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!
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.
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!