As any fantasy reader knows, the fun thing about magic systems is that they can be almost anything. The terrifying thing about magic systems, as any fantasy writer knows, is that they can be almost anything, and your job is to choose what that anything is.
So let’s start with the easy part. What really is a magic system, anyway? Magic systems are, simply put, the laws by which magic works in the universe you create as a writer. Not every magic system is right for every kind of book, so our first step on this hero’s journey will be to decide what magic system will work best for your story. Then, we’ll dive more deeply into what makes each general type of magic system work most effectively to give the reader a satisfying experience.
Fantasy writing jargon tends to sort magic systems into two general types: hard and soft. But what does this mean?
Hard magic systems are very clearly defined for the reader. The readers are taught the rules, the costs, and sometimes even the origins of magic in a story that presents a hard magic system.
A great example of a hard magic system in Young Adult fantasy would be Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. We know that there are subcategories of Grisha, what each type can do, how rare each subtype is. We know the status of Grisha in Ravkan society, and how that status is different for Grisha born in neighboring countries. We know that there are scholarly texts to teach the Grisha certain ruling principles: that “like calls to like,” and that a Grisha should never wear more than one amplifier. We even know about some of the ancient Grisha, their earliest breakthroughs in magic academia and technology.
Soft magic systems, however, can be quite different. I like to think of soft magic systems as the magic of “because I say so.” If hard magic systems are the teachers and parents that explain the reasoning behind their rules, soft magic is a more Mary Poppins-like authority figure—one who says, “never you mind why things are the way they are, just trust me on this.” A recent example of this would be in Laura Weymouth’s THE LIGHT BETWEEN WORLDS, which inspired as it is by Narnia, has a similar soft magic system. We know that Cervus, the great stag, has the power to call people between worlds, and that’s how the Hapwell siblings land in the magical dimension of the Woodlands after Evie makes a wish to be far from the dangers of WWII. But we don’t quite know where Cervus’ power comes from, or how it’s possible for him to do what he does. What we do know—and literally all we need to know—is that it is possible, and in the doing, the plot is set into motion.
Neither system is necessarily better or worse than the other, but they do make for very different stories, so it’s in your best interest as an author to decide which will better serve the plot you want to write. My rule of thumb is this: analyze what purpose magic serves in your book. Is magic a tool for the protagonists to wield? Or is it more of an ambience, a general feeling of wonder, or the means by which the plot is kick-started? The former indicates that a hard magic system is your best bet, while the latter tells you that all you really need is a soft system. But sometimes, it can be a little harder to tell which your story needs. Let’s take an example that feels a bit more murky than the two above.
THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by Mackenzi Lee isn’t a book you might automatically label fantasy. Which is part of the reason I choose it an example: it’s not as cut and dry as books that fit more squarely into the YA Fantasy genre. The plot of this book (as I avoid spoilers as much as possible) revolves around our heroes searching for an alchemical panacea, a type of medicine to cure all ills. The panacea is our MacGuffin—*Lemony Snicket voice* a word here meaning an object that has value primarily because so many people are chasing it, therefore instigating the plot.
Now, it’s clear from the writing of GENTLEMAN’S that alchemy has rules. It’s clear that people can study it, and some characters in the story have, resulting in this essentially magical panacea’s creation. But our main characters, Monty, Percy, and Felicity, don’t understand alchemy at all. (Well…maybe Felicity does a bit. But certainly not our POV character, Monty.) Consequently, Mackenzi Lee doesn’t need to go into detail about the rules of alchemy. Monty serves as our eyes and ears in this story, and he wouldn’t understand it even if someone tried to explain. So although alchemy does have rules, and the author has probably decided what they are behind-the-scenes, it would only undermine the narrative perspective if she had chosen to share them in more detail. The story is better, more closely tailored to Monty, by choosing a soft magic system—in which anything seems possible, though it’s not clear how—over a hard one. However, if Mackenzi Lee had chosen a different protagonist for this story, a character who was a student of alchemy, perhaps, she would have been forced to make the rules of alchemy explicit. To give her readers a hard magic system that they can follow along with.
