How to Build a Marvelous Magic System
Welcome back! I’m glad you’re here; I’ve got something extra special for you today.
Since starting this blog, I have worked as hard as I can to deliver everything you need to build your best magic system yet. Consequently, there is a lot of information here on magic systems.
And not to sound like a torture victim endlessly screaming the same phrase over and over again, but building a magic system can be a complicated and overwhelming process, especially if you haven’t done it before.
Today, we’re going to take several steps back and look at the process from a higher level. By the end, you’ll know the basics steps of building magic systems and where to go for more information. Let’s start at the beginning.
Before you can build anything, you need to understand what magic actually is.
'Magic is anything enabling actions beyond our current understanding or capability.' ~ C.R. RowensonClick To Tweet
We can then define a “Magic System” as the rules, limitations, and abilities that define how the magic works and what it can do. It should come as no surprise that such systems can be extremely versatile in their application. In fact, creators of all kinds use magic systems across most mediums and genres.
You can make a magic system fit in almost any story imaginable. The real question you have to ask is whether you need a magic system. If you love magic and want some in your story, then go for it. Personally, I think every story is better with a little magic thrown in.
If you’re still confused, consider reading What is a Magic System for more information.
I’m an engineer, so it should be no surprise to anyone that I like to structure and design my magic systems as much as I like playing with Legos… which are perfectly suitable for adults too, by the way.
Even if you aren’t naturally inclined to plan and structure, spending the time to plan your magic is worth it. A well-built system makes you look smarter, opens new options for your stories, further engages your readers, and generally leads to better fiction.
Normally, I try not to push my opinions on people, but this is my blog, so my word is law! And that means you must plan your system… you know, unless you don’t want to. In that case, you do you. Regardless, consider reading 4 Reasons Planned Magic is Better Magic if I haven’t convinced you.
This blog, obviously. Okay, lesson over. We can move on to the next segment.
Fine, I’ll be serious, but I won’t like it. There are a number of resources should be familiar with if you’re going to commit to building awesome magic.
No joking this time, I’ll wait for you.
Second on the list is Mythcreants. These guys run a terrific blog and podcast centered on tabletop roleplaying games, but they also throw in a good mix of storytelling advice and the occasional post on magic. They are definitely worth your attention.
Finally, there’s the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Obviously, they’re a great resource for American writers, but they also have a couple of terrific posts on building magic.
You can get the full rundown on all three of these resources in 3 Resources to Start Your Magic Now.
Now, Learn and Love the 4-ish Stages of Building Marvelous Magic Systems
Not too much to say here, honestly. It’s only something I whipped together as a labor of love, blood, and tears after a lifelong obsession with magic systems… Nothing major. I extracted this four-stage system from my own process. And it’s only gotten better the more I teach and refine it.
Before stepping into any of the stages, I highly recommend you read the actual post. The 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic Systems takes a high-level look at the process and its individual parts.
Which is what we’re going to dive into next. I love the four-stage approach so much, but I’ll try to keep it brief.
Originally, this stage didn’t exist. When I start building a new magic system, I usually jump right in with the magic. As soon as I started coaching others, it became painfully obvious that not everyone thinks like I do. Which is honestly a good thing because that would be horrifying.
The real trick with this stage is to find which aspect of your story gets you most excited and generates the most ideas. This can be the theme, the elemental genre, or even the bloodsucking lemmings that show up in chapter 12. Whatever it is, you take the momentum from Stage 0 and let it drag you headlong into Stage 1.
“If you want a good idea, have a lot of them.”
~ Thomas Edison
Once you know where to start, thanks to your Stage 0, you need to come up with as many bad, crazy, and awesome ideas as you can. I recommend focusing your brainstorming on three main pillars: Effects, Themes, and Really Cool Hats. Let’s look quickly at each.
Effects are pretty straightforward. The cover what your magic does, how people use it, and how it interacts with the world.
As for Really Cool Hats… well, if it’s cool and it’s related to your magic, then it’s a cool hat. This includes fun plot twists, terrible character conflicts, intriguing bits of world-building, or even those bloodsucking lemmings you’re so fond of.
That’s Stage 1 in a nutshell. Coming up with enough ideas can be rough; if you’re struggling, be sure to read 9 Brainstorming Tips and Tricks. I’d love to tell you more, but we’ve still got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s push on.
Take some time and check how your magic matches up with the other components of your story. Does it influence the characters? What about the plot? Setting? Theme? Genre? It better connect well with at least a couple of these or you’ve got some serious alignment issues.
Not sure what I mean? Read the full post and see if things make more sense.
If you’re still in the early stages of building your system, I’ve got an alignment exercise you really should try. I call it Speed Dating Your Magic. You can complete the exercise in under ten minutes and it will show you some things to be excited about even if it doesn’t get everything perfectly aligned.
Now you’re ready for the next stage.
This is where things start to get complicated for me.
