Speculative Fiction Writing Made Simple

7 Crucial Steps to Creating a Captivating Magic System For Your Novel | Episode 15

March 28, 2024 Heather Davis Season 1 Episode 15
Speculative Fiction Writing Made Simple
7 Crucial Steps to Creating a Captivating Magic System For Your Novel | Episode 15
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Snag my FREE workbook: resources.manyworldswriting.com/magic

Ever wondered how to create an interesting and compelling magic system that readers will love? 

In this episode I’m breaking down exactly how to create a magic system that works.


 In this episode you’ll learn:


  1. The crucial importance of weaving an engaging magic system into your fantasy world.
  2. Differentiating between soft and hard magic systems, and knowing which to employ for maximum impact.
  3. A comprehensive 7-step guide to fashioning a magic system that is both intricate and internally consistent.
  4. Witness the creation of a magic system through a detailed example, illuminating every facet of the creative process.
Speaker 1:

One of the biggest mistakes I see speculative fiction writers make is not creating a believable and compelling magic system for their world. After all, most readers come to fantasy novels looking to be captivated, and nothing captivates them quite like a new and exciting magic system. Hello and welcome to the Speculative Fiction Writing Made Simple podcast. I'm your host, heather Davis. I'm a book coach, developmental editor and fellow storyteller, and this is the show that's all about how to brainstorm, write, edit, publish and sell a powerful speculative fiction novel and maybe just change the world too.

Speaker 1:

Magic systems they are the delicious cherry on top of a great fantasy novel. In fact, they're one of the most memorable parts of a novel because they make the story world feel so rich, intricate and unforgettable. They capture our imaginations in a way that few other things do, and we remember them long after the plot details have slipped away. For example, if you're like most of us, you probably remember reading the Harry Potter series way back in the day. I'll be honest, the first book was released when I was 19, but that didn't stop me from being completely wrapped up in the magic. My favorite part of the magic system, well, I loved the magic transportation called Apparition and, of course, I was fascinated by the three unforgivable curses Avada, kedavra, crucio and Imperio, and I still have my light-up Harry Potter wand no apologies. Or, if you're more into adult fantasy novels, I have another example for you the Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin. In that particular series, there are magic users called Origines who control the Earth's movements. In fact, the first novel opens with a powerful origin using his magic to fracture a supercontinent called the Stillness, setting off a catastrophic climate change called the Fifth Season. And let's not forget about the novel Babel by RF Kwong, which was released in 2022. In that novel, there is a subtle magic produced in the translation of a word from one language to another. When a translation pair is inscribed into a silver bar, the meaning that is lost in translation will become an actual magical force. Pretty cool, right?

Speaker 1:

But how do we, as speculative fiction writers, create magic systems that capture our readers' imagination and leave them wanting more? That's a really good question, and the answer is something I talk to writers I work with about all the time. So let's dive in and break it all down. There are seven important steps to creating a captivating magic system. I'm going to go through each step with you and while we go through the seven steps, I'll be developing a brand new magic system for a story. Just to show you how I use the process. This will really help you understand exactly how the process works and how you can implement it when creating your own magic system.

Speaker 1:

Now, sometimes, when you sit down to create a magic system, you already know exactly what you want your system to be, at least in general. But other times you're kind of stuck and all you really know is that you want to create an interesting one. For this exercise, I'm going to pretend to be a writer who really isn't sure what they want their magic system to be, but of course, you can still use this system to refine and hone your partially formed ideas. Step number one you need to think of a unique magic system, something familiar but with a new twist that will surprise and excite readers. And as you're creating the magic system, you want to ask yourself questions like what makes this system similar to systems I love in other books and how can I make this magic system unique and special? Again, I'm going to pretend to be a writer who really doesn't know what kind of a magic system I want to create, but let's also imagine that I really loved the magic system in Babel, so I want to create one with that general feel to it, but obviously I want to make it different enough to also thrill readers and not be copying RF Kuang's idea. I'm just using her work as a jumping off point for my own imagination and inspiration. Okay, so let's say that after some brainstorming, I decide that, instead of magic in the translation between words, what feels similar but different to me is magic in the creation of art, maybe specifically drawing or painting. After even more brainstorming, let's imagine that I settle on this scenario as a magic user paints or draws, they can actually make the things that are happening in their painting or drawing happen in the real world. Okay, that's a good start. Now I know how I want the magic to feel and I found a general idea that I like.

Speaker 1:

Step number two you need to understand exactly how your magic system works. Okay, there are several very important questions to think about in this section. Number one are you creating a hard or soft magic system? A soft magic system is one where the rules of the system aren't entirely understood by the reader and they might not entirely be understood by the protagonist either. The magic tends to have an almost mysterious feel to it, and it's common in the subgenre of magical realism.

