8 Magic System Ideas to Enhance Your Fantasy Writing
Aspiring fantasy writers often run into a creative block when thinking up an original yet captivating magic system for their novel. This foundational element of fantasy is arguably the most challenging part for writers to nail down because its difficult to alter reality in a way that makes sense to the reader.
For this reason, Ive taken the time to compile several unique magic systems that Ive come across in my readings to help inspire your own magic system ideas. Each of these established magic system ideas is explained in-depth, along with several ways that you could tailor the idea to fit your own novel.
Sometimes, all a writer needs is a little bit of imaginative exposure to unearth that creative spark. These unique magical systems should expose you to new perspectives and ways of thinking to get the ball rolling. Beware that there are some minor spoilers ahead, so if you see a book on this list that you plan on reading in the future, I recommend you skip that specific section.
1.) Personifying Abstract Concepts and Ideals with Magical Creatures
2.) Crafting Physical Matter by Drawing Power from Surrounding Colors
3.) Linking Separate Objects so that Whatever Happens to One Influences the Other
4.) Swords That Easily Cut Through Any Solid Material
5.) Telepathically Communicating with Animals and Living Through Them
6.) Manipulating Friction to Slide Along Any Surface and Become Elusive
7.) Possessing Complete Control Over the Essence of the Wind
8.) Ring that Drastically Manipulate the Morals of its User
1.) Personifying Abstract Concepts and Ideals with Magical Creatures
The Way of Kings is one of the most renowned fantasy novels to date. Brandon Sanderson has a knack for creating alluring, original magic systems that immerse the reader into the fictional universe.
A staple magical element inThe Way of Kingsis the personification of human emotions and ideas into living creatures calledspren. Whenever a human strongly experiences and vividly encounters one of these abstract human ideals, these tiny, fairy-like beings begin to materialize. Examples of these spren include gloryspren, honorspren, windspren, and exhaustionspren.
At the onset of the novel, the purpose of these sentient beings is rather vague. As you continue to read, however, the conceptual basis behind spren becomes more concrete. In due time, they begin to play a much more significant role in the storyline.
Not only do these spren greatly influence the plot, but they also influence the characterization and world-building aspects of the story as well.
In terms of characterization, certain spren progressively gain intelligence over the course of the book until theyre essentially minor characters that accompany the primary protagonists.
Spren influence the storys world-building in that the reader is constantly being reminded that this is an entirely different fictional universe from the reality that they know. Sanderson deliberately drops little references to spren throughout the story to invite the reader into this fictional setting, which helps the reader to nurture their sense of awe and imagination.
You can take the general premise of personifying ideas into magical creatures and customize it to fit the context of your own story.
For example, rather than applying personification to abstract human ideals, maybe you switch it up and apply personification to physical inanimate objects. Creating a world where life could arise spontaneously from the world around you could open up a realm of possibilities.
Plus, you could characterize the life that arises from these inanimate objects however you see fit. Maybe the living beings that sprout from rock tend to be firm, hard, and disciplined in their dealings with humans. The living beings that sprout from water could be more flexible and indecisive, going with the flow of whatevers happening around them.
These are just hypothetical ideas, but you can see how working with well-established magic systems could lead you toward a creative magic system of your own.
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Next, lets discuss the magic system present inThe Black Prismby Brent Weeks. In this world, magical users are gifted with drawing power from the light present in particular colors. They can then manifest this light to produceluxina form of physical matter that can take the shape of practically anything, from weapons to buildings.
The thing thats so special about this magic system is how Weeks lays out a logical set of rules to govern how draftersi.e., the magical usersgather their power to manifest luxin. The way the magic system is described, it almost seems scientific. These hard and fast rules classify this magic system, referred to as chromaturgy in the novel, as ahardmagic system.
If youre not yet familiar with what a hard magic system is, you could learn more by clicking over toHard Magic System vs Soft Magic System.
