How Does Your Magic Work?

How does your magic work

A speculative element is what sets the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror apart from literary fiction. There's no element more speculative than magic, and it's become a common term of art to speak of an SFF universe's "magic system". By reader request, here is my philosophy of magic in genre fiction--with advice on how to handle magic in your secondary world.

Changing depictions of magic in SFF
Historically, there have been two general approaches to depicting magic in speculative fiction.
  1. The old-school way: Magic is mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.
  2. The new-school way: Magic works like a technology that we can systematize.
The first way can be seen in works as late as Tolkien and going back to the Matter of Britain and before. Tales like these make little if any effort to explain where magic comes from--other than perhaps hinting at divine (sacramentality; not magic) or infernal origins. Nor do they define any explicit limits on what magic can and can't do.

Wizards in these stories are almost never central protagonists. Instead they pop into the narrative at key times to aid and advise the main protagonist before exiting the stage for lengthy intervals. Think of Gandalf and Merlin, and you'll get the idea.

In terms of story mechanics, the reason why wizards like Gandalf and Merlin don't protag much  is due to the needs of dramatic tension. A well-made story should elicit suspense in the reader over how conflicts will be resolved. Being on the edge of your seat wondering how the hero will get out of this one is the main ingredient for good pacing.

The difficulty with old-school wizards in lead roles is that there's no inherent reason why they can't just magic themselves around obstacles. Sure, you can set limits on a wizard's magic to set up situations he can't just cast his way out of, but you've got to establish those limitations early on to avoid cheating the reader.

And if you do set limits on what magic can accomplish, guess what? You just systematized it a little.

That's why Tolkien's wizards are kind of old and new-school hybrids. Gandalf is a superhuman spirit, but he's explicitly forbidden from drawing upon his angelic power. Instead he's got to work with the skills available to his human form. That's a pretty big limitation!

New-school, aka Sandersonian magic
No, Brandon Sanderson didn't invent contemporary SFF magic. But he is the most prominent advocate for new-school, systematized magic, so I'm sticking with the "Sandersonian" description.

A better candidate for the father of new-school magic is the venerable Jack Vance (though yes, others did it before him, but again, he's more popular). 

If you've ever played D&D, you know how Vanceian magic systems work. Magic spells are 5th dimensional formulae of such complexity that a human mind can only hold a limited number of spells per day, and when the knowledge is actualized, i.e. a spell is cast, it's totally purged from the caster's mind. If a Vanceian wizard wants to cast that spell again, he has to memorize it all over again.

The upshot of this system is that it allowed Vance to use his transient amnesiac wizards as protagonists while maintaining dramatic tension. A Vanceian wizard can still use magic to escape from sticky situations--but not if he's used all of his daily spells or memorized the wrong ones.

Categories of Magic
I like to put the various types of magic systems into a few broad categories.

Actual Magic: the original meaning of the term "magic", using preternatural powers to achieve natural ends. In its archetypal form, magic means asking demons to do stuff for you with their superhuman powers. Old-school authors usually meant this when they wrote about magic.

Technology: this can be anything from Clarke's sufficiently advanced tech to methods of turning invisible or making things go boom that are otherwise indistinguishable from actual magic. The key difference is that the users aren't petitioning demons but manipulating "forces".

Here;'s the tech vs. magic litmus test: if your characters are channeling and shaping created or emergent energies, they're dealing with an esoteric technology; not real magic.

The vast majority of "magic systems" these days are actually cosmic force-driven technologies. The Force and Sanderson's allomancy are examples of technology-style magic systems.

Superpowers: this category is rather nebulous and tends to overlap with technology-based magic systems. I distinguish between the two as follows: technological magic is a skill that can be learned. Superpowers are abilities beyond the natural powers proper to humans which are intrinsic to a character.

Super strength, invulnerability, psychic mind-powers, super intelligence, unaided flight, eye lasers, etc.--all are commonly recognized as superpowers. But like I said, sometimes this category overlaps with technological magic systems, such as Star Wars characters who are born with Force-sensitivity (an innate superpower) that lets them learn Jedi skills (a technology).

