Guest blogger of Developing a Magic System in a Fantasy World, Amelia Connell, is a University of the Sunshine Coast student. She’s completing a Bachelor of Creative Industries, majoring in Publishing & Creative Writing. Amelia is currently undertaking a 208-hour internship with Gail Tagarro.
What, specifically, is the fantasy genre? It can be broken into two basic groups, each with its sub-categories.
High and Low Fantasy
There is high fantasy – fiction that often involves magic, non-human characters, and some type of ‘otherworld’. That ‘otherworld’ might be the only setting (like in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series). It might be a parallel world to the real (like Victoria E Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic series). Or it might be a world within a world (like Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Fey series), is up to you. Each of these settings would put your work firmly in the high fantasy sub-genre.
There is also low fantasy, that is, fiction set in the ‘real world’ with elements of the fantastical (think Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles).
The magic system in a work of fantasy fiction is the how and why behind your characters’ powers or abilities. It needs to be believable, it needs to have a cost, and it needs to have a reason. Of course, fantasy does not always need to have a magic system. Most readers will, however, expect a level of the fantastical. This post focuses on magic systems and where to start. However, you could simply include different species with unique strengths, rather than developing a whole magic system.
In developing a magic system in a fantasy world, your system needs to be believable. You need to give background. For example, if your characters have superhuman strength, you need to give details. Believability in a work of fiction hinges on details. Consider the mechanics before integrating magic into your story. How does the system work? Are there different types of magic? Do they have a structured training setup for those with magic (like in Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series), or are they just let loose on the land untrained?
Think of a ‘why’ behind your magic system.Think of a plausible explanation that characters have these powers. In what ways does a character with that power fit into the overall arc of your plot?
If you’re including non-human characters, also consider any powers they have. Readers usually have preconceived ideas of established species in fantasy (like fae, elves, orcs, goblins, etc.). Make sure to tweak your characters enough to be unique, but not so much to deter readers because they’re just too outlandish. It’s often more believable for non-human characters to have powers, like fae or elves. Nevertheless, if you develop your system correctly, any powerful human characters will be believable and they’ll shine.
Another element of believability is history. Have the characters in your fantasy world always had their power? If not, how did they get it? Is their power dependent on religious worship, or a special drink? If magic has always been present, think of legends your characters can tell about magic-users of the past. Including the history of your fantasy world will make your story more solid.
All magic in your work should have a cost, and often a tangible one. A common cost of using vast amounts of magic in fantasy work is ‘burnout’; that is, a character expends all the power and is unable to use any for several days while it replenishes. If they don’t entirely exhaust their magic reserves, perhaps they’re simply exhausted and they sleep for days. Alternatively, the cost could be something more significant. There is a cost if your character tampers with dark or forbidden magic. They may pay for it by the gradual loss of their sanity, or a descent into the dark side. Whether the cost is physical or mental, it needs to be something the reader sees the effect of. Consider Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer, when a main character uses his long-dormant power and literally turns blue.
An over-powered character is so powerful that they remove all tension from the plot. Be wary of them. They lead your readers to believe their success is a foregone conclusion. Readers will always ask the question why, especially if the character’s vast expanse of power is unexplained, or unnecessary to the plot.
If your plot needs an over-powered character, explain why (and how) and give them limits. Don’t have them emerge from the womb with complete mastery over every sect of magic in your story-world. There needs to be a reason. Are they using an amplifier? Have the Gods blessed them? Are they part of a prophecy? They should not be able to do everything, even if they’re the most powerful whatever in history. There must be things they cannot do and cannot overcome. These aren’t character shortcomings, but they will provide complication in the plot if you choose to involve their journey to magic mastery.
If the success of your protagonist(s) hinges on their power, have them work on gaining control on page. Have them struggle. The struggle will add verisimilitude to your work and, especially for young adult audiences, highlight overcoming fears of failure. Add complications with magic use. This adds another layer to the character’s success when they overcome them. Aelin Galathynius in Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass series struggles to control her excessive power – after suppressing it for almost a decade. When she does, her success is all the sweeter.
Think About This
Magic systems in works of fiction are heavily reliant on believability. If the system isn’t believable, the reader won’t enjoy it. Including a history for your magic world, and the cost of magic, adds layers to its believability. Your characterisation skills then enhance the world you’ve created. Have your characters struggle with their power in some way and make them suffer. By overcoming obstacles, your characters will grow and adapt to their new normal – an essential part of any story. Their struggles will only make their eventual success all the more satisfying for your reader.
Clare, C 2007, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Simon & Schuster, USA.
Dennard, ST 2016, Truthwitch, Tor Teen, New York.
Kagawa, J 2010, The Iron King, HQ Young Adult, USA.
Maas, SJ 2012, Throne of Glass, Bloomsbury Publishing, USA.
Martin, GRR 1997, A Game of Thrones, Voyager, Great Britain.
Schwab, VE 2016, A Darker Shade of Magic, Macmillan USA, USA.
Taylor, L 2017, Strange the Dreamer, Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain.
Photo credit Tim Rebkavets Unsplash
Do you have any questions or comments to make about developing a magic system in a fantasy world? Feel free to comment below. You may also like to read about Character Relationships in Your Writing, Create Memorable Characters and Is your Book Character-Driven or Plot-Driven?