How logical does a fantasy system of magic have to be?

In worldbuilding for a new fantasy world that is thick with magic, I ask myself how much sense a fantasy system of magic has to make. And contemplate the nature of the human soul.

A whale in the clouds

I’m worldbuilding for my new fantasy novel, and an important part of that is figuring out the universe’s system of magic. I’m trying something a bit different in this story, with a universe that’s less earth-like and more magical.

We’re talking isolated settlements floating over a void through which people must travel to move between them, venomous tree octopuses, and magical orbs exuded by a leviathan of the deep void. You want magic? It drips from every tree.

The problem is, it’s really hard to come up with a unified concept of magic that explains all the weird magic stuff in this universe. I know magic is allowed to be mysterious and, well, magical, but I’ve always preferred magic systems that have a certain logic to them, even if the logic includes a few leaps of possibility.

I love the concept of magic in my last book, and it has plenty of untapped potential, but my new book will be in a different universe, so the magic has to be different as well. You wouldn’t want to write the same book twice.

What is the origin of magic?

The biggest thing I’ve been mulling over is what is the source of magic, and relatedly what is the nature of magic.

For instance, magic might come from the gods, assuming there are gods. Select humans could have the ability to beg, borrow, or steal some of this magic from the gods, but they’ll never be able to create the power themselves.

Or the opposite might be true, and humans might be wellsprings of magic. Human energy is a powerful thing. Maybe people can harness it to make changes in the outside world.

Alternatively, magic might occur naturally in the universe in a way people can tap into. The earth could be a living source of power, or magic might constantly be being created and destroyed in the emptiness of space, like virtual subatomic particles.

Or anything else you can think of.

Relatedly, what is magic? Not so much what can it do (though that’s obviously vitally important), but what is its fundamental nature. Can it be created and destroyed, or does conservation of energy apply? Can it be physically stored?

A humpback whale

What is the human soul?

Given the source and nature of magic, where do humans fit in to all this?

What is the nature of humans? Do they have souls? If so, where do they come from and what happens to them when the person dies? Is there an afterlife or do people just believe there is? The afterlife a culture believes in says a lot about them, but if they’re correct, how did they know?

Then we get to animals. If humans have souls, do animals? Are animal souls the same, similar but lesser, or fundamentally different to human souls?

Of course, you can keep going with questions forever, but will any of the answers satisfyingly explain what the void is and why there are whales in it?

I may have to make peace with the idea that the answer is no.

How important is it for you that fantasy magic systems make sense? How do you approach this question in your worldbuilding?

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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.

10 thoughts on “How logical does a fantasy system of magic have to be?”

  1. I like magic systems to be logical too, and if they’re not I start picking holes in them. My favourite ‘magic’ system is Fullmetal Alchemist’s alchemy, where everything must be equivalent. When I’m worldbuilding my own stories I tend to look at what my favourites did well and work from there 😀

    1. Ooh, I don’t know Fullmetal Alchemist, but that’s a great name. I’ll have to take a look. 🙂 Building from books you loved is definitely a useful strategy.

  2. What excellent questions you pose — ones that could send me happily burrowing down a rabbit hole. Yes, I expect magic systems to have their own internal logic, which of course doesn’t (and shouldn’t) match normal reality. In my view, in order to drive a story the magic has to have built-in limits, vulnerabilities, or costs in order to create conflict and maintain the suspension of disbelief that a reader of fantasy needs. So sayeth I.

    1. Oh yes–limits, vulnerabilities, and costs are definitely required for tension in a story. You see so many series that fall apart in later books when the protagonist gets overpowered. You sayeth right. 😉

  3. I think it’s less important that a magic system be epistemologically sound, and more important that it be consistent. If the source of power is the gods, then no one in the book should be able to get power from elsewhere. If magic requires magic words, it should always. Etc.

    1. I definitely agree consistency is important for the story, I just find a system that is epistemologically sound so much more satisfying. Though I expect many readers feel differently on this point.

  4. I’m a philosophy major, fantasy author and long time F&SF RPG player and gamesmaster, and perhaps most of all a world builder. The setting of my novel “Aunt Jenny and the Delayed Quest” is a world between worlds where magic is quite important. It is a place from which you can walk to the Land of Dream, Jinnistan, the superhero universe of G-Man Comics (which I edit and sometimes write), worlds of hard science fiction and, well, here and now, or a reasonable facsimile hereof.

    There is a definite rhyme and reason to how magic works in the metaverse of The Halflands, and the diligent reader can probably work a fair amount of it out from reading Aunt Jenny, but Worldbuilding and exposition aren’t the point of the novel, so it is only loosely described.

    Short form: All of reality exists between Chaos and Order—pure energy and potential on the one hand and forms, rules and abstractions on the other. The closer to Chaos you are, the easier it is for a mind to impose order directly on the chaos. The result is magic, psionics and such. I have a whole lot more going on in my metaphysics, but that’s at its core.

    Much of Aunt Jenny’s quest is to understand Chaos, Order, Magic, and her own role in the world. Why do fairy queens, sages, mages and demigods look to her to save their world? The nature of magic and of knowledge, wisdom, belief and will are important to the story, so I don’t want to explain too much and detract from the journey, quest and tale, so I’ll leave it there, I think.

    1. I love a well-developed magic system, and it sounds like you’ve done some serious thinking about the level of explanation that needs to go in Aunt Jenny.

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