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Creating Magic Systems - Guest Post by Claerie Kavanaugh

Swap-It-Saturday is coming kind of later in the month this time, as today is the last Saturday of July. But now it's here, so hooray! Today I have Claerie Kavanaugh on the blog, talking about how to create magic systems! She has some really great tips on both structuring and executing a great magic system, so read on and enjoy! Make sure to come over and visit me on Claerie's blog here. I am discussing 4 functions of a scene, and how your writing might suffer without them. Alright, take it away, Claerie!


Hi guys, I’m Claerie! Caitlin has generously offered to let me take over her blog for the day to discuss magic systems! So, let’s get into it!

When I first started world-building for my book, one of the most prominent elements for me was the magic system and how I wanted it to work. I had no idea how to acurately create a comprehensive system at the time; I’d tried once before and failed miserably at it. That’s when I started looking toward writing blogs and writer’s Youtube channels for advice. I found my basic structure from this video by Jenna Moreci, and have since added elements of my own as I went along. I like to work from the broadest strokes down to the more intricate details, but there are eight essential elements every magic system must have. They answer the Who, What, When, and How, of magic in your universe. From most to least important (in my opinion):

  1. Powers

  2. Limits

  3. Training

  4. Transferring of Powers

  5. Effects on the Non-Magical

  6. Vocabulary

  7. Feelings

  8. History

Even if all of the details of those elements don’t make it onto the pages, this is good information to have in the back of your mind as the author. Why? Well, let’s break each section down, and find out.


Magic is a broad term. If you say “my world has magic” and don't establish rules for the types of powers used, you'll only end up with chaos. Is your magic elemental based, like Avatar? Is it centered around a more scientific approach, such as telepathy or telekinesis? Is it more of a wizard-like craft that requires spells? Does it allow people to turn invisible, talk to animals, or travel through time? What can those with powers do? This is the most important thing to decide because it determines what parts of their world those with magic can and cannot affect. Which brings us to...


Just as what goes up must come down, all magic should have a price and or tasks it cannot do. Maybe your story has different kinds of telekinetics: some can only move objects while others have the power to move people. Maybe the older and/or more experienced the telekinetics are, the bigger objects they can move, or the farther they can carry people. Both of those things are limits because they confine their powers based on category and experience. Why is this important? Because it has a good deal of potential to increase tension within a story. An experienced telekinetic that moves people could easily take out a group of guards if they were surrounded. But what about a younger, less experienced telekinetic? What if the telekinetic surrounded by guards only has the power to move objects? In both cases, these characters would have to look for a more interesting and complicated way to get out of their conflict, raising the tension and letting the author show that magic cannot fix everything.


Now you know what your world's magic can and cannot do, so it's time to figure out how the magic works. This is a super important step that I almost skipped in my own writing. This is the time where you determine how your hero goes from a naïve magic user to one who understands their powers enough to use them effectively in the final challenge. Maybe if your main character is a telekinetic that can move humans, they have to train by lifting weights. Maybe they can't move a human who is heavier than they can lift. Or maybe the person has to willingly let themselves be moved, so therefore the hero has to train in ways to gain trust quickly. Coming up with a method of training is similar to coming up with limitation for the magic but it's just as important. No one wants to see a hero who goes from struggling to come to terms with their powers to being an expert in two scenes. If you let the hero struggle, it will be that much more gratifying to the reader when they finally master the task in front of them. The hero will also hopefully have grown and changed during their training to become a little closer to the person they need to be to face the final challenge at the end of the book.


These kind of go hand-in-hand in my opinion. It's important to figure out if there's any way to transfer magic from one person to another or not because that will determine how the magic population grows. Is it a birthright where a magic user must be born into a bloodline? Can magic be passed down by a ceremony? If not, there is a higher risk of the magic population dwindling, and if it can, there is a greater risk of mortals finding out magic exists. Both of these things create opportunities for more tension and plot lines within the novel. Likewise, whether magic works differently on mortals, and the possible ways that the magical race keeps they’re lives separate, or even deciding that magic is a common enough occurrence that no one has to hide will all affect the society of your book and the way your characters act because of it.


Even in this post I’ll bet it is getting tiresome to read “telekinetics who can move people” and “telekinetics who can move objects.” Vocabulary is important because it allows the writer to say the same thing in a more succinct way, making the world-building easier for the reader to follow. And it’s not as hard to come up with as you might think. You can take an existing word from English and capitalize it to give it new meaning, you can change the spelling of the word by blending it with a another language or moving around letters so that it looks or sounds different and distinctive, or you can create entirely new words. The important thing is to make them stand out so they are easy to identify.


Feelings are important because they help the reader visualize how the magic is performed. Maybe a telekinetic has to mimic the motion of lifting someone when they are trying to pick up a person, but if they move objects, they simply have to imagine it in its new place. These attributes are simple, but they also help the reader feel more grounded in the magic system, because it’s easy to picture and therefore understand.

And finally...


How your magic came to be will almost never end up in your book, but the backstory is good to know because it has the opportunity to heighten your conflict even further. Take Voldemort in Harry Potter. We know that he became a dark wizard and split his soul because of his upbringing, and learning how Horcruxes were created helped Harry and his friends defeat him.

I know that was a lot of information, but I hope it was helpful to you. Thanks again to the lovely Caitlin for letting me take over her blog for the day. Share what magical power you would chose to have in the comments! Be sure to check out Caitlin’s guest post on my blog here! As always, keep making magic, word weavers!


Claerie Kavanaugh is currently drafting a YA Historical Fantasy novel loosely inspired by The Nutcracker. She also does freelance editing and is currently running a free trial of her services here. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for the latest updates.

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