How I Make a Magic System

Today’s post is an in-depth break down of how I worldbuild the magic systems in my fantasy stories. I talked a little about Laoche’s magic in an earlier post about my process in general, which you can read here. But at request from @abalonetea (a good friend of mine who’s been on this blog a few times before, once in an interview, and once requesting a Trope Talk), I wanted to do a breakdown on how I come up with the idea for a magic system, how I develop it from the first concept, and how I go about breaking all the rules. I’m not going to pretend my method is the best or most efficient way to create a magic system, since it’s taken me nearly six years to piece together, but for what it’s worth, I hope you find this breakdown useful and interesting!

The Premise

I find it most easy to build out a magic system if you start from a really simple idea that you want to explore. I want to create the feeling that you could get lost in this world trying to discover all the different possibilities. For the sake of the story, I also think it’s best if the magic system supports the themes.

For Laoche, I wanted my characters to be learning about their world and uncovering new truths that shake up the status quo, and so I took an almost scientific approach to building the underlying mechanics. There’s so much about our own universe we cannot even imagine yet, and I want my readers to come away from my stories with a sense of curiosity, by following along with the characters as they chase answers. I needed to understand the physics of my fictional universe, so then I could decide how much of that would be hidden from the characters. There are hard and fast rules that dictate the way the world works, but the way individual characters apply their powers can lead to an infinite variety of effects.

Alternatively, Runaways takes place in our world, and the characters explore the hidden supernatural world. Much of the fantastical worldbuilding comes from folktales, mythology, and other stories that have inspired me over the years, and so I wanted a soft magic system that could account for so many different (possibly contradictory) tropes. I needed a system flexible enough to will all of these things into existence, something based on the pure stubborn belief that the impossible can happen. This is a world where stories have power, faith affects the fabric of reality, the placebo effect works, and heartfelt human tenacity saves the day.

The Building Blocks

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on Laoche for this example. The first step once I came up with my premise was to answer the question of “Well, how does this work?” At this point in the process, I’d already started drafting Storge, and so I knew I needed my magic system to work with the story I’d constructed, without introducing any plot holes or breaking internal consistency. I already had four types of magic in the ways Luca can store the energy, Enne can amplify it, Grace can silence it, and most Atilan could convert it into different spells. (or 5, if you count generation as it’s own category). I also knew that in the Laoche Chronicles, there are instances of all the different types of magic existing in superposition, so I needed to understand what made that state possible.

Since I already knew what I wanted these types to do when used by a human, my next step was to define what these four types of magic are on the most basic physical levels, how they can switch, and how the lines between them can be broken. Then I needed to figure out how that power interacts with the natural world: can other species do magic besides humans? What about plants? What effects do the different types have on gravity, and time? I started exploring how people learn magic, what if feels like to use it, how different people end up with different types of magic.

I was surprised as I put everything together just how many potential plot holes I was able to stitch together! This is also the point where I took my brain dump documents and started to fit in all of my whacky ideas that go, “OH WOULDN’T IT BE COOL IF…” Once I had a framework to build around, I could connect all the dots and come up with explanations that made sense. Thinking about the implications also led me to a bunch of neat “what ifs?” that have been filed away for future reference – little tidbits of canon that may or may not ever make it into the story, but serve to make the world feel more real.

The Restrictions

To keep myself from getting carried away or introducing more holes, I also wanted to define exactly what nonnegotiable rules exist: what’s the most overpowered magic could theoretically be, what are the limitations, and consequences? For the sake of storytelling, I wanted death and time travel to be an absolute no. You can heal mortal wounds, or slow and speed up time slightly, but there’s no chance of resurrecting someone who’s already gone, communing with the dead, or actually stopping/traveling through time. This eliminates a significant chunk of possible plot-holes, and gives clear stakes for my characters to face.

Besides those few limitations, most of the restrictions come from the consequences of trying to do magic. Since magic is treated like a natural part of the world, I’ve also established that it’s an amoral insentient thing to be treated carefully. Like fire or radiation or water, it can be extremely powerful, either beneficially or harmfully if you don’t know what you’re doing with it. Character’s abilities are restricted by how much they’ve practiced and studied, if magic is available for them to use, and if they have the energy and ability to cast properly. There are also societal restrictions, such as the Atilan/Debilan divide in Maaren, where one could do magic, but it comes with political, religious, or inter-personal ramifications.

The combination of possibilities and restrictions gives me a LOT of room to play with, and as long as no one character has inconsistent powers, most of my system should work without loopholes! I have both the flexibility and the framework to add new details as needed, and an internal logic that both my characters and readers can follow.

That was a fairly high overview of the process so If you’d like more information on how I learned this, you can check out my resource rec post (specifically Hello Future Me’s book “On Writing and Worldbuilding” and Brandon Sanderson’s writing lectures!). Happy writing!