Aside from the logistics behind the magic system, another vital element of chromaturgy is the severe consequences of creating luxin. Whenever a drafter draws power and crafts luxin, they edge closer and closer to devolving into awight, a term used to describe a magical user who has lost all sense of sanity and control over their light manifestation.
This creates a sense of danger in the readers eyes because the stakes for using magic are extremely high!
There are two main takeaways from this magic system that stand out in my mind: the unique way in which characters draw their power and the underlying consequences that characters must face for using magic.
When constructing your own magic system, you should think hard about the power source that fuels all magical users. InThe Black Prism, magical users fuel themselves with specific colored light. For example, blue drafters draw their power from blue light, whereas green drafters draw their power from green light.
It may help if you tried to implement a unique power source reminiscent of this idea to captivate the reader. Maybe your magical users draw their energy from other living beings around them. Maybe your magical users feed their power with a rare commodity, like diamonds or jewels. Ultimately its up to you to think up what power source fits the context of the story.
As far as magical consequences go, it would be best to make the reader feel that magical use comes at a high expense. In this narrative, magical users risk losing their sanity every time they use magic. You can adopt something along similar lines, like forcing characters to trade away hours of their life in exchange for using magical power.
These high stakes will add intrigue to your magic system since readers will always be somewhat on edge every time that a protagonist uses magic in excess.
Name of the Windby Patrick Rothfuss is another fantasy classic thats renowned for its magic system. One element of the magic system thats particularly memorable to me is sympathy.
Rothfuss describes sympathy as a means of interlinking two distinct objects so that they essentially act in unison. Put simply, whatever one object experiences, the other object will experience as well.
Say, for instance, that a magical user created a sympathetic link between two stones. If the magical user were to move one of these stones, the other stone would move in the same manner as the stone acted upon.
Its important to note that the use of sympathy is not only limited to force and direction. Sympathy can link other aspects as well, such as structural integrity. For example, if you bind two twigs with a sympathetic link, snapping one twig will snap the other one as well.
This has serious implications, as sympathetically linking inanimate objects with people grants magical users the power to hurt these individuals through the inanimate object indirectly.
You can draw from this basic concept and form your own magic system around the concept of energy manipulation as well.
For example, you can describe a form of energy manipulation where characters absorb the kinetic or potential energy from inanimate objects and infuse that power within themselves.
Say that a barrage of arrows is flying towards a magical user. In this hypothetical magic system, you can have the magical user absorb the kinetic energy of the barrage of arrows to fuel their own personal energy reserve and send them back where they came.
That idea was just off the cuff, but its that line of thinking that could help guide you toward the next big thing in fantasy. Obviously, this would go against every natural law in our world, but thats the beauty of creating fantasy magic systems. They could be about anything that your mind desires!
Another appealing magical concept fromThe Way of Kingsis the idea of the Shardblade.
The Shardblade is a highly coveted weapon in this fictional universe, and for a good reason. It can slice through any physical substance with ease, whether it be hard granite, solid brick, or melded metal. Consequently, Shardblades can easily carve through weapons and armor on the battlefield, leaving enemies at the mercy of those wielding this kind of blade.
Military figures that earn this weapon are also highly regarded since the only real way to earn a Shardblade is to win it off a current Shardbearer. This inevitably results in a social hierarchy within the fictional universe, with those perched at the top and those scrapping at the bottom.
This sets the stage for conflict in the novels later chapters between prominent characters and powerful kingdoms. The additional plot complexity makes for a higher-quality reading experience overall.
You can modify this general idea by applying it to tools other than weaponry. For example, inThe Way of Kings, one of the characters even alludes to the narrow-sightedness of humankind in that they only use Shardblades for warfare, even though it has the potential for so many other areas in society.
As a hypothetical example, you could construct a magical excavation tool thats able to slice through any hard substances quickly and efficiently. This magical excavator could prove extremely useful if your fantasy narrative is set in a mining camp or an underground community.
