World-building: Creating a Credible Magic System

Hi everyone! Today we have a new face at the blog: author and ghostwriter Justin Attas. He’s in love with world-building and has some great ideas on how to ensure the magic systems we create are credible and logical, enhancing the world and the story line rather than becoming window dressing. Read on!

If I started breathing fire today, it would be magic.

Ten years from now, researchers would have dissected why it happened. Then it would be science.

When I write fantasy, or any genre incorporating magic, I live and die by this premise, because no matter the depth of study in your plot, when you use magic, it needs reason, method, and understanding to back it.

Magic is a catalyst for thousands of amazing stories, but also ten thousand more flat, unoriginal ones. The key is to make magic seem “real,” in the context of your world. One surefire way to help you do this is to make sure the concept of magic stands alone in your story.

What helps your magic stand alone? Its origin, uses, and how it changes the world. Of course, no idea is entirely original, but borrow from others only in inspiration, never in execution. Build your magic from the ground up, and it will be as real as the pages (or screens) under your readers’ fingers.

Origins: Where Does Magic Come From?

The easiest way to create “real” magic in your story is to find its origin. These details don’t necessarily need to be shared at the beginning of the story, but they should be one of the first things you brainstorm. If your world is filled with magic, that’s going to affect everything, including its history. Unless magic is a recent discovery, it will play some part in how everything evolved. (Imagine how different Earth would be if twenty percent of the population could commune with animals!)

So ask yourself, what made your fictional world magical? Did it fall from a mystical meteorite? Did the gods themselves impart gifts on those they chose, or everyone? Does magic emanate from a certain material, perhaps a mineral only found in the mines of a single mountain range? It is crucial that you not just answer one of these questions, then skip ahead to the flashy spell casting. Deciding the origin of magic will form the rest of your world.

To demonstrate, if your magic came from the aforementioned mineral, how long ago was it discovered? Are the first people to find it now more prosperous than others? What regulations have authorities put on this precious material? Only three question, but these details will make the magic feel more authentic and your world will become more layered and interesting.

Uses: Who Uses Magic, and How?

After you’ve handled how magic got there it’s time to enjoy the arguably most fun part: what does it do? Remember, this is your world. Don’t feel constrained by predecessors’ work. When most people think of magic, they picture classic elementalism- manipulation of fire, water, air, or earth. You certainly can birth an interesting story from this if you use a unique twist. But don’t be afraid to make magic do, well, whatever you want. So long as you can explain it, go ahead and give your sorceress the ability to tear thoughts from a brain and bring them to life as a spectral servant.

Once you decide what the magic will actually do, there’s a plethora of choices to make regarding magic users. Are people born with natural propensity for one type or the other? Perhaps, in your world, people must study to learn magic. If so, decide what sorts of magical teachers and schools there are. People might learn the arcane arts from tomes in solitude, have a singular mentor, or attend a massive magical university. There’s a huge range to play with, and you should have fun doing it!

Need help with knowing what questions to ask about the magic in your world? Look into One Stop for Writers’ Worldbuilding Surveys.

Your World: How Does Magic Change it?

Next we want to consider how magic changes your world, and answer in every way possible. Culture. Government. Social structure. Education. War. Spare no expense on how magic fits into your story. It helps to compare your fictional world to our own. Picture all the things magic can do, and transplant that to Earth. How would it change the things mentioned above? You’ll need to tweak a few things for allowances of time period and technology, but the exercise will give you an idea of how magic affects your fictional world.

Never forget that the ultimate purpose of including a magic system is to tell a unique story. Not every detail about how magic works and what it influences needs to be stated in the story (we don’t want a pile of information dumps) but the most important aspects should fit into your plot and push the story forward. Without a compelling reason to include it, a magic system becomes a flashy coating on an otherwise dull story.

Justin Attas is a professional ghostwriter. He has written twelve novels across genres including: western, science fiction, supernatural, mystery, and crime thriller. Justin is also the author of the science fiction novel, Strand: the Silver Radio. He has a background in education, which he uses to create articles and videos to help other writers along on their journeys. As someone who had a crooked journey to writing himself, Justin aims to use his experience and skills to encourage anyone with the soul of a writer to grab a pen and start writing.

Justin’s Youtube Channel is an ever-growing resource for writers, so check it out, read his ebook, or explore his website for a comprehensive look at the writing life.

How do you go about ensuring your magic system stands up to story logic? Do you have any favorite resources you use? Let me know in the comments!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Backstory, Characters, Description, Guest Post, Setting, Show Don't Tell, worldbuilding, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to World-building: Creating a Credible Magic System

  1. A great post, and most helpful. I love building worlds and the magic in them.
    In my Wolves of Vimar series, magic flows around the land in a similar way to ‘ley lines’ on Earth. Where two or more meet, they form a node, and magic is stronger there. It does not work too well with water, though, and sinks down around rivers, lakes, seas etc.
    Some powerful nodes have specific effects, like the one in Hambara where the only known surviving Mage Tower exists. It has an effect on space, and the tower is larger inside than it should be. (There is another place in the world where a node has a different effect, but that’s for another time.)
    Mages can manipulate the magic to create other effects, but it has a debilitating effect on the mage, as well as filling him/her with euphoria.
    In my Elemental Worlds books, the magic is endowed into gems by certain skilled people. It can only be wielded from the gem. Different gems do different things, and need recharging. But in these books, the advent of science is diminishing magic and some magical creatures are disappearing.

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  3. I LOVE world building. It’s one of the parts of the process where I can get hung up for a really long time. The magic element is almost a world of its own, with so many things to iron out before you start writing. Thanks for these tips!

  4. Harmony Kent says:

    Thanks for a great post, Justin. I’ve reblogged this on: https://harmonykent.co.uk/world-building-creating-a-credible-magic-system-writers-helping-writers/ and tweeted. Have a great weekend 🙂

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  6. What I love about world building is starting with a blank slate—magic can be anything, and come from anywhere as long as we build the logic into it. This allows us to really get creative! Thanks for the great food for thought, Justin!

  7. ChemistKen says:

    Another thing to consider is the boundaries of that magic system, for example, the cost of using magic or the limits of that magic. Without adding those into your magic system, you’ll have runaway magic and the story will suffer.

    Thanks for the post, Justin!

    • I absolutely agree. If you don’t draw a line somewhere, readers will start to question what your magic CAN’T do. It may come off as a solve-all for every problem, which really weakens the conflict. So glad you enjoyed the post!

      I would love to connect more! Find my on my YouTube channel, my writing help headquarters here: http://bit.ly/roadsidewriter

      • Dylan says:

        Full Metal Alchemist manga series has a restriction on it magic/Alchemy system based on equivalent exchange. Where for example certain amount of ammonium nitrate can only change into equal of ammonium gas used for explosive material.

  8. Dylan says:

    What are your thoughts on Harry Potter books and movies? The magic in that series has every aspect you wrote about here. I think it blends the magic and the real world very well.

    • I read Harry Potter growing up and I absolutely loved the series. Some people gripe that Rowling isn’t that great of a technical writer, but I see her as a master storyteller.

      She did an amazing job conveying a consistent tone in her world and in magic. Never once reading those books was I taken out of the story by something that didn’t seem to “fit” with her concept of magic. It was very organic which made it a wonderful aspect of the story and helped the plot in every way.

      I would love to connect more! Find me on my YouTube channel, my writing help headquarters here: http://bit.ly/roadsidewriter

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