Magic systems

The various magical systems and spells used by sorcerers in fantasy fiction.

Spells and rituals
Chosen one

What are magic systems?

A definition of magic goes something like this: using special powers to make something happen that would otherwise be impossible. From curses to charms, magic systems are the backbone of fantasy fiction.

The concept of magic has been around since the dawn of human history. In Ancient Mesopotamia, incantations were carved into stone tablets, and in Ancient Egypt, they were written on the back of amulets. Later, people in Europe wrote grimoires – books full of spells and rituals.


Examples like these laid the groundwork for modern fantasy, with many writers taking inspiration from magical beliefs in the past. It is hard to know which writer first did this, but by the time of Tolkien, it was well established. In *The Lord of the Rings*, magical power is subtle and mysterious, and wielded by wizards and elves.

Hard vs. soft

Brandon Sanderson is a well-respected fantasy writer who published his first book in 2005. A few years later, he put forward the concept of two types of magic system: hard and soft.

Hard magic systems are characterized by well-defined rules. For example, in Sanderson’s own books, his magic systems operate on principles akin to scientific laws. These laws are explained to the reader in detail, which lets them understand and predict the outcomes of magical actions.

Soft magic systems are more ambiguous, with the rules never fully explained. *The Lord of the Rings* exemplifies this, with its enigmatic wizards whose powers are strange and unknowable.

A soft magic system can evoke more wonder in the reader, but a hard magic system leaves them feeling more grounded in the world. There are strengths and weaknesses to both of these approaches, and it usually depends on the writer’s personal tastes.


Types of magic

There are a number of different types of magic in works of fantasy fiction.
For example, scrying involves peering into a magical mirror, and catching a glimpse of the future. In *The Lord of the Rings*, the elf-queen Galadriel uses a basin of water to divine what might happen next.


Another type is runic magic, which uses ancient symbols to imbue objects with power. In Christopher paolini’s *Inheritance Cycle*, the hero carves a rune into his sword, which lets the blade burst into flame. Necromancy, meanwhile, involves raising the dead and controlling them.

There are plenty of other examples, and each one has its own narrative and thematic implications. A story about wizards using necromancy will have a very different mood to a story about scrying or runes.

Magic users

Magic users are the people in a writer’s Secondary World who are able to use the magic system. Within the context of a story, these users might go by many names, like mages and spellcasters, but the most common is probably wizards.

The stereotypical wizard is an elderly man with a long white beard and a pointed hat. Tolkien’s wizards, like Gandalf the Gray, are good examples. In *Harry Potter*, Albus Dumbledore also matches this description.

Other writers have broken free from this stereotype. In the 1960s, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote *A Wizard of Earthsea*, about a young boy who learns to use magic. Other books, like Naomi Novik’s *Uprooted*, are about a young woman learning to cast spells.


Magic schools

A common setting in fantasy fiction is a magical school where magic users go to finetune their skills. At these institutions, students undergo rigorous training and face various challenges to test their magical prowess.

Lev Grossman’s *The Magicians* exemplifies this concept, as protagonist Quentin Coldwater enrolls at a school called Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Meanwhile, in Terry Pratchett’s *Discworld* series, prospective wizards can attend a school called the Unseen University.


In most stories, a person is only invited to attend a school if they already have some innate magical ability. A common trope in fantasy fiction is the ‘chosen one’ – a young boy or girl, who discovers some innately magical abilities, and goes on to save the world.

Magic items

In works of fantasy, physical items often serve as conduits for channeling spells. A common example is a magic wand. J.K. Rowling’s *Harry Potter* series features an intricate wand system, where each wand possesses unique properties based on its materials and core components.


Other writers take a different approach, with objects that perform a single function, almost like a magical machine. In Philip Pullman’s *His Dark Materials*,’ the alethiometer is a magical artifact that allows its user to learn the answer to any question they ask it.

Characters usually need some pre-existing magical ability to make these objects work. If a non-wizard in *Harry Potter* tries to use a wand, nothing will happen. The object channels magical ability, and in a non-wizard, there is nothing to channel.

Dark magic

In fantasy fiction, magic is rarely presented as inherently good or bad. Instead, it depends on the intentions of the person using it. It is the same with any form of power – it can be wielded in different ways.

Dark witches and wizards are the characters in a story who use their magic for the wrong reasons. In the *Harry Potter* series, the dark wizard Voldemort uses something called the Unforgivable Curses: spells associated with torture, mind control, and death.


Dark wizards are often the main antagonist in a fantasy story, with other characters setting out on a quest to stop them from achieving their goals. It is a recurring theme in fantasy fiction: the struggle between good and evil.

Magical limitations

Most fantasy writers want their magic systems to include some costs and limitations. If a magic user has infinite power, every challenge will be conquered with a swish of their wand, and the story will have no sense of narrative tension.

In Brandon Sanderson’s *Mistborn* series, magic users derive their abilities from ingesting specific metals. But these metals are hard to come by, and can kill a person if the metal is impure. Because of this, the magic users must be careful not to waste anything, and only use spells when the situation definitely needs it.


Sanderson once said that, when it comes to magic, “limits and costs are more interesting than powers.” This is a useful rule for fantasy writers. Magic is meant to feel wondrous and exciting, but without some core limitations to keep it grounded, the story will feel dull.

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