Keeping it Fresh Part 2: Urban Fantasy Magic


June 28, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

In recent posts I’ve mentioned my concern about how many novels in the Urban Fantasy genre are starting to feel stale because so many authors use the same elements as their peers. Not that there’s inherently anything wrong with using traditional elements of a genre, but I’d like to challenge us to think about what ways we can make our own writing unique and different. Yesterday we discussed setting and today we’re talking Magic.

Source: Google Images

Source: Google Images

What’s your system of Magic?

How you use magic in a fictional cosmology can have a huge impact on a novel. Having attempted to develop three different systems of magic myself, my gut instinct says many writers stick to vampires and werewolves in Urban and Modern Fantasy because it’s much easier to define the rules and parameters for their magic because they are magic rather than using it and if they do have “powers” they tend to be limited to super strength, healing, speed, mind control, and telepathy. Once you start adding casters to the mix, things get complicated.

Traditional fantasy writers seem much more likely to go all out and develop new systems of magic. Now, that might in large part be because readers and publishers of fantasy tend to expect longer novels where the intricacies of a magic system can be fully explained. Urban fantasy novels tend to be shorter in length where there’s not as much opportunity to describe a new system of magic.

That doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse not to make our systems of magic unique.

For starters, with self-publishing we’re not as limited by traditionally expected word count for novels in a given genre. Secondly, any unique take on magic will catch the reader’s attention and make them want to know and understand more.

Three Ways to Personalize a System of Magic

1. Create something entirely new- Think about the pure wonder you have as a reader when reading about something you’ve never ever seen before. Think about the mark Brandon Sanderson left on the fantasy genre with his system of Allomancy in the Mistborn Trilogy. Could you do something similar in Urban Fantasy?

Carolyn Crane did. In her Disillusionists Trilogy, she created an entirely new sort of magic user: the Disillusionist. They don’t have wands or spells or rituals, they simply use their own psychoses as weapons. They think crazy unhappy thoughts and then push them into their target, transferring their hypochondria, apathy, or depression onto that person and then using that to neutralize or manipulate them. This system of magic isn’t complex, but it’s absolutely unique. And uniquely memorable because every Disillusionist is a highly flawed character because of their disorders.

In addition to the Mistborn and Disillusionists series, I highly recommend Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer Trilogy for inspiration on highly unique systems of magic.

2. Go deeper- Alright, so your story has witches. But what does it really mean to be a witch in your series? How does the magic work? It’s one thing to have a witch lighting candles with a thought, deflecting bullets with a magical shield, or placing a curse on someone, and it’s something entirely different to explain how it works.


Here, you’re taking advantage of your reader’s natural curiosity and desire to understand. Explain why a witch could light a candle but not cause an entire building to go up in flames. Explain how your witch can conjure something from nothing or if she can’t, why. Explain why some spells can be cast with a thought and others need ritual or magical objects. Explain the metaphysics behind your system of magic throughout the story. And don’t neglect the consequences and risks of using magic.

3. Twist the traditional- There’s probably innumerable ways to interpret this option and I’d list possibilities but I might want those ideas for my own writing. Instead, lets look at a published example.

Take Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series with a main character that is a witch. Harrison borrows much from traditional thought on witchcraft: use of power circles, herbs, candles, potions, charms, and ley lines of power. So her books trigger a certain familiarity in the reader. Then she twists it. You can’t just cast a sleep spell on someone, you have to hit them with the sleeping potion. Enter the splat gun, which is just a paint gun with pellets containing the sleep potion. There are plenty of other examples in the books, but I’ll leave that for you to explore on your own.

Again, what I’m getting at here is the Devil’s in the Details. Resist the urge to shortchange your reader or yourself by explaining everything as, “Hey, it’s magic!”


I won’t go into how to create a fully fleshed-out system of magic, because… hey, there’s Google! Here’s a few of my fave links on the subject:

I once had a link to a Worksheet for creating a system of magic, but it must have gotten lost when my desktop got fried. If anyone has a recommended link, please share with the group!

What is your favorite system of magic and what books have you read that offer something unique?

13 thoughts on “Keeping it Fresh Part 2: Urban Fantasy Magic

  1. kokkieh says:

    This list of fantasy world-building questions is quite helpful as well.  I’ve also found The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans very valuable.  He gives some good pointers which come down to what you already said:  details.  And along with that, consistency.  You can’t go changing your system of magic halfway through the story.

