book magic

Keep Your Magic Rules Simple

When I’m doing Q&As with authors, one of my favorite questions to ask them is, “What would your superpower be?” It’s a question that I personally, as a giant geek, have spent a lot of time figuring out. My answer to this question is a little complex. If I could have any superpower, or, I don’t know, get a genie to grant a wish for me, I would like to be able to use any magic system as long as I was holding the book it was written in. It’s kind of like the magic system in Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines. Except with, you know, magic systems instead of actual physical objects.

So, as you can tell, I have a LOT of opinions on magic systems in fantasy novels. And generally I feel like the simpler and easier-to-explain the magic is, the better. I think Brandon Sanderson said it best with his First Law of Magic: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” 

I really like fantasy novels and worldbuilding and cool magic systems. There’s something amazing about being able to envision this entire other world in your head. And a big part of almost any fantasy world is the magic. (That’s what makes it a fantasy world, right?) Understanding the rules for the magic can help me—the reader—to understand the rules for the story.

Even though your magic system is completely made up out of your own head, it still needs to have an internal logical consistency. Once you set a rule of magic, then you are stuck with that rule, which is why many of the most memorable—in my opinion—magical systems are very easy to explain in just a line or two.

In David Eddings’ The Belgariad and The Mallorean series, magic is accomplished through the Will and the Word. This means that the sorcerer has to be able to really want and envision the outcome, and then they say a word to release the magic. Simple.

Or, as you can tell from my earlier link, Brandon Sanderson also has great magic systems. His magic systems can be surprisingly complex, but they’re usually all based on simple concepts. For example, in his Mistborn series, magic users can use a metal to gain an ability, and every metal has a different ability attached to it. Again, easy to explain in one sentence. But he built whole societies on it.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for hand-waving, “a wizard did it”, type of magic in fantasy novels. In fact, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, probably the most famous fantasy series ever, uses it. But you’ll notice that The Lord of the Rings isn’t really about Gandalf or any of the other magic users or magical beings. It’s about the hobbits being stuck in this world of crazy magic they don’t understand.

So, if the protagonist of your fantasy novel uses magic, you need to figure out the rules. You don’t want your main character doing stuff that your readers don’t understand. If magic is a mystery to the hero/heroine of your story, then it can be mysterious to the reader as well. But the important thing is to make sure that your readers can follow along and understand your story, and that you don’t accidentally lose them by making some strange magical leap.

What are some of your favorite magical systems? Share in the comments!

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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