Magical Systems in the Fantasy Genre

The presence of magic in the fantasy genre is pretty much a given, whether its something that is commonplace, the province of a certain sect, or a feature of the distant past that doesn’t really figure into the present. Magic is to fantasy what advanced technology is to science fiction (do you see what I did there?). I knew that magic was something I definitely wanted to include in my story, so here are some things I like to think about as I attempt to iron out the tweaks in my system.

Rules

This section could be broken up into several different sections, but in general, how rules-intensive is magic in your story? S0me authors like it when their magic adheres to very strict rules requiring creativity on the part of a character who wants to bend or break the rules (Brandon Sanderson is a good example of this type). Personally, I prefer a simpler approach to magic for the simple reason that, even if I have a cheat sheet in front of me, at some point I WILL forget the rules (and readers will scream “Why did the protagonist show complete disregard for the rules?”) and that will end badly.

Sources of Magic

Where does magic come from? What does a practitioner draw on in order to fuel their magic? In my story, magic has divine origins. Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files) states several times that magic runs on life energy (necromancy, which does the opposite, horrifies Dresden), Atticus (The Iron Druid Chronicles) draws his power from the Earth. Sometimes magic is just “there” and is as natural to the world’s inhabitants as breathing.

Who can wield magic?

Is magic something someone is born with or is it something anyone can learn? Is there a group (or groups) of people who make the study of magic their sole priority? (Mages, in other words.) Are there any other restrictions? In Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, for instance, only (male) Sorcerers can use sorcerer spells and only (female) Witches can use witch spells. In the Black Jewels Trilogy, most magic (especially healing) is restricted to women, although one can train to become a Black Widow (who specialize in illusions and poisons) few manage to complete the training (and only one man, who passed the abilities onto his son).

Non-magical Folk

How does your story treat non-magical people? If non-magical people are dominant, do they attempt to suppress magical folk? Enslave them? Cooperate with them? Do those who have magic look down on their non-magical counterparts? Do they see it as their duty to use their abilities to protect non-magical folks, or something else entirely? In my own story, those who choose not to wield magic are generally not discriminated against, and not having magic isn’t a barrier towards entering any profession.

The Price of Magic

I think many authors realize that if mages threw around magic all the time with no penalties, many novels would be very, very short. 🙂 Put simply: What is the cost of doing magic? A common price is that certain magic draws on the caster’s life energy, or they end up being “drained” in some way, madness is another side effect. Are there any taboos regarding how magic should be used (for instance, no using magic to directly take a life)? Are there things that nullify (or significantly weaken) magic? (Cold iron is a popular choice.) Are there things that a magical practitioner just can’t do due to their use of magic? (An example would be how wizards in The Dresden Files can’t use or be in close proximity to electronics.)

This is just scratching the surface, IMO, as magical systems are really as varied as the authors that create them, but those points are what I keep in mind as I write. If you see anything I’ve missed, let me know in the comments!

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