I throw the term “Magic System” around a lot these days, especially building and blogging about them. Today we are going address some of the basics. By the end of the post, you will have a better understanding of what magic is, where it fits in with fiction, why you need a system, and most importantly, start you on the road to building one yourself.
Ready? Sweet. Let’s begin with the fundamental question you came here to answer.
What Is a “Magic System?”
There are lots of definitions out there for magic, but a “magic system” refers to the rules, limitations, and abilities that define the magic. Any single effect or ability can be magical, but the theories, rules, and connections that tie them all together are the system.
Magic systems are everywhere. We’ll talk about that more in a bit; for now, take a look at a couple of the more famous magic systems in our pop culture:
We aren’t going to discuss all of these here today, but rest assured, they will be the center of many conversations about magic in the future. If you love or own any of these series, you are likely coming to understand what I’m talking about.
Got it? Everything clear as well-chummed waters?
Good, because that’s just the surface of it all. Magic systems exist everywhere and are important parts of the stories we tell, watch, and play. My goals go beyond simply teaching you to spot magic systems where they hide. I want you to understand how they work, how to build them, and how to use them, and since you found your way to my sliver of the internet, I’m going to assume you want that too.
So, let’s start with the basics.
What is Magic?
There are dozens of ways to answer this question. For our purposes here, we get to go by my definition. Why? ‘Cause I said so…. and it’s what makes the most sense to me.
“Magic is anything enabling actions beyond our current understanding or capability.”
If this seems a tad vague to you, that’s because it’s supposed to. Many argue that magic must possess some element of mystery or the unexplained; I disagree. I use this definition of magic because it includes everything from the fireballs and lightening of Dungeons & Dragons to the twisted Wraith abilities in Stargate Atlantis. As far as I’m concerned, “technology” and “magic” are one and the same.
Now, put down that rotten tomato and just hang on for a second. I’ve got reasons for what I say.
First, there’s Clarke’s Third Law, which states:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Clarke’s laws are well known throughout geek culture. If you read much science fiction or fantasy, you’re sure to stumble across this gem at some point. The point is, from the right perspective, even the most well thought out, accurate, and realistic technology can be seen as magic. This holds equally true for all kinds of tech, fictional or otherwise.
It makes sense, right? If you went back in time with our current technology, you might be burned at the stake for engaging in devil-magic. Fascinatingly enough, this principle can easily be applied in reverse. In fact, there’s a line from Girl Genius that I like to call Agatha’s Law.
Agatha’s Law: Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science.
The closer we look at these laws, the more sense it makes. Look closely, the evidence is everywhere in our media. Magic is the small lie, alteration, or piece of imagination accepted, at least in part, by the creator and its consumers. Magic, like the very heart of fiction itself, relies on our ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy the result.
With that in mind, alien technology and mighty wizard magic are nearly the same thing. All that changes is the system around them.
Who Uses Magic Systems, Anyway?
Seriously, that’s not just some pithy answer designed to grab your attention and make you keep reading my content… Well, maybe it is, but it’s true.
Fiction authors and Screen Writers of all kinds across every genre use magic systems to stand out, make things awesome, and generally strengthen their stories. Game designers and writers for games like Dragon Age, Diablo III, FEAR, and Left 4 Dead all implement magic systems of one kind or another. Magic systems even appear on cultural levels. Humanity has been building and defining magic systems as part of their mythology and religions since the very beginning.
Where do we see Magic systems?
Maybe it’s just my obsession shining through, but I see magic systems lurking in every corner of our media.
We’ve already looked at some of the most popular, but let me give you more examples by genre. I’ll start with the most obvious
Magic in Fantasy
I’ll admit, this is low-hanging fruit. Magic has become a staple of fantasy the genre. Warriors and wizards. Swords and sorcery. That is what we’ve come to know and love from the genre. Even with our demands and expectations, the variety of flavors in magic systems is incredible.
Everyone knows the story, but very few understand the magic of Middle Earth. While extra documents exist explaining Gandalf’s powers and more, the system itself remains a complete mystery to the majority of readers. By pausing to look, you will notice that the magic of Middle-Earth is slowly dying. The Ent-Wives are lost, the Wizards are dying, Elves are leaving. Bound together, the magic of Middle-Earth is almost as tragic as it is mysterious.
Yet another magic system build on mystery and wonder. More rules and limitations of the magic are explored as the series progresses, but the intriguing part, to me at least, is how the magic is changing. While the magical forces in Lord of the Rings diminished to leave room for the age of man, the magic in Game of Thrones is on the rise. It’s a resurgence of power meant to match the other shifting forces in the world.
Before you ask, there are also worlds with stable magic systems, and that is a topic for another time.
This is my favorite example of an undercover magic system. Just reading the prose, these books seem to be epic fantasy stories without the barest whiff of magic… Unless you count the dragons… which I do.
Between their powerful breath, telepathic communication, psychic bonds, and teleportation via travel “between,” they sound pretty magical. But they aren’t just “magical creatures” like in Harry Potter. The dragons of Pern come from a very interesting and very scientific background. The more you read, the more you learn that these wonderful fantasy novels might be closer to science fiction than you think and is the best example I’ve have found of Clarke’s Third Law in motion.