Speaker 1:

Often, writers use a soft magic system when they really want to take the emphasis off of the intricacies of the magic itself and focus on the wonder of magic or some other aspect of the story, for instance character arc, plot, romance, political systems or something else. Also, in soft magic systems, magic tends to cause more problems than it solves. Some examples of stories using this type of magic system are Harry Potter by JK Rowling, star Wars by George Lucas, the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett and the Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. Hard magic systems are ones where the rules are almost entirely understood by the reader and the protagonist. This type of magic tends to have an almost workaday or scientific feel to it, and it's common in the subgenre of epic fantasy. Because the rules and costs of this type of magic are well understood to both the character and the reader, it tends to be used to solve problems. Some examples of stories using this type of magic system are the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, a Wizard of the Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin and the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.

Speaker 1:

But keep in mind no matter which type of magic system you're creating for your novel, you still need to understand it 100%, down to its bones, because if you don't, it will end up feeling disjointed, illogical and inconsistent to the reader and they'll get frustrated and give up. Okay, let's jump back into my example. I've decided to create a magic system around art and I think that this novel is going to be in the dark fantasy subgenre. So I really like the idea of creating a soft magic system for this novel, because art feels sort of mysterious and magical all on its own and I really want to lean into that.

Speaker 1:

Okay, let's move on to the next question what are the parameters of the magic system? So there are actually some questions about the parameters that I like to answer in my first wave of creation. Number one what can it do? Number two what can't it do? Number three under what conditions does it work? Number four under what conditions doesn't it work? Number five how is magic acquired, genetically or through learning? And six what is the cost or huge obstacle to using magic? All right, I'm going to go back through each of these questions and answer them.

Speaker 1:

For my example, magic system. So what can it do? Well, it can manipulate physical reality. If you can paint it, you can create it. So, for example, if you paint an erupting volcano in the city, one will form in the city and erupt. Number two what can't it do? This is a pretty big question, actually, and probably one of the more important ones that you can answer so that the magic doesn't begin to feel fuzzy and illogical to readers. So I really want to establish a nice firm boundary for my magic. So here are some things it can't do. It can't bring back the dead, it can't alter history, it can't alter people's actions or thoughts, etc. So really, this magic system is confined to manipulating physical structures, physical reality. All right.

Speaker 1:

Number three under what conditions does it work? Well, the artist, I think, would need to be in a state of flow. Right, I think that would be fun, because being in a state of flow is notoriously hard to control. It's not something that they can just do all the time. It kind of has a little bit of an element of chance to it, right? All right. Number four under what conditions doesn't it work? Well, this is kind of the flip side of the last one. It doesn't work if the artist isn't in flow. So they can't force it, and if they get interrupted or distracted it just doesn't work.

Speaker 1:

Number five how is magic acquired? Genetically or through learning? Well, I think that it kind of runs genetically through families. But the magic user would still need to spend years studying advanced art techniques to achieve the kind of flow necessary to make the magic really powerful. That way I can still have I really love genetic components in this sort of thing, but I can also have the idea of mastery in there as well. All right.

Speaker 1:

Number six what is the cost or huge obstacle to using this magic? And I kind of always want an obstacle or a cost, because otherwise the characters who have the magic would just be too powerful. So I kind of already built in one obstacle or cost. It's really an obstacle. It's that you have to be in flow and you really can't control that. So right there I'm sort of making a huge obstacle for my characters to use it. But I also think having a cost would also be fun. Maybe when characters use too much of this magic, or maybe when they use it for too long or try to do really big magical things, it will temporarily take away their senses. So temporarily they'll become blind and deaf and mute, and if they use too much and keep going, even when they should stop, they might lose all of their senses forever and be in sort of this limbo within their own brain. I think that could be fun, because it adds an element of true danger to using this magic.

Speaker 1:

I want to add a little side note here. When you're trying to answer these questions about your magic, don't be afraid to use AI for inspiration. I've used it for inspiration, and so have many of the writers that I work with. I don't suggest using exactly what it spits out to you, but you can iterate on what it gives you as a part of your brainstorming process. For example, if I were creating this magic system and I couldn't think of a cost, or maybe I didn't like the one that I came up with, I could go ask ChatGTP for some ideas. Then I could use those ideas for inspiration and I could iterate on them and change them until they really fit the tone of my story and they fit exactly what I was trying to say.

Speaker 1:

Step number three the magic system needs to fit the tone of your novel. For example, if your novel's tone is whimsical, then the magic system should reflect and accentuate that feeling. Going back to my example magic system, the tone of my novel is dark and dangerous, so the magic system should embody those traits. I can do that by making the cost of magic dark and dangerous, which I've already done. I can also do that by creating scenes in the novel where using the magic causes dark and dangerous things to happen. Finally, I can do that by letting the world the magic users live in have a negative or problematic view of magic.

Speaker 1:

Step number four your magic system needs to be fully integrated into the world of the novel. So in order to do that, you need to make sure to answer the following questions as a jumping off point. Number one how do people feel about magic in general? Number two does the government regulate it? Number three if the government does regulate it, how and what are the consequences of having or using magic in this society? And number four what's the history of magic in this world? Okay, I'm going to go back through those questions and use my magic system as an example.