Worldbuilding The Laoche Chronicles

Welcome to the world of Laoche! This is the home of all the stories in the (appropriately named) Laoche Chronicles, including a main trilogy (that has yet to be named) and the prequel, Storge. I first came up with the story in middle school, and as I learned more about the writing process, realized that I would need to write the prequel first to set everything up for the series. Now, I’m returning to my original concept, and revising it, which includes some updated worldbuilding and a new approach to my process.

All of this would be explained in-story as well as the reader follows along with the main characters going about their lives and navigating the conflict, so this isn’t strictly necessary to know before getting into the story. However, I’ve found that explaining it in an informational way like this helps people understand what on earth I’m talking about online, so I wanted to share. I also hope that a case-study like this will help be an example of what works (and what doesn’t) when you’re making a high/epic fantasy. 🙂

To start I’m going to share a map, so that all of these locations actually make sense.

When I first revisited this story, I realized that A) I’d lost most of my notes when that thumb-drive got stolen in 10th grade, and B) Most of it was pretty cliche, since I was 14 when I came up with it. So I pitched everything but the premise and my three favorite characters to start over from scratch:

The Premise: Madelyn (a mage with malfunctioning magic) and Seth (ex-prince of Arga) discover a magical artifact that changes how they view magic, and shifts the balance of power in the world, then have to deal with the ensuing fallout.

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The Worldbuilding of Maaren pt. 1

Welcome to the world of Laoche! This is the home of all the stories in the (appropriately named) Laoche Chronicles, including a main trilogy (that has yet to be named) and the prequel, Storge. While all of these stories take place in the same world, Storge focuses on a conflict in one specific reason – a powerful city-state called Maaren. Because this is a sociopolitical conflict, I mainly focused on worldbuilding the class system, government, and religions of the city, and that’s what I’d like to discuss in more depth today! In the future, I’ll elaborate some more on the lore, magic system, and flora and fauna of the world in the future, but for now this will focus on the main topics that are relevant to the understanding of the story.

All of this would be explained in-story as well as the reader follows along with the main characters going about their lives and navigating the conflict, so this isn’t strictly necessary to know before getting into the story. However, I’ve found that explaining it in an informational way like this helps people understand what on earth I’m talking about online, so I hope this can also be useful as a reference guide of sorts!

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Halloween Special: Laoche Drabbles

Madelyn

The scariest part of the season was the exams. The library sat like an empty tomb, devoid of any life as the campus citizens escaped to revelries and momentarily forgot their impending day of reckoning. She set up in the window seat, spreading papers around her as the chai at her elbow growing colder by the minute from the draft. As the leaves turned to wreaths of gold and garnet, she found her mind drifting to more magical times and her fingers straying to the battered storybook at her side. Studies forgotten, she lost herself in the imagery and ink.

Raiden

He haunted the forest. Every year, without fail, tourists disappeared with the cold weather and seasonal stories of spooks. Children would double and triple dare each other to brave its borders. He watched them scatter with amusement as he hiked through his home. He scavenged the dead branches for firewood, picked the last of the allspice berries for the life that they carried, and build small altars to the Creator as he passed to win its protection for him and his sister. Superstition. Spirits. Maybe this year would be the one he met the ghosts that supposedly protected this wood.

Alric

He studied in the graveyard, for both reminder and motivation. Exhaustion dulled the sharpness of his wit and the peace of the place pulled him towards slumber. He didn’t wear a coat against the cold. Too close to failure, so close to success, the stakes driven into his heart – keeping his family fed, and safe, and warm was all that mattered. There was never enough time. He wondered how the names around him used their time. What would he be doing if he weren’t here? His page stretched empty before him. Why did he always have more questions than answers?

Weswin

He didn’t need a mask or a costume. The stranger slipped among the crowd of the pub to the small stage and set his fiddle case on the ground. Fingers danced over the strings and the popular tune floated over the chatter. The bow flashed. For a moment he forgot his curse. The melody tumbled over itself and rushed to a crescendo. They wouldn’t remember him tomorrow. By the end of the performance, brown replaced the red and new scars dotted his face but he didn’t feel them. A walking ghost. They would remember the music, but never his face.

Seth

He spends the afternoon building – the house he inherited made the better for those that would visit. Lights to lead the way, mulled cider to warm and welcome, and treats for any who asked. The winter would be hard but he would make sure his people would have a reason for hope, for fun, and for community, before retreating to their dens. Soon, ghosts, monsters, and characters of all sorts would come by his door, his sword would be ready at his side. And when the young heroes and princesses arrived, he would bow to those greater than he.

I’m excited to be able to introduce some of the main cast of The Laoche Chronicles! I put up polls on my tumblr and IG earlier this week, and you all chose “modern drabbles” for the Halloween Special post, so I hope you enjoyed these! I wanted each of them to be exactly 100 words and a story-accurate snapshot into these character’s personalities while sticking to the spooky theme, which was a really fun challenge since I’m not very used to writing short fiction. What do you think? Which character’s piece was your favorite, and which do you want to learn more about? Let me know in the comments, and have a very Happy Halloween! 🙂