Creating a Magic System, and the Philosophical, Economic, and Social Implications

I love magic. My greatest secret desire as a child was to suddenly discover I had magic powers. My best friend and I would spend hours in the woods trying to display some sign of magical talent. And yet nothing.

These days I do get to play with magic. It’s not mine, but I can feel the wonder and power of my characters. I won’t get all corny on you and say that imagination is magic, but… okay, maybe I will.

But using magic in my books has led to some conundrums I never considered when trying to develop powers of my own. As I’m doing more world-building for the sleeping beauty story I had to decide the parameters of my magic system to maintain consistency. Here are my thoughts, along with some notes from my actual world-building document:

What is magic?

Well? Is it a force? A particle? An element? A type of energy? Where does it come from? Is it finite or infinite? Is it always there, or just when a practitioner calls it? What could summon something like that? Why do words, or gestures, or certain ingredients have the power to bring forth magic?

I’m very interested in small particles, though I’d hesitate to say I’m interested in quantum mechanics, mostly because I don’t understand much of it. But thinking a lot about how physics works makes me want to strongly define precisely what magic is, where it comes from, and how it’s accessed.

What are the limits to magic?

Is magic limited by supply, or by the capabilities of the practitioner? If supply there’s not really a huge problem, but there need to be at least some limits to how much and how often a practitioner can use magic, and thirdly what magic is capable of. Consider it: If a magician could make literally anything imaginable out of thin air and never exhausted his or her powers, then literally all of society would crumble.

Nothing would have value anymore. The entire way our economy works would collapse. There would be no rulers, no servants. Anything you wanted would be yours. And there are philosophical implications to this as well. When you can have everything/anything you want… what’s the point in living? What do you have to strive for?

Side note: Star Trek introduced this concept with the Replicators, but never really examined how in reality the Replicators would have wiped out society pretty much as I described above.

In a more story-related sense, if your villain and hero are both infinitely powerful, who could ever possibly win?

There are several options for limiting magic when it comes to practitioner. Magic could take a toll on physical strength, or mental strength, or even a third ‘magical’ strength. There has to be some reason for a practitioner to have limits.

And there also have to be limits on WHO can be a practitioner, but that goes back to what exactly magic is, and how it is accessed.

What are the capabilities of magic?

I briefly mention this in the above section, but it bears its own section. We’ve talked about how magic can be limited in using it, but magic also needs limits in what results you get with it.

For example, in Harry Potter the students don’t seem to get particularly taxed by most spells (though some spells are harder to summon the proper will power for). And yet you can’t create matter out of nothing. All charming and transfiguring must be performed on already-existing matter.

Fairytales don’t usually talk about magical limitations, and yet there must be some. Otherwise all those witches and fairy godmothers could, once again, bring forth anything they liked at any time. Don’t tell me all those witches chose to stay ugly :-)

Can you use magic to go back in time? Raise the dead? Make someone immortal? Limitations must be set.

Are there different types or classes of magic?

This relates to what magic is and how it’s accessed, but let’s talk about it anyway. Going back to Harry Potter, there were different types of magic that the students studied… I think you could argue that Potions and Transfiguration were very different from each other. One used pure magic funneled through a wand, and the other created magical results by combining certain ingredients.

In Born Wicked, which I read recently, there’s regular magic and then thought magic, in which the practitioner can control the will and memories of the victim.

Will your story have classes of magic or just one type? Personally I feel that there needs to be an explanation for the difference between potions and regular magic, which, yet again, goes back to what you decide magic inherently is.

My Magic System in ACORAS

As promised, here are my world-building notes on magic in ACORAS :-) Some character names have been redacted.

Every single thing, from rocks to birds to trees, contain secret, magical functions. Items harmless on their own can create powerful potions when properly combined. When accessed through magic, the hidden functions of items can be utilized in creative ways. That’s why ‘eye of newt, leg of toad’ works.

Magic exists inherently in the world. It’s the miraculous side effect of everything that makes up the world; but primarily gravity and energy from the sun. As the world turns it churns out an endless bank of transferable energy that can be stored inside objects or people, and easily translated through magic users into new forms. Magic only dissipates when converted into a new item or function.

Worms, which live in the earth and consume it, act as magical amplifiers.

