Rules of Magic

So it’s a funny thing, I am a fantasy writer and I kind of hate writing magic, especially magical systems. It’s not that I’m opposed to magic as a concept or don’t love to delve into some fun magical words with some crazy spellslinging, but what I mean is that *I* find writing magic to be a bit of an exercise in frustration.

To be honest my first novel and world started out as a pretty low magic world, in fact it still is for the most part, the magic in the world of Silador is more simplistic magic, learning to go unnoticed in broad day light, learning to speak and hunt with animals; and there are Gods, powerful yes, omnicipant no. They have their domains of power to teach mortals and inspire them or make them despair. In a way Silador is a world caught at a turning point between an ancient world of magic and a world beginning to learn about science and rationality.

My second fantasy series is more complicated then that though in terms of magic and in a urban fantasy world that’s somewhere between the tv show Grimm and The Dresden File books, magic has to come into play far more strongly about how that magic interacts with the various inhabitants of the world, from the mythlogical peoples who live in secret, to the humans who know the truth and walk in their world, and even how humans without knowledge of the world of magic interact with it.

My problem with magic is when a writer doesn’t know what kind of magic they are writing and just throws magic in and hopes it all works out. Magic can be throughly complex and though in some worlds it can be a fix all for any issue, having it being part of your story is not a magical fix all for ill planned writing. As such I have come up with four classifications of how to write magic, the Schools of Magic if you will. When developing a new fantasy world, rather it be for my novels a short story, a RPG campaign, one of the first things I do is figure out the classification of the magic levels of that world presented below.

No Magic

This is pretty self-explanitory, no magic, just people doing peopely things maybe science, maybe not, who cares, there’s no magic, let’s move on.

Tolkien Magic

So this is named, obviously, after the grandfather of fantasy novels, J.R.R. Tolkien. The magic of Tolkiens world is what I’d consider fairly subtle. If you really dig into where most of the magic comes from it is from Gandalf and the Ring. Other magic is mentioned but it is limited. Gandalf himself uses limited magic during fights, the most notable examples being in the goblin cave and in the trees during the events of The Hobbit, and even then he stated later he was limited by the resources at hand. In The Lord of the Rings he uses magic to protect himself from the Balrog to a limited extent and a little bit against the Ring Wraths at Weathertop and before the seige of Gondor. However even in these moments his magic is enough to weather the attacks but he cannot stop armies or throw fireballs at will or summon great armies from nothing. Other magic seen is contained to the mostly visions, the Palantír, or seeing stones, or magic mirrors like that owned by the Lady Galadriel. Overall this style of magic can be summed up by a few key points: magic is prevelent through the world but is rare and not used in normal life situations, magic is undefined and does not have a “system” or set rules to control what magic can be preformed when, magic is not the key to solving the problems presented in the world.

Rowling Magic

Disclaimer Note: I came up with this theory several years ago before Rowling came out as a transphobic TERF. I do not support her views and hope that someday she can realize the harm she is causing with her views, however in the mean time the Harry Potter books continue to be the best example of this that will be known to the widest audiance of readers (even more then if I called it Gygax Magic which is my current contender, is Butcher popular enough to make this work?). I suppose we could call it Potter Magic, but the other areas are named after the authors so for continuality sake I want an author’s name. If you have another writer you’d like to suggest this be named for please let me know!

