Magic Systems are one of my favorite things to read and the thing I’m most passionate to write about. So I’m going to talk through four completely different ways creators use Magic Systems WELL.
Before we get started, I want to lay some terminology groundwork:
Magic in fiction can be almost anything that makes your world unusual. It doesn’t have to be cut-and-dry “a wizard waved a wand.” But whatever it is, I believe some rules should exist to govern it.
Soft Magic is the loosest form of magic. In its most extreme form, the author may know of rules that guide it, but the reader is left in a vast plane of limitless creativity. Soft magic systems make it easy to continue to “power-up” the characters almost unlimitedly with minimal backlash. Audiences know going in that there was more to this power that they didn’t understand.
Hard Magic, on the other hand, is completely governed by rules. Even if the reader doesn’t have them all, the author knows the exact limits of the power and the reader has a fair idea. The hardest of magic systems keep an impossibly tight grip on their magic so that it works as rigidly as the laws of our world.
Power Creep is the bane of my personal existence. Essentially, it lets the characters continuously surpass the “maximum” over and over again against the laws of the in-universe magic. I do not enjoy watching a character become the “best ever, the end” just because the story says so. Power Creep is most notorious in anime or long-running series where the author is constantly raising the physical stakes — often ignoring internal struggles as a way to engage audiences. Power Creep is easier to fall into in a Soft Magic system where the rules are loose anyway. And while an audience might forgive it for a while, there is a reason that I recognize Dragon Ball Z memes, despite never watching the show.
Most magic systems exist on a sliding scale between hard and soft systems — and both can be plagued by power creep if not careful. I’ll tell you now that I have an undying love for hard magic systems and consistent consequences. I want to know what cost the magic has and the toll it takes on the user. As with all stories, the magic of the worlds mentioned below affects how the story plays out. BUT I will be discussing strengths based on magic alone not the complete “package.” Anyway, with that set up, let’s jump into these examples.
Harry Potter and the Semi-Soft System
No one is surprised to see this here, but that’s because it’s almost universally seen as an iconic and fairly well-done magic system. I love fantastical realism, and the use of the soft magic system really works here because the premise is about expanding your view of your current world. There are rules that exist — only wizards can use magic, magic seems largely hereditary, and you need a wand to use it — but the world implies there is no limit to what a wizard could seek out to learn. Despite having a softer magic system, I never felt terribly jarred by any character’s ability, not even Harry. Some people had talents in some areas, others in others, and others were Dumbledore. But even the vast power of these super-wizards felt set up and earned. Part of the success of the series can be accredited to the step-by-step view of the learning process. Few things were natural to our main cast. We see where each succeeds and where each fails which feels realistic!
Avatar: Rules of the Last Airbender
Our hard-magic example is not only incredible — but incredibly topical. The premise is beautifully clean and simple: some people move water, some earth, some fire, some air, and some nothing. But one person, repeatedly reincarnated, can mess with all four of the elements at the same time. Perfect, easy to describe, clean, hard magic. From this base premise, softer principles are derived without leaving their lane. Waterbenders can manipulate water wherever it is, earthbenders can manipulate the impurities in metal, and firebenders –innately tied to manipulating energy– can produce concentrated fire as electricity. Aside from a single mix-up concerning what element lava would be considered, the Avatar universe is consistent and believable. It’s enhanced by the part bending plays in worldbuilding, and the part different fighting styles direct how each element moves through stances and forms. More strongly than in Harry Potter, we start to see a consequence specific to using the power in the form of physical exhaustion. If Harry is winded, it’s not from casting wingardium leviosa for too long; chances are, he was running, and that poor boy doesn’t do a lot of cardio. Yet Aang often shows signs of exhaustion after lifting a large rock or concentrating really hard on controlling a flame… On top of not doing enough cardio.
Star Trek: Wrath of Not Seeming Magical
I purposefully chose this futuristic society over its more popular counterpart because it doesn’t feel as inherently magical as something called “the force.” However, there’s a reason “sci-fi / fantasy” get bunched together, and this is a great example of it. Star Trek — and a newer take produced by Fox called The Orville — use technology as the magic. Occasionally, an episode may feature an inherently magical species (the Q is a great example in The Next Generation), but the show is always stolen by the different inventions that make the series possible. Their ships move faster than the speed of light; their tricorders can analyze and instantly tell vital information about people and places; their replicators literally materialize anything they have data on. That all feels very magical to me. Sci-fi does a great job convincing readers that their soft magic system is a hard magic system. All a writer has to do is yada-yada some science-y reason something exists, and — poof — there it is. Yet, it’s that claim that “this is science” that makes it seem like it’s governed by rules.
Mistborn: The Series I Don’t Joke on Because it’s THAT Good
This might be a new one for those most familiar with visual media, but let me tell you: the Mistborn Series is everything I want out of a magic system. Brandon Sanderson is in no rush to explain the way the system works. He gives you pieces and parts over three whole books, implying in book one that everything fits into a strict set of rules. And it does. Unlike the previous three examples, the Mistborn series keeps almost everything obscured. It gives hints and ideas of what is to come, but the audience learns everything about this incredibly unique magic system with a group that is trying to figure out the extents for the first time. Everything you need to know is scattered throughout the books, including in mysterious journal entries that precede every chapter, but the reader has no idea what it means. Every time something new clicks, it is incredibly satisfying — like finding money in your pocket.
Overall there are hundreds of right ways to do a magic system. Recognize that many people many different things. As I mentioned earlier, the magic system in Dragon Ball Z is not at all what I’m interested in reading, but if you do a Google search for “top anime of all time,” you better believe it’ll show up. Write the magic system you want to see, but if I could give any advice, I would recommend considering exactly what your magic can and can’t do.
I’ll see you all next Monday!