Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Writing Magical Systems

The first argument I ever had with a girl I cared deeply about involved the nature of magic. As I described back when I first released my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities , Lee Anne thought of magic as moody, ethereal, and completely impossible to predict. I thought of it as a sort of immaterial engineering. This disagreement turned out to be the least of our problems; she was 13 and I was 14, with all that that implies.

Fifty years later, I released an entire novel about magic. It has roots in that argument. I did try it her way: In 1974 I wrote a story (“Whale Meat”) containing Lee Anne-style magic, and although I’m happy with how it turned out, it was murder to write and isn’t one of my favorites among the things I’ve done. Ten Gentle Opportunities explored (among other things) how magic might be similar to software. The key is that magic should (ideally) be an internally consistent system, and not just Harry Potter-style abracadabra in which you can pull any damned rabbit out of any damned hat. I thought long (50 years!) and hard about what a magical system might be and how to create one. If you’re a writer, a distillation of my notes might be useful. Perforce:

There are three Big Questions you need to ask yourself as you take on a task of designing a magical system:

  • What is the source of magical power? Where does it come from and how do you obtain it? In Larry Niven’s Warlock stories, magic is an inherent property of the created world, an essence present everywhere but which may be depleted by use over time, like a seam of coal. Aleister Crowley (a real guy, if an unutterable nutcase) created a system of sex magick, which was powered (as best I can figure) by orgasms. In Ten Gentle Opportunities, magical power emerges from a fully-developed pineal eye, which is present in a small fraction of humanity and must be perfected by practice and study. The magical force itself is drawn from primordial chaos, and is inexhaustible. In some systems, magical force emerges from sacred or cursed artifacts, and in others from alchemical concoctions. Can magic be stored somehow for later use, or use by ordinary people? Stypek stores ten nuggets of magical force in stasis inside a wand made of “wereglass,” which is dense and scary and serves a plot point more than the magical system. (Sometimes you have to do that.)
  • Who is able to manipulate magical power? Magic is sometimes the purview of explicitlty magical beings like elves, fairies, pixies, etc. Sometimes it’s a skill that may be learned by anybody. In my system, it depends on a genetic talent that mundanes don’t have and can’t obtain. Spellbenders like Stypek, in fact, are incomplete magicians, in that they can examine and change magical spells but can neither draw magic from chaos nor send it back when no longer needed. (Unwanted or abandoned magic can cause all sorts of problems, like animating corpses into zombies.) Can one magician do things, or does it take some sort of cooperative effort? (One flashes on Crowley’s sex magic.) Can multiple magicians do bigger or more difficult things working together? (This was the case in the classic Witches of Karres.) Are magicians specialists? (Larry Correia’s are; see below.)
  • What are the limits of magical power? This is the big one, kids. Magic that can do anything is…boring. Stories engage us by pitting characters against challenges and their own limitations. A magician who controls magic without limits can’t lose and so isn’t especially interesting. One of the best modern magical systems is what Larry Correia built into his Dark Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. Magical persons are specialists, sorted into numerous categories by the nature and limits of their power. Some teleport. Some command electricity. Some influence weather. Some heal. Some control gravity, and so on. All of these powers draw on personal energy, which the body creates from food and rest, and when that energy is used up, the powers fail for a time until the body can restore its energy levels. All magical/super powers must have limitations. Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s lantern doesn’t work on anything colored yellow. (At least this was the case when I was reading my friends’ comics in the first half of the 1960s.) Sometimes magic is tied to the Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Aether. (Brian Niemeier’s magical system includes but is not limited to this.) You can be as clever as you like, but your magic must have quirks and limitations.

Answering these three questions in detail will get you well over halfway to a usable magical system. Create a notefile (what I call a mumblesheet, a marvelous term coined by the late and much missed George M. Ewing) and put your concept down in outline (or at least bullet list) form. If you have any kind of imagination at all, writing descriptions of your magicians and their skills will bring out further insights that will make the system interesting. In my system of magic, the difficulty of creating magical spells depends on the complexity of the spell–though perhaps not the way you would expect. Complicated spells are easy, but simple spells require enormous skill and are almost impossible to change. (Stypek is a spellbender, and changing spells–call it magic hacking–is his one big trick.) One of the novel’s conceits is that Stypek’s magic is literally object-oriented programming: Spells have properties and methods, which magicians and spellbenders can see and manipulate in the air in front of them. Others have drawn the parallel between magic and software before me, especially Rick Cook, in his Wiz series.

