What Makes an Intriguing System of Magic?


July 23, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about systems of magic in the various fantasy genres. I find it intriguing how different writers approach magic and how that impacts the stories they tell.

wizardharry_largeWhat I find most interesting is that magic is almost universally treated as an inherent ability. The characters who do magic in any story must be born with the ability, making them “special” humans or part of a specific race that has magic as part of their racial heritage. Magic is almost never something anyone can do so long as they have the desire to learn.

While it might be interesting to debate why this is and what that says about us as a literary culture, let’s skip that for now and meander over to another topic: What makes an intriguing magical system in fantasy fiction?

Definitions and Limitations of Magic

If I could just find the right books, I’d be the most awesome witch ever!

I firmly believe that the definitions and limitations of magic in any novel or series is the key to capturing the reader and holding on to their interest. If the reader is not given a firm understanding as to what magic can and can’t do, or more specifically what a character can and can’t do, there is a very distinct possibility that they will end up feeling cheated or tricked at some point in the story and you will lose them.

Let’s take Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example. For a fantasy trilogy, magic plays a remarkably small role in the books. Sure, you have the One Ring- a magical artifact of immense power, swords imbued with elven magic that can detect the presence of orcs, and even wizards engaging of battles of will. The only character of the fellowship that can do magic is Gandalf and even though he seems to be powerful, he hardly ever uses his skills. This means that the reader never knows the extent of his capabilities. Is it any wonder then, that so many fans felt immensely cheated when the eagles swoop in to rescue Sam and Frodo from the imploding Mount Doom after they destroyed the Ring?

Meet Douchebag Gandalf

“What the hell?!? Do you mean to tell me you made Sam and Frodo wander all over hell and creation facing countless dangers and imminent death for years, when the Eagles could have just flown the poor bastards over Mount Doom and let Frodo drop the ring into the lava from the get go? Dude, that is soooo not cool. You tricked me. Gandalf tricked me. I hate both of you right now.”

To be fair, it wouldn’t have been much of a story if they had just used the eagles to start with. Those of us who really want to give Tolkien the benefit of a doubt have offered up a number of explanations for why it still makes sense. Possibly my favorite is that Gandalf and his wizard kin are angels and they are allowed to guide and advise other characters, thus manipulating world events to their ends but that there is a limit to how much they can interfere. A much simpler explanation would be that Sauron’s magic prevented the eagles from flying to Mount Doom until after both he and the ring were destroyed.

The LotR Effect

The trick here is that Tolkien doesn’t explicitly offer either of these explanations nor any other. There’s part of me that is content to draw my own conclusions about the why and to assume that Tolkien had good reasons for why it was possible at the end of the story but not at the beginning. Unfortunately, there’s an equal part of me that thinks it’s the Marianas Trench of plot holes and that it’s entirely possible Tolkien either knew he was cheating and didn’t care or, worse, never noticed it.

Since we, as readers, don’t know, we’re left to draw our own conclusions. Since the definition and limitations of magic are never described, we can only guess.

As writers, I think we should use Tolkien as a cautionary tale and think long and hard about outlining the definitions and limitations of magic in our fantasy series.

In modern fantasy, the most common way of doing this is creating beings gifted with very specific skills. A character might be able to summon demons to do their bidding or banish them and that’s it. A character might be able to make themselves invisible or blend in with shadows. A character might be able to set things on fire, bend water to their will, teleport themselves small distances, read minds, change into animals, call animals to their bidding, levitate objects, and, well, you get the idea. But whatever their ability, that’s the one they get and that’s all they get. It’s as inherent and intrinsic to their being as drinking blood is to a vampire or getting fanged and furry is to a werewolf under the full moon. It has easily definable limits that the reader can pick up on immediately.

Also note the obvious similarities to mutants in X-Men where none of those abilities are defined as magic.


Not that I would discount any fantasy series using this sort of magical system, however I have found myself much more intrigued by fantasy series where authors have created complex systems of magic that are less arcane and esoteric and where the writer gradually explains the details and inner workings of their version of magic making it almost a scholarly or scientific pursuit.

Over the next few days I’ll be posting articles on my favorite systems of literary magic; how they work, why they’re awesome, what they do for the reader, and what we can learn from them as writers. So stay tuned!

What’s your favorite system of fantasy magic? Tell us why in the comments section!

11 thoughts on “What Makes an Intriguing System of Magic?

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    First off, on the subject of riding eagles:


  2. MishaBurnett says:

    Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, to your serious questions. I have always been a little bit unhappy with the idea that some people are just inherently able to do magic and others aren’t.

    I can see why some people would be naturally talented in magic, or in a particular type of it, just as some people have a native talent for music or mathematics, but it seems to me that if the natural laws permit spellcasting then anyone who follows the instructions should be able to achieve the same result, just as sodium will react with water whether the person who dumps one into the other has a PhD in chemistry or not.

