Are Magic Systems a Distraction?

spell compendiumA fellow writer shared his dilemma with me.  He and his partner were starting a new project, and had invested much time in developing a magic system.  He had shared it with me before, and I was intrigued by their original spin on magic and spell-casting.

But then something happened.  While flipping through the channels, they came across a television series in which characters were using magic.  And to my friend’s horror, they were using virtually the same magic system that he had just spent months developing.

Understandably, this felt like a major setback.  But was it?

Why Fantasy Writers Love Magic Systems

When my friend shared his frustration, it felt like deja vu.  I had been there before. In fact, many fantasy writers have.  Coming up with a truly original idea for a magic system is a tough order to fill.  The odds are against us.  On some level, we innately know this.  So why do we spend so much time trying?

The answer is obvious.  Fantasy writers are geeks, and geeks love detailed systems.  This is coded into our DNA.  And for most of us, this love is further nurtured through countless hours with the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age.  For many geeks the pinnacle of perfection is D&D 3.5, a system so intricate that it can take years to master.

But the cold, cruel reality is that – in most cases – magic systems don’t even matter.

Is a Magic System a Necessity?

Some of the greatest fantasy novels don’t have defined magic systems.  Neither Harry Potter nor The Lord of the Rings have anything resembling a “system,” yet these stories are classics of the genre.  In fact, one could even argue that the lack of a system makes these stories feel even more magical.

Conversely, when a story features a magic system, the results aren’t always positive.  A complicated system (which is what geeks love) can actually erect a barrier between the reader and the story.  It takes some work to learn the intricacies of a system, and this can put off many potential readers.

At the same time, developing a magic system can be a huge distraction for the author.  Sometimes we run the risk of getting so caught up in world building that we lose focus of what really matters: crafting an engaging story.  I personally have used world building as an excuse to delay the actual work of writing.

Moreover, the lack of a system can actually be a plus.  The presence of magic in any world should be a source of mystery and awe.  When laid out as a system, the magic can appear less than magical.  In my experience as a reader, a mysterious, undefined power can be far more effective than an intricate, defined system.

It’s the Story that Counts

Yet there are novels that use magic systems adeptly, and enrich the story in the process.  A recent example would be The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, which I regard as a modern classic.  Rothfuss presents a system that is beautiful in its simplicity, and serves to move the story forward.

That, perhaps, is the lesson to take away from this.  It’s the story that captures the reader, more so than any world that we build.  If a magic system serves the story, it can add to the work as a whole.  But often it becomes a distraction, for both the reader and the author.

What do you think?  In your experience as a reader, does the inclusion of a magic system really make a difference?

Antonio del Drago is a writer, philosopher and professor. His latest book, The Mythic Guide to Characters: Writing Characters Who Enchant and Inspire, is now available.

24 Responses to Are Magic Systems a Distraction?

  1. Star Wars IV-VI, the Force was cool and mysterious enough for me to believe in. Phantom Menance–Mitichlorieiens = The Force…just dumb. Leave the system simple with multiple possibilities of why it exists.

  2. Great article, and it’s something I’ve thought for a while. The fact is, if you have a burning consept in the back of your mind that’s so good, you have to write a book around it, then go for it. I did it with one of my favorite stories. However, if you just push the point that too many spells will kill the caster, and leave it at that, it will be a lot more entertaining and avoid broken spellcasters.     I guess, it would kind of be like everyone being the ‘chosen one’ if they wanted to be. It has to just happen.

  3. This is definently a big issue, but also a highly personal one.  I almost always find the world and the issues about it more entertaining than the story; I’m the type of person who doesn’t care about the Emperor taking over the Galaxy and instituting a Monarchial Theocracy.  I wonder what the logicstics behind running such an empire primarily relying on a conventional army to keep itself together would be like; I don’t care that Sith can shoot lghtning from their fingers, I wonder why only the Sith do it; certainly some Jedi who find themselves fighting often would use it, if only to take care of a droid or two.

    Yes, I’m aware that SW is nominally SF, but its a setting difference away from fantasy; scale it down to a planet and make it medieval europe (ish), you got yourself a fantasy with barely any plot change.

    For LOTR, I don’t care that Sauron needs his ring back; I wonder why, since it has been established that a Morgul-blade will turn people into somewhat weaker Ringwraiths, why Sauron didn’t start making them enmasse to get a corp of a thousand or so Ringwraiths under his command; they would be able to find his ring within a few weeks since he wanted it back so much, not to mention that the sight of them would be terrifying on the battlefield..  Was there a logistical problem?  Could only a few exist at a time?  A resource problem?  Was this guy who had planned for millenia really that stupid?

