Magic is a big part of the fantasy genre. If you are writing fantasy, then it is a worthwhile topic to get to understand.
If you are writing a novel, and you fail to create a believable magic system, then your story will be weakened.
For people to be taken away on an adventure, to lose themselves in your story, they have to believe it.
If the magic seems somehow wrong or twisted, then it is going to lessen the impact of your story.
So, if you know how to create believable magic systems, that feel vibrant and alive to the reader, you are going to be a much better fantasy fiction author.
Brandon Sanderson’s written a lot about magic systems with his rules on magic. From his point of view, there’s hard magic and soft magic systems.
We’re going to look briefly at what Sanderson believes, and then cover an important point that I think is underemphasised in his work, that really is the crux of the whole thing.
Soft Magic Systems
Soft magic systems could me summarized by the idea that “anything goes.”
There are no hard rules with this sort of magic. If a main character wants to dream up a sword out of thin air or create a garden of roses with a flick of his finger, then he can.
Whenever the main character faces an obstacle, the magic of the world can create a solution.
It’s the little animal that shows the lost heroine how to escape the woods, or the magic amulet that cures the disease of the old king.
The advantage with soft magic systems is that they play easily into our archetypical understanding of the world and ourselves. It “feels right,” in other words.
If we take the Fellowship of the Ring film for example, where Gandalf makes his stand against the demonic balrog, it feels right than he makes his stand on the thin bridge, and that the bridge collapses when the balrog tries to cross it.
There’s nothing logical about the sort of magic that creates that effect. I have no idea how it works, yet somehow it does. It feels right to me.
The disadvantage with this sort of magic is that it can too easily be used to cover up plot holes.
If the main character can easily escape any problem by simply using the “magic,” it quickly loses its charm.
On a storytelling level, the tension is sucked out of a piece as soon as the magic of the world can be used to solve any and every problem. It’s the classic Deus ex machina temptation that all storytellers must do their best to avoid.
Hard magic systems
Hard magic differs from soft magic in that there are rules that must be followed.
Magic is less like a wonderous and mysterious power and more like a natural law that can be exploited by those who know how to use it.
Brandon Sanderson’s novels tend to trend more towards hard magic. The fun here is setting limitations on what can be done and then forcing the characters to try and solve problems with the in-built limitations of their magic.
For example, say in your world, fire-casters lose all their power when they come into contact with water. That means that your fire-caster character will have to avoid situations where she can easily be dosed in water, and must fine strategic times to rehydrate, etc.
That’s a natural law and can’t be broken.
The advantage with this sort of magic is that it feels more grounded in reality. The world we live in is one of laws. Gravity, for example, is active and affecting us every single second of the day. We can’t escape it, and instead have to accept it as a part of our lives.
There’s also a mechanism in hard magic systems, that the reader gets a thrill when they see a law that was explained to them earlier on in the story get used in such a way that it overcomes a conflict.
The disadvantage here is that hard magic can seem cold. Magic, as a concept, is wonderous and otherworldly. Hard magic systems can limit that feeling of wonderment that we were expecting to get.
Emotion Sense: What makes any magic system work
Now here comes the aspect of magic systems that I don’t think has been discussed in another detail.
That’s emotional sense.
Brandon Sanderson’s work has been great in that it has laid out what you must do for your magic to make logical sense, but I want to talk about something that completes the picture, for me at least.
Now, if you are sales there’s something that you learn pretty quick if you want to make money.
It’s a little rule that actually is directly applicable to what we are talking about here.
People do not buy for rational reasons. They buy for emotional reasons and then use logic to back up their decision.
How’s this relate to magic systems?
Well for a magic system to sit right with a reader, it has to make emotional sense. And depending on the reader, a certain amount of logic must be used to back up the emotion.
For example, in the current fantasy book I am writing, there are mages. Mages are influenced by certain elements, which affects what sort of powers they have. Mages that are influenced by the moon have powers that are indirect and manipulative, like mind control, mind reading etc.
Is this logical?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. Yet this makes emotional sense. The moon is symbolically a feminine symbol, and historically, the way people with feminine attributes have expressed power has been through subtly, manipulation and intelligence.
When I think of the moon, I think of night, I think of wonderment, of a certain otherworldliness.
For me, it made sense that in my novel, mages who draw their magic from the moon would have a mastery of a psychological sort of magic that may not be as flashy as fireballs and lightening but is just as powerful.
That’s what I mean by emotional sense.
The Patronus Charm in Harry Potter is probably one of the best examples of magic that makes emotional sense.
In the third book, Harry is again put in danger by the Dementors, the hellish creatures that suck all the happiness out of people they around.
These creatures are drawn to Harry because of his traumatic experience as a child, and Harry finds that the way to protect himself against them is with a Patronus Charm.
The successful cast the spell, Harry needs to have a positive memory in his mind, that he can actually feel. That’s where the power of the charm comes from.
Why does this make emotional sense?
Well J.K Rowling has said that the Dementors were symbolic of depression. Depression can be conquered by focusing on the positive rather than the negative, and ruthlessly defending yourself from negativity by instead opting to choose the positive.
That’s my way of interpreting it anyway.
It makes emotional sense because we’ve all had an experience where we’ve been feeling sad or angry or frustrated with something in our lives and then, whether consciously or not, we’ve switched focus onto something that we like or that makes us happy, and we begin to feel okay.
I’ll tell you of a personal example. At High School we had these balls where all the kids that were boarding at the school would get to invite someone who was a day student.
One year I went, and I found myself in a position where I felt self-conscious and like an outsider.
I couldn’t just go home because that was when I was too young to have a car. Instead I had to wait out the night, even though I was in a really negative space.
That night and the rest of the following morning I felt awful, but then come lunchtime, I am sitting with my friends. We start to joke around, and soon I am telling jokes, and I get my friends to the point where they are nearly crying with laughter.
A thought hit me then, that said, “Huh… it isn’t so bad. I’ll be okay.”
Bam, like that, the horrible feeling of low self-worth was blown apart.
That, and many other experiences I likely cannot remember, meant that for me, the Patronus Charm made perfect emotional sense.
For everyone else who read that book, I have no doubt they too felt the essential truth of what the Patronus Charm represented.
How to create powerful magic systems
Whether you decide to use a hard-magic system or a soft magic system for your world, or something between those two, there’s something that every sort of magic needs.
That’s emotional sense.
Stories, as a whole, are based rather on emotional sense. In-built mechanisms that aren’t really talked about and yet everyone understands.
To have a magic system that feels real, it has to be representative of humanity. It should be an outward demonstration of internal truths that we all know.
Something as straight forward as casting a fireball, for example, demonstrates that latent potential that exists inside us all. Mind control represents subtle manipulation that’s often used in everyday life.
What I am saying is that to create a magic system that makes emotional sense all you need to do is take truth from the real world and blow it up and give it a bit of flare.
In the Last Airbender series, it makes emotional sense for the fire nation to attack and start the war. Fire is hot, passionate and driven. Of course, it would be the fire nation that would start a war.
If we were to put it as simply as possible, it doesn’t matter how complex or detailed your magic system is if it doesn’t “feel right.” If it doesn’t feel right, then it will not connect with your readers.
Avoid that by making sure your magic system makes emotional sense!
P.S — If you’re a storyteller, and you want to improve your writing ability, I have a free resource that could help. It’s called the Seven Deadly Assumptions of Writing Fiction, and it’s about seven assumptions that hold writers back and stop them from writing brilliant stories. You can download it here. It’s a short pdf guide that usually retails for $2.99 on Amazon, but you can get it free when you subscribe to the Storykation email list.
Originally published at www.storykation.com on January 7, 2019.