World Building: Magic Systems
Worldbuilding is the part of the writer's craft that establishes the very world(s) that your story is set in. In genres like Sci-Fi and Fantasy, worldbuilding must take center stage in the writing process if the you want to craft a great story. As a fantasy author, I have become well accustomed to worldbuilding. In fact, it has not only become my favorite aspect of the craft (aside from the writing itself), but it is actually what drew me to the genre. That being said, worldbuilding is every bit as big as the word suggests. In this series, I will be diving into each of the major areas of worldbuilding; Magic Systems, Settings, Cultures, Technology, Economy, and History.
When I first decided to finally put together this series, my number one goal was to help as many writers as possible—regardless of the genre they write in. Then I had the dubious task of determining which major categories or aspects of worldbuilding should come come first. Now every writer has their own right way of doing this, but it can be a bit of a chicken or the egg debate for a lot of us. What I have learned through my writing, is that depending on the prevalence and import of magic in your story, it could be incredibly beneficial and rewarding to start with the magic system(s) first.
Now I know that not everyone who comes here writes fantasy, but does that mean your writing is truly devoid of "magic"? That's up for you to decide. Now it is in this vein, that I use the term "magic system" in the broadest sense. To simplify that, if anything in your writing behaves in a manner outside of the normal laws of nature, then you probably have some form of magic. Everything from vampires to superheroes to Jedi to fireball hurling wizards would apply.
Why should I focus on building my magic system before other parts of my world?
This is a great question. My take on it that one of the marks of a great story is a rich world. Well what makes a world rich? Depth. So how do we get depth? We do worldbuilding in layers. Okay so what does that have to do with magic? Everything.
Ask yourself these questions. What would our world look like if magic were real? Would it look the same? Would it feel the same? What about our health and our lifespans? What about wars? What about education? What about jobs? What about economies? What about landmasses and geological structures? What about infrastructure? Would cities even look the same? Would trees look the same?
In the article titled, 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding, Charlie Jane Anders remarked:
If your pitch is, "It's just like our world, except everybody can turn invisible at will," then you've already failed. Because if everybody could turn invisible at will, it wouldn't be anything like our world. Especially if this power had been around for more than a few months. Whether you're creating an alternate history or a secondary world or a far future, any technology or power you introduce is going to have far-reaching effects — not just first-order effects, but second- and third-order effects, too. Going with the "invisibility" example, you'd have people using it to spy on each other — but you'd also have a huge boom in heat sensors. We'd start redefining the whole concept of privacy, and pop culture would be massively transformed. There would be whole art forms based around invisible performers, and it might be legal to shoot an invisible intruder on sight (on smell?). You could be here for hours imagining all the ways that the universal power of invisibility would change the world, and you'd probably still just be scratching the surface.
She's 100% correct. Great authors do an incredible job of answering these questions. In the Malazan series, Steven Erikson has an entire series of different realms of power each inhabited by some major or minor god. Even the sea in Erikson's book is believed to be some sort of real or perhaps a prison for demons or gods. In his Stormlight Archive series Brandon Sanderson takes it even further, because the source of power that infused this world with magical energy, has actually transformed the world itself. How? The magic transformed the weather, which left everything from the flora to the fauna to architecture and society to adjust, or perish. Sanderson could not have, in any way, added the magical system on as a layer on top of his worldbuilding masterpiece. For him, it was the foundational layer. The end result, adds an incredible level of depth that readers crave, and it will bring your story to life.
Okay, so my writing has magic in it, where do I go from here?
If you haven't already, the first thing you need to do is to understand what type of magic system is right for your story. There are two general schools of thought on the subject. One school of thought prefers "soft magic", the likes found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf's magic is never really defined, and is rather left to be nebulous at best. One moment Gandalf is running for his life from goblins, and then a few pages later he is all waxing poetic, "I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin." And that was when he was Gandalf the Grey, forget about when he was resurrected to a more powerful color in the wizard spectrum, and we as the readers never find out how or why.
Now I'm not hating on Gandalf or Tolkien. In fact, while soft magic systems do present some issues, they can actually be used to your advantage. The first and foremost is that by leaving the nature and source of power a complete mystery, you can create a sense of awe and wonder because you never really know the full extent of the power of the white wizards of your world. It also has the added benefit of giving you more freedom, because if you don't have clearly established rules, then it will be awful hard for readers to call you out for breaking them. Hard Magic on the other hand is what you will find in Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson's works. These are well developed systems that have a clearly defined set of rules that present possibilities, limitations, and drawbacks. Both of these two authors do a fantastic job of creating fantastic systems, and generally playing within their rules. That is not to say that all the secrets are revealed up front or known to the protagonists or the readers, instead learning how the magic works is often a part of the journey. So as the story goes on, you learn about the magic system while the character does. Clever authors also use this opportunity to sometimes omit or misguide the characters, and therefore the readers, to draw incorrect conclusions. This allows surprises and twists that still allow them to not break their own rules. Some of the benefits of a hard magic system is that it invites readers to become more engaged while they read, as they often try to process how the characters might use their magical abilities to get out of sticky situations. The best example of this that I've read is Brandon Sanderson's initial Mistborn trilogy. As a reader I was actively trying to anticipate how the characters would manipulate their powers of allomancy to overcome each challenge. It was so fun!
Hard Magic sounds neat, but rules sound—complicated and restricting... First off, if hard magic just doesn't suite you or your story, then don't force it! Seriously, save yourself the headache. That being said, it doesn't have to be complicated or restricting, because you are the one who makes the rules. Rules can be as complex or simplistic as you'd like, it's your system.
In my Beating Back the Darkness series, there are two basic sources of power, each with their own set or rules. The one predominant source of magic is called the Qarii. Though it does go deeper than that, at it's core the Qarii has three basic rules:
It requires "fuel".
While the fuel is a renewable resource, it takes time to "renew".
The usage of the Qarii literally inflicts severe physical pain on the caster.
You know what else has three basic rules? Rock, paper, scissors.
Rock beats scissors.
Scissors beats paper. Paper beats rock.
What if in your world scissors beats rock?
So it sounds like you're telling to that hard magic is better? Nope. That is entirely up to you! Just like readers, some authors have a strong preference of one over the other, while others couldn't care less. I personally write more hard magic, but my writing rarely has a single source of magic or power. In those cases I sometimes sprinkle in a dash of soft magic. In the end you need to write what you enjoy, just figure out what that is early, and then be consistent. Okay, so I've got my magic system figured out, what's next? Remember those questions you asked yourself earlier? Now it's time to answer them.
What would our world look like if magic were real? Would it look the same? Would it feel the same? What about our health and our lifespans? What about wars? What about education? What about jobs? What about economies? What about landmasses and geological structures? Would trees look the same? What about infrastructure? Would cities even look the same? Can everyone use magic? Would the world even have religions? Would people worship magic, or magic users?
...and so many more questions!
And the answers to those questions will help lead you through the rest of this series.
Worldbuilding I - Magic Systems
Worldbuilding II - History
Worldbuilding III - Setting
Worldbuilding IV - Cultures
Worldbuilding V - Technology
Worldbuilding VI - Economy