We really don’t have time to dig deep into each of these, so I’m going to cover them each quickly and trust you to read the posts and get the full details for yourself.
There are lots of variables to consider and address, but there are three main types: Global Variables, System Variables, and User Variables.
Global Variables explain how the magic interacts with the world around it. System Variables focus on how the magic functions on its own. User Variables cover how characters use the magic and how it manifests around them.
There’s a lot more to this, so be sure to read 3 types of Magic System Variables when you have the chance.
The key here is limiting what is possible in your story and the options available to your characters. Sound like a bad thing? It’s actually a really good thing. Just check out Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic if you don’t trust me.
“Limitations are more important than abilities”
~ Brandon Sanderson
There are a lot of other ways boundary conditions will improve your magic. So take some time and read Why Boundary Conditions are Essential for Powerful Magic to get the full scoop.
Step 3: Find Relevant Equations
Which equations you need depends on how you addressed your variables and which boundary conditions you chose to apply. If, like me, you dive straight for the scientific principles and laws, you’ll want to understand at least some basic formulas on the topic. On the other hand, if you focus on self-fabricated rules and patterns, then you need to worry less about equations and focus more on relationships between parts of your system.
The important thing is to have a concrete idea how the different variables and rules all gel together. If you don’t understand that, you won’t be able to complete this next step.
Step 4: Identify Unknowns
When first building your system, you don’t need an answer for everything. You still don’t. But after setting boundaries and identifying equations, you should be able to answer more questions and resolve more unknowns than you could before.
Don’t get too hung up on getting this perfect. Stage 4 will help with all of this.
The logic behind this is pretty straightforward: if you don’t break it, someone else will.
If your magic has a loophole so big a dragon could fly through, you want to be the one to find it and not a reader. The trick here is to explore the extremes of your magic system. Find the craziest, most radical things your magic can do. If any of it is too powerful or would ruin your plot, then fix it.
No system is unbreakable, but you can at least make yours more durable. There’s are a couple tricks covered in Why You Should Break Your Magic System Right Now but it really depends on what works for you. Once you break it, you have to fix it again. Fortunately, I’ve got you covered on that front as well. Just go through these 3 Quick Steps to Fix Your Broken Magic System and you’ll be well on your way.
Well, who am I to deny your dreams?
Please don’t be mad. I’m not doing this to you because I enjoy watching you suffer… okay, I’m not only doing this because I enjoy watching you suffer. There are other good reasons as well. Good reasons I will tell you as soon as I think of them.
No matter how much we want to, most of us won’t get everything right on the first try. Our first ideas aren’t always that great, variables are missing, boundary conditions have gaping holes in them, and the alignment between magic and story simply… isn’t.
It’s okay. That’s how things work. There’s nothing wrong with you! It does mean you need to strap yourself in for another round of work.
Exactly where you need to circle back depends entirely on you and the flaws in your system. In the end, you need to Iterate the Process in Stage 4 if you want to build a truly marvelous magic system.
That’s it. You’re finally done with The 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic Systems. How can you tell?
When building a product, it often takes as much time to get from 80% to 100% complete as it did to get from 0% to 80% complete. Time is precious and an 80% solution might be good enough, but you won’t know until you think it through.
I’ve got 7 Helpful Ways to Verify Your Magic System is Complete, but you’ve been here long enough. Frankly, I’m a little surprised. Most people that spend this much time with me are either sharpening their knives or have been chained in place while I sharpen mine.
The fact that you’re still here and smiling is actually weirding me out a bit. Would you mind putting these chains on? It would make me feel better to be on familiar ground.
Everything I write targets fiction authors, but you can use your magic however you want. If you want to write a novel, I’ve got 5 Resources that will really help you out in the process.
I’ll even give you one for free. You ready for this?
Brandon Sanderson… (wait for it)… in the Writing Excuses podcast. Didn’t see that coming did you?! You did? Whatever. If you do nothing else, I recommend you listen to Brandon, Dan Wells, Howard Taylor, Mary Robinette Kowal, and their various co-hosts to get your writing muscles in shape.
And That’s the Basics
If this has been helpful to you, why not send it to others to help them as well? On the other hand, if this wasn’t helpful, and you hated everything about it, you can still send it to others as a cruel joke.
Send this to others, is what I’m really getting at here. The more readers I have, the more content I can put out for you. Who knows, if we get enough people here, I might actually value myself as an intelligent and productive member of society…
*breaks into peals of laughter* Wow. Couldn’t say that with a straight face.
If you’re serious about building better magic systems, you should consider joining the Marvelous Magic Builder’s Mailing list. Join the mailing list and you’ll receive monthly updates from me about the blog and be the first to know of any projects, giveaways, or services in the future. The list is also the best way I have of getting to know you and connect on a deeper level.
Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I’ve unlocked your chains and disarmed all the traps, so free to go. We’ll talk again soon.