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?