    Obviously, this love for the world over the story extends to the magic system; is it a plot device which bad writers use to solve all problems and a plot device which good writers use only to solve a few problems and make everything else worse?  Is it rather an element of the world, independent of the story?  How does it work?  Why does it work?  Is it based on words, actions, runes, items, will, intellect, sacrifice, service, favour of gods demons and devils, all of the above or mix and match?  Is it a part of nature or is it against nature?  Is the scientific method applicable to it, or does it defy logic?  Is it in between? 

  4.  I think any world which includes magic needs at least ground rules and boundaries, if not a whole system. This prevents the author from pulling some bit of magic out of his butt and doing something random that shouldn’t make sense but unfortunately does, like killing the main character then magicking him back to life despite no one ever having been resurrected before. It’s really more of a verbal contract between the author and reader not to deus ex machina too much, I guess.

  5. As with most of the other posters, I think it totally depends on whether it will help move the story along or if it will stop it in its tracks.  Some systems, while good, can end up taking over a story that would have otherwise been excellent.  In my own work, I never really developed a “system” but I knew what it would take to work magic, hinder magic and what would happen if that magic were in the wrong hands.  I like the idea of going back and adding elements of the system in after the story is written – and since I’m in the re-write stage, perhaps I’ll test it! 

    • Hey Lela,

      Thanks for the comment.  I’m also inclined to try adding in elements of a “system” once the story is written.  Do let us know how it works out with your novel.

  6. I like the Lovecraftian approach. Magic and the occult are bad ju-ju and you’ll probably end up a gilled hybrid freak in Portmouth or lurking the graveyards of Arkham like a ghoul if you mess with it. Alan Moore’s original Johnny Constantine aka “The Hellblazer” is also a good take on magic and modern sorcerers. Even old kung fu movies which have magical or supernatural elements can be interesting. When writing supernatural, it’s more important, in my opinion, to create atmosphere and be enigmatic with the details. That fires the geeks more than detail. Of course, as the writer, I’ll work it out (eventually) you’ll want to know how this works, but I’ll never tell… 😛

  7. By the way, as an RPG system for magic, I thought Mage: The Ascension was a brilliant way to have a freeform system with strictures involved that made sense in a “modern” setting. I wish I had thought of that.

  8. I’m an economics nerd and the problem I ponder with magic in general is that it very easily removes the element of scarcity. Being able to conjure things, heal wounds (as was mentioned) or doing other feats would radically change the behaviors and motivations of people in such a setting. So to me a system of some sort is a necessity to avoid these sorts of problems. I don’t overthink it though. I think the somewhat cliched idea of sacrificing something (opportunity cost!) in order to work magic is a good means to reintroduce scarcity. After all, magic would be treated with much greater respect if it aged you prematurely when you worked it, or it corrupted your soul, or required pain or death to properly work. And as a fan of the works and ideas of Crowley, I tend to keep magic in the domain of all those things; the idea that tampering with metaphysical forces can expose you to unforeseen consequences, so choose well what you are going to use it for.

  9. An interesting article indeed. Thank you for pointing it out.
    Is an elaborate magic system necessary?
    In your article, you mention two famous fantasy works that don’t use one, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Having read both I think that for a story like Lord of the Rings, the approach on magic was perfectly appropriate. The main characters didn’t use it themselves and gazed at it with wonder, the same way magic is used in many real-world myths Lord of the Rings was modelled after.
    In the case of Harry Potter however a more consistent magic system could have made the story even better. I know, opinions on the last Harry Potter book vary, I’m among those rather disappointed with it. The main reason for this is, that I feel JKR didn’t use the potential created in earlier books but brought in lot’s of new stuff out of the blue. This applies not only but very strongly to the magical rules. Having the resolution of the story depend on a bunch of new Wand rules that don’t seem to make much sense when applied to earlier books wasn’t a good idea in my opinion. If JKR had created a magic system before starting to write she could have introduced everything important early enough and have kept it more consistent.

    In general I think a writer should know how magic works in his world if magic is supposed to play an important role in the story. He should know what the characters can and cannot do under which circumstances and keep to that through the whole story.
    There’s no need however, to put all of background into the actual story, but a reader who gives it as much thought as I and so many others have given to Harry Potter should be able to figure it out and see that it makes sense.

    But to answer the initial question. Are magic systems a distraction?
    In my opinion writing fantasy is not about getting a story on paper as quickly as possible. To get back to Lord of Rings. Without all the world-building-effort Tolkien has put into it, it would never have been such a good story.
    I have decided to use chemical elemental magic in my story because I like the idea, not because I wanted to do something unique. The fact that this has rarely been done before, I only know about one other work so far, makes it even more important for me to know how it works, why it works the way it does and especially what it feels like and how it affects the characters. With more popular approaches to magic there might not be a need for so much of this because the author as well as the potential readers already have seen it and know the terms expected to describe it. For me, it’s very important to decide how to let the reader know the impact of a certain situation and feel it.
    A reader knows what a vampire biting a woman means without the author telling him beforehand. A chlorine magician interacting with a sodium magician? The reader doesn’t even know if he’s supposed to be scared for her or happy for her.

