Writing a novel

Worldbuilding 101: Magic

LE medlock, Worldbuilding 101, writing a novel
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by n0cturbulous

Magic makes the world go round. (Science? TCH, I say.) Writing a fantasy/paranormal/steampunk/etc. novel? There will probably be magic. Writing anything else? There may yet be magic. Add some and see what happens.

This blog post is doing double duty for me today, as it’s going to help me work out my magic system in my WIP (Aren’t you, blog? AREN’T YOU). My magic tends to arise at the end, in some murky, mysterious process that somehow manages to bring about exactly what I need. Bunnies may be involved.

Not really helpful. So:

  • Most important is where magic comes from. This’ll dictate how and why it’s used and explain how magic came to be in the novel.

Gods can be a great and varied source of magic. The pantheon may have different ‘governing areas’ which will influence the school or types of magic its clerics can use. For example, benevolent warrior gods might focus on healing or protective magic. For tips, look at role-playing games like D&D, which have wide pantheons and related spells.

If gods are the source of magic, their magic-users might use religious terminology, like cleric versus wizard. A cleric’s motivation (good or bad) may vary depending on the god – but not all clerics of one faith need to hold the same beliefs.

Mana is another option. Mana was originally a Proto-Oceanic word that meant a non-physical super-force. It’s usually used in modern video games etc. as a kind of magic energy that imbues the planet. Other options might include the magnetism of the planet, genetics or Giant Bunnies.

  • How it’s used

In most novels, magic is a double-edged sword and can be used either for Good or for Evil (capital G, capital E). This implies differences in not only why it’s used but how it’s used. There could be different spells for each. In Harry Potter, certain spells are categorized as ‘Dark’ and are only used by Evil Wizards Who Have No Desire for Life Except Revenge.

Weapons form the most common uses of magic (because gunpowder is just not good enough), but it’s also worth looking at transport, medicine and communication.

  • How it’s not used

Magic needs limitations to be effective and realistic. Otherwise, the plot problem that the protagonist faces in the novel wouldn’t be a problem. (My only issue with magic in Harry Potter is that it could do everything. Only human ethics limited its power.)

Can it be used in a ‘wrong’ way? And what punishment would the protagonist face if he did?

  • What you need to perform magic
Le Medlock: Worldbuilding 101, writing a novel
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by rmkoske

Like all things in novels, magic needs to be realistic. Not -oh-my-days-I’m-really-a-unicorn- kind of realistic, but it needs to work within the rules of the world. Magic needs rules. That could be defined by the tools of the wizard (wand/staff/book) or the things he needs to cast it (bat wings/dead man’s toe/etc.). Depending on how common magic is, these things could be easy or difficult to get hold of. Perhaps some potions are rarer than others because Character A has to trek up Mount Everest for some freshly-fallen snow.

  • How long it lasts/takes to cast

This could depend on a number of things, including the power or level of the caster and the strength of the spell’s ingredients. Also could be fuel for plot points if spells react in an unexpected way or die faster than they should.

  • Side effects of magic

To make something interesting when writing a novel, load it up with conflict. Using magic would be fraught with more danger if it incurred serious weakness or crippling pain. Or aging, as in Stardust.

  • How it affected the world

As the advance of technology has affected our world, magic would have influenced a planet in different ways. History might have been very different if some world leaders wielded dark vicious spells at the head of their army. Politics would have another dimension, fueled by backstabbing and assassination (by magic, at least).

The planet itself would have weathered centuries (or longer) of magic use. Plants and living things drank it in and grew around it. Perhaps magical wars riddled the land with craters. If the effects hurt people, or the planet, casters might face prejudice and injustice because of it.

LE medlock, Worldbuilding 101, writing a novel
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by Megan Rapp-Frye
  • Different kinds/schools of magic

Here are a handful of schools/topics (by no means exhaustive):


Some of them are directly opposed – Healing vs. Necromancy, for example. You might assume that magicians who practice one wouldn’t practice the other – or you might not. Dangerous clerics can both raise the dead and heal them.

Class, race or gender might restrict the use of some of these. Just as elves and dwarves have notoriously different characteristics, they might have different magical skills. Or, perhaps wealth is the only limiting aspect. Can you buys spells?

  • Becoming a magician

Many novels consist of magic or paranormal schools in which the protagonist learns the spells he needs to defeat the Big Bad. Most require innate talent and there are usually tests. The Last Airbender has a great test for locating the Avatar; a simple tray of rock, water and fire. Only the Avatar can manipulate all of them. [Edit: When writing this post, I totally got distracted by quizzes to find out what element I would bend. Answer: Water.)

Tests imply tiered results which imply levels. Characters are challenged if their opponent is stronger, or wields stronger spells. They have to think outside of the box to defeat them. Levels of strength might be graded and obvious (Level 3 Warlock – sounds much more like a game than a novel, but creating titles would be half the fun) or completely unknown – and the protagonist really would be in trouble.

Le Medlock: Worldbuilding 101, writing a novel
Image from Flickr Creative Commons by wellcome images
  • Magical animals

Dragons, pegasi, hippocampuses hippocampi horse-dolphins… No matter what they are, magic beasts are always fun to make. They also need defined limitations, uses (transport or communication?) and personalities. What makes them magical?

  • Finally: new spells

Can new spells be invented? How? If so, make it relevant to the plot. All of the above makes for great and beautiful worldbuilding, but when it comes down to actually writing the novel, only include it if it’s relevant. Plot devices and obstacles rise naturally out of magic – usually when it goes wrong – but it needs rules (and I we writers need to document them, so we remember what they are.)

For more tips on writing magic, try these 12 questions about the system of magic in your fantasy novel.

What is your favourite kind of magic or spell? How was it used?

6 thoughts on “Worldbuilding 101: Magic”

  1. Some of the problems about defining the origins of magic in a world come about because you might say for example, that magic is a gift of the gods, received only through prayer. Then an instance of magic powerful enough to commit deicide leaves you wondering, “why would the gods grant that kind of magic through prayer?”

    So, to answer the question of where deity-killing magic comes from, you decide that magic comes from another source, bigger than the gods themselves. This is usually where most magic systems simply “break” under the strain of all the hand-waving necessary to explain their magic.

    I mean, you can say, “nature magic” comes from “nature,” but what even is nature? Are you talking about the world that was created by gods, or did gods find the planet and decide to fill it with people rule it? Is nature a separate entity from the world itself, somehow transcending the world and people? Are people natural? Are the gods?

    I get why people want to explain how the magic works — I just think the majority of fantasy writers aren’t prepared for dealing with all the metaphysical baggage that comes with a question like, “where does the magic come from?”

    It makes for some FASCINATING conversations though. 🙂


  2. Interesting! I didn’t realise they were linked before, but as you say it makes sense from a duality perspective. And that’s not to say you need to split the schools this way: you could define them under whatever heading you want. (I always like the colours; Black, White, Blue and Red).


  3. I have spent a long, long time trying to determine “where magic comes from” for my own writing and game design projects. No matter which way you go, there are often unforeseeable (and just as often “unfortunate”) implications about saying “where” magic comes from.

    Interesting to note, in editions of D&D prior to 3rd edition, healing was incorporated into the school of necromancy because it dealt with vitality and life force. basically a “two sides of the same coin” kind of thing, which was really effective.

    It wasn’t until after D&D was acquired by Wizards of the Coast that the bizarre division occurred, which created the healing “subschool” and shunted it into a different school effectively “opposing” necromancy as a magical concept.


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