How to Write a Successful Magic System, Part 1
Magic systems can make or break a fictional world, undoing the rest of your hard work in the world-building department.
In this post, I discuss what you need to know when creating your magic system and provide examples of solid systems. This is a vast topic, so my list is short, and I'll try to be as brief as possible in my explanations.
There are certain things you must know to give your magic system credibility. Questions you should ask yourself are:
What kind of magic(s) are used in the story?
How does it work?
Where does it originate?
Who can access it?
What is needed to use magic?
What are the consequences and limits?
How is magic impacting and/or impacted by the characters/setting?
Are abilities even magic, or something similar yet different (we'll go over this in a later post)?
Without addressing these questions, magic systems fall flat, ruining a story. The best way to answer these questions is RESEARCH.
Start with the type of magic(s) featured in your work and the characters using it. Is your story about witches and warlocks with gifts of sight or healing, fey with elemental abilities, necromancers working with the dead, or something else? Once you know this, the real work—I mean fun—begins.
Now it's time to hammer out the details by answering the remaining questions. Luckily, there's a virtually endless supply of resources to help you: historical accounts, channels and podcasts, websites, movies and TV, games . . . and my personal favorite, fiction. By analyzing magic systems in successful books and series, you can get a clearer picture of how to make yours work.
Below are some of my favorites; pay attention and you'll see how the authors have answered the above questions in their magic systems.
While each of Maas's series seem to have their own magic system, we know they're connected somehow thanks to confirmation of a connected universe. At current, we’re unsure of the original source; magic is claimed to come from the Mother and Cauldron, the land, first-light and second-light, gods and goddesses, or a character's inhuman nature.
What we do know is:
In Throne of Glass, magic disappeared from Erilea when the kingdom of Adarlan slaughtered users and ritually suppressed magic in fae and humans alike. Many magics are nature-based, yet some characters possess raw magic that can take many forms. Others can shapeshift, heal, teleport, or sense death's presence. The Ironteeth witches are deadly, yet their only power is an explosive burst of light called the Yielding, which destroys her enemy and the witch—a life for a life. Wyrdmarks, strange symbols of a forgotten language/religion, can be used for some magics, including summoning, warding, sealing, and unlocking.
In A Court of Thorns and Roses, magic is inherent to the fae. Their magic is part of a give-and-take with the land, and Rites are performed on annual holidays like Calanmai to regenerate it. Most powers are nature-based and tied to Prythian's Courts: water in the Summer Court, fire in the Autumn Court, wind and ice in the Winter Court, and so on. Characters can also winnow (teleport), heal, shape-shift, and have various gifts of sight, death, nullifying magic, shadow manipulation, reading and speaking into minds, and more. Glamours, wards, magical bargains, and enchanted objects can be made, and magic can be repressed with spells, cursed shackles, and poisons.
In Crescent City, all Vanir (non-humans) have varying degrees of innate power. Most Fae on the continent have fire magics, while Avallen Fae from the misty isles wield shadows. Their rivals, the shifters, are humanoids who take an animalistic form—wolves, mer, felines, equestrians, etc. There are witches and mystics with various powers, angelic and demonic beings, vamps, elemental sprites, fauns, sphinxes, and more.
While their abilities are inherent, immortality is not. To slow the aging process, strengthen their powers, and deepen their magic reserves, citizens must participate in the Drop: the process of falling into one's power, then Ascending back to life. Failing to Ascend means perishing with the mortal body; success means awakening to an immortal life. During this process, firstlight is emitted and siphoned by the government to be used for healing and to fuel the city's power grid. While one can choose not to make the Drop, it means sacrificing their full potential. Yet the Drop has not prevented the Fae from weakening with each generation, and the Autumn King is determined to find a solution.
Throughout each series, characters have a “well of power” that, when emptied, leaves them weak and exhausted. Their power reserves must be built back up, or they risk burnout. In some instances, not using their powers for long stretches can be harmful to the fey.
In this massive series, those claimed by Nyx, goddess of night, are Marked by a Tracker with a sapphire crescent moon outline on their forehead. They must then attend a House of Night (vampyre boarding school) before hopefully making the Change. If a fledgling's body rejects the Change, they become sick and succumb to a horrible death. Survivors' crescent moons are filled in, and the tattoo expands to an intricate, unique pattern reflecting the affinity granted to them by the goddess.
