Updated Mar. 31st, 2021
Originally Published Sept. 5th, 2018
What’s up, storytellers? I’m C. R. Rowenson, and it’s time to talk about magic. Specifically, about how to create a magic system
I’ve built a lot of magic systems over the years, dozens of them, both on my own and while helping various authors build their own systems. While going through all of that, I discovered that there’s a seven-stage process everybody goes through when building their magic systems. Today, we’re going to look at each of the seven stages, give you a high-level overview of what they are, why they’re important, and some quick details to tie it all together.
If you’ve never built a magic system, you’re wanting to build a new one and you don’t know where to start, or even if you’ve been building them awhile and you just want to make sure that you’re hitting all the steps to make it the best you can; this video is for you. Alright, let’s get started.
Stage One: Inspiration.
Before you create a magic system, you have to want to do it. It’s so important. You need to make sure you know what the core concept, the core visual, or the core driving force behind the creation of this magic system is. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, you can end up lost and going all over the place.
When labs in various areas of the industry are trying to grow crystals, for whatever purpose, they actually start with a very tiny crystal from which they grow everything else. This helps them grow what they need at higher purities more quickly. That’s what your inspiration can be. It’s that tiny little mote, called a seed crystal, that everything grows around.
We want to make sure that we have the same thing for our magic system. It will help keep everything more cohesive and in line, and that’s part of why the inspiration and your seed crystal are so important. Also, a good seed crystal will help you build faster and who doesn’t want that?
This seed crystal, this point of inspiration can be anything and can come from anywhere. Pictures that you found on the Internet. A character concept, a gripping emotional moment in your plot, your high-level plot could work, or even just a specific area that you have a particular amount of expertise. Any of that can serve as your seed crystal.
Throughout this video, I’m going to be referring to a magic system I built that I just called the viral magic system. Because, surprise surprise, it was about magical viruses.
In my defense, I built the system years before covid just wanted to put that out there. The seed crystal for that magic system was pretty straightforward.
Viruses and magic, and that was pretty much it.
Stage Two: Idea Generation.
This is where you record and expand on all the ideas you have for your magic system. Just go nuts. Write down your thoughts for magical effects, for limitations, for character moments, for themes, for concepts, for visuals, or for conflict. For literally anything relating to your magic system! This is where you just get a jot down everything, and it’s amazing!
I love idea generation! You want your brain to be like a rabbit on PCP running through a minefield. Except in this case, explosions are a good thing.
This seems super obvious, right? I mean, if you don’t have ideas, you can’t have a magic system, right? That’s absolutely true. I want to bring this up here because many people move on past this stage before they really should. You want to have lots of ideas, lots of them. So many ideas, swarms of ideas, more ideas than any single story could handle, and there’s a very simple reason for this. I’m going to turn it over to our old buddy Thomas Edison when he says if you want a great idea, have a lot of them.
There are a lot of different ways that you can go about idea generation, and you can find many answers to this online. Just look up ideas for brainstorming.
My personal favorite tool when I create a magic system is mind mapping. That’s what I did for the viral magic system, and you can actually see how out of hand it got right here. This took a lot of time and a lot of stuff went in here that I didn’t use, but that’s OK. ‘cause that’s the point of Stage 2.
Stage Three: Alignment.
No, I’m not talking about your true neutral sorcerer or your chaotic evil rogue. What we’re talking about here is how your magic system aligns and connects with your story and all the elements within it. You want them to be supporting each other, not damaging each other. So this stage is all about figuring out what your magic needs to be.
As a side note, you might be able to do this stage first, and if you can you should. Me personally, I can’t. I need to have some ideas as to what the magic could be before I can really tie it to the story and figure out what I need it to be.
So why is alignment important? Well, you need the sights on your rifle to be properly aligned, otherwise, it’s pretty hard to hit the target, right? It’s the same concept when you create a magic system. We want to deliver a certain type of experience both to the characters and to the audience. When they are all aligned you get something that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The viral magic system was for a story that I wanted to have heavy elements of horror. I also wanted a character that was immunocompromised, which tied in heavily with how the Magic system works. The specific story I had in mind was for a prisoner that was playing a long-con and using this magic to gain an edge and pull information out of their interrogators. And that’s what I focused while building the rest of the system.
Stage Four: Definition.
This stage is what most people think of when they actually talk about creating a magic system. So far we’ve looked at what it could be, we looked at what it needs to be. This is where you dig into what it actually is. You look at the effects that you’re going to include. This is where you hammer out how it ties into the world, how it can connect with your characters, how it’s perceived, how it fits into everything, and frankly, how it do.
For the viral magic system it came down to a couple of key things I needed to identify.
First, I focused in on I needed three to five effects for the story that I wanted to build, and that was it. Had a bunch of other ideas, but I just needed the three to five. Second, I also wanted to know how it fit into the world and knew they were pseudo-natural. They behaved like the rest of the viruses in the world. Aside from the magical powers effect, of course. I also knew they were new to the world. And in terms of types of magic systems, I was really shooting for something that was a soft-rational system.
Those were the major elements I needed to define at this stage. I did a lot more than that, but those were the key pieces.
Stage Five: Restrictions.
We now know what our magic needs to be and we know what it is. It’s equally important that we spend some time learning and understanding what it isn’t.