Your magicians should be quirky too. In my system, a fully developed pineal eye opens in the foreheads of magicians once they hit puberty. The eyes begin as red, and then with practice and study progress through the spectrum toward violet and then adamant (diamond-clear.) Expertise classes are named after gems that show the color of the class.The further toward adamant the eye is, the more powerful the magician. Adamant magicians are the baddest-assed; ruby-classers are poseurs, or dabblers of little power who can force mice to dance and that’s about it. In spellbenders, the pineal eye never erupts at all, and at best looks like a birthmark in the middle of the forehead.

Magical systems need quirks and limitations, but be careful not to make the system so complicated that readers have a hard time grasping it. I got a couple of emailed complaints about Stypek’s magic being hard to follow, but my beta readers had no trouble with it. (One did advise me to quit tinkering with it, and he was right: My first impulse is to throw new ideas into a story every time I go over it.) Some of your readers will just roll with it, especially if the plot and characters are compelling. Others will complain. That’s how writing fiction works. Roll with the criticism, and learn what you can from it.

It helps to ask yourself what sensory impressions accompany the generation and/or use of magic. Does magic make noise? Stink? Cause migraines? Shake the floor? Radiate colored light? Probably the best way to get a handle on this is to write a couple of scenes of your magic system in use. Not everything will work, but the stuff that does work, add to the description of the system. With some luck, the scenes may later find homes as short stories or scenes from a novel.

Finally, the three words that ought to be on every writer’s wall: Just write it. Trust your subconscious. If you’ve laid enough groundwork, you’ll get a story out of any reasonable system of magic. Be diligent and you’ll get several. Throw your back into it, and you’ll get as many as you want. Skills, challenges, discoveries, and interaction with other people are the building blocks of all fiction, especially genre fiction, and double-especially SFF. Magic embraces all of these.

Go for it.


  1. […] editor, and publisher Jeff Duntemann poses the three questions that authors of speculative fiction must ask when designing magic […]

  2. Alex says:

    This is an awesome post Jeff. You really lay down the considerations to making magic not only interesting, but viable from a plot perspective.

    The discussion of limitations is key. However, a thought hit me that J.R.R. Tolkien never really fleshes out the magic system at play in The Lord of the Rings, or if he did, I missed it. Yet it works, mainly because it doesn’t interfere with the story and become over-powered (though one can make a fair case for Gandalf’s resurrection, perhaps).

    Back to limitations: One thing I find boring is when stories devolve into planet-destroying power being hurled at each other by wizards. The stakes just get too ridiculous, and sights that were once impressive become mundane.

    I suppose that could be another trick, though more to do with plotting and less to do with the magic system itself: The overpowered stuff needs to be built towards and deployed sparingly. I find that, while the magic system in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was well-developed, certain powerful uses got overused to the point of absurdity and dare I say it boredom near the end of the series.

    Love this post. Thanks for writing it Jeff!

  3. Rich Rostrom says:

    One thing I have considered at length is the informational constraints on magic. For instance, most magical legends include transformation spells: lead into gold, water into wine, a prince into a frog.

    For such a spell to operate, something must provide the information about the structure of the target form. Gold has a very simple “structure”.

    Wine on the other hand has a complex structure; it is composed of hundreds of different compounds. One might guess that a spellcaster who has had previous contact with wine would, by psychic contagion, retain some representation of this that would allow the transformation, but only to such varieties of wine that he had experienced.

    And a living organism, such as a frog, is enormously complex. When nature creates a frog, it starts with the complete specification for the frog – its genome, which is encoded in the DNA of the fertilized egg.

    It seems to me that to cast such a spell, the caster would have to have a tissue sample for the target form.

    For inorganic structures… If the spellcaster says “Let there be a castle,” he had better know how castles are built.

    This problem could be mitigated if the spellcaster’s work is performed by some entity which he compels. The entity can go find the information; if necessary, follow up on the visualizations and recollections of the caster.

    Note that this limitation doesn’t apply to spells which just generate or direct force, whether levitation or a fireball.

    As to magic in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien makes very little use of it in action situations. The only time Gandalf displays or discusses “technical” magic is during the passage of Moria. (He tries to block pursuit with a shutting-spell on a door; something (the Balrog) touches the door, and casts a counter-spell so powerful that Gandalf is “forced to speak a word of Command”, whatever that is.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *