How I Created My Magic System

Yesterday, I debated whether or not sharing details about my worldbuilding fit into the purpose of this blog. I decided to compromise. I’ll disguise said sharing as a “how-to” guide — a subterfuge that probably would have been more successful had I not warned you about it…

I’ve stated before that I’m a storyteller. Worldbuilding is far down my list of priorities. I’m coming to understand, however, that a great concept combined with great craft generates the best results. It’s too late to change anything for my Power universe, but, perhaps, I’ll try to think up a really cool idea for a future series.

Regardless, what I ended up with for Power is far better than my original concept. Are you ready for the mind-blowing originality of that first idea?

Magic based on the four elements.

Yep.

My great innovation? I was going to add two mages — one dealing with life magic and one with death.

First Step: Come up with a concept.

After one of my early beta readers/mentors told me that elemental magic is so overuses as to be unviable (that’s somewhat debatable; I’m not necessarily against reusing old concepts), I came up with a new concept — magic based on controlling energy.

Second Step: Make concept simple enough to convey in your story.

In all, there are a whopping ten types of mages, each based on a form of energy. I needed to limit those for the first book. When you’re introducing a new system, you want to firmly establish each concept before moving onto the next and do it in an interesting way. You’re writing a story, not a textbook.

Can you imagine trying to establish ten different types of magic? I didn’t want to devote the story space necessary to do so. Instead, for Power of the Mages, I focused on four of the types, though I mentioned the existence of the others without any detail. I justified the exclusion by having the four types I use be more common, comprising the vast majority of all magic users born.

The four are:

Alchemist – Controls the energy of chemical reactions, of which fire is the most common. This type allowed me to keep most of what I had written about my “fire mage” intact.

Kineticist – Controls the energy of motion, can impart speed and direction to an object at rest or stop an object in motion.

Masser – Controls potential energy by increasing or decreasing an object’s mass.

Death Mage – In my universe, life is a form of energy. By adding life to an injured person, you can heal them. By draining it, you can kill someone.

I also mention a Blighter as the bogeyman, a mage type that the noble use to justify executing anyone born with magical ability. This person can cause nuclear explosions.

Third Step: Limit the power.

After creating a foundation for my system and determining some of the types, the most important step is to limit the power. First, I created the stipulation that, with the exception of the death mage, no magic user can directly affect another person (thanks for the idea, Mr. Sanderson). With this limitation, the mundane have at least a small chance, albeit tiny, of defeating a mage.

The next bound (SPOILER AHEAD – don’t read this paragraph if you wish to eventually read Power of the Mages and be surprised at a key point) was to give mages the ability to block each other’s magic. Again, a completely necessary constraint for storytelling.

Fourth Step: Add complexity.

Finally, I created some complexities that aided my plot. I needed for my mages to be able to communicate over distance and, like Wheel of Time, gave them the ability to dream to each other. Instead of creating a dream world, I rationalized this trait by connecting them all to a “lake” of magic. Their power gives them access to the magic source and, through it, to each other.

Also, since my mages control energy instead of elements, I wanted to give my alchemist a little more of a weapon then just setting someone’s clothes on fire. I decided that the mage, as a part of manipulating the energy, can build up a vast reservoir of fire while containing it. He can then target an enemy and imagine a pinpoint hole in the barrier he created, causing a fiery death ray.

For the last limit, I need the magic to take some kind of toll on the user. I likened using magic to physical strain, and, if a mage overextends, it causes them to pass out.

Tips on Building a Fantasy Magic System

Before I get to the topic of today’s post, I need some input from my readers. I’ve been discussing my blog with one of my author friends. It’s his opinion that I should add more reader-friendly content. I know that this blog is geared toward writers and other bloggers, and, frankly, I don’t want to change that no matter the potential advantages.

On the other hand, would it hurt to add in a few articles about my world in particular?

On the other hand from that, would it actually add anything to do so? Is anyone out there actually interested in stuff like the magic system I created for Power of the Mages?

I’d love some feedback in the comments section.

Now, on with the show…

There are two types of speculative fiction writers — those who believe that speculative fiction writers can be grouped into two categories and those who… Yes, I know that I’ve used this joke before. Yes, I know that it wasn’t all that funny the first time.

There are two types of speculative fiction writers (for the purposes of this post, anyway) — those who create a world as background for their stories, and those who create stories to showcase their world. I’m definitely a storyteller.

In the end, though, I don’t think it much matters which you are. Worldbuilders have to tell stories, and storytellers, for speculative fiction, have to build worlds.

For fantasy, the major portion of that world, almost a character unto itself, is the magic system. Here are some considerations when creating yours:

1. Be consistent. That’s the most important advice I can give you. You can do anything you want with your magic, but you have to stay true to the rules that you create. I suggest spending a lot of time thinking about the ramifications of each piece of information you come up with and keeping a comprehensive list/guide.
2. Don’t let your magic be overpowering. Tension is created by the reader’s doubt that your character can accomplish his goal. If he has access to superpowerful magic, your opposition has to be even more superpowerful, and, after a while, your story risks becoming ridiculous with the escalation.
3. Magic should be simple enough to understand but complex enough to create surprises and twists. You need to be able to explain the broad strokes of your system to your reader using a few simple paragraphs. When the magic is first encountered, you can’t spend a whole chapter detailing the ins and outs. Instead, you need to show them just a taste and expand their knowledge from there. On the other hand, if it’s too simple, there’s no room for that great zing moment later in the book/series.
4. Magic needs to create as many problems as it solves. Tension drives interest, so, if magic solves all the characters’ problems, you don’t have a story.

It occurs to me that all my tips deal with using magic to tell a story whether than how to create a magic system. Maybe it does matter whether you’re a storyteller or a worldbuilder.