In over five years of writing about worldbuilding, I’ve said very little about one of the core questions fantasy writers tend to ask themselves: How do you design a magic system?
Partly this is simply because it takes me time (five years and counting!) to get around to everything. But there’s another, underlying reason for it, which is that I’m increasingly allergic to the term “magic system.”
Now, I should say at the outset that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the kind of structured, systematized type of magic most strongly associated with that phrase. A schematic approach to worldbuilding (not just on the magic front) can produce interesting results, and the ultimate test is whether you wind up with a story people want to read. So long as the answer to that is “yes,” rock on with whatever you please. (Or heck, even if it isn’t. Some people write for the pleasure of creation, not concerning themselves with the question of an audience.)
But the flip side — that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a less structured, less systematized approach — is also true, and this is what I sometimes see being lost in the shuffle. So often it’s taken as axiomatic that a magic system has to make sense; it must have rules, limitations, a defined source for its power and a cost for its use. Or if it does not have those things — and here I am citing actual advice I’ve heard — it cannot be used to solve plot problems, only to create them. According to this mentality, magic that helps the characters absolutely has to be bound in a clearly defined framework.
Several factors seem to feed into this bias toward systematized magic. One, I think, is the influence of gaming: Dungeons and Dragons and the whole multifaceted edifice of fantasy games tend, by their nature, to require those rules in order to function. If you look at D&D magic, you see limitations like the following:
- Either you must spend time each day choosing and preparing the spells you will be ready to cast later in the day, or (if you do not need to prepare) then the list of spells you are capable of casting is much more limited.
- Wizards must scribe spells into their spellbook to be able to cast them, which costs time and money. Clerics do not need this, but they must abide by the strictures of their deity or lose their spellcasting ability entirely.
- Spells are divided into levels of power, and a magic-user can only cast a certain number of spells of each power level per day. You can use a higher level to cast a lower one, but you can’t sacrifice a bunch of low-level spells in exchange for one bigger one.
- Most spells require some combination of words, gestures, and material components, and anything which restricts your ability to supply those means you may not be able to cast the spell. Some material components are very expensive, because the game wants to limit how readily you can cast those spells.
- Every spell has a numerically specified casting time, range, area of effect, and duration, and some have a numerically defined effect (e.g. a certain number of hit points of damage or healing).
- Casting spells under particular circumstances in combat may cause opponents to attack you, and if they hit, there are further rules to define whether your spell fails, using up that casting slot for the day.
(The specifics vary from edition to edition; take the above as illustrative, not a definitive list.)
It isn’t just gaming, though — or rather, the development of such games happened around the same time as another shift in fantasy publishing. When N.K. Jemisin pushed back against the systematization of magic, Terri Windling mentioned in the comments that in the late ’70s and early ’80s, editor Jim Baen advocated for “fantasy with rivets,” as written by authors largely known for SF; Ellen Kushner followed up to cite Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away (1978) as the start of that trend. While that was far from the only type of fantasy being published, it was not only prominent but associated with male authors and readers, while the more numinous approach was dismissed as “girly.”
Here’s the thing, though. Anyone who’s read even one essay of this Patreon will not be surprised in the slightest to hear that I tend to approach worldbuilding from an anthropological perspective . . . and quite a lot of real-world human belief in magic looks nothing whatsoever like the above style. There are some well-elaborated systems, sure — but they’re a minority, not the majority. In fact, a goodly percentage of real belief in magic might be differentiated from the genre version by saying:
Magic is not a thing you do; magic is a thing that is.
In Robin McKinley’s novel Spindle’s End, a loaf of bread is liable to turn into a flock of starlings if you forget to ask it not to. Why? Because that’s how the world works. Dragons breathe fire because dragons (of the classic European sort) breathe fire, not because they cast a spell. Looking through a stone with a hole in it lets you see faeries; the action you’re performing simply makes use of the inherent qualities of a holed stone. There’s no underlying energy source that explains the effect of such objects, no number of charges or pool of personal mana you’ll deplete every time you use them. I once got into an argument with a guy running an RPG I was playing in because he said the Divination skill could not be used to interpret omens; Divination had to be a set of actions your character performed, not simply noticing a thing in the world and understanding what it means. But in reality, that is precisely how many people have interacted with the supernatural world around them.
We call those things superstitions or folklore, not magic — but they’re a key part of what magic has meant to people for thousands of years, and they’re vastly more common than the sort where a wizard shoots a fireball out of his hand. Now, I loves me a good fireball; there’s nothing wrong with fictional magic going places real-world belief has never touched. (It would be a poor sort of speculative fiction that was limited to pre-existing speculation.) But it saddens me when this other type gets trampled and cast aside.
Not least because these inherent, “magic is” types of beliefs tend to be the province of people who don’t have access to the more elite systems which require extensive education. A lot of fantasy worlds seem to be built on the premise that Real Magic means people won’t bother with this sort . . . but if anything, I suspect the reverse would be true. The existence of conceptual frameworks like European hermetic magic or the complex elaborations of the Chinese wuxing didn’t eliminate non-systematized folk belief, and people who feel threatened by those fireball-throwing wizards would lean on any defense they could.
This is only the thin end of the wedge, though, when thinking about designing magic for fantasy. Upcoming theory essays will dig deeper — in ways both systematic and not!