So often, fantasy authors tend to concentrate their efforts toward the combat capabilities of magic systems. As a result, they neglect other practical uses for the magic system theyve constructed, which ultimately makes the magic system feel one-dimensional.
The most memorable magic systems are the ones that influence all aspects of society and culture. From warfare to religion, architecture to politics, you should try to integrate magic wherever you can. This way, the reader sees magic as an actual lifestyle rather than just a means to an end.
Next up, lets take a closer look at the Wit fromAssassins Apprenticeby Robin Hobb. For those who havent readAssassins Apprentice, the Wit is a means by which humans can link their thoughts and senses to that of an animal. This connection is extremely profound since it links both humans and animals on the mental, emotional, and spiritual levels.
This type of magic system introduces a different character dynamic in fantasy, as animals take on a much more substantial role in the story than whats typical. In most stories, animals rarely take on any semblance of importance.
For example, fantasy novelists may name horses within their story, but the most these horses ever do is carry characters along as they travel. If these horses do happen to die in battle, there arent any real repercussions to the overall story.
InAssassins Apprentice, however, the powerful connection that magical users establish with animals goes far beyond the fantasy norm. Any traumatic experiences that the animal feels directly affect the psyche of the magical user. This relationship even has the power to drive some magical users to madness, which is why this type of magic is ill-advised.
Introducing some magical companionship between animals and humans may be something to consider experimenting with.
Most fantasy authors disregard the magical empowerment of animals. Its hard enough describing the magical capabilities of human characters. Trying to explain both the supernatural powers of humans and animals simultaneously can be a difficult task. Not only that, it can be hard to depict the magical prowess of animals in a way that appeals to readers. Unfortunately, some readers arent animal lovers.
Nonetheless, adding an alluring magical companionship between animals and humans has the potential to separate your fantasy narrative from the rest. This writing path may be tougher, but eventually, youll have to put in the work that other authors arent willing to do to reach the top.
To incorporate a magic system like the Wit into your novel, consider creative ways to establish a unique connection between character and animal. Maybe a magical user can see into an animals past. Maybe a magical user can connect with an animal to the point where they see what they see. Its up to you to decide what sort of path you want to take.
Yet another Brandon Sanderson magical system, this idea originates fromEdgedancer: From the Stormlight Archive. As a quick reference, an Edgedancer is the term used to describe magical users that have the capacity to turn friction on and off. This power allows Edgedancers to slide along the ground as if they were on ice and escape the grasp of any individual trying to get a hold of them.
Its certainly an intriguing concept, as this is the first time Ive ever heard any fantasy writer toy with the physics of friction as a magical power.
In the scene where this power is first referenced in theStormlight Archiveseries, the Edgedancer infiltrates a high-security area but is eventually discovered. Guards from all over converge on the Edgedancer, which prompts her to turn off friction and put her unique evasive maneuvers on display.
This introductory scene definitely had me turning page after page. It wasnt just the originality of the concept that fascinated me, but the real prospect of danger as well. Sanderson certainly knows how to leave a first impression on the reader when introducing magic.
You can learn how to effectively open up your magic system to the reader by reading throughHow to Introduce Magic into a Fantasy Novel (Complete Guide).
The beauty of this magic system is how it manipulates a fundamental law of nature that many fantasy writers overlook. Every fantasy author tends to break the same fundamental rules.
Think about it. How many times youve read a fantasy novel thats broken the law of gravity? For whatever reason, fantasy writers have absolutely fallen in love with character flight in their novels, to the point where its arguably a frowned-upon fantasy trope.
Rather than fiddling with the same magic system ideas as everyone else, ask the question,What fundamental laws of nature do I overlook yet still impact my everyday life?
When I ask myself this question, I think about how matter cannot be created or destroyed, how all humans have to eat to survive, how humans are only given one body to live in, etc.
