Fantasy World-Building: Magic Systems

One task a fantasy writer faces during the process of world-building for his world is developing a coherent magic system. I use ‘coherent’ with a grain of salt, for what is magic but something that doesn’t exist in our own world that does not follow the normal rules of logic and science. Still, most fantasy writers today would argue that a good fantasy magic system is one that follows its  own inherent and consistent set of rules, much like science does. In a way, a fantasy writer’s magic system is his or her own “parallel science.” The purpose of any magic, be it a spell or potion or something altogether different, is to accomplish some end more quickly and efficiently than normal means allow. In that regard, it is similar in function to technology. Indeed, I believe it was Arthur C. Clarke who said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Why is this so? What is the connection between the two? Basically, both provide either a shortcut for a mundane effect or, even more intriguing, the only possible means for something more spectacular. You wish to dig a hole? Technology gives you a shovel and then later a shovel truck (if that’s what it’s called—can’t seem to recall a more technical name); magic gives you a snap of the fingers and the deed is done. Magic also allows other feats, some of which might be deemed impossible—at least, as far as our current level of technology allows. Teleportation, demonic summoning, fireball … all these are outside the normal scope of the mundane. Actually, a fireball could be managed with technology, and teleportation is, I think, currently being studied and developed, but demonic summoning, at least, is not on the radar anytime soon (we’d need proof of demons first).


Basically, current thinking is that the best magic systems are those that adhere to and follow rules. That way, they don’t provide an “easy fix” if the writer happens to write himself into a corner. If the magic system is clearly delineated, he can’t just summon up some random spell to get his character out of a fix. The magic system will not allow that if it has rules and, most importantly, limitations. That said, I’m not sure I agree. Some days I do. But some days I feel very contrarian: who are we to say that some enterprising author cannot develop a magic system that defies easy encapsulation? Perhaps, it embodies pure randomness or is the “system without a system” or something else equally provocative and mysterious. I leave to some enterprising writer to buck the trend and do so.

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