It’s a Kind of Magic is an ongoing blog series about how to create a realistic magic system for your fantasy novel. This first instalment asks the question: where does magic come from?
What’s the big deal about magic anyway?
Throw a stone in a fantasy novel and you’ll probably hit a wizard. If you don’t, you’ll probably hit a witch, goblin, faery or demon instead. That’s because magic is a beloved staple of fantasy fiction for writers and readers alike.
However, as popular as magic is, it’s also one of the hardest things for writers to get right. Readers are discerning; if your magic system doesn’t make sense, you’ve lost them.
You can’t ask questions, it’s magic. It doesn’t explain anything, it’s magic. You don’t know where it comes from, it’s magic! That’s what I don’t like about magic, it does everything by magic!Commander Vimes, Terry Pratchett’s Thud!
How can I get it right?
If you’re creating a magic system, you need to make sure it’s realistic within the confines of your novel. This means giving it rules and limits.
Think about your magic system. Can you answer the following questions?
- Where does the magic come from?
- Who can use it?
- Why can these people use it?
- How do these people use it?
- Who can’t use it?
- Why not?
- What can it be used for?
- What can’t it be used for?
And that’s just the tip of iceberg! Over the coming weeks, I’ll explore magic systems in greater depth but, for today, we’ll start with the basics.
Where does magic come from?
Different novels have different types of magic but, at the core of all of them, there are four basic source, or archetypes. These are: Elemental Magic, Blood Magic, Deity Magic and Scientific Magic.
Elemental magic comes from the natural world. It is a popular archetype because it finds its origins in real life, which means there is a wealth of material to plunder for inspiration.
Historically, ancient civilisations such as the Vikings and the Celts held a healthy respect for the four elements (Air, Earth, Water and Fire) as well as adhering to their own religions. In Europe, particularly, druids and other pagan clans–such as those who birthed the modern-day Wicca–paid homage to these powerful and unpredictable forces.
Even today, with whole countries held hostage to the unstoppable power of tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions and wildfire, it seems like being able to control these elements would be a very useful type of magic indeed.
Elemental magic and its uses
Over the centuries, people have attributed rules and traits to the four elements, which can be (loosely) explained by this short rhyme:
Air the Thought
Earth the Action
Water the Feeling
Fire the Passion
When writing about Elemental Magic, most authors draw parallels with Wicca and other Pagan beliefs about witchcraft and magic. Some even fold in beliefs held by Vikings, Celts and other ‘Old World’ groups, so there is a lot of potential source material out there to draw from.
If this is your kind of magic, it is always helpful to research these areas for inspiration. Obviously, when writing your book, you can change or add aspects of the lore to suit your purposes.
As each element is different, the magic that comes from them is used for different things.
Air magic is traditionally used for scholarly, mental or inventive pursuits. It can be used to focus the mind, which can lead to benefits such as deep meditation / trances (a form of recovery) or astral projection (the ability to travel on a different plane of existence whilst your body remains rooted to the earth).
However, as with all elemental magic, it can be used to attack and defend. Someone who had mastery of air magic could cause a hurricane, knock people over, stop fires from spreading (by creating a localised vacuum) or even suffocate someone without touching them. They could also move objects (a kind of telekinesis) and perhaps even fly.
Earth magic is traditionally associated with steadiness and growth. For example, a person with earth magic could use their powers to build (houses etc.), grow (forests, food, plants) or something else that is non-violent. Their connection to the earth could even be used as a source of physical or magical strength. Perhaps another character needs to cast a spell but isn’t strong enough to complete it by themselves–they might call upon the person with an earth affinity to lend them a stable source of strength that they can draw from.
Although generally considered a ‘positive’ element, Earth has a dark side too. If your villain has earth magic, for example, they could create earthquakes, kill crops, create chasms in the ground or bury whole cities alive. That said…
Elemental magic has the ability to affect a character’s personalities. For instance, characters who connect with the earth tend to be a steady influence on those around them. If your character has an affinity with an particular element, it might be worthwhile considering how this might affect them as a person. (See The 3 Pillars of Creating Characters for more details).
Water can be a more emotional element than the others. Traditionally, it is used to manipulate or, more commonly, heal other people, but it also has ties with premonitions and scrying.
Water has a long-standing relationship with life and death. For instance, human adults are about 60% water and if we don’t drink enough, we can grow ill and die of dehydration. Water also has ties with life-giving (e.g. a pregnant woman’s ‘waters’ break when they give birth) and with life events. For example, Christian babies are baptised with holy water and Hindus believe that bathing in the River Ganges will wash away sins and facilitates Moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death).