    The best explanation of magical talent that I have read is in Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series. He posits that what separates wizards from ordinary folk is that wizards can directly perceive the forces that they are manipulating–any one can potentially follow a written spell, but a non-wizard casting is like a tone deaf person playing the piano by memorizing a series of keys to press.

  3. I love magic in the Harry Potter universe because of its various manifestations and a wizard’s ability to say, become a potions specialist if he so desires

  4. Erica Dakin says:

    I rather like the Source in Wheel of Time, where some people will manifest the power to use it regardless (and possibly go mad if they’re not found in time) and others can learn how to use it or might never find out that they can. Either way it’s still an inherent ability though.
    My friend Hillary’s magic system comprises both. Mentalism is an inherent trait, all other magic is manipulation of energy and can be learned by anyone willing to put in the time. It’s all very well thought out. Her blog is over on http://warofmemory.wordpress.com/ if anyone’s interested.

  5. Vagrance says:

    Where science cannot go, magic shall have its place. – Tokiomi Tohsaka

    Well, the quote is but a rough translation but I think that’s how many perceive magic, something that is secretive, or better yet, something you had to be born with.

    I much prefer the concept of magic being treated as a “science”. Just like physics, chemistry and biology, people research and teach it. This gives authors the ability to explore the social impact that magic has, delve into the different philosophies and distinguish one interpretation from another.

  6. nikihawkes says:

    I love this post! What a great exploration of magic systems and why they do and don’t work in books. It definitely gives me tips on how to go forward creating my own magic system. I look forward to the next ones.
    As a side note, I really like the eagles reference from Lord of the Rings – my husband absolutely hates this plot hole and complains about it constantly. I’ll be sure to tell him he’s not alone. 😉

  7. Christopher says:

    For LotR: I was always under the impression that the eagles flying in, or armies charging the gate would have alerted Sauron to the plan. Especially since Mt. Doom was right in the center. The precise reason that Gandalf chose Hobbits was that everyone overlooked and underestimated them, even Sauron. I dunno, just my $.02 on that part.
    As for magic systems, I always sort of felt like the default of making people born with it and people without was to clearly separate the story version of the world from our version. It subtly indicates to the reader that “This book isn’t about how you can do magic, it’s about how these people do it.” It separates a work of fiction from those pseudo-fiction books trying to teach people how to do magic(not speaking about religions or philosophies that believe in magic, but the frauds who try to capitalize on our desire for there to be something more out there).
    Then again, the easiest way to give someone special powers in a story is to say “They were born with it.”

  8. L. Marie says:

    I thought the magic system in Mercedes Lackey’s/James Mallory’s Obsidian Trilogy was very well thought out. They explained the costs of magic, which often were QUITE high, which made for great conflicts. And of course Harry Potter’s magic system is great. I’m not a fan of all-powerful characters who never seem to run out of magic and whose physical endurance never flags.

  9. I think the issue of the eagles is more a failing on the part of the movie than Tolkien.
    Tolkien did know what he was doing. He coined the term “eucatastrophe,” and considered sudden endowments of unexpected grace to be a very major part of any effective mythology. In the book, the eagles aren’t beasts of burden to be harnessed and ridden, but a separate race with their own wellbeing to consider– a lot like Treebeard and the Ents, who needed a major push before they could be convinced to act.
    In the films, however, the lack of background information regarding the eagles makes their arrival seem less like a eucatastrophe and more like a deus ex machina.

    Taken from Wikipedia:

    ” “Eucatastrophe” is often confused with deus ex machina, in that they both serve to save the protagonist. The key difference is that the eucatastrophe fits within the established framework of the story, whereas the deus ex machina, the “God from the machine”, suddenly and inexplicably introduces a character, force, or event that has no pre-existing narrative reference.
    In Tolkien’s epic novel The Lord of the Rings, while some of the events may seem unlikely or even impossible, they still remain consistent with the overall story. The One Ring holds almost all of Sauron’s power and his entire life force. If the ring is destroyed, so is Sauron. His destruction will also bring about the destruction of his stronghold, which is only held together by his power. This will in turn panic his followers, who flee or are killed in the ensuing destruction. It is a sudden, massive change that totally alters the landscape of what happened previously in the story, yet, unlike a deus ex machina, is completely consistent with the theme and story. The destruction of the One Ring event is a definitive resolution but not an incongruous one or illogical in terms of the story and setting. The protagonists are depicted as being aware from the start that destroying the ring will have such world-changing effects, and as such its destruction is the primary focus of the story. ”

    I love nerdy conversations. Great post, Kira!

  10. […] your hero’s opposition and get ideas for the conflict you need. She continues with “What makes an intriguing magical system in fantasy fiction?” and how magic is introduced into a storyline and what will grab your reader’s […]

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