If you are a fantasy writer who uses magic in their stories, then you have undoubtedly heard of what is referred to as a “magic system.” A Magic system is a formal structure for your magic. This does not mean that it is specific like a science. It means it is consistent throughout your world. I’ll levy an example.

In the Harry Potter world, magic follows specific rules. The caster must have a wand. They must speak the correct words, in the correct way. They must be strong enough to conjure and control the spell they summon. This is part of the magic system. There are more intricacies, and specified exceptions, but overall, everyone who uses magic must follow those rules. If they do not follow those rules, they once had to follow them and have learned how to circumvent them or have been granted special privileges (such as Dumbledore being the only one able to apparate into and out of Hogwarts).

Harry potter has a very specific magic system. It’s easy to follow and rigid. Not all magic is wands and spoken spells, however. Many stories, such as Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, have more complex magic systems. In the Sword of Truth world, there are two types of magic, Additive and Subtractive. Additive is a type of magic believed to be lost. This involves anything to do with creating. There’s an iconic scene where a character displays his ability to use additive magic by cutting and then re-growing someone’s hair repeatedly.  However, this world, the magic system is very loosely defined. It says “Yes, there are two types of magic that all magic can be classified into… but that’s all we really know about magic.”

That brings me to another point. There are two kinds of magic systems. There are strict systems, and lenient systems. Harry Potter’s magic system is very strict. They can only cast spells they know, with wands that are theirs, if they are powerful enough. They can break these rules at very great cost to themselves or others. The Sword of Truth’s magic system is very lenient. Various types of magic exist, all with different rules of their own. Everything requires different knowledge, skills, and equipment. It’s pretty much a magical free for all.

So why do I mention all of this? What’s the point? Well, if you frequent any fantasy writing advice blogs or forums, you will see a great deal of literature on magic systems. Mostly the idea that you need to have a well thought out magic system for your fantasy story to be good, especially in a sword and sorcery type of setting. The more important magic is in your story, the more flushed out your magic system needs to be.

But I disagree.

These magic systems often represent something else. In a strict world, they represent science. It is very difficult to deviate from the laws of science, as it is difficult to deviate from a strict system. This system has often been studied and standardized. Certain people have expertise in certain areas, and work mostly in those areas. This is a parallel to the science of our world. In a lenient world, they represent social rules and laws. Generally it suggests a grey area, where unpredictable things happen, or where things happen without an easy explanation as to why.

So I say that it really depends on what your magic represents. If it represents or is a replacement to science and technology, then it needs to be well thought out and precise. However, this does not mean that it needs to be accurate. There are quite a lot of scientific ideas that have yet to be proven or studied enough to prove. The same could be said about your magic. Once you realize that not even science always follows its own rules, you realize just how unimportant your fancy magic system needs to be.

If your magic represents social rules, then it needs to reflect the point you are trying to make. Do you think social rules are important and should be followed? Do you think it’s safe to deviate? Is there a minimum safe deviation? Are social rules elitist? Are they pandering? This can be reflected in your fantasy society’s “rules” about magic. Generally, in these stories, either the antagonist or protagonist goes outside of the rules established in the magic system, usually far outside.

However, it seems that regardless of the story, the magic system tends to get some level off deconstruction. If its science, a part of it gets proven wrong. If it’s social, then attitudes change throughout the story. So I say why waste your time creating a fancy magic system when you are going to break all of those rules anyway? As long as whatever is happening in the story is consistent, readers don’t really care how complicated the system is.

I am currently working on a project where the magical character grows up not knowing about the magic system, and just using her magic. When she finally is told about it, she doesn’t understand why she doesn’t fit into the system and neither do others. It creates a dangerous dogma that makes her a target to some. It is in this way that magic systems can be made relevant to your story other than to keep up the suspension of disbelief.

Thanks for reading. How do you feel about magic systems?

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