So that’s our first big clue in choosing what magic system you’ll need. Is your protagonist a magic wielder? If yes, then concoct your rules and your magical histories: if your protag is going to use magic as a tool, you should definitely make sure that the readers can understand the rules of magic almost as well as your main character does. This is only fair—we all want to know what is possible for our POV characters to do, because trying to anticipate their next move is part of the fun! Alternatively, if the most prominent magic wielder in your story is a secretive villain or an enigmatic mentor, maybe you don’t need to spell the rules out. Maybe your audience’s experience would benefit from being as in the dark and confused as your protagonists are. Soft magic system? We love you even when you keep us guessing.
So let’s imagine now that you have chosen what magic system is right for you. Well, hoo boy, now you gotta write it. How, you ask?
Let’s start with soft magic. Because soft magic systems are by nature more nebulous than hard magic systems, they can be used to achieve a number of different goals, and serve almost infinite functions in your story.
Your magic system might be used to create an atmosphere of wonder—or even confusion and horror, depending on whether the magic of your world is inherently malevolent, such as in Clare Legrand’s SAWKILL GIRLS. Soft magic systems might also kick-start your plot by giving your characters something to chase, a new world to explore, or a mysterious phenomenon to flee from. But because the primary marker of a soft magic system is a lack of explicit rules, these systems thrive on ambiguity. (Important note: be aware of the distinction between ambiguity and vagueness in your writing. An ambiguous sentence has multiple viable interpretations. A vague sentence is one that is underwritten or lacking in concrete details, which might lessen the reader’s faith in the narrator’s authority. We as writers should always be striving for ambiguity over vagueness. You don’t have to name the rules of your magic, or even the source of it, but never skimp on fully describing its effects. We’re reading fantasy because we want to be immersed in the details!)
So to create the best possible version of your soft magic system, make sure that you are always considering how your use of magic contributes to the tension of your story, and how it impacts your protagonist emotionally. Their internal journey will ideally reflect back on that ambiguous world around them, providing either greater stakes or thematic meaning. Does magic make them feel at home for the first time, as if mending something they didn’t know had been broken? Does it leave them terrified of what unknown thing is around the corner? Does it speak to larger cultural issues of superstition, religious belief, or identity? Soft magic systems could address any of these questions, if tailored closely to your protagonist’s overall arc.
Let’s return to the example of THE LIGHT BETWEEN WORLDS. Because our main characters don’t really understand how the magic of crossing between worlds work, and Evelyn Hapwell’s main desire is to find her way back to that magical world, the ambiguity of how magic operates dramatically ups the tension of the story, providing a conflict for the characters. It also resonates thematically for the novel. Evelyn’s story is tied to the struggle of not knowing how to fit into her original world—so it makes sense to have a magic system that leaves her, and by extent us, feeling a little lost. Later in the book, Evelyn’s sister Philippa is also searching for answers, and she is continually beset by strange coincidences that remind her of that unknowable magic from her past. This allows Philippa to project her emotional state onto the soft magic system of the world around her, leading to a richer dramatic arc for her character.
(Note: while the vast majority of soft magic systems do not have magic users as their POV characters, there are always exceptions that prove the rule. If you desperately want to write a soft magic system that stars a magic-wielder, live your dream, but consider how to tailor the resulting tension to your protagonist’s ultimate journey. While the Hapwell sisters aren’t necessarily doing magic themselves, it might be worth checking out this book to study as an emotional blueprint, if you want to experiment with being a softly magical maverick.)
Ultimately, with soft magic systems, my best advice to you is to focus on that feeling you had when you were reading as a kid. The fairy tales where curses were cast for no reason, but the protagonists just had to roll with it. Think of Matilda’s unexplained telekinesis, think of the wizard Howl and his moving castle, and think of a wardrobe that leads children into another world. You can guess why these things happen, and maybe get pretty close, but there are no guarantees you’ve guessed the right reason, or even if there’s a reason behind it at all. So if you’re a Type-A writer like me, the kind who just has to know how everything works all the time, a soft magic system is a great opportunity to learn to let go and embrace mystery as a magical philosophy. And like Mary Poppins, remember that you don’t need to explain anything…so long as you speak with enough authority.
