Monday, April 14, 2014

How To Establish a Great Magic System, Part One

Okay, so a while ago, I was asked to speak at a teen writer's camp at BYU. I love talking to teen writers, so I said yes. A few months pass, and finally I have to give a topic I'm going to teach about. Well, it's a science fiction and fantasy camp, so I decided to go with "How to Establish a Killer Magic System" -- something I'd been studying and learning about myself.

See, I've written a futuristic fantasy that I'm going to self-publish this summer, and I've got a contemporary fantasy I'm hoping my agent can sell in the traditional market. I love fantasy. I read a lot of fantasy. But I always think there's room for improvement in my own craft, and as I've been revising the futuristic fantasy for publication, I realized that I needed to really cement my magic system.

So for myself and for the class, I came up with 10 questions authors can ask themselves as they establish their magic systems. Oh, and this works for technology systems in science fiction novels as well.

I did use Google to aid me in my research. I found three places that provided me with the most insight and useful information: Brandon Sanderson's Laws of Magic (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), WikiHow (don't laugh, it had good stuff!), and The Four Part Land (he has six parts, but they're all linked at the top of this one).

So I read (ahem, maybe I skimmed a little. Some of the posts are long!) up on magic systems. I thought about what *I* liked in a magic system. I thought about the fantasy novels I'd read (because I don't read high-high fantasy like Sanderson or many of the authors/titles they talk about in these posts). I thought about Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, the TV show Merlin, movies like The Prestige, and other -- in my opinion -- accessible references. (Basically I'm saying I was too lazy to take the time to read those high fantasy novels. I reflected on what I was familiar with. And that's a tip I always give when I'm teaching: Use what you know to draw conclusions and create learning for what you don't.)

After I'd done a little light Internet reading, I formed my 10 questions. Today, we'll just explore the first.


Question 1: Who Can Use the Magic?


  • the main character?
  • special characters?
  • everyone?
  • the wealthy?
  • a specific gender?
  • only those trained?


You must decide who in your world can use the magic (or who has access to the technology in the world). Only a few people, designated to do so? Is the main character included in this group, or not? Can everyone use it? Only the wealthy? Or the poor? Only men, or women, or children? Only those who are trained? Those who are genetically capable? (Which leads us to another question we’ll get to later.)

But you have to know who can and who can’t use the magic, or who does and who doesn’t have access to the technology, in your world. This will help you establish weaknesses and limitations on the magic--also something we'll discuss in a later question.

So when creating a magic system, the first step is determining who will be able to access that power -- and why. Why them, and not everyone? Why only a select few? The why is important too.

So there's Question 1. I'll be back over the course of the next several weeks exploring all 10 questions, and I hope you'll join me!

9 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I have no plans to write any magic books, but this post is great, Elana, and I can't wait to see the rest.

Rosalyn said...

I'm currently working on a historical fantasy--and I'm sure I have lots of room for improvement! I'll be following this thread with interest. Thanks for the links, too.

Robin said...

I look forward to the rest of this series. If you are writing anything paranormal... who has the power and why is very important. Great stuff.

Liza said...

This sounds like an intriguing topic. Looking forward to the next nine questions.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I love reading and writing fantasy. What a great series. I'll have to come back and check out the links.

whimsicalwerecat said...

Awesome series to get into, Elana!
I read and write fantasy, and have been learning the ropes of establishing a solid foundation for magic systems for a while now.
But I always find it helpful and re-inspiring to read new topics and blogs on the subject.
Looking forward to the next instalment!

Jemi Fraser said...

I have a MG combo sf/fantasy idea that's been niggling my brain for a bit. Looking forward to the rest of your posts! :)

Nicole said...

Yes!!! Love this topic. Can't wait to see the rest of the 10 Qs.

Genevieve Angelique Artel said...

Thanks for exploring this topic and sharing...you're right--it can be applied to both fantasy and sci-fi. Looking forward for your forthcoming posts #2-10.

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