This is your flashy magic, your D&D magic, your fireballs and lightning bolts, your magic fixes all the problems and can do whatever you damn well need it too thank you very much. These magic worlds are brimming with magic, but in a way that’s front and center of the story, the main characters are magical, they throw spells around for every situation, from fighting the bad guys, to playing sports, to fixing the broken roof, to doing your laundry. There’s a magic spell for everything. Usually there’s some sort of loose system in place, a magic word, a specific air-drawn symbol, maybe a few ingredents mixed together properly, and unlike Tolkien magic, this magic is given some rules as to how it works. Harry Potter has his wand and magic words and mandrakes. Quentin from The Magicians they use drawn symbols and many magician have specialties as well. Harry Dresden has his blasting wands and staffs and latin words of power and circles of power. Just enough to make sense but all infuse a bit of something called “magic” into their spells to make them work, whatever that thing is sets them part from normies like you and me to be able to make that magic activate. There are occassionally harsher prices to using this magic but not for the ordinary every day uses. The issue with this type of magic is that often the rules have to get changed to fit the story. What might make sense as the big scary killing spell in book one of a series has to be watered down by book five because oh gosh darn it if it just instantly killed everyone the war would be over pretty quick. So that scary killing curse becomes the equivlent of a magic bullet which can be block by other objects or dodged by just running around. You know kind of like if you were up against a gun. Or something. Often this type of magic can lead to plot holes and lead to logic paradoxes since you can probably think about another solution to an issue from 3 books earlier in the series that the exhausted author forgot about 30 bottles of Jack ago. Other hallmarks of this magical writing include lots of spells easily recognizable by the reader (I mean we all STILL what wingardium leviosa does); well most of the time the big issues of the world can be solved with magic pluck, wit, and some good friends can often help save the day; most of magic of this kind is based in the urban and YA fantasy subgenres; and generally being very comfortable for readers to understand and settle into.

Sanderson Magic

Now I want to preferce this with I have not yet read the Stormlight Archive series because…time and life, so I don’t know if this holds up across all of his works, however I think most of us avid fantasy readers are familiar with the intricate magic system presented in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. This is the magic of rules, the magic of spreadsheets, the magic of you have to pay the fuck attention and remember what exactly does pewter do again? This is heavily thought out magic, it’s not lightfingered and fun spellsling like Rowling Magic, it’s not mysterious and moving in the back currents of the world like Tolkien magic. It is front and present in the story and those with magic have the advantage, and the problems presented in the world often require magical solutions to the problem, pluck and wit is nice but is not going to get your ass out of the fire when the stakes are down. This magic can still be fun and you can emmerse yourself in just learning the magic of the world as much as the character and plot. Unlike the other system this magic has very set rules, this is magic where you have to do very particular things to gain the abilities, there are defined limits to those abilities and there is usually a price to pay for that magic. The big thing about this magic is that is a known quantity and there are rarely surprises with this type of magic and it TENDS to be consistant throughout the series. This type of magic well very good for people who like the details and knowing how it works can be interesting for a lot of readers to see how someone with limited magic can over come a situation. However often this magic can get complicated and might not be as approachable and accessable for the casual fantasy reader or someone new to the genre.

Okay so that’s my list. There are some worlds that might cross the lines, because as most writers know most rules are best when they are being broken. However I think that you can see where most of your favorite fantasy worlds can fit into these catagorizations and might give you a general baseline of where to start when developing your own magic system (and then of course break the rules and make it unique!). So do you agree or disagree? Where do some of your favorite fantasy worlds fall, and do you have one that can’t fit into any of these? Let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Rules of Magic

  1. Hi! Found your blog via Twitter 🙂

    I don’t think my world’s magic system fits neatly into any of the others. It’s probably what you would call the sort of problematic magic you refer to in your aritcle, but it’s not something born out of poor or lazy writing but an intentional thing that has evolved over time. It’s a bit of a blend of all four systems you describe (yes, even the “no magic”). But I call it “fairy-tale magic.”

    Fairy-tale magic is unique, in that from story-to-story, there don’t seem to be any consistent rules. Magic can turn a man into a beast, or children into gingerbread. It can spin straw into gold, awaken a slumbering princess, free a genie who grants wishes, or drive 10,000 mice out of a village. The magic in my world doesn’t exactly follow this same chaotic trend– there _are_ rules– but it might seem that way to the uninitiated.

    In my world, magic is inherent. It’s part of the science of the world. Just like we have creatures on our own Earth who seem to defy what we know about nature, in this fantasy world there’s nothing more natural than magic, only it’s been misunderstood and– occasionally– misapplied.

    For the other creatures of the realm, magic is simply a part of life. For humans, however, its use always comes with a steep price– typically in the form of some sort of bodily harm, but it can be channeled in other ways by someone skilled in the art. It can also be stored inside stones for later use– the price being paid at the time of storage, so it can be used later with no ill effect.


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