Some creatures, like witches and Fae, are conduits of this natural magic, and so the use of it does not exhaust them. Humans, on the other hand, are not good conduits of magic, and so few of them can use it. Even those who have had magic in their family for generations, like [name redacted], cannot easily renew their supply, though they can spend it as good as any Fae. The ability to carry and use magic is transferred in the blood.

Blood, as a carrier of life force, is the ultimate binding agent for magic. That’s how non-magical beings can make magical deals, if sealed with their blood.

Limitations on Magic:

Magic cannot create something out of nothing. Also, something cannot be formed out of pure magic. It must have another object to react with. A practiced practitioner will use their own flesh, hair, or blood in a pinch, especially because their bodies are greater conduits. Example: Rowan can create straw from snow, but could not make straw out of nothing. Hay is a very simple creation; more complicated creations would take more matter and energy.

Because magic, unlike regular energy, doesn’t dissipate until used, magic can be locked into an endless loop of power, binding the subject to certain rules. Magic can be locked to abstract things, such as words, creating spells. Anyone with magic capability can say the words to a spell and the magic locked into that combination of words acts like a computer program, running the user’s own magic through a process and spitting out the desired result.

For example, Silaine performs a blood binding on [name redacted]. This particular spell requires the blood of both participants, and then binds the subject to the practitioner’s very life force. [name redacted] is inseparable from Silaine because their own existence has been fused with hers.

Creating new spells is very difficult, and requires lots of blood. This is why the practitioners of old were so feared and often reviled, because they sacrificed many people for their power.

Does that make you want to read my book more than ever? :-) I’m working hard, guys, don’t worry.

Other fascinating magical systems I’ve read about:

Sabriel: Magic bells? Um, yes! Sabriel gets to use different bells for different functions within Death. It’s an absolutely unique and beautiful magical system.

Alphabet of Thorn: This one had two I really liked. The first was the magic contained in written language that spell-bound the reader. The second was something I absolutely loved and was envious of – the magic the students have to practice in the forest. The wizards at the school were given multiple magical tests and had to think their way out of them. Each test was a magical brain puzzle, and I loved it!

Finnikin of the Rock: ‘Walking the dreams’ is the coolest phrase ever, and to do it a character must be shedding blood. That means menstruating or self-harming. Brings a whole new meaning to sometimes you gotta bleed for the cause.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone: I don’t think the magic system was necessarily defined, but there was definitely a magical process for (Spoilers!!!!) ahem… continuing on… reincarnation, which involved collecting teeth and diamonds. I got chills it was so awesome.


What are your favorite magic systems? What do you take into account when working with magic?

<3, Savannah



10 thoughts on “Creating a Magic System, and the Philosophical, Economic, and Social Implications

  1. Angelica says:

    I really like the magical system in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall. The whole concept of ‘The Gift’ is great. I also really like the magic in Care Tiernan’s Balefire quartet and Sweep series. Both are based on wiccab magic systems. ^_^

  2. linda says:

    I always wanted magical powers as a kid, too! But now that I’m older I’m a big fan of science and reason, which means that logic fail when creating magical systems on the part of authors is a big turn-off for a novel (though somehow fantasy is still my favorite genre). So I really appreciate your post! If I were to create a magical system I’d definitely want it to have rules and conservation of magical energy. And I love the concept of magic as computer programs, too! (Have seen this a couple times.) So I think your magic system sounds pretty awesome.

    Don’t know if you’d be interested in this, but I recently read an HP fanfic (first one I’ve read, actually) called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality where Harry Potter grew up with a biochemist professor as his adopted father and so has a very scientific, rational mindset. He goes into the magical world trying to use the scientific method to figure out the rules of magic, and one of his conclusions was that whoever started wizardry in the first place (Atlanteans?) basically “programmed” the Magical Source to give a specific output when a wizard performs a spell. The spells have to be pronounced exactly right with the precise gestures for no other reason than that’s how the code was written, soif you want to be really good at spells you have to be amazing at pronouncing everything with just the right intonation and moving your wand exactly so (which totally describes Hermione). Anyway, I thought that was a pretty interesting take on the magic of Harry Potter. :)

    • Savannah Foley says:

      The only thing I fear when it comes to magic and logic is that my system will be so poorly thought out or described that I get accused of deus ex machina. There seems to be a lot of ‘it was in you the whole time!’ stuff in fantasy that allows the character to craft a perfect resolution with no effort or talent.

