Writer's Guide

Writer’s Guide: how to create a magical system

I myself am a fantasy author and have always been a fan of Harry Potter and other fantasy genre series like Shadowhunters that have everything to do with powers. In any case, I know how hard it is to think of a magical system that’s entirely unique. But, you’ve got to start somewhere. So, let me guide you through it.

  1. Embrace the challenges

There are often tons of challenges when it comes to creating a magical system. You can for example make a character too powerful. It’s quite the effort to create a large variety of powers, resulting in some characters being more powerful than others, which causes them to break the story. Be careful with this. When you create spells, make sure you’re consistent with them. Don’t create too many different powers for different characters. And don’t forget that often people find superpowers too common. Just make sure you set your magic apart from known franchises. Which is what you’ll learn to do in the next steps.

2. Create your own theme

Start by asking yourself this: what kind of feeling or atmosphere do you want for your story? You might think of an animalistic theme with powers that seem bestial, a mystical theme with powers based on the movements in the heavens, a divine theme where people with superpowers are angels or a horror theme where powers come from strange forces that humans shouldn’t dig in.

3. Origin of powers

How do people get their power? Be sure to keep one single explanation for everyone. If one got it from radiation, all will. Depending on your chosen theme, this should fit within your world, giving powers that can be explained scientifically or magically. Be careful with scientific explanations. It has to make sense. With magic, it should come from an outside source. Humans shouldn’t be able to cast magic directly. Don’t mix them. Are they chosen to get those powers? Is it randomly allocated? Juts tie it to the same source so you can create variety of circumstances. And don’t forget to add limitations or complications. In many cases, powers are only limited. If nanites are the source, people could have different levels of this. Someone’s immune system might attack them and make them look their powers. If the power source is divine, characters may have to stay on their god’s good side. If powers come from planets or stars, your characters might be strongest when those celestial bodies appear in the sky and weakest when the source is on the other side of the earth.

4. Effects

Limit the types of powers your characters can have. It may seem restrictive, but will force you to get creative. Going back to the themes with this is important. If you choose something animalistic, they could only acquire powers similar to what animals have. If your characters are angels, their powers could be limited to what feels like a miracle from the Bible. And say you’ve got a scientific theme, each superhero could influence one element on the periodic table. Keep in mind in which ways the powers can be used. Say a character can open a portal to tear through reality, they could probably use it to tear through enemies and weapons as well. Or, what if a character can conjure mirrors? They might use them to see around corners, create numerous reflections to camouflage their location, reflect light or slice enemies with a broken mirror edge. The possibilities are endless.

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5. Limits and consequences

I mentioned this in step one already, but wanted to add some more in an extra step, connected to themes you might’ve chosen. In an animalistic system, characters who use their powers too much could transform into their animal, including their mind. If you used a cosmic horror theme, usage of powers could strengthen pervasive evil. That could create a global-warming-type effect. Characters shouldn’t use their powers in this world, but justify it by saying everyone else will do it as well. And say you’re using a pseudo science for your theme, you could make it harder for your character to understand what they’re doing. When they use their power, the energy or matter they use is drawn from somewhere else they can’t predict.

6. Add variation or complexity

How? By splitting casters into different groups, for examples. If you’re using animalistic magic, you should split them into predators and prey. When using magic from the heavens, you could have a group that gets their abilities from powerful but different stars and another that’s blessed by the closer but less powerful planets. And if you have angels, including demons is a no-brainer. Categories within should feel symmetrical. If all angels can fly but demons have no special form of transport, it’ll feel inconsistent.

7. Multiple powers

Adding a second power usually gives trouble. It multiplies the chance that the character will have plot-breaking abilities. They not only have two powers that can get out of hand, but they can also combine them in new ways or use one power to cover weaknesses that the other power provides. But there’s a way to manage this. Consider giving your heroes the same second power. It could be one that’s difficult to win the day with alone. For instance, if you’ve got the angels, give them all flight. And if you want to divide the powerfulness, you can make the top-tier ones cast powers in addition. Same for demons, for example. A different solution could be to relate the second power to the first one. It’ll give them a character arc as well. Though, take their lower-level ability down a notch. That’ll make space for an ability that isn’t too powerful. And, instead of adding a new power, you can reveal how an existing power is more than it seems. Remember the mirrors one I talked about earlier? What if there’s a sudden notice of an inaccurate reflection of the real world? People’s faces have different expressions, items are missing, shadows lurk in the background. Vision like. Just remember: with great powers comes greater consequences and responsibilities.

8. A Chosen One

Most magic systems have a character that’s special, more powerful than anyone else. But, I suggest you reach for something else. Easiest method? Put your character in a category by themself. What if all superheroes and villains are demonic, but the character is an angel? Gone for centuries, suddenly back. Why now? Just don’t give your character the most powerful ability. Make it one that’s most needed. A mysterious legacy appears and your character seems to be the only one who can see the past, who can unlock the secrets. Make them look like an underdog. Having the most needed ability is striking when it isn’t more powerful than average.

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Love, Deem ❀

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