How to Plan Your Novel’s Magic System by Rose Atkinson-Carter

If you’re hoping to write a fantasy novel that involves some kind of magic, you’ll benefit from a brainstorming session dedicated especially to the way magic operates in your fictional world. If you’re a pantser, you can always just leap into it, but you’re more likely to run into inconsistencies or questions you can’t answer as you write, so pausing to organize and flesh out your thoughts before you begin to write is a prudent measure, even if you like to take a more relaxed approach to outlining.

Before you set off, try to make the following three decisions:

1.   Establish what the magic needs to be able to do

For your story to be able to go where you want it to go, what kind of magic will be needed? Will your character need to learn to use their abilities in new ways, or pick up a brand new skill to accomplish their mission? Mentorship or learning arcs can be incredibly satisfying for readers — I could name a number of examples from popular culture, from Po in Kung Fu Panda learning to successfully harness the power of his chi to Korra in The Legend of Korra learning how to open a portal to the spirit world.

Your characters won’t have limitless powers, but before you tell their stories, you should be clear about where you want them to end up. If the only magic your book contains is a group of people with healing powers, their power can’t necessarily help them overthrow the government, so you’d have to reconsider either the kind of power they have, or their goal. In other words, beginning with a sense of your end goal can help you write a more clear-sighted first draft.

2.   Decide the rules, limits, and cost of this magic

At the same time, no story would ever be satisfying if characters could do anything with their magic, which is why most writers of fantasy novels create complex magic systems where the use of magic is limited in one way or another.

This can be a little frustrating if you were hoping to include all-powerful mages who wield the power to destroy entire worlds: I still remember my first encounter with Lord of the Rings, and the initial disappointment I felt when Gandalf was held captive on Saruman’s tower. I thought to myself, how is this awesome wizard not able to escape? But Gandalf is not Superman — which is crucial in the story, because in his absence, the hobbits must overcome obstacles by themselves, and meet another figure whose role will go on to be crucial. At the end of the day, Gandalf’s fallibility is instrumental to the reliability of the narrative. What would be the point if Gandalf was by the hobbits’ side throughout, sheltering them from every risk? That would be an incredibly low-stakes story premise.

For readers to want to find out what will happen to your characters, then, you’ll have to think of ways in which the reach of magic is limited. This can include:

  • Rules about the circumstances within which magic can be used, e.g. only on nights with a full moon; when the clock strikes midnight; when lightning strikes; in complete darkness; when specific stars align; when it hasn’t rained for thirteen days; when four mages from the four corners of the Earth are gathered in the same room.
  • Rules about who can practice magic, e.g. only those born with abilities; blood relatives of existing mages; anyone who’s touched the surface of the moon; children who haven’t yet turned eighteen; the chosen disciples of a Great Mage; those in possession of a special gemstone.
  • Rules limiting how much or how often magic can be used, e.g. once per day, or the magic may be paid for with blood or life energy, so that it can’t be abused.

In establishing this kind of limits to your magic, you’ll be setting up your own magic system, which is an incredibly fun aspect of building your fantasy world, and can immerse your reader by imbuing your writing with plausibility — after all, perfect worlds aren’t believable.

A favorite example of mine is Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle, where magic costs energy, so the protagonist can deposit energy in his sword gems, but when that runs out, risks dying if he uses more magic than the energy in his body can support. Now that is high stakes magic use!

3.   Consider the context of this magic

Now that you’ve got your key rules in place, it’s time to look beyond the plot points of your novel and out toward the universe in which your story is set.

If magic is central to your characters’ lives, that will have significant social implications on the way society operates and is organized. Do mages govern the world, or do they serve a complementary function? Are there warring factions? How did this civilization evolve — was magic always a part of it, or discovered at some point?

Alternatively, if magic is a secret skill in your world, think about how society would react to it if they knew about it. Would they embrace and celebrate witches, or persecute them as villains? Again, how did magic come about? Is all of it known, or are there ancient magic secrets no one must learn? Answering these questions can help you begin your draft with confidence, and will save you editing time later on. With a coherent magic system, you’ll be building on solid foundations. Good luck!


Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace and blog that helps authors with everything from finding online creative writing classes to hiring a ghostwriter. She has previously written for Chris the Story-Reading Ape, A Writer’s Path, Shortcuts for Writers, First Editing, and the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, among others. She lives in London. Reedsy’s Twitter at @ReedsyHQ