Questions to ask when designing a magic system, part 1

magic system in fantasy - giant foot

If you want to design a magic system for a fantasy novel, these questions might help you. Or they might not. Either way, they’re free.

The title of this post might indicate this is going to be a writing advice post. It’s not! I promise.

A better title might be “The questions I found that I (tried to) answer in the recently-discovered document that explains the magic system in my current WIP”, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.

I almost definitely stole at least some of these questions from someone else’s writing advice blog post, but I’m afraid I did it so long ago I have no idea where I stole them from.

If they’re yours, I offer recompense in chocolate fish.

I’m not saying you must answer all or even any of these questions if you’re designing a magic system for a fantasy world. But if they’re helpful to you, you’re welcome.

Rambling you can ignore

You might be wondering why I only just discovered this document when I’m currently on draft 11 of my WIP. A valid question.

Because I know how my magic system works–I’ve been writing about it for five years.

But recently, working with my shiny new and incredibly sharp critique partner, I discovered I never said what it feels like to have magical ability.

Did I never make that up? I went back to my notes and discovered that no, I have no idea what it feels like to be able to do magic.

Why does it have to feel like anything? In the context of my book, take my word it does.

So I plugged that gap, and in the process discovered the list of questions about my magic system that I’m now going to share.

I should warn you I’m not going to give my answers to the questions because, in the faint hope you might one day read my book, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything.

You’re still here? Onwards!

Where does magic come from? What causes it? How does it work?

Magic need not come from anywhere, but maybe it does.

Perhaps the earth is a conduit for the primal energy that the gods generated when they created the universe, and magic users have the ability to tap into it.

Or it could be that the dead bestow their life energy on people they deem worthy, and those noble people can use it to perform miracles.

Asking where magic comes from can give you all sorts of ideas on what it might be able to do and how it might affect your story.

Magic could work because it’s magic–magicians wave their hands and turtles are transformed into tortoises–or there could be some logic to it.

Or it breaks the bonds between atoms and rearranges them.

Magic shifts part of our universe into a parallel universe and brings part of the parallel universe here.

Or it lets the not-yet-born interfere in our world.

You decide.

magic system - glowy jellyfish
Are they jellyfish or spells. Eat one and find out.

What can magic do and not do?

The answer to this question might follow naturally from what magic is and where it comes from.

But for a story, I think the limitations on magic matter more than what it can do.

If the good guys are all powerful and can accomplish anything with a twitch of the finger, nothing is a threat to them and there’s no need for your story.

Don’t do that.

Establish the limitations on magic early and stick to them. It will make your plotting easier.

Who can use magic, why them, and how common is it? How do they learn to use it?

Is magical ability genetic, bestowed through life experiences, gifted randomly in a “Chosen One” way, or earned through hard work by anyone with the determination?

Is magical ability a sign of great virtue? Great ambition? Race? Luck? A curse?

Is magical ability widespread in the population, limited to particular groups, or bestowed only on a select few?

The answers to these questions will affect the dynamics of your story.

How magic users learn to use it will depend on the interactions between magic and wider society.

Do they learn it from their parents the way children learn to use cutlery and not wet their underwear?

Are there schools or universities that teach magic? (Harry someone, I think.)

Do users have to seek out a sage high on a mountainside and spend a year in total silence before they will be accepted as students in the high arts?

Is it all a matter of personal exploration, at the risk of burn damage or falling into another universe?

magic system - lamp
Who’s home? Rub the lamp and find out.

How well do users understand magic? What do they believe about what theyโ€™re doing? How close to correct are they? In what ways are they wrong?

Sure, magic could be well understood in your world, but wouldn’t it be more fun if it weren’t?

Ignorance or incorrect beliefs about what magic is could lead your characters to all sorts of exciting adventures, like getting mauled by dimension-eating dragons.

Regardless of whether your dragons eat dimensions, initial ignorance gives your characters a new way to grow, and your readers an additional mystery to puzzle through and the thrill of revelations.

Misunderstandings about the nature of magic can cause your characters great heartache, and don’t we all live to torture our characters?

Are there things magic users can do to increase their power, or is strength predetermined? If so, by what?

Are all magic users equally powerful, or is your hero puny and her enemy magnificently powerful?

Why?

Might your hero get more powerful as she undergoes character growth? As she racks up a body count?

What about the antagonist? Can she follow a course of medication and double her ability to blow up hard drives with her mind?

No, it’s fantasy so no hard drives.

To what lengths will the bad guy go to increase his power? Who will he kill or sacrifice?

This post is getting long and I’m only halfway there, so I’m going to split it into two. Stayed tuned for more questions you might ask when designing a magic system.

Update: Find the second set of questions here.

Do you use questions to design your magic? If so, do you have any good ones? If not, how do you design your magic systems? Will you write me a story about dimension-eating dragons?

Sign up for my emails (not too many, just the right number) to make sure you get the second post in this (mini-)series.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

10 thoughts on “Questions to ask when designing a magic system, part 1”

  1. I like to ask as much as I can in the brainstorming process, but there are some things that donโ€™t come up until we start writing! But less and less is overlooked as we go, right? Most of my magic systems could definitely benefit from some defined perimeters.

    1. My magic systems, like everything else in my stories, definitely evolve as I write. As you say, some things never occur to you until you’re actually writing the story. It’s still fun to pretend we can plan our writing ahead though, right? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. The implications of a magic system where you gain power by killing people! Something like that would definitely impact the story. Although, now you have me thinking… Seems like the good guy would be at a significant disadvantage there…

    1. That would definitely be a problem for someone who wasn’t willing to kill, especially if the bad guy didn’t come from the shadows until he was well into a killing spree…

  3. Great list of questions. Not all the worldbuilding associated with a magic system will end up in the book, but it will flavor the writing and add richness and authenticity to the work. Heading over to part 2.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Promise I don't bite (even if you pull my tail).

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