For hard magic systems it can get complicated in a very different way. Because once you start naming rules, you have to be sure they all fit together, like a good jigsaw puzzle. Magic systems become the scientific mechanics of the world you created, so like the physics of our real world, magical laws should work together cohesively to be understandable. Like following the scientific method, you should be looking for consistency—to see that your rules and experiments are replicable, and that the laws you created remain true in almost all circumstances and scenarios. This will give your narrative voice authority. It will make your audience trust you, so that they don’t feel like things are just flying at them out of nowhere. But beyond consistency, there are three main considerations that lead to creating a memorable, compelling hard magic system: think of the cost of magic, think of what magic can’t do, and think of the exceptions to the rules.
The reason magic should cost your characters something is probably obvious. If doing magic was nothing to them, they would breeze past all the villains and all their obstacles without a second thought, and your book would be over on page 10. We want our characters to struggle, or they’re not relatable. If you find that your first draft has your character obliterating everybody they meet with a snap of their fingers and wry joke—consider making magic cost them more. Maybe it costs them energy, maybe it costs them their kindness, or something even stranger, like their laugh or the color of their hair. But make it cost something that matters to your protagonist. If they’re on a long journey and need to travel quickly, maybe they can’t afford to be exhausted by magic use. Maybe they’re terribly vain, and they don’t want to go prematurely gray. Whatever it is, do something that gives your character conflict they have to struggle with, either internally or externally. Your magic system ultimately isn’t the story—it’s a means by which to know your characters better. They’re the story.
Now think about this. What can’t magic do? A common example is that magic can’t raise the dead. Writers default to this rule often because a) if magic could raise the dead perfectly every time, your characters would never stop doing it, and b) because then the story wouldn’t have stakes, because anybody who died fighting the villain in the final battle would stand back up again, happy as a clam. We’re talking about cost again here. It all comes back to cost. Make sure that magic has limitations so that your protagonist’s victory is hard-won. Consider HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, where we learn that magic can’t create food. Yes, Hermione explains that this is due to the “Gamp’s Laws of Elemental Transfiguration,” but the writerly reason behind it is because if the trio could conjure up food, their trek across England would have been a lot easier, and we wouldn’t have felt for them as much. Bottom line as a writer: never let your characters have a good time. Be evil. You, writers, are the true villains of your stories. (And that, my good friends, is why if my characters were to come to life, they would not like me very much.)
Finally, we’re gonna talk exceptions. I am asking—no, begging you—to consider the role of exceptions in your hard magic systems. Firstly, make as few exceptions as possible so that they continue to feel special, and if you do include exceptions, make them early and make them central to the plot. The best example to this I can think of is AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. (You didn’t really think I was gonna get this far in an article about hard magic systems without discussing A:TLA, did ya?) This show is, first off, incredibly written. It’s a master class in character arcs, but that’s a conversation for another day. You see, what’s particularly great about A:TLA in the context of magic systems is that it contains two notable exceptions: one done right, and one done…not as perfectly. The first exception, done really well, is at the core of the plot. Aang, as the Avatar, is the only person in the world that can bend all four elements. And the writers stick to that, because if in season 3 we met some other person who could also bend more than one element, then Aang would be less special. Also, he’d probably have had help from that other special bender, and the fate of the whole world wouldn’t be entirely on his shoulders anymore. And we wouldn’t want that (see Step 2: Be Evil), now would we?
However, an example of a magic system exception being done less right is the late-series reveal that Aang can also take away people’s powers with energybending. Because this exception is introduced so late in the game, it can feel a little bit like a deus ex machina—*Lemony Snicket voice* a phrase which here means, a plot device that can leave a character’s victory feeling less earned. Because that’s why we make our characters struggle so much. So that when they finally win, when they finally scratch and claw their way out of the mess we maliciously created for them as writers, the audience will rightfully give up the applause.
So fly free, my pretties. Create your magic systems, and be evil about it. When in doubt, just consult my patented Magic Systems Flowchart, created for both homework and giggles:
Christine Calella is Young Adult writer from Poughkeepsie, NY who uses her love of history to color all her fantasy worlds. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, and stayed in the big city after graduation to pursue her dream of working in publishing. On the average day, you can find her humming Broadway tunes to herself and drinking more chai tea than is strictly necessary.