Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How To Create a Magical System for Your Fantasy Story


A magic system is an overall set of rules that structures your story's magic and what your characters can do with their respective magical abilities. This isn't just about specific spells; it also covers the limitations of magic and who, if not everyone, can use it. Worldbuilding is a core point of storytelling across all genres, but particularly in fantasy.

It's up to you as an author to decide how much of your magic system contributes to your story's worldbuilding. If you want to follow Percy Jackson's example and establish the source of magic — as he states comes from the gods — that's fine. If you want to leave said magic source a mystery as J.K. Rowling did in her Harry Potter series, that's fine too.

Hard vs. soft magic system – which is right for you?

While it's important to find our own style of writing, it's foolish not to learn from the pros. Brandon Sanderson coined the terms: "hard" and "soft" magic systems, and these terms are used by countless fantasy authors today. Before you begin writing, you need to decide on what system you'll be using and work from there to expand on it.

The hard magic system

Essentially, a hard magic system has rules in place that are specific, created for the reader, and play a strong role in the story. There is nothing less thrilling than an undefeatable character who faces no obstacles to conquer, no challenges to overcome. If your protagonist can simply whip up a spell that vanquishes every foe they encounter, the reader has no reason to keep turning pages.

Rules and limitations put in place will make it clear to the reader exactly why all-powerful spells can't be created or cast by your protagonist. Without the safety net of such spells, your characters have to rely on their intelligence and raw talent, deftly maneuvering a situation and creating a far more compelling story for your reader.

Hard magic system examples

  • Banebringer by Carol A. Park: In this story, the Gods choose people to be blessed (or cursed) with magical abilities that are based on each particular God. Though this use of magic is limited to a number of characters, the ability to use magic is more widespread as the reader discovers that the blood of these magic wielders can be used by just about anyone to manipulate their magic.
  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman: The system in this story dictates how powerful a character is in relation to exactly what they can do with that power. The stronger their magical ability, the more rules are applied as to how they can use it. As their knowledge and skill grow, their future becomes defined as their duties are mapped out along their path.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Here, there are four established rules the characters are forced to live by. It's a rigid system in which ability to bend is innate, enhanced skill is achieved only through training, each bender can manipulate just one of the four elements (except for the Avatar), and gestures based on Chinese martial arts guide how each character bends.

The soft magic system

With the soft magic system, on the other hand, there are few established limits and rules set up by the author that the reader isn't privy to. There is some talk among authors that the idea of a soft magic system is contradictory in and of itself, as the word "system" implies there are set rules and limitations, but these systems are present in a series of fan-favorite literary examples.

Soft magic system examples

  1. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin: In the Game of Thrones series, the reader isn't made aware of the magic's source or what its limitation are, given the different types of magic wielded by different characters. Though some believe magic is no longer present in the world, it's often referred to as "the higher mysteries," adding mystery to an already inexplicable force. Without a set of rigid rules, Martin had more literary freedom to work on his world's magic.
  2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: In this series, readers see Gandalf as the ultimate magical being, though it's not explicitly stated what he can and can't do, magically. Limits, if they exist at all, aren't made clear to the reader and there is no apparent formula that must be followed in order to complete a spell, as occurs in the Harry Potter universe.
  3. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling: While magic played a major role in worldbuilding, Rowling devoted more time to the story itself and less to fleshing out the intricate rules of her wizarding world. It's beneficial for readers who enjoy reading about soft magic systems to know that often the characters themselves don't fully understand their magic, so the author doesn't either.

Which type of magic system best suits your story?

Deciding on a system depends on your style as a writer. "Plotters," for example, prefer to map out their story from beginning to end, so a hard magic system with set rules might be more in line with their literary style.

"Pantsers," on the other hand, tend to favor the wing-it approach in their writing that leans more toward a soft magic system. If neither of these options sound appealing — and as there are no real rules in writing — it's possible to apply a healthy mix of each system.

Overall, if your protagonist will resort regularly to magic use in solving a problem, a hard magic system is likely right for you. Just make sure you've established this system to the point that your reader can follow the logic of how magic is used to solve that problem. If most of the problem-solving action of your story don't focus on magic, you should consider a soft magic system.

Establishing your story's magic system

Whether magic plays a pivotal or minor role in your fantasy story, it's best to establish early the system in place so you don't get lost along the way as you write. Now that you've decided on which magic system is right for your story, you should answer these four questions to flesh out your magical world.

1. How is magic used in your world?

A witch walks on the clouds with magic
Magic comes in all shape and sizes. It is up to you to define its usage. Image by Grandfailure.

The type of magic you decide on for your story is as important as how you have your characters wield it. Are you opting for the traditional system, with magic practiced by witches and wizards in pointed hats?

Or does your story feature just one gifted magical being, like a genie offering three wishes to the lucky lamp finder? Perhaps your protagonist can't point a wand but can influence some one of or all the elements? Decide how magic is summoned and how it manifests before directing your characters along their magical journey.

2. Who uses magic and who doesn't?

A boy flying in the sky with planes
Deciding who can wield magic and who is a "muggle" is the next important step to consider. Image by Grandfailure.

In some stories, there's one type of magic that's used by all characters; in others, there are various types of magic employed by a series of beings across the respective world. Whatever you choose is up to you, but it's essential to have most of your questions answered before you begin writing.

Who can use magic and who can't? Have your magic users inherited their abilities from birth or are they gifted them upon reaching a certain age? Is there a scholarly element in learning magic, or do your characters learn on the job?

3. What are the magical limitations and consequences?

A boy overuses magic and faces the consequences
Limitations and consequences to magic usage is key for great storytelling. Image by Grandfailure.

As mentioned, a death-defying and unyielding protagonist is dull and provides little conflict for your story. Limitations are key to creating a rounded, flawed character, so set some boundaries for their magical abilities.

Can their skills be used for a set time before fatigue kicks in and they become powerless? Perhaps to conjure something they want; they must sacrifice something of their own to ensure balance in their world? Maybe their magical skills can be taken from them by an enemy envious of their abilities?

4. When and how was magic created?

Gathering magical resources
Try to imagine the origin of magic within your world and how it is acquired. Image by Grandfailure.

Even if you choose not to include the source or timeline of your story's magic, as many authors do, it might be helpful to note it for yourself as you navigate your world's magic system. If you do want to share with the reader the source of all magic in your story, there are a series of questions you should answer: Was magic created or did it occur naturally? Has magic changed over time? How has magic affected your world's history?

Keep a record of your growing system

Whether you're going for a hard, soft, or hybrid magic system, it's best to know all the details, even if you don't plan on sharing everything with your reader. Creating a magic system is a tricky endeavor that can backfire if you get lost in the weight of detail.

Have on-hand a detailed map of your magic system and what it encompasses to refer to as you write, ensuring consistency in your storytelling and eliminating any continuity errors.

Header image by Nokhoog.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.