Questions to ask when designing a magic system, part 2

magic system - lamp in a forest

If you’re designing a magic system for a fantasy novel, here are some more questions you might want to ask.

My last post gave five questions you might find useful to ask when designing a magic system for a fantasy novel. Here are five more questions that should have been in that post but weren’t because it was getting long.

What is the downside or cost of magic and how long do any negative side-effects last?

If magic is free, life will be too easy for your protagonist. They might love you for it, but your readers won’t.

So magic must come at a cost.

Maybe magic is forbidden, and if a user is discovered she risks being dunked in boiling butter.

Perhaps the cost of magic is lifespan–each spell cast shortens the practitioner’s life by a month.

Or each spell cast means someone close to the spellcaster will randomly die in a horrible accident.

Spells may not be reliable, each having the potential to horribly injure the caster.

Or maybe spells burn thousands of calories, exhausting the magician and requiring him to eat incessantly to not die of starvation. This might not be much of a problem for the rich (except socially), but what about those who can barely afford to eat normal amounts?

If magic has side effects such as terrible body odour or shaky hands, how long do they last? If you don’t know, it’s easy to be inconsistent to make plotting easier.

Don’t! Your readers will notice and dunk you in boiling butter.

How is magic experienced by the wielder? By the subject or victim? By a bystander? Who can sense its use? How close do they have to be?

What does it feel like to use magic? Are there sights, sounds, tastes, smells, sensations, emotions, or anything else associated with it? Do they vary with the spell or by user?

Similarly, how does it feel to have magic used on you? Do you even necessarily know?

What does it feel like when someone close to you uses magic? A question with big potential story implications is who can sense magic being used and how close do they have to be? Obviously this matters more if magic is forbidden.

If magic use has signs that others can pick up on, can the magician reduce or eliminate them? At what cost?

Who knows magic exists? How does the common view of it differ from the truth? How is it viewed by society? Officially? Actually? Are there particular groups in society with different knowledge or views?

Magic, given it exists, probably won’t exist entirely separately from society. The two will interact in all sorts of ways that make life difficult for your protagonist (hopefully).

Different groups within society will have different knowledge and beliefs about the nature of magic, many of which may be incomplete or entirely wrong.

There may be an official story about the nature of magic, and this could differ from what the populace actually believes. Either of both could affect the way people behave in relation to magic.

If it’s seen as a curse, magicians might avoid using it even when it’s useful, or they might face ostracism by their families.

Maybe certain groups in society deliberately mislead others about the nature of magic to further their own agendas. (Don’t you love secret societies?)

Have users attempted to use magic to further their own ambitions? If not, why not?

If magic has been around for a while and not everyone can use it, magicians will probably have certain advantages over non-magicians. Chances are some less-than-savoury people through history have attempted to use it to their own benefit, at the cost of others.

This could have had huge impacts on the history of the world.

If it has never happened, why not? Could it? Might it be happening right now?

Consider all the story possibilities.

What are some natural or logical extensions of the known magical system?

If there’s a logic behind your magic system, such as I describe in my previous post, the logic might suggest certain extensions.

I found this question very useful for thinking about the sequel to my current WIP. Readers want “the same but different” from a sequel. Your world has to be consistent between books, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add new and exciting magics that are a natural extension of the magic system you present in the first in the series.

For example, maybe your first book establishes magic comes from the burps of frogs. The most powerful magicians are those who farm the most frogs, and war breaks out between the frog farmers and underdog animal activists who object to the mistreatment of the frogs.

magic system - frog

By the second book, the activists have freed the frogs and burned the factories where they were kept to the ground. Now what?

Sure, you could write another book about people trying to harness frog burps, but it might feel a bit samey.

Instead, perhaps there’s another animal with magical burps. Or many animals. Perhaps the burps of different animals bestow different powers on those who harness them.

How did you establish magicians take in frog burps? Breathe them, perhaps? What if there are alternatives?

Science advances. Perhaps someone discovers a way to condense the magic out of frog burps to create charms that store magic or have magical powers.

The possibilities are limitless and could lead your plot in any direction.

Do you have any questions to add? Any favourite magic systems from literature?

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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.

6 thoughts on “Questions to ask when designing a magic system, part 2”

  1. I think that “cost” of magic is perhaps one of the more important questions of the lot. The cost might be physical in some way, but could also be social or criminal. The worst thing a magic system can have is too much power and no repercussions. Another excellent post. 🙂

  2. I’ve never thought about it before, but taking the cost of magic into consideration is very important because it directly affects the plot and characters, and it also directly helps me define the magical/supernatural boundaries in a story. Taking the superhero world for example, Batman rises up to take down crime, but by simple acting against crime with powerful weapons, he inadvertently causes more crime. Villains get more creative, more dangerous, and more willing to get into a batch of noxious chemicals in the hopes of getting strong enough to take the superhero down so they can rule the city, being feared by all, except the people who will rise up to take them down. It becomes a huge problem, a nearly endless cycle. A good way to judge how long a series needs to be and a good way to see in advance how it all needs to end, giving you a nice roadmap for the entire trip!

    1. Yes! I actually find it easier to plot when I have more constraints such as the cost of magic. They affect everything.

      I’m not familiar with Batman’s story, but that sounds like an interesting dynamic. 🙂

  3. All fascinating, and then once an author has worked out all the answers and designed their magical system, the challenge is to convey the rules by weaving them into the story rather than info-dumping them on the reader. Nobody said this stuff was easy!

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

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