Designing your own magic system
To design an original magic system for your book, ask yourself these questions:
  • How do I want the presence of magic to affect my story's mood and tone?
  • Will there be magic user-protagonists?
  • Is my cosmology purely material, or are there beings that transcend the natural?
  • In my world, is magic the result of a pact with preternatural entities, a skill which harnesses natural forces that anyone can learn, or innate to certain characters?
The answers to these questions, in light of the info we already covered above, should give you a basic starting point for setting up your own magic system--if you want a system at all.

It's also perfectly fine to have multiple magic systems. The Soul Cycle series features all three categories of magic, because I'm greedy that way.

Priests and Teth disciples deal with gods and demons.

Factors learn how to draw on cosmic prana energy to fashion Workings.

Nexists are born with the power to directly affect the world by will alone.

And because clearly delineating these systems would be too simple, there's considerable overlap between all of them.

Here's the takeaway: in magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader. Dramatic tension is a key ingredient of fun, so if you're going to put magic users in lead roles, make sure to give them obstacles they can't just magic their way out of. And if you're going to limit their magic, make sure you clearly lay out what magic can and can't do as early as possible.

I wouldn't ask you to do anything I'm not willing to do myself. See these principles in action in my award-winning Soul Cycle.

Nethereal - Brian Niemeier


  1. Do giant mecha count as magic? Maybe not, but they're certainly magical to me

    1. I suppose, if Newtype mecha pilots have superpowers, then at least some mecha series involve magic.

    2. The ones in the story I'm working on kind of do, actually

    3. They're a technology, but the same rule applies to both tech and magic: be consistent.

  2. What are your thoughts on settings and systems in which the protagonists are magic users and learning the ins-and-outs of the magic are a key component of the plot, but not ultimately the point of the story, in The Wheel of Time and The Earthsea Cycle?

    1. Wheel of Time seems like a pretty bad example, since the specifics of the magic system are literally required to resolve the conflict at the end (until the Next Turning of the Wheel, anyway...)!

      Spoilers, sort of?

      Of course, Jordan also spent about as much time discussing the intricacies of weaving water and air to make magic as he did about describing extended bathing scenes in his later books, so it was both necessary to the plot and a huge page chewer!

    2. I see your point, in part, but I would counter that while learning the magic system is integral to the plot, and to the motivation of many of the characters, Rand does ultimately learn that he can't save the world if he loses his own humanity along the way, while his channeller allies all generally have other reasons for seeking the power they attain.

    3. The magic shouldn't be the point. Magic is a world building element, not a plot.

      A plot is a character who wants something overcoming obstacles to attain it.

      You characters' ability to surmount obstacles with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

  3. Are you familiar with Gordon Dickson's "Dragon Knight" books? I'm fond of the "magic system" there which has elements of the "innate skill" but it's driven by intellect and actions, with a curious "Accounting Office" as an otherworldly neutral deity of sorts that places limits on magic usage, almost a bit like the "magic" of FullMetal Alchemist, with some sort of balance involved.

    ...so yeah, I'm a fan of "magic as technology as magic" because it seems like there's more to play with there. Deals with demons are certainly good for some stories, but they seem too capricious to me. I like the boundaries that allow for characters and readers to use logic to sort out the story universe.