Likewise, a character who has an affinity for water magic could gain strength from the element. They could breathe under water, swim incredibly fast or perhaps even heal their wounds by bathing.
However, of all the elements, water is the most changeable, which makes it an unpredictable magic. Those with an affinity for water magic could flood cities, create typhoons or whirlpools (underrated ability) or summon a rainstorm.
Fire magic is traditionally more aggressive and destructive, used for offensive actions like battle and, interestingly, for tainting other magics to the wielder’s will. For instance, combining Fire magic with Air magic could be a recipe for mind control.
However, that doesn’t mean that a wielder of fire magic has to be evil. Fire also has the ability to warm those who are cold, to give light in the dark, and to dry out someone who has, perhaps, been unexpectedly soaked a rainstorm. As it is a passionate element, they may also be able to affect someone’s desires (especially if combined with water magic).
Those who have fire magic could also, in theory have the ability to create lightning. This is more likely if they also have dominion over all elements (water and air to create storms, earth to ground themselves) but it is definitely something to consider.
“The Fifth Element”
Some traditions include a fifth element in the group. This is usually referred to as ‘Spirit’.
Whilst the other four elements deal with things we can experience day-to-day, ‘Spirit’ tends to refer to something more intangible. This means that, really, ‘Spirit’ magic can be really anything you want it to be as long as it directly relates to the laws on nature.
This could mean that ‘Spirit’ magic gives you the ability to communicate with nature (like talking to plants, perhaps) or, if you decide to go down a darker path, breaking the laws of nature, like resurrecting dead bodies or the spirits of the deceased (also known as Necromancy).
Who can use Elemental Magic?
Humans as magical conduits
Humans can use elemental magic if they are somehow connected to nature. This can be a learned ability or an inherent one. In fiction, humans who can manipulate elements for their own ends do so as a form of witchcraft. In your novel, you could call it something different. Perhaps magic wielders are mages instead of witches, or have a special group name.
There is one drawback to Elemental Magic.
As Elemental Magic is drawn from the elements, it cannot be used to complete a magical task that does not have ties with nature. For instance, the magic of Harry Potter is not Elemental Magic (it’s Blood Magic, which we will come to in a moment). This is because Harry and co. do not draw magic from elements but from themselves.
So, if you have chosen Elemental Magic as your source, be mindful of the limits that it might have.
Magic from ‘Elementals’ (link with Deity Magic)
Other people who can use elemental magic may be ‘Elementals’ themselves. In mythology, these are creatures like faeries (or, more broadly, The Fae), nymphs, naiads, mermaids… anyone whose genetic make-up makes them a part of nature instead of someone who merely interacts with it.
Their limits will entirely depend on what kind of creature they are. For instance, a Russian Leshy will have earth magic and be unable to control any of the other elements. However, a naiad (a Greek water nymph) will only have dominion over water and would probably be rather useless on land.
What’s interesting about Elementals as characters is that they may, depending on your novel’s mythology, have links with deity magic as well. Traditionally, Greek Elementals are the daughters and granddaughters of gods, for example, and this inherited divinity may have an influence on their ability to wield magic.
Example of Elemental Magic in fiction:
- A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
- The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
- Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
Blood magic has a terrible reputation because most people think it’s all about sacrifices. Now, although sacrifices will be a small part of this magic source, it isn’t what I generally mean by ‘blood magic’.
Blood magic is any magic that comes from a living being, without any interference from deities, elements or science. For instance, the Harry Potter books are an example of blood magic because every wand-waver in the story is born magical and, as evidenced by the existence of Squibs, cannot learn magic if they do not possess that genetic ability.
This type of magic tends to be inherited (i.e. passed on through bloodlines). The strength of the bloodline could potentially affect the strength of the magic.
This type of magic isn’t limited to human beings. It can include animals as well, which leaves the door open for Zoolingualism (the ability for humans and animals to talk to each other).
Animals may have their own magic but they could also utilise the magic of humans if they forge a connection with them. For example, in Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series, the character of FitzChivalry Farseer can communicate with animals. He has an ability called The Wit, which enables him to not only talk to animals but to bond with their thoughts and emotions as well.
As a more religious and cultural example, Native Americans hold animals sacred and develop affinities with them in the form of totems (protective emblems). My knowledge of Native American folklore is limited but, if this is a tradition you would like to draw from for your novels, I would recommend in-depth and sensitive research into the subject matter before proceeding.
As mentioned before, blood magic can come from humans who are naturally imbued or gifted with magic. This can be anything from witches or wizards, to people who have inherited a specific ability like telepathy. To use another Robin Hobb example, some characters within the Realm of the Elderlings can use a magic called The Skill. This gives them the ability to communicate with other people who have the Skill, no matter how far away they are or, sometimes, even if they’ve never met before.