    Universal fears are always good to determine dark or evil magic. A necromancer summoning a dead spirit to attack the main character? (Almost) everyone would be horrified at the prospect. Here I have the universal fear of poison on my side, but if nothing of that sort makes your dark magic obviously scary, you have to offer good explanations within your story to make it so. You have to show the consequences of the magic and why they are so horrible.
    And honestly, having your hero use the evil, unforgivable magic for no good reason and with no consequences whatsoever won’t help you achieve this goal even if you want to show that “he isn’t a saint”.

    So, I hope no one minds the long post.


    • Hi Amanita,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

      You do raise a good point about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Some of the magic used in the final book did appear, well, arbitrary. It very well may have been better if she built upon the magic used in the previous installments. In fact, because Harry Potter himself was learning magic in a systematic way, it may have made sense to present a more coherent magic system.

  10. “Personally, my interest in Tolkien has always been 80% world-building/history and 20% “story”.… I was endlessly fascinated by all the background information and spent far more time thinking about it… than the narrative itself.”

    Bang on, Steve-O. I’ve re-read the chapter “The Council of Elrond” more often than any other part of LotR, probably more than any other three chapters combined. There are times I’ll get the book out just to go over that chapter again.

    But, yes, there isn’t anything even remotely resembling a “system” in Tolkien; magic remains, well, “magical,” and you’re never quite sure what it can do. Sometimes I find this a flaw in these books, because I do find myself asking things like “Why didn’t Saruman just blow the ents to kingdom come?” The questions even become overt from time to time, such as when it’s asked at the council if the Ring couldn’t be hidden in Rivendell, or with Tom Bombadil… the answers given, while plausible, aren’t so convincing that even all of the characters in the book accept them, and they certainly aren’t given any technical explication. That did not prevent the books from being immensely enjoyable; if the reader is satisfied with the answer—or that there at least is an answer that those in the know are satisfied with—then it should not present a problem.

  11. Heh. D&D 3.5 takes years to master? Try Hero System.

    Seriously… I’ve seen a couple of good “systems” in fiction (Roger Zelazny’s Changeling and its sequel Madwand come to mind). But for the most part it does seem that attempts to explicitly describe magic in systematic fashion for the reader tend to bog down under their own weight. This doesn’t mean the *author* shouldn’t have a systematic knowledge of the magic appearing in the story. He should always know whether or not a thing is possible; if it is, he should know who can do it and under what conditions—and under what conditions something normally possible might fail; if not, he should know why not. This keeps the magic consistent and thus credible. If, on the other hand, you have a character who habitually and casually hurls pyrotechnics about a battlefield, but who still uses flint and steel to start a campfire, you will need to be able to explain why… and will probably be hard-pressed to do so. I’m not saying the writer needs to, or even ought to be able to, crunch numbers about “mana” or what have you… only that magic have rational and predictable limits that the author can appeal to in any situation where one might plausibly ask “Why didn’t So-And-So use magic to get himself out of that?”

    Just to take Kev’s comment as an example: perhaps the reason people don’t use magic to heal is because they don’t understand what goes on in a body that’s healing itself—and as a result, what they’re really doing is accelerating the body’s healing mechanisms. If the wound has been treated properly first, this might work… but a broken bone heals in its current configuration, whether it’s been set and splinted or not; an infected cut might heal over, sealing the infection in rather than allowing it to drain. Diseases might be treatable if the caster has some idea as to their real nature (he doesn’t need to know what a virus is: that it comes from an outside source and affects the body in certain ways might be adequate); if he believes that they’re caused by imbalances in the humours, or are the results of magical curses—or divine retribution—there isn’t a chance in the world he’s going to get it right, except perhaps occasionally by accident. Probably his batting average will be far below a mundane apothecary’s in such a case. I’ve seen this taken to the opposite extreme—where even death is routinely “cured,” and most of the main characters have died at least once; there were nonetheless numerous well-known ways to make death permanent, and it worked in the setting. All depends on what you want.

    • Hey Derek,

      I totally agree that it is necessary to keep “magic consistent and thus credible.” And as you point out, it is very possible to do this without using an elaborate system.

      I’m not familiar with the Hero System. What makes it more difficult to master than D&D 3.5?

  12. Hey Steve-o!

    Your point about Tolkien definitely has truth to it. One of the greatest aspects of both the Hobbit & LOTR is Middle Earth itself. I can see why some people would find the world more interesting than the story, although I don’t fall into that camp.

    On a related note, one of the reasons that the Lord of the Rings Movies worked so well was that they captured Middle Earth almost perfectly. A number of changes were made to the story, but Middle Earth itself was presented almost exactly as it was in the book. And that fact alone made up for other shortcomings in the films.