Speaker 1:

Number one how do people feel about magic in general? Well, I think in this world they fear it because it's seen as consuming, unpredictable and too powerful, and artists are seen as unstable, tortured souls who are mentally ill and who are too emotional. Number two does the government regulate it? Yes, in this world, I think the government does regulate it being an artist is illegal and art is completely banned. Number three if the government does regulate it, how and what are the consequences for having or using magic in the society? I'm going to go super Fahrenheit 451 here and say that there are city patrol officers who periodically inspect houses and they burn any art or art supplies that they find. There's even a reward system for turning in neighbors who you think might own art or be making art, and if you're found to have contraband items in your house, you're sent to a brutal prison for magic users. So all of this actually goes along with my novel's tone, which is dark and dangerous, and its subgenre, which is dark fantasy.

Speaker 1:

Question number four what's the history of magic in this world? Okay, this is going to need more development, but what I'm thinking now is that the magic must have played a huge part in something political in the past. So maybe there was a civil war a few hundred years ago and there were two opposing factions, one that supported art and creativity and the other that was heavily into censorship and maybe the magic users helped turn the tide of the war in a bloody battle, but unfortunately their side ended up losing anyway, and after that art was not only censored but it was deemed dangerous and illegal because it was so powerful. Yeah, this definitely still needs a lot of fleshing out, but it's a pretty good start. Step number five determine if your magic system is a vehicle for the theme and, if it is, explore that connection. Now, using your magic as a vehicle for the theme is not mandatory, but it is something that many speculative fiction writers use it for, so you should probably at least explore the possibility. It might make your novel richer and more meaningful if you do. As for my novel, I've decided that, yes, my magic system will definitely be a vehicle for the theme. At its core, the theme of my novel revolves around the consequences of stifling creativity and the intrinsic value of free expression. So maybe the theme, what I call the point or the message of the novel, is that creative expression may feel dangerous, but ultimately it's the only path to a free and inclusive world. Meaning that's the point I'll be trying to make as I plan the scenes of my novel and develop a character arc for my protagonist.

Speaker 1:

Step number six you need to be able to convey how your magic system works in 100 words or fewer. For the magic system that I'm creating, I came up with this In a world where art is a conduit for powerful magic. Children from magical families possess an innate but weak ability to manipulate physical reality by drawing or painting. With age and practice, they can refine and strengthen their skills and learn how to profoundly alter physical reality. However, magic's potency is tempered by the necessity for the artist to be in a state of flow. Also, excessive or prolonged use causes magic users to temporarily lose their ability to see, hear, talk, smell and feel. If they continue to use the magic, this state could be permanent. Step number seven make sure your magic system maintains internal logic. Maintains internal logic Meaning as you continue to explore and deepen your magic system after this initial brainstorming session, you need to make sure that it continues to make sense within the parameters of the world that you've created. The very best way to do that is by continuing to ask yourself questions and dig down to the deepest answers you can get to. Here are some questions that I constantly ask myself when I'm creating a magic system. Why did that happen? When did that happen? Who did that? What happened to cause that? What happened after that? What was the effect of that?

Speaker 1:

Let me give you a little example of this using my hypothetical magic system in this hypothetical novel that I'm writing. Imagine that I decide that my protagonist is a teenage girl who just figured out she has this power. So I ask why is she just figuring this out now? Well, maybe she was adopted and never knew her birth family. So then I ask what happened to her birth family? Why didn't she know them? Why was she put up for adoption? Well, maybe they were arrested and sent to prison because they were magic users. So I ask does she know she was adopted or is this a big surprise to her? So I think it would be more fun if she didn't know. She was adopted Secretly.

Speaker 1:

She's always doodled little animals in her school notebook, but one day she doodles a little dragonfly and it appears in the real world. Now, horrified by what happened, she starts searching for answers and she finds adoption papers in her mother's drawer. Okay, hopefully you can see what I'm doing here. Every time I come up with a possible scenario or something that I want to have happen in my novel. I come up with a possible scenario or something that I want to have happen in my novel. I always start asking myself questions and I let those questions lead me deeper and deeper, to a more intricate truth, and so that I really understand every layer of what I'm writing and there aren't these inconsistencies lying around for the reader to stumble over. So this whole brainstorming session about my protagonist just started out with me saying, well, why was she a teenage girl who is just finding out she has power, which led me to her being adopted, which led me to all of these other things about her? So that's how you do this process of asking yourself questions to lead yourself to deeper answers.

Speaker 1:

Okay, writers, if you are really ready to create a captivating magic system for your novel, please go ahead and grab the free workbook that I've created for you. The link is right in the show notes. Anyway, I hope this episode was really helpful to you and, if it was, please take a moment to follow this podcast and leave a review. It's a great way to show your support and let me know that you're interested in hearing more. Until next time, keep writing, keep dreaming and remember. The world needs your stories right now, so don't you dare give up on your novel or yourself. See you next time.

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