And speaking of science…
Magic in Science Fiction
This one’s a little more touchy. Some people get awfully upset when I smear my grubby, whimsical magic all over their neat and tidy science. Sure, it makes sense with Dragonriders of Pern, but that was manipulation of Clarke’s Third Law, so that doesn’t really count. Right?
I refer you again to my definition of magic. If the level and ability of the technology move beyond what is currently possible in our reality, then it strays into the realm of magic. And that’s not a bad thing. Too many people view science and magic as contradictory when the two compliment each other flawlessly, melding and transitioning from one form to the other before you notice.
Still, need convincing? Alright, how about some more examples.
The existence and abilities of the Asgardians rely heavily upon Clarke’s third law. They even reference it multiple times in the first movie. Everything from the Bifrost to Loki’s magic is supposed to be a result of their advanced culture and knowledge. This couples brilliantly with their archaic aesthetic to create a memorable, yet wonderful world for us to experience.
Between the Navigators transporting ships across the galaxy, the Mentats designed as replacements for artificial intelligence, and the Benni Gesserit with nearly superhuman control over their bodies and minds, I think anyone would be hardpressed to say there is no magic in Dune. Because of the setting, some tweaks to the cultures, and a couple other factors, it’s classified as science fiction.
As bizarre as these abilities seem to us, the existence of such powers is accepted as a scientific fact, though the true nature of their powers is often shrouded in mystery. As so often happens, Dune blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction with the implementation of an unforgettable magic system.
This series is but one example of the power of Agatha’s Law. This still a new series, at least compared to most of my other examples, so I apologize for the minor spoilers. The first several books are spent dealing with a strange and terrible… thing known only as The Proto-Molecule. I won’t get into details, but the molecule takes over human bodies doing terrible, impossible things to them. The exact effects aren’t important, though. It’s the nature of the thing that interests me.
The molecule repeated performs seemingly impossible acts, but each time explanations exist. Every aspect is so well thought out and analyzed by the author that the difference between science and magic becomes irrelevant. That is just one of the many reasons I love this series to death.
Magic in Other Fiction
Fantasy and Science Fiction are the most likely places you will find magic systems, but they are far from the only ones
You might be surprised to find how much magic is present in horror novels and movies. What’s more unnerving to find yourself combating a supernatural power or entity when you don’t even know the rules? Movies like Dog Soldiers, the Alien Franchise, and Spectral contain underlying magical structures that dictate how the monsters live and act. Sometimes the magic is better defined than others, and sometimes we don’t get to learn about it at all, but it’s still there.
Surprisingly enough, there’s even magic to be found in such counter-intuitive places as romance novels and romantic comedies. Whatever you think of the Twilight Series, and I will hold my personal opinions WAY in reserve, the series is loaded with both romance and with magic. The vampires and werewolves each have their own systems around their powers. Beyond the fur and fang, Ghosts are surprisingly common in this genre as well. We can see it clearly in the movie Just Like Heaven and others of its kin.
But, Do YOU Need a Magic System?
I would say yes, but if I had things my way, everyone would be using magic all over the place. Really it all comes down to you. Here are a couple of questions to help you along.
1) Are you a creator? This can include writing novels, short stories, or screenplays. You could be a game designer. Or maybe you just enjoy telling crazy stories. Any and all of these answers are good ones
2) What experience do you want to build? Do you want a mind-boggling sense of wonder to overwhelm your readers, or are you just looking for a dark, and mysterious power to unnerve and terrify? Either way, magic might help you achieve that.
3) Can your story work without magic? Magic is so incredibly flexible that it is sometimes “possible” to cut it out completely. This will inevitably change your story, but you have to decide if you are willing to handle the loss.
4) Do you like magic? This is the most important aspect. If the magic and advanced tech is your least favorite part of any movie, game, or story, maybe a magic system isn’t for you. Then again, why not give it a try. You might surprise yourself.
“Horror is like bacon; it makes everything better.”
The way Steve feels about Horror is exactly how I feel about magic. I love it. It makes me happy. I want to sprinkle it over every fictional meal I consume, but that’s just me.
Have I convinced you to give magic a try? Assuming I did, you probably have one important question remaining…
How Do You Build a Magic System?
Well, you’ve got a couple of realistic options.
1) You can read lots and lots of books. The more magic systems you experience, the better your systems and ideas will become.
2) You can try, fail, and try again. Building systems blind is how most authors learn to handle the magic. Keep working, failing, and experimenting until you get it right
3) You can stick with me. I’m here to help. That’s why I designed the 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic in the first place. Stay with me and we will explore the major components of magic, how to change them, how to define them, and how to tweak them to develop the exact experience you want.
Most authors rely on the first two steps, working over and over until they get it right. Fortunately, I’m here to help. If you want to understand magic systems better, break down your favorite systems, or build marvelous magic of your own, then I’m here for you.
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