      I LOVE that fanfic concept!! It makes so much sense, and it’s so similar to what I’m trying to do. I really like the ‘computer programming’ method, but I also have a soft spot for magic that’s unpredictable and half-uncontrollable

  3. Rowenna says:

    I love your points about restricting magic to make social frameworks still function! Great point about Star Trek–I haven’t watched them too closely, but I guess I always assumed the replicators were restricted by cost to produce the machine itself or laws or something like–because you’re right, otherwise economics and society would totally break down!

    LOL @ ugly witches–reminded me of Into the Woods where the story is driven by the witch trying to collect what she needs for a spell to become young and beautiful again (yet, again, she’s limited–she needs the actual items and can’t seem to get them herself).

    I love the system in Sabriel–ok, I love pretty much everything about Sabriel, but the bells are a fascinating way to channel and limit magic!

    • Savannah Foley says:

      I have seen them make some pretty crazy things with the replicators :-) My favorite Star Trek was Voyager, and they were lost for years in the Delta Quadrant so they had to get pretty creative with some problem resolutions. I always felt the replicators were a little deus ex machina. Sometimes they could create awesome stuff and sometimes not.

  4. Diyana Wan says:

    Hi Savannah! I’ve been wondering where you were! Glad to know you’re alive and well!!

    I totally love magic systems. I read an article by Brandon Sanderson which TOTALLY opened up my eyes about magic systems. If you’re interested, you can read it here:

    It goes without saying that he has one of the best magic systems in his Mistborn series. Basically, metals are ingested and then drawn upon when they needed the magic. Different metals correspond to different abilities, and most people can only command one power. There’s also the risk of running out of those metals, and they’re very costly and hard to come by unless you are noble, which gives the story added depth.

    I’ve also just finished Patrick Rothfuss’ ‘The Wise Man’s Fear’, and ugh, I love that world so much I couldn’t bear to leave it! I guess his magic system would be thought magic, in that you can manipulate things by creating links with your mind. I’m sure I’m not explaining it correctly, so if you haven’t read his Kingkiller Chronicles series yet, do!

    Ah, sorry for this monster comment! I could talk all day about magic systems, heh.


    • Savannah Foley says:

      Sadly I have not read any Sanderson. Him and those other big time, epic fantasy authors intimidate me. I’ve been putting off reading their series, lol. Guess it’s time to finally make it happen!

      I love the idea of metal ingestion. I’m playing with an epic fantasy idea about this particular mineral/crystal that is addictive when ingested and the hero accidentally has some implanted into his back, so he’s an addict for the whole series.

      Definitely adding The Wise Man’s Fear to my TBR list, thank you!!

  5. Ramon Meira says:

    Hey, here’s a suggestion: are you familiar with fantasy rpgs? It seems you only use books and novels’ magic sistems as a base or something, and I really think you should read about magic on games or on comics… For example, on DC universe, Zatanna more than once explained about how magic depends on will power of the caster, how much power the caster can generate for the specific effect and how you must train precision, otherwise bizarre effects may occure… John Constantine is also really cientific about magic, always explaining the methods of making deals with demons, using runes, geometry, etc, on Hellblazer comics… Oh, and they also consider how magic can have different shapes depending on how the caster’s culture developed it, like norse runes, american native’s magic and stuff like that… OOOH, and read the four volumes Books of Magic, from DC, its like, all of these occultists reunite and sort of discuss the mechanisms of magic on different eras and places, and the philosofical and metaphisical implications! It really add this total subjective characteristic to magic, like, magic itself is pretty much abstract, it depends on how the user shapes it! now, for aesthetic themes of magic, I suggest some research on magic mechanisms on the Final Fantasy series, or on the Valkyrie Profile game, specially, there’s this really goth-scientific-norse-eastern thing to it too… Oriental magic must be really neat too, but unfortunately I cant remember one refference at all .–. well, hope u like the suggestions! There’s a lot in all of that, but if you would pick one… Pick Books of Magic, definately o/

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