How to Invent a (New-ish) Magic System

By Eva Schumann

Magic is something that turns up in everyone’s life sooner or later. After all, who didn’t pretend at some point in their life to be able to make something ‘magically’ disappear? But nowadays magic has also become a common feature in story books, which are usually classified as ‘fantasy’. As a consequence, a multitude of different magic systems is known to avid readers and determined researchers. The system from the ‘Harry Potter’ novels might be the best-known with its wands, spells, and potions. “Now why should I try and write a new one? There are so many already!” you might say. It’s a valid opinion, but there are three points arguing against that. For one, if you were to just imitate a magic system already existing in another story you would essentially steal the work of someone else. But there is also the interplay of a magic system and the rest of a story to consider. A society, for example, would be under completely different influences depending on how easy or difficult doing magic is. Thus, depending on what kind of story you want to tell, none of the already existing magic systems might fit. In addition to this you should not forget: All these systems have their moments, but some are inconsistent in their logic, going beyond the ‘magic is not real so this could never work that way’ argument. If you see the arguments above as valid, these points to help you build your own magic system might just be what you are looking for.

All points I raise here are equally important for your system to work, but without considering what magic in your world is capable of none of them would matter. And the options are almost endless: magic might be used to make things change their colour, or make things grow at an incredible speed. But maybe it can go beyond that and completely turn one thing into another. Also consider that ‘magic’ might just be used to influence chemistry, electricity and mechanics.

Another thing to think about is how wielding magic works: The feature most people would recognize as casting magic is saying a spell. Here you should consider if it is, for one thing, necessary to say the incantation out loud or if there might be ways around that. It could after all be possible that one needs to inscribe the spell into a special material, or it won’t work. Second, if the words used are in your everyday language or if potential magic users need to learn a new language instead. The existing systems usually have them study an ancient language, like in Christopher Paolini’s ‘Inheritance’ series. But also consider making the spells utter nonsense that just serve to distract the non-wizards from the true secret behind casting… whatever that may be in your system. Third, think about additional requirements for a spell: In the ‘Harry Potter’-series a wand and a corresponding wand movement is necessary for a spell to work correctly, at least for most wizards. Wizards in the ‘Dragonlance’ novels on the other hand require spell components like herbs or fur in addition to the incantation for the intended result. You could make also make certain clothing articles like belts or robes a requirement for successful casting; the possibilities are endless.

Another aspect of a magic system is the way someone gains the ability to use magic: almost every system requires the magic wielders to either have been born with at least some talent for magic or to have made a deal with a supernatural being. These deals usually require a sacrifice, for example servitude to this supernatural being, for the ability to use magic; in my experience, however, they are uncommon. But don’t let this detain you from making such an exchange of power necessary, as the aforementioned sacrifice holds much potential: ‘sacrifice’ could mean that you need to kill a loved one, but you might also need to sacrifice a body part or exchange for example your sight for the ability to cast magic. On the other hand, you could also make magic a skill you can learn just like reading or carpentry.

The last point is how you might differentiate between different kinds of magic. It is entirely up to you as the creator to define what you like as ‘field of magical study’, however, to make this abstract concept understandable, let’s have a look at some of the fields in ‘Harry Potter’: Transfiguration, Charms and Potions are three of the classes in Hogwarts. Transfiguration is a magic field that is focussed on changing one thing into another thing, while Charms aims to change properties of an object (for example to change its colour). Potions instead is a field of magic that combines magical ingredients to create substances with new magical properties. All of these fields are magical in nature, but each has their own possibilities and limitations. In this system it is possible to use different fields to achieve the same goal, for example to make something fly: a transfiguration spell would probably result in changing the object into something with wings, a charm would add the wings to the object or even make it fly on its own, and a potion would need to somehow come into direct contact to work as intended (if such a potion even exists). Even though this system makes it possible to achieve the same goal with different methods, the same does not need to be true for your system. And do not forget to think about what happens when incompatible magic fields interact with each other. While there is always the option that nothing happens, I think that unintended results are much more interesting in all aspects.

I could continue now to raise points for you to consider like ‘how are wizards seen by the rest of the population’ or ‘why are magic users (not) subject to the Law’. I could also raise points like ‘does the magical population have a different life expectancy’ or ‘does using different types of magic (if such a difference exists in your system) affect social standing’. However, these questions will lead you to answers concerning the society of your world and thus do not have a place in an essay on the magic system itself.