World Building Magic


Last week, we kicked off our World-Building series with 2 Essential World Building Questions. Perhaps you’ve decided that one aspect of your world is that it includes magic in one form or another. In today’s post, world building magic, we’ll help you get started with a cohesive magic system.

What is magic?

First of all, what is magic? The Oxford Dictionary defines magic as “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

Fair enough. takes it another step further, defining magic as “the ability to do things which the natural laws of this universe say are impossible.”

Me? I like to keep my options open, but I think that the meaning of magic can also be stretched to include forces governed by natural laws that we don’t yet understand – i.e., very advanced technology. Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


CERN has famously been able to teleport atoms from one place to another. Sounds pretty magical to me. Even the technology that is common place today would seem like witchcraft in the 1300’s. If you somehow time-traveled back to medieval France and got caught snap-chatting a selfie of yourself, you’d find yourself strapped to a pile of burning logs before you could stutter out ‘Steve Jobes.”

So if magic and technology might be the same thing, is there a difference between the two? Well, yes – if the natural laws that make the act possible are commonly known of, or commonly used, then it’s technology. But if those laws are generally mysterious, it’s magic.

Malinda Lo’s 5 questions for world building magic

In her popular blog post, 5 Foundations of World Building, Malinda Lo lists 6 questions you should ask yourself while designing your world’s magic (She gives credit to Spiderwick Chronicles author Holly Black).

I think these questions are great. Your world’s magic needs to take on a particular form; it can’t just be an open-ended thing where you can use it to do whatever, whenever to get your characters out of a jam. This is the most important facet of world building magic: your magic needs to have rules to follow, otherwise what is really at stake in your story, if your characters can just take the ‘magic way’ out?

Who has it?

What does it do?

How do you make it happen?

How is user affected?

How is world affected?

How are magic users grouped and perceived?


Magic Must Have a Cost

In my opinion, the most important thing about designing your magic system is that your magic must have a cost. Pay especially close attention to the fourth and fifth questions above – How using magic affects the user and the world.

While reading the Harry Potter books, one of the things that always confused me was why the characters didn’t use magic all the time. Any wizard with a wand can kill another wizard with just a flick of a wrist and a couple words, but Mrs. Weasley still physically cooks food (albeit with a little magical help) rather than just making it appear out of nowhere. Beside the fact that J.K. Rowling thought it would be cool to have potatoes being chopped midair, why is this? Why do wizards choose to walk rather than apparate everywhere, even when they’re not accompanied by younger wizards?

The cost of using magic (whether it be exhaustion, limited magic supply, etc.) has to be greater or at least equal to not using it. Otherwise there would be no reason for your characters not to use it all the time.

That’s it for today. Hope you found this post on world building magic useful. We’ll be continuing our series on world building next Friday. If you haven’t yet, read last week’s post, 2 Essential World Building Questions for more information on world building.

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H. Duke
H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

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