Worldbuilding: Magic Systems

“Elemental Evolution” by bdotward.

This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

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I have to be honest: I am running out of steam with this series.  So today, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna be a little bit lazy.

If you’re writing fantasy, read this article by Brandon Sanderson, if you haven’t already.  (And here is a continuation of the concepts in that article.)  I think it’s the best I’ve come across on the topic of magic systems and will be basing the rest of this post on it.

What kind of magic system(s) have you worked with?

I’ve been experimenting with what Brandon Sanderson calls a “middle ground” magic system, with an emphasis on the soft side.  There are no fancy spells or long drawn-out rules, though there is consistency.  There is some explanation as to how it all works, but I generally want it to be a mystery to readers.  An elementalist can only use their powers if their element is present in their surroundings.  (And in the case of fire-wielders, they must use matches or lighters to produce and work with a flame until they’ve become advanced enough to make things “spontaneously combust.”)

However, because I’m using a “softer” system, I tend not to use magic to get my characters out of a tight fix, as Brandon’s article talks about.  If they win a battle it isn’t always because they were better elementalists.  It’s usually because they were smarter about the way they used their abilities and/or their environment or had some other skill which gave them an edge.  (They aren’t at all like your all-powerful Jedi Knights.  Well, with the exception of two secondary characters, but they’re just extreme freaks of nature–exceptional elementalists at their prime.)  Maybe they even had the element of surprise.

(The biggest problems in Element 7 cannot be solved with magic anyway because they are problems of human nature.  The ability of those few who are able to manipulate the elements is one of the greatest problems in the first place.  How do you live in a world beside people with such an ability?  Could it ever be safe?)

These are the kind of things I like to consider before I decide to use magic.

How about you?  If you are writing fantasy, what kind of magic system do you use?


4 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Magic Systems

  1. >I'm also using a softer system. The consequences of magic prevent the users from wanting to use it much. It's also not the reason the characters succeed(It's more of a hinderance). I appreciate complex magic systems, but I'm not a fan of writing them 🙂


  2. >Any sort of "magic" that I write about is stuff with an actual physiological explanation. It's rooted in amping up human potential.Super strength – how many stories of people performing incredible feats during crises have their been?Intuition, ESP – I've poured over so many books when I wrote about this topic. Many believe we all have it, some a little more than others.But I've always had a keen interest on elements like earth, water, air, and fire. Since everything is just energy moving at a certain vibration, what if a person could maniupalte that vibration?Magic doesn't necessarily have to be so mystical for it to be cool


  3. >I think you're right, Jay: Some of the most interesting "magic" systems are ones that have plausible explanations. Superhuman strength seems less like magic than, say, casting spells does. It's easier to relate to because, as you say, it's just human potential amped up.It's funny–I don't really consider ESP to be magic. I'm using it in my WIP, and I think this maybe be a reason why I don't even use the word magic in the story. (I want to avoid the label of "paranormal," though, so I'm sticking to "fantasy." And it isn't technical enough to be science fiction.)I like to think there's an explanation for everything out there somewhere; I just don't want to know all the details, heh. I don't have that kind of brain.


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