    For my fantasy novel I’m writing a set of “histories” on the different races and the magic each possesses.  They don’t actually form part of the novel (though I’d like it if they can be included as appendices) so I’m planning to post them on my blog as I finish them.

    • I think it’s definitely a good idea to write and maintain documents on the magic systems you’re using. I have one for each “race” of supernatural beings I’m using in my novels. I also think it’s a fun idea to post them on the blog as a reference for readers, but I won’t be doing it. I’d have to redact too much to keep from spoiling the plot that they’d end up looking like “declassified” CIA files.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    Fritz Leiber’s “Conjure Wife” (1943) is one of the first Urban Fantasy novels ever written, and the spellcasting system that he posited was fascinating because he used contemporary items for the spells–the only one I can remember off the top of my head was a new phonograph needle that had only played “Night On Bald Mountain”. If you haven’t read it, you should see if you can locate it (probably out of print, alas, but it may be available through a library.)

    Tim Powers also makes his magic seem very real and very practical–I would recommend “Last Call” particularly for Urban Magic. “On Stranger Tides” is historical (It was sold to Disney as the basis on the last “Pirates Of The Caribbean” movie, but the film is nothing like the book) but also uses very practical magic. In that book he theorizes that mages use the iron from their blood to cast spells, and so they become anemic over time, which puts a definite limit on how much magic a person can cast.

    In the world I created for my novels, my “magic” system is based on pseudoscientific theories (a hobby of mine) most notably Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Theory and Carl Jung’s theory of Synchronicity.

    • Good news! There is a Kindle edition of the “Conjure Wife” available on Amazon! So, I’ve put both books on my to read list.

      I really enjoy magic systems where magic intertwines with science or pseudo-science. The inherently speculative nature of it is so fascinating. I know there was at least one book in the last year I read that posited that dark matter was magic and damned if I can’t remember anything else about it, but that one part stuck with me because it was such an intriguing idea.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I think the idea of dark matter/dark energy as the source of magic was used in Kendra Highley’s “Matt Archer” series. And “Conjure Wife” is on Kindle? Sweet!

  3. Vagrance says:

    I generally divide up the “systems” into two broad category. One that is shared by everybody and is commonly used in the world, the other being that of the kind that is kept a secret. This has profound effects on how the author develops the power.

    Personally, I don’t think powers in an Urban Fantasy are fundamentally different from that of traditional fantasies. Well-written, they’re both equally fascinating.

    • Very true. Another way to segregate it is magic that anyone (or at least an mage) can theoretically do versus abilities only certain people have, whether by virtue of their race or bloodline. For what I’m currently working on, I call the two categories Inherent and Ritual. Inherent magical abilities are those the character has by virtue of the bloodline and are fueled by the character’s own internal power (mana for you gamers out there) and ritual magic requires harnessing external sources of power, and thus ritual props.

  4. Creating some new elements helps authors distinguish their work from what’s already out there. Thank you for sharing some tips for how to do this. 🙂

    I’m a physicist who reads fantasy, so naturally I’m always contemplating the “rules” of the magic. One thing that’s important to analytical readers like myself is this: There can’t be a way to use the “rules” to accomplish tasks far simpler than what the characters are doing. I don’t want to be wondering, “Why doesn’t he just…”

    • That’s a point I hadn’t considered, but it’s a good one. The possible exception is where a character is showing off with their magic by deliberately doing something the hard way, but unless you point out that’s what they’re doing and whether it’s to impress or intimidate, it loses all value.

  5. L. Marie says:

    I started paying attention to magic systems, because Holly Black gave a lecture on magic systems at my grad school. She discused her Curse Workers series and how she developed her system. I then read The Obsidian Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. They continually refer to the costs of magic. The Obsidian Trilogy, however, is probably more traditional in the approach to magic, since items like keystones are used. But at least the rules of magic are discussed.

  6. There’s a series that I find appropriate to this: the Chronicles of Chaos by John C. Wright. I don’t know if it can be called Urban Fantasy because while it’s in modern times, the characters are almost completely isolated from the normal world. What it deals in brilliantly are the magical paradigms of the five main characters, all of whom have different and sometimes directly conflicting powers because of what they are. I dislike a lot of the subtext of the books, but the way Wright details the paradigm-conflicts is just…inspiring.

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