Many affinities are for one of the five elements: the four physical elements plus Spirit. Some have affinities for animals. Warriors are gifted battle skills, like Dragon's fencing prowess and Stark's perfect aim. Nyx also grants various gifts of sight: Aphrodite's visions, Kramisha's prophetic poetry, and Nicole's ability to see auras. These powers can be taken away or altered as the goddess sees fit, often as punishment for misusing their affinities or to teach a lesson.
One lesson they all must learn: coexistence with the new breed of feral undead vampyres that emerges, whose Marks are red rather than blue. They more closely resemble "traditional" vamps—they can mess with minds, are overwhelmed with the urge for blood (Blue vamps can live off human food), and are more susceptible to the sun.
Vamps aside, this world also hosts spirits from Cherokee and Celtic lore (land guardians and sprites) who lend a hand to balance the war between personified Darkness and Light. Characters can us magic by accessing their affinities, or in rituals where a circle is drawn and a spell is cast. Magical items such as seer stones (hagstones) are also used throughout the series.
This series features "witcheries" granted by the world's various Origin Wells. Everyone is born with some level of magic, yet many are so powerless that they're not considered witches at all. Tests help determine a citizen's status, and brands on their hands identify their power. In some countries, refusing to test or wearing a false brand is punishable by death. These laws are enforced by the Cartorran Hell-Bards—elite forces who use their ability of sensing magic to track witches trying to hide (known as heretics). Other countries do not practice branding and are kinder witches.
Most witcheries are elemental. The rarity of each is tied to the element's tangibility; earth witcheries are most common, followed by water and air, with fire being the rarest.
Rarer are witcheries from the Aether and Void Wells, though many believe the Void a myth used to scare children into behaving. Aether magic is linked to life and the spirit and deemed good. Void magic, linked to death, is considered evil. In actuality, it boils down to intention.
Truthwitches (who can tell if words or images are true or false), Glamourwitches (who create illusions), Wordwitches (specializing in contracts, speeches, and writing), and Voicewitches (who can communicate with each other over long distances) all derive their power from the Aether Well, but could use their witcheries (or be used by others) to harm. On the other hand, Cursewitches can steal or erase magic, which sounds scary but could be used for good under the right circumstances.
Some witcheries are gender exclusive. Bloodwitches (Void magic) are males who can smell and manipulate blood. They're excellent trackers, quick to heal and hard to kill. Threadwitches (Aether magic) are females who can see the peoples' Threads—their emotions and the ties that bind (concrete connections), build (growing connections that are not yet solidified), and break (fading connections)—and create Threadstones that have various abilities, like locating loved ones.
Interestingly, healing magics have different origins and work in subsets: Waterwitch healers deal with bodily fluids, Earthwitch healers repair bones, Airwitch healers care for the pulmonary system, Firewitch healers tend to the muscles, and Aetherwitch healers are like therapists in handling emotional and mental health.
Like with Threadstones, various witcheries can be channeled into items to create magical tools and weapons. Unlike the Threadwitches and their stones, this process requires a witch to sacrifice whatever magic is channeled, weakening their gifts.
In this world, witches fall into two sects whose magic differs in source and execution.
Dames Blanche, White Ladies, channel magic through the land. They follow the rule that nature requires balance. For instance, breaking a lock could require breaking bone, or taking a memory requires giving one up. When using magic, they see multiple possibilities as golden threads in the air and manipulate them into patterns. However, one Dame Blanche cannot see the patterns of another.
Dames Rouge, Red Ladies or Blood Witches, do not see patterns but use blood to work magic. Because their power comes from within and is not limited to the laws of nature, their magic can be unpredictable and is considered wild and dangerous. Since they must draw their blood for enchantments, their bodies are covered in scars, making it harder for them to conceal their identity than the Dames Blanche. Interestingly, their other body fluids have power as well; one character accidentally starts a wildfire when grief brings her to tears.
Witches are not the only magical beings in Mahurin's world. Characters also encounter and include gods, dragons, loup garou (werewolves), matagots (restless spirits/demons), and melusines (merfolk). Later this year, Mahurin is releasing a new book set in this world which casts a supporting character as the protagonist. It is rumored to introduce vampires.
I'm calling it here for now, y'all. We'll get into more magic systems soon. Next time, we’re discussing magic systems that might not actually be magic. Say what?! You’ll have to tune in next week to find out!