  13. “It’s the story that captures the reader, more so than any world that we build.”

    That may be true more often than not, but, it’s not universal. Personally, my interest in Tolkien has always been 80% world-building/history and 20% “story”. Even my first time through Lord of the Rings in high school, I was endlessly fascinated by all the background information and spent far more time thinking about it (and reading about it in various companion books) than the narrative itself.

    A beautiful magic system could definitely capture some readers’ interest and draw them into a story in a way that the story might not.

    I would agree, though, that world-building can only get you so far if you don’t pair it with a good story.


  14. Ah yes…I feel a strong personal connection to this article, largely because my dilemma is so wonderfully splayed out in its introduction. That being said, I don’t have some comments to contribute from a gamer/writer perspective…

    Why spend so much time on a magic system? Well, there are several possible reasons. Having been an avid D&D player for most of my life, having a system is something that I feel may simplify things in the long run, although initially making them much more complicated. This is especially true in a high-magic setting…if a good number of people are using magic, then I feel there should be some ground rules. After all, as cited by Kj, if you can heal wounds at any time, what’s the point? Laying down some basic rules helps eliminate this possibility, or at least make it extremely rare. In D&D, this is done via possibly lengthy casting times and limits on accessibility per day. In other systems, using certain types of magic have much more tangible consequences, such as taking the pain of another’s wounds into the caster (i.e., the use of healing magic in the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind).

    I can see where creating a world could substantially detract from the possibility of writing interesting characters and plots. My problem as an author is that, if I create a world to write in, I plan on revisiting that world in the future. Very few things for me are a “one and done” idea. I understand not all authors may feel this way, especially considering that many works of what are considered classic literature fall into this category; I am simply not built that way.

    All of that being said, half the fun of making a system is finding a way to break it. Just because a system is established doesn’t mean all characters must fit the mold. This is where you have the potential to mold truly unique characters with interesting abilities, which can be used as a source of conflict for characters within the confines of the existing system. I believe that every author/gamemaster uses this at some point in time or another to mess with the establishment, usually to interesting and spectacular results.

    My last comment on this topic: why create a system? Merchandising, of course! This is possibly the furthest issue removed from world creation, but consider all the possibilities of what your work of prose may become: a video game, a board game, a collectable card game for that matter. With all of the options out there, many avenues exist which can spread the work of your world building even further. This comment is half made in jest, but truly, the existence of a system makes the possiblility of these other avenues of revenue much more possible.

    • Hey Wrrohk!

      I was hoping that this article would get your attention. 🙂

      You make several important points. I especially agree that “if a good number of people are using magic, then I feel there should be some ground rules.”

      What happens, though, if there are no ground rules? Does the story suffer as a result?

      • Well, Antonio…

        “What happens, though, if there are no ground rules? Does the story suffer as a result?”

        I would say that no, if the narrative is constructed tightly enough, then having no ground rules does not, in and of itself, cause the story to suffer. However, I think it can make some things more difficult as an author. Not knowing the difference between what an experienced user and a newly-recruited apprentice can do could cause some problems if not addressed at some point in time. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean that a magic system must be fully mapped out (such as in D&D, or video games such as Dragon Age), you have to have some idea what people are capable of. It is possible, however, to go back and edit some of these things in after the narrative has been constructed. If character development, plot, and action are your primary concerns, just mark where people are using magic, and adjust the story as necessary *as an afterthought.* That way, you are initially focused on creating a great story, and can make alterations to your “system” as need dictates.

      • Hey Wrrork,

        You make some excellent points.

        First, I agree with your assertion that having no ground rules makes it more difficult for the author. The rules need not be flushed out, but simply having a basic structure be of some help.

        Secondly, I like your idea of writing the story first, and then working out magic as an afterthought. For writers who tend to get sidetracked with systems (such as myself), this could work beautifully.

  15. Thank you for the kind words.

    Yes, LOST is a prime example of great characterization making a ridiculously implausible scenario seem real. That show kept many of us hooked for years because we became emotionally invested in the characters. I’m glad that you brought this up, as I currently have an article on LOST in the works.

  16. Completely agree with your opinion on “The Name of the Wind”. A wonderful story, and it’s magical simplicity is something to be marvelled at.

    I personally do not enjoy magic on a high level, and a story with an intricate detailed map of details on said magic is not worth my time. I always consider magic in this way, “Well if you can always heal wounds, then there is no real danger”. Biased? Shoot me; it’s a pet-peeve lasting many years.

    Loved the article, Antonio. I think a lot of emerging writers can take away from this and understand that story comes before magic, and characters come before story. If you have believable characters, it can create any story, no matter how outrages, be enjoyable and seem plausible—see “LOST” for a perfect example. It’s all well and good to have a deep mythology, but without well-developed characters and a story to follow, it is nothing but a compilation of quasi-useful factoids.


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