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The 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic

Building a marvelous magic system is just like any other part of writing fiction: When done correctly, it makes the world come alive, ignites the reader’s imagination, and is completely unique to you, the author. But crafted poorly or carelessly, it does more harm than good. This is true for most elements of a story, but magic is different in one important way.

There isn’t much guidance on how to do it well. At least, not until now.

I’ve Always Loved Magic

If you talk to me or read this blog at all, you already know that. What you might not know is how magic got me writing in the first place.

It Began with a Dream

Building Marvelous Magic

No, I’m not being pretentious on purpose; it was a dream about superpowers. Somehow my crazy engineering brain broke down everything I ever thought or knew about on the topic and forced it to cooperate with all my reserves of scientific knowledge.

The details and plot, if you can call it that, aren’t important. What matters is it got my brain churning. I spent days trying to explain to my friends all the awesome things we had done, how the powers worked, and why it was the coolest thing ever. All they had to do was listen to me for hours on end explaining scientific principles they didn’t know or care about and generally being annoying.

Eventually, one of my friends, in a brilliant defensive maneuver, said, “Just write it down and I’ll read it.”

So I did.

In fact, I spent the next four years typing away in my spare time, struggling to get the magical brain-worm out of my skull and into the computer. And then… no one read any of it.

Okay, a few read my notes, but not the majority that promised they would.

I’m Not Bitter at All. Honest.

This rejection of all my hard work led me to the next important step on my journey. I decided I would write stories containing the magic and make them care about it.

THAT is when I started writing fiction. It didn’t take long for a couple of things to become obvious.

1) Writing is hard work. (Big surprise, right?)

2) There are lots of resources available on writing fiction. Check out my resource page for writers and you’ll see what I mean.

3) Building magic is hard work. My first efforts were clumsy, generic, and needed improvement.

4) The number of resources for building magic systems, aside from Brandon Sanderson’s 3 Laws of magic, is appallingly small.

5) If I wanted to build marvelous magic systems, I had to teach myself.

Since then I’ve struggled to understand what makes magic systems work in fiction. Finally, I pieced together the 4 stages of building a marvelous magic system.

So, enough with the jibber-jabber Let’s talk about Stage 1.

Stage 1: Generate Your Ideas

Building Marvelous Magic

Fairly obvious and my favorite by far, Stage 1 is where you develop and gather all your thoughts and ideas for your soon-to-be-epic magic system. This is easily the most enjoyable stage of the process as you let your brain run free like a bunny through a minefield. Except, in this analogy, triggering an explosive is a good thing.

Why Generation is Important

“But that’s obvious,” I hear you say. “I can’t possibly build any kind of magic if I don’t have any ideas first.”

You’re absolutely right, completely non-imaginary reader that I didn’t just make up on the spot, but there’s more to it than you might think.

First, it’s not just about ideas, it’s about exploration. Most ideas are a bit like lightning: they strike in an instant with terrific energy and leave you energized and sometimes a little charred. What you really need is time to take your ideas and play with them. See where they lead and maybe even get the lightning to strike again.

More importantly, having enough ideas ensures the creation of something new. Some say that you should toss your first three ideas on any topic. This includes your plots, characters, and your magic. Four is by no means a magic number, but, personal reservations aside, this is a good exercise to make sure you’ve dug past the surface.

The most common mistake I see people make, including myself, is moving out of the generation stage before they have enough ideas. While creative ideas are not the same as a creative system, they are certainly the beginning of the path.

What We’ll Do Together

Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you alone on this. Over time, we will talk through all sorts of things to make sure you have enough ideas to work with. Fun things. Interesting things. Things like:

  • Sources of Inspiration
    • Books
    • Movies
    • Hobbies
    • Professions
  • Helpful Tools and Methods
    • MindMaps
    • Recording Your Stream of Consciousness
    • Brainstorming in Groups
    • Identifying Your Brainstorming Pillars
  • Guided Exercises

Once you’ve got a handful of ideas, we can move right into Stage 2

Stage 2: Align Your Magic

Now we enter an uncharted area. Aligning your magic system is one of the most important steps in making everything blend together and is frequently ignored.

Stage 2 of building marvelous magic is all about defining the function of your magic and how it fits with everything else. It’s about understanding the purpose of your structure before you try and build it.

In the past, I have referred to this stage as the point you begin “trimming” or “cleaving” your magic system, but that isn’t entirely accurate. As you work through this stage, pairing your magic with the various elements of your story or game, you will certainly prune away unwanted ideas. You will also identify deficiencies that need to be reinforced and further built upon.

Just like sculpting a statue or relief tile of clay, sometimes you need to remove material, and sometimes you need to add more in.

Why Alignment is Important

I won’t lie to you: it is possible to ignore this stage and have a decent magic system. Lots of authors have done it, but it takes lots of time, effort, and failures to develop the knack of making it all work.

That’s a circle of frustration I would rather avoid at all costs. What about you?

At it’s core, this stage explores what your magic is really about, what you want from it, and what it needs to be. This is the vision, the grail, the golden snitch you must catch before claiming victory. Everything else is here to support you on the journey to your goal.

Building marvelous Magic

What We’ll Do Together

Strange waters should not be explored alone. Together we will examine:

Every action taken in Stage 2 will make things easier in Stage 3.