    1. Haven't read them. As for magic system preferences, de gustibus ...

  4. See, here’s my problem with your assertion that “The ancients’ understanding of magic was that it’s a vague and impenetrable power and domain of Superhuman beings.”
    Wizards exist. And not just “people who pretend to be wizards”; they are as strongly attested in the Bible as demons and dragons (nowhere in the text is it claimed that Simon Magus or the Egyptian Priests are performing mere sleight-of-hand parlor tricks).
    And in every culture where magic-practitioners are documented: their practice is SO much more sophisticated then “babble incoherently and maybe something random will happen, also the guys doing it are probably fairies in disguise”.
    They have to carry out ridiculously complex chemistry and geometry formulas to get highly specific spell results, or else it won’t work. They have to study astrology to know when are where precisely to perform ceremonies for maximum effect. They speak a half-dozen old languages to evoke and command spirits.
    Magic was a science; perhaps the very first one, and in reach of any learned man, and this view was not the invention of post-Renaissance European aristocrats. The Chinese Taoist Priests where considered essential war assets, the Japanese Onmiyoji were their only defense against youkai, even the much derided Vodou have highly exact standards on which scents draw which ghosts and which songs hypnotize men to carry out which tasks.
    Medieval story tellers kept magic vague in their stories so their audience wouldn’t know what to do to recreate the practices of their pagan ancestors, and even then certain rituals were allowed/folded into Christian habits as a ward against evil. Tolkien himself said “There are spells to break enchantment as well as to conjure it, and we are still in need of the former.”

    1. Your point is objectively as wrong as a statement can be, and you evidently have no defense, counter, or rationale beyond “you just don’t get what I mean, man!”
      Look, if you hate magic being anything other than an unexplained Deus Ex Machina, more power to you and the Mundane Fiction types. Just stop pretending your tastes are grounded in premodern views and conventions.
      Your every opinion doesn’t need to be validated through making a connection back to Aristotle or whatever. Guys like you and Jeffro constantly trying to insist your way is and for decades has been the only right way only succeeds in making you look like insecure Control Freaks.

    2. Most magical practice historically was understood as a science by its practitioners, at least if we're talking about medieval and later self-professed magical practitioners. This would be roughly alike to the Chinese geomancer, and a subset of the idea that magic was science... because it was seen as an ordered and understandable part of the world. Whereas even when engaged with ritual and portent, many of the reigious and semi-religious magics practiced in Taoism were petitions of spirits, in the end, largely minor and ancestral spirits, IIRC.

      But I am a little confused as to how laying out a possible schema for understanding literary approaches to the arcane makes someone "an insecure control freak", whether they are right or wrong to begin with.

      I feel like there's another issue at stake here for you, and that I have not quite grasped it. Brian has quite a nimble mind and can discuss most things from a variety of perspectives, if persuaded that you are engaging in good faith. Why not try that? Or, otherwise, perhaps reveal a little more of the emotional core of your statement here?

    3. I have been lurking pulprev blogs for a long while now, and have repeatedly rankled at arguments and writing advice that I felt were selectively informed or presenting personal tastes as objective best practices. Brian just happened to hit my boiling over point, and it’s honestly not worth belaboring the point any further.

    4. Ah, I see, and thankyou. I prefer a presentation to be distinctly voiced, even to the point of being intractable. I honestly cannot say when I came to this preference, it was later in life, and it came with the idea that every argument must always be an opinion in any case. Before that I would say that particular style irritated me just as much as it does you, and then suddenly and I feel instantly, I saw it all slightly differently. In short, I sympathize.

    5. @Groffin

      Thank you for your Wall of Wisdom, O' Secret King

    6. There may be a distinction between magic as understood by the practitioners, and magic as understood by the writers of narratives. C.S. Lewis, who knew medieval and Renaissance literature very well indeed, makes the distinction between the magicians of the latter era, when we start seeing them 'come into the light' a bit more, and the magicians reported on by the medieval romances (see his comparison of Prospero vs. Merlin in That Hideous Strength).

  5. Would the creation of Sentinels (by injection if I recall correctly in XSeed fall under technological magic?

    1. Yes. And the precise mechanics of Sentinel powers are left vague in the Coalition Arc because they're primarily the domain of the baddies, and the protagonists don't use them to solve problems.

      All of that changes in XSeed: S.

  6. Fascinating. Thanks for a great post!

  7. Just started this book yesterday(on "recommendation" from this post), so far so good, looking forward to seeing how the magic system plays out.

  8. I always thought Tolkien's magic had a pretty solid system. It's not all spelled out in the books but it's possible to deduce a lot of the rules.

    But anyway, good insights!