’s teeth for a poisonous sword or dagger, the pelt of a griffin might be impervious to flame, for instance. Creatures can also have special magical powers of their own that characters can use/covet. Unicorns horn is said to purify waters, for instance, and as we all saw in Harry Potter, phoenix tears have death-defying healing powers.
  • Divine Magic. Gods can impart gifts to their favorites. Such gifts, however, usually come with a high price. Prayers/miracles and direct deity-intervention are also possible forms of magic.
  • Mirror Magic. Mirrors have long been considered as having magical properties. They could be windows to the past or future, scrying devices, even portals to another world
  • Time Magic. The ability to manipulate time, time travel, etc.

As you can tell by just the (actually very SMALL!) list above, the types of magic are limited only by your imagination.

Consequences of Magic

If there is magic in your world, there are consequences of that magic. Because necessity is the motherhood of invention, technology (science) is far less likely to thrive in a society where magic is prevalent. Why invent a computer when a wizard can create magical implements that do the same thing? Why worry about telegraphs when psychics can just send thoughts zooming at light speed?

Now, if magic is not ubiquitous, its perfectly reasonable to expect that non-magical beings will turn to science as a counterbalance and as a form of self-defense (or find some other way to “control” the magical ones. Ooh! loads of opportunity for conflict there!).

This is not to say it’s impossible to create worlds where science and magic blend. Star Wars (laser guns vs. light sabers and “The Force”) did it quite nicely, and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series combine the magic of dragons (telepathy, teleportation) with science as well. (Though in her books, the more advanced society lost a vast amount of their scientific advances and reverted to a more “medieval” society before engaging in a renaissance of scientific discovery and exploration.)

Whatever your magic, you should consider how it fits in (1) the context of your story and story themes and (2) the context of your world. And don’t forget: take your time to create thorough, well-thought out rules for your magic, and be sure to follow them!

Happy writing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *