by The Four Part Land

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

In my eyes, what sets fantasy apart from any other setting is magic. How it is handled, the strength, the interactions, but mostly its very existence. Magic is the glue that holds a fantasy setting together, because it reflects the characteristics of the setting and the people within it. Very often this includes the main character. Goodkind, Jordan, Brooks, Rowling, all of them have their primary character(s) wield magic.

Given magic’s importance to the setting, it is incumbent upon us as fantasy writers to make sure we get it right. This is not an easy challenge, because of the myriad roles that magic plays within fantasy stories, and the way that it provides a background that holds every other facet of the story together. In this series of blog posts, I will attempt to answer some of the questions surrounding designing, building, and using magic in a fantasy setting. This is by no means a final answer, for there are as many ways to do magic as there are stars in the sky. There is only the choice that fits your novel best.

That said, I’ll begin with a few choices that arise regarding the design process of magic.

Choice #1: Strength – How strong is the magic in your world? Think carefully before answering this, for it affects every other aspect of the creation. If the magic acts like it does in the Dungeons and Dragons world, it rapidly becomes the most powerful and overwhelming aspect of creation. Every fighter has a magic sword, every powerful wizard can change continents, every creature has some aspect of magic to them, and every item is a magical artefact.

At the other end are worlds where casting a single spell requires great preparation, and may kill the caster; where it is not the first resort, but the last, and that with great cost. Settings with this type of magic often tend to have a post-apocalyptic or dystopian tinge, for resources are scarce. That, or the world looks more like medieval times in Earth’s history, when we didn’t have magic for our activities.

There is one exception to the “magic dictates power” rule – when magic is balanced by technology. This is often called “gunpowder fantasy”, and can be seen in novels such as L.E. Modesitt’s Saga of Recluce. Steam and gunpowder have created forces nearly as powerful as magic, and often the two are in opposition, although not always.

Make this choice carefully, for it will dictate much of the believability of the setting. If mages are on every street corner and magic items are sold in pawn shops, the rest of the world must be altered to take that into account, otherwise there will be a disconnect that the discerning reader will discover.

Choice #2: Prevalence – How common is magic in your setting? This goes hand in hand with Choice #1, and plays an equally important role in determining the world. If everyone has magic, especially powerful magic, there would likely be no poverty, and wars would be especially devastating, for each soldier could wield power far greater than their arm. But if magic is restricted to a few gifted individuals, the situation is much like one where the power of magic is very low – only a tiny proportion has access, and for those lacking the gift, the cost of acquiring magical aid is likely extremely high.

Likewise, it can help determine the fate of a gifted main character. Are they sought after for having a unique talent, or are they one amongst many, to be tossed to the side if they fail to meet some goal? In a multi-character story, this is also something to consider, for if magic is extremely rare, yet four of the five main characters possess it, that seems at odds with the setting.

Now that we as authors have made these first two choices about the magic in our world, we can move on to other aspects that are equally important, but are guided in certain directions by the choices made above. I hope you enjoyed this, and will be back for the next instalment, wherein I will discuss Style and Powers.

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  1. Sasperella on 11.29.1999

    Really useful info – thanks!


  2. Eric J. Krause on 02.13.2011

    Good article. These first two tips are excellent. I’m looking forward to reading the rest!


  3. Karen Johnson on 02.13.2011

    The tips were very helpful. I look forward to more.


  4. The Four Part Land on 02.15.2011

    Thanks, I’ll be posting the next piece tomorrow, and when I’m done with the whole series, I’ll mash them together into a PDF in case people want to store them offline or print it out.


  5. Helpful Writing Sites & Blog Posts February 2011 Edition | The Graceful Doe's Blog on 02.22.2011

    […] Creating a Magic System […]

  6. lancelot on 03.22.2011

    thanks for this.

    This is the most practical post on writing I’ve read lately because this is RIGHT where I am in my series.

    Thanks for this.


  7. So You Want to Write Fantasy . . . « on 03.31.2011

    […] Creating a Magic System, Part 1 (Strength and Prevalence) […]

  8. D. D. Syrdal on 10.16.2012

    Excellent thoughts on this. I never heard the term “gunpowder fantasy” before, I’ll have to look into it more.


    The Four Part Land Reply:

    There are a few good stories in that style, but I’d recommend starting with Chris Evan’s Iron Elves series. 


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