This pertains to what the magic can’t do and what we don’t want it to be. There’s an article online called Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic that I highly recommend you read. In it, Brandon Sanderson talks at length about how the limitations are actually the more interesting part of the magic system, and that is true.
I also find that defining the scope, the boundaries of your magic, and literally what you want it to be is also important, because that can keep you in line as you’re going through the rest of your story. This can stop you from spreading in directions that you didn’t intend or want to begin with.
Now limitations can take place on many levels. This can be character level limitations, actual system limitations, or even just world limitations. It’s really up to you how you want to do this.
If you’re at a loss for what to do with limitations and you just want some more guidance, I wrote a workbook called Restrictions May Apply exactly for this purpose. In it, you’ll find a lot of information walking you through what limitations are, what they can be, and 15 exercises to take you step-by-step through the process as you create your magic system.
So check it out. I think you’re going to like it.
With the viral magic system, I had a bunch of limitations. Some were at the system level and others were deeper. For example, If you had the magic, you also had the virus, which meant you were sick and felt like garbage. In fact, you felt the worst when your magic was at its most powerful. Not to mention that you know you could die, so some pretty big drawbacks there. On top of this, magic-users also didn’t have much control over the effects. The nature of them was mostly a persistent magical phenomenon that happened around the user.
I also put limitations on specific effects. One of them I is called the Portal Strain. It would allow people, oh man I love this one! It would allow you to teleport through pools of your own blood.
The main drawback here is having enough blood in order to create these portals, and getting the blood in both places to move from one to the other. There were several other limitations I created that tied into this concept as well.
Stage Six: Testing
As much as I love idea generation this stage…. This stage is my favorite because you get to take everything that you’ve built and you just play with it! Go in as many different directions as you can. See how far you can take it. See what breaks, what is theoretically possible that you don’t want to be possible, and put it through the wringer. Stress, test it, drop it, throw it around, and see what happens.
Aside from it being fun, this is a very important stage, because the last thing we want is to introduce major plot holes to our story by adding in our magic. I’m sure you can think of a few stories or systems where this has happened. The story was humming along just fine, then they throw in the magic and now there’s this giant gaping plot-hole a dragon could fly through.
We don’t want that. So it’s important that you test it, find those holes, find those cracks, and patch them up before anybody else sees them.
While you’re testing your system. There are a couple of areas that you want to pay particular attention to. Watch for anything in the system that would trivialize the plot or would let your characters become God-like. Whether they become omnipotent with (unlimited power), omnipresent (being everywhere at once), or omniscient (knowing all things at all times), those all tend to be problems.
It can work with your antagonist, but it’s especially problematic if your protagonist gets. It gets boring real quick. Also, you want to watch for paths to unlimited wealth.
Those are some things to keep your eyes out for.
Let’s go back to the viral magic system for a second.
Specifically, the portal strain. All you needed was pools of the infected blood and anybody and anything could teleport from one to another.
I started testing the system and found a terrible, gruesome, and horrifying loophole. I realized that, as written, there wasn’t a reason that people couldn’t take someone with the strain and just harvest their blood. They could perpetually re-infecting them, saving up all the blood they need to create massive portals.
Now I looked at that to see what problems it might cause and added some restrictions made it more difficult to work. In the end, I left it there because it’s so amazing, but I put in a lot of things to make it more difficult for a character to pull it off.
That’s the kind of thing you want to watch out for, and that’s what you want to do with your testing. Find it, break it, fix it.
Stage Seven: Iteration.
Come on. Don’t look at me like that. You gotta go back. You gotta do it again…. I’m sorry.
Okay. You don’t need to go back into the entire thing over again, but you need to revisit some of the previous stages ‘cause, let’s face it, nothing is perfect on the first try. As much as we want our first draft to be flawless. It’s not, it’s just not, and your magic system won’t be either. So iteration is probably the most important stage, and many people skip it.
Don’t do that.
Take some time, go back, go through the other parts, revisit some things, and see how you can make it better. You can go about iteration pretty much any way you want. If you wanted to, you could go from start to finish again with the exact diagrams and flowcharts, and word clouds and just expand on them. You can also jump to specific stages and fix things that didn’t feel right, or that you moved past because you wanted to keep going. If you found any problems, especially in stage six, that you’re not quite sure how to fix, you can go back and iterate just to solve that problem. Iteration is a powerful tool for you to use any way that you need to improve your system.
For the viral magic system. The most important pieces of iteration for me were the alignment and the definition. I had all of this stuff and I had to make sure that it actually still worked for my story and there were several things that weren’t. They would not do what I needed. That’s where I dug in, both with the alignment and the definition, to home in on what I needed.
That’s How to Create a Magic System
There’s the seven stages. You have inspiration, idea generation, alignment, definition, restrictions, testing, and iteration. That’s what you need to create a magic system. Like I said before, everybody that I’ve worked with and everybody that I have watched goes through these seven stages, even if they don’t know it.
I want to throw in that you don’t have to go through them in that order. This is the order that works best for me. Find what works best for you, and it may change from system to system. Whatever you do, just make sure that you’re hitting all seven of the stages and you should be good.
I have a lot more to talk about with the stages of magic and how to build your magic systems, so comment below and let me know which of these stages you want to hear more about or if there’s something specific that you’re struggling with.
Thanks so much for watching. Keep building and stay awesome.