You can modify all the laws of nature that I just mentioned to propose a model for a magic system. For example, if matter cannot be created or destroyed, have your magical users manifest atomic particles from absolutely nothing. If humans need to eat to survive, give your magical users the power to recharge their energy through sunlight alone rather than food. If humans are only given one body, grant magical users the capacity to reconfigure their anatomy to resemble an entirely different person.
Asking questions like these will help lead you to the original magical concepts youre searching for.
Another key magical concept that was made popular by Patrick Rothfuss is naming. This magic system is based upon the idea of evoking complete control over some element of naturein this case, the windby calling the element of nature by its true name.
Earlier, you received a glimpse into what a hard magic system is by learning chromaturgy, the signature magic system ofThe Black Prism. The magic system inName of the Wind, on the other hand, is classified as a soft magic system due to its lack of concrete rules.
When a magical user calls upon the true name of an element, the reader does not have a clear grasp of what the magical user is truly capable of. In fact, I would even dare to say that the magical users themselves arent aware of their supernatural limits.
This adds a sense of mystery and awe behind the magic system, which leaves the reader guessing as to what direction the story will go.
Complete mastery over a single element of nature can be an interesting magical concept, as it combines something real and tangible (the environment) with something utterly abstract (humans manipulating nature).
You dont have to take the Rothfuss approach and link your magic system strongly to the wind. Instead, you can associate your magic system with some other element of nature, like fire, water, mist, soil practically anything you could think of!
Plus, you can take notes on how Rothfuss left most of the magic system up to interpretation. Contrary to popular opinion, its unnecessary to lay out every little detail of your magic system to the reader.
By leaving certain areas of your magic system up for interpretation, theres a bit of an enigma present that will take hold of the readers curiosity. It also leaves the door open for magical ideas in the future, allowing your magic system to grow and evolve organically as you write.
To wrap this article up, lets discuss the magical notions of the One Ring from the all-time fantasy classicThe Lord of the Ringsby J.R.R. Tolkien.
The One Ring is the magical centerpiece ofThe Lord of the Rings series, as it holds the power to exploit the will of living beings. It also carries additional powers, like granting its bearer the ability to vanish from sight and become invisible.
These powers do come at a tremendous expense, however. Over time, the One Ring corrupts the morals and values of its user until their thoughts only revolve around possessing the ring. This consequence is seen multiple times throughout the series and has a noticeable impact on the progression of certain characters.
The One Ring is yet another prime example of soft magic in that the reader doesnt fully understand all its magical capabilities. The one thing they do know, however, is that this one physical artifact has the potential to wreak havoc on the world.
Incorporating magical physical artifacts that have the potential to shatter the foundation of the world can be a tremendous literary tool, as proven by the immense popularity ofThe Lord of the Rings.
You can adopt a similar concept by inserting a mysterious, awe-inspiring artifact in your narrative. Not only does this provide a basis for the magic system, but it can help you write the storyline and character progressions as well. The One Ring impacted all literary aspects inThe Lord of the Ringsseries, which is why people were so intrigued by its underlying magic.
Heres an example of what you could potentially do to modify this idea for your novel.
Instead of the One Ring, lets say that the all-powerful, magical artifact in your story is a knife. Lets call it the Everknife. This Everknife also has the potential to shake the foundation of the world like the One Ring, but rather than manipulating peoples willpower, it has the power to extract someones remaining life force and extend someone elses life.
As far as consequences for using the Everknife go, you can make up whatever you want. Does it take away the magical users sanity? Does it alter their physical appearance? Does it corrupt their soul? Any of these avenues could work if you describe it the right way.
Reading fantasy volume after fantasy volume is often the best means of discovering how to form the conceptual basis of a magic system. By adopting particular aspects of proven magic systems, you can begin to branch out from there until your magic system begins to take shape all its own.
Just keep your mind open and write down every little crazy idea that pops into your head. The more ideas you have to work with, the better!
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