Stage 3: Define Your System

While Stage 2 focused on the voids and needs your magic would fill, Stage 3 digs into the details and specifications of how it actually works. When people talk about building a magic system, they’re usually talking about Stage 3.

Everything starts coming together in this stage. Concepts and effects are linked together into patterns, rules are developed, and boundaries are defined. By pulling ideas from Stage 1 and monitoring your alignment through Stage 2, you can explore the minutia of your system and create truly unique magic.

Why Definition is Important

First and foremost, I firmly believe that planned magic leads to better magic. As mentioned previously, this stage is another step in making sure you have unique and awesome magic.

Even if you believe that magic should be wondrous and unrestricted, you should at least consider a bare-bones structure. Understanding the scientific principles behind your magic isn’t always necessary, but a general idea of what your magic can and can’t do is essential.

Unrestrained magic can compromise the integrity of your story. Undefined power weakens tension, generates plot holes, and destroys the need for character growth.

You don’t want to break your nice, shiny story, do you?

Still not convinced? How about this: every rule you make and every pattern you form becomes bonus material for your adoring fans. Once they’ve bought into your story and attached to your characters, readers can become insatiable in their quest for information.

Take advantage of that.

What We’ll Do Together

I hesitate to place one stage above any other, but defining your system can certainly take the most time. Not to mention it can be confusing and overwhelming too.

We will crawl our way through this jungle together by:

  • Asking Important Questions and Learn How to Answer Them
  • Examining Potential Limitations: Both Scientific and Self-Applies
  • Developing and Solving Necessary Equations to Take Your Magic to The Next Level
  • Making Your System As Robust and Unbreakable As Possible

After addressing Stage 3, you will be ready for the final and most important stage of them all.

Stage 4: Iterate the Process

Now that you’ve worked hard, pushing yourself beyond what you thought possible, it’s time to go back to the beginning and start over.

DON’T HIT!!! It’s Important!

Building Marvelous Magic

Why Iteration is Important

Much like editing a novel or short story, you aren’t going to get everything right on the first try. Sure, your initial pass might be good, great even, but there are ALWAYS things that can be tightened up and improved. There’s so much to do and so many things to consider, I don’t know anyone able to get it perfect in a single pass.

Each stage feeds into another. As soon as you answer one question in Stage 3, you have new ideas for Stage 1. Then you must go back and re-examine Stage 2 to ensure none of the new answers or ideas upset the balance or purpose of your story. One thing leads to another and another and another in a continuing spiral of awesomeness.

By iterating and reiterating the process, you have plenty of time to refine what you’ve got, dig deeper, and apply polish where necessary.

Forcing your way down the same trail, again and again, can be frustrating and confusing. Fortunately, you won’t be alone.

What We’ll Do Together

This stage is harder to explore in isolation, which is why it came last. The power of iteration comes from already understanding the other three stages. To maximize the efficiency of your iterations, we will spend time:

  • Exploring Relationships between and within the other stages
    • How Components of Alignment Guide Definition
    • Definition and its Connect to Generation
    • The Influence Different Definitions Have on One Another
    • And Much More
  • Investigating What Work Needs Doing On Which Iteration
  • Completing Lots and LOTS of Guided Exercises
  • Building a System Together From Start to Finish

Okay, maybe this is a dirty trick. At least it’s a powerful one. When you don’t need further iteration, then your system is done, and you can celebrate.

Summary of the 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic

Building magic can be done the hard way or the REALLY hard way. Working through the 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic won’t make it easy, but it will at least give you guidance.

Stage 1: Generate – Generation is all about gathering the raw material needed for your magic. Bricks cannot be made without clay, and magic can’t be formed without ideas.

Stage 2: Align – Exploring alignment reveals the shape and purpose of your magic and helps it melds with the rest of your story.

Stage 3: Define – By adding definition, magic becomes something truly unique. It’s all about the details and limitations with this stage.

Stage 4: Iterate – All that remains is to repeat the process until complete. Simple, right?

C. R. Rowenson: Author, Literary Sadist, and Power Junkie

There’s Much MUCH More to Come

Obviously, there is a lot to discuss and learn, and not just for you. I’ll be exploring, learning, and growing right along side you as we journey through the 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic.

Make sure you never miss another post and sign up for my newsletter. This is going to take tons of work but will be insane amounts of fun.

Thanks for talking with me and I’ll see you soon. Rowenson, out.


  • Toast says:

    Yay! You’re back! Praise the Sun! \[T]/

  • Chautona says:

    I’ve found that though each stage takes a long time (for me, anyway), it’s allowing story ideas to percolate while I work on them. I suspect that my ideas will be deeper and more interesting by the time we’re done.

    What would you say to someone who has more STORY ideas than system ideas? What should they do until it’s time to brainstorm plot?

    • C. R. Rowenson says:

      The answer depends: are you the type of person that can easily adapt to new ideas, or do you get fixated on a single answer?

      There are no wrong answers, but it will change the approach. If you’re flexible and willing to change your plot as you learn new things about the magic, then go ahead and work on your story as much as you want while staying aware it will change. If you tend to fixate on a single idea, I’d recommend waiting until your magic is more complete.

      This is an outstanding question that deserves a longer answer. I will think on this a bit more and get you more information when I can.

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