Building a Marvelous Magic System is just like any other part of writing fiction: Done correctly, it makes the world come alive, ignites the reader’s imagination, and reveals your unique style. Done poorly or carelessly, magic can cause 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.
So, pull out your compass, bug-spray, and vamp stakes; we’re about to go exploring!
The Journey Begins
I don’t know exactly where you are relative to the creation of your magic. This could be your first time and this shared intimacy makes you blush, or mayhaps you’ve already popped out a dozen arcane mind-children and are ready for more. For simplicity, let’s assume you’re ready to start building a new system, be it your first or your twentieth. Either way, idea generation is always the first stage.
But first, a few foolish assumptions:
Assumption #1: I’m assuming you already understand Why Planned Magic is Better Magic and how a bit of structure can help even the wildest and nebulous magic take form.
Assumption #3: Finally, I’m assuming you’re ready to put in the hard work necessary for some truly epic magical results.
That sound about right? Sweet! Let’s start generating ideas.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: You need ideas. Lots and LOTS of ideas.
You need so many ideas it makes you want to cry. More ideas than spines on a hedgehog. A swarm of ideas more numerous than the cockroaches in your walls. More—
Okay, okay. It’s just because it’s so important is all.
I hate to tell you this, but not all of your ideas are good ones. It’s true for me, it’s true for you, and it’s true for any writer on the planet (seriously, just ask one). By coming up with enough ideas you can done-select to only the very best in the lot and look like a freaking genius.
I once heard you should discard your first three ideas. This holds for plot twists, character names, or even murder weapons (that’s a joke, NSA). I don’t hold with this advice 100% of the time. The most obvious course isn’t always sufficient, but it is useful.
By our nature, our first several ideas are often the least creative. By digging several layers down you increase your chances of striking creative gold.
It’s worth taking the time and digging past the obvious. It adds depth to your magic, your story, and your world.
Start The Reactor… Generator… Whatever
I get carried away at times with the nomenclature and the bad jokes, but it’s fairly simple. Fancy words set aside, this is really just brainstorming. So grab a pen, recorder, or computer and get to work.
There are lots of ways to go about this. In fact, Katie Weiland has a great article on exactly that. Over on alive and writing, we both talked about it and gave you a demo of how we brainstorm together.
Everyone has different methods. Personally, I prefer MindMaps or divining ideas from the entrails of my enemies. Those are actually the methods I use for just about everything.
Still struggling? Well, I do have one technique I use all the time for magic systems. I guess I can tell you about it.
The Pillars of Brainstorming
Whenever I set out to brainstorm, I choose several core concepts I want to explore. I call these my Pillars of Brainstorming. As I brainstorm, every idea branches off one of these pillars.
If I’m working on a story, the pillars might be character plot and setting. When working on characters, I like to focus on wounds, positive traits, and negative traits. You can do this all sorts of ways for practically anything.
Naturally, I have a couple pillars specifically for brainstorming magic.
Pillar #1: Magical Effects
What does the magic DO? How does it alter and influence the world around it? What kinds of mayhem can a skilled mage inflict upon the world?
Can Assassin’s fly through the air and hurl a spray of lethal coins like in Mistborn? Maybe you’d rather see a sentient ship comprised of hijacked organic matter like in Leviathan Wakes. Do wizards weave the elements together or simply connect with and invade the minds of others.
All good questions; all are about effects and how the magic influences the world around it.
Things don’t need to be static either. Different people might be able to generate varying effects. Take the time to think how different types of people would use the magic and how that might change things.
The Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan is the best example I have. There are tons of cool magical effects throughout the book and each character brings their own flavor and style to the magic. It’s fantastic.
Pillar #2: Themes & Mediums
This pillar is about the abstract elements and patterns that bring the magic together. Let’s take them one at a time.
When I talk about Mediums, I’m referring to whatever the magic channels THROUGH. Quite often, the energy is channeled through the magical user themselves, but the medium may also be something external to the character.
In Brandon Sanderson’s Rithamtist the power is channeled through the chalk. Only certain people can do magic, but NONE of them can do anything without the chalk.
Sometimes both internal and external mediums are required. In both Dresden Files and Harry Potter, wizards are capable of casting magic without a wand or staff but the tools are necessary for more refined effects. In the Mistborn Trilogy, the power must be channeled through a gifted individual, but only if they are in possession of the appropriate metals.
Magical themes can be both more nebulous and easier to spot. If there is an overarching concept such as the four elements, true names, or black powder, then that is the magic’s theme. These two aspects can be hard to separate which is why I explore them together.
The point isn’t to confuse you, but rather to help your brain develop a pattern or structure latch onto. Got it? Is your mind properly blown?
Um… Good, I guess. Now we’re ready to turn to the third and final pillar.
Pillar #3: Really Cool Hats
If you get the reference, I might have to buy you a drink sometime. This pillar is here to cover any and all cool ideas you have pertaining to your magic that doesn’t fall under the previous two.
Got a twisted way the rich abuse their power — Cool Hat
Thought up an awesome scene using the magic — Cool Hat
Does the magic generate some heart-wrenching character conflict — Cool Hat
I’m sure you get the picture. Anytime you think of something fun, horrifying, or just brilliant related to your magic, put it with the rest of the cool hats.
Stage 1 in a Nutshell
You now have all the tools you need to start generating ideas. If you come up with enough, then you’re almost guaranteed to have some good ones. All you’ve got to do is put the time and sweat in. Just remember to focus on the three pillars and you should be fine.
Magical Effects: what the magic does and how it changes the world around it.
Magical Themes & Mediums: any common element or structure of your magic and what the magic channels through.
Really Cool Hats: anything else you think is cool!
Next, It’s on to Stage 2
There’s still a lot of ground to cover before you have a truly marvelous magic system, but this is a good start. If you want to learn more about brainstorming, we’ve got some great episodes over on the Alive and Writing Podcast, including an episode on Brainstorming with Others and a Brainstorming Session with ME. If this is confusing at all, be sure to send questions my way and I’ll help you as best I can.
I’ll see you soon. Rowenson, out.