In V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, the character Kell is naturally gifted with magic. He is an Antari; someone who has the ability to control many different types of magic. Other mages in his world are usually only limited to one or two elements but, because of the condition of his birth, he can manipulate all four (plus a bit extra on the side).
Human magic also has ties with superpowers and comic books. Scarlet Witch, for example, is a mutant (see Scientific Magic) but her abilities manifest much like witchcraft.
Due to the unique nature of humans, blood magic is a far more malleable and ‘user-friendly’ type of magic for writers. It can basically do anything you want it to do. However, it is important to note that humans, regardless of magical ability, do have their limits. If you’re using blood magic in your novel, it is important to know what these limits are and to adhere to them.
Sacrificial magic doesn’t necessarily mean an Aztec priest slicing open your character’s heart with a stone knife. The power of sacrificial magic can come from two places: the power of the blood itself (see the next section) or the reason for the sacrifice.
At the risk of talking too much about Harry Potter in this section, the series gives two excellent examples of blood magic related sacrifices. The first is Lily Potter. She sacrifices herself to save her son because she loves him. She allows herself to be killed because they are blood-bonded as mother and son, and she wishes him to survive at all costs. The power of this self-sacrifice nearly destroyed Voldemort and gave her son protection for many years to come.
The second example is when Harry sacrifices himself in the last book, essentially cleansing his blood of Voldemort’s Horcrux so he can save his friends and defeat the Dark Lord for good.
This kind of sacrificial magic has strong ties with the Messiah trope, and Christianity (see Deity Magic). Harry, in his form as the Chosen One, sacrifices himself for the good of others, like the story of Jesus’s Crucifixion. This is a common thread for a lot of fiction works (Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is another example) and is a powerful storytelling trope as well.
Blood as a magical fluid
Blood is seen as a powerful substance because, like the element of water, it is associated with life and death. Although the traditional view of blood magic results in death, it doesn’t have to. Blood magic isn’t necessarily about the amount of blood spilled; it’s more about the power of the blood that is. After all, why waste a human life when you can cast magic spells just as efficiently with a drop or two?
Several fictional works use the substance itself as a conduit for magic.
Vampires, for example, drink blood to stay alive. They also can use it to keep humans and victims in their thrall, and spread their vampirism (arguably a form of magic) to other people.
This idea is not limited to vampires, either. Voldemort drank the blood of a unicorn to keep death at bay as well. Later, when Wormtail resurrects him properly, he uses Harry’s blood to create a new body–one that is protected by the same sacrificial magic as Harry himself. The legend surrounding the historical figure Elizabeth Bathory claims that she used to bath in the blood of virgins to retain her youth. If you’re exploring the ‘darker’ side of blood magic in your novel, try to think of the different properties the liquid may offer.
An example of Blood Magic in fiction:
- The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling.
- The Realm of the Elderlings Series by Robin Hobb
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
Deity magic refers to any kind of magic that is used or granted by a god or a goddess. This can extend to creatures of a religious nature, such as angels. This kind of magic can be great fun because it’s basically unlimited. As gods and goddesses are essentially creators of worlds, reality can be anything they deem possible.
However, as with all sources of magic, it works better if there are rules and limits to this. So, in a polytheistic world, it might be better for the gods and goddesses to ‘stay in their lane’, so to speak. For instance, in Greek mythology, all gods and goddesses had the ability to control certain things about life. Demeter controlled the seasons and the crops; Apollo was in charge of the sun; Artemis was the huntress and goddess of the moon; Dionysus just liked to get drunk and have a good time. They each had their own special abilities and could grant abilities or wishes to their human devotees.
Magic granted by deities
In the same way modern religions pray to their deities, any fictional religion can have people asking for boons or favours from their deities. It is up to you to decide who has their prayers answers–and how.
An example of this can be found in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series. The novels surround a hidden society called Shadowhunters, who fight and kill demonic creatures in a bid to protect humanity. Their origin story tells of a man called Jonathan Shadowhunter who begged a boon from an angel: he wanted the ability to be able to fight and kill the demons that were threatening the world. As his motivation was pure, the angel granted him special abilities, such as enhanced speed and strength, and the ability to manipulate reality through the medium of magic runes drawn onto his skin.
I will talk about fantasy religions in another blog post but, if your world already has a religion, think about how praying to those deities could affect your characters. For example, if you had a trickster god (akin to Hermes or Loki), would your characters be wise to pray to them? What kind of favour would they be granted?
Magic used by deities
Of course, magic can be used by deities themselves. More commonly referred to as divine power instead of magic, it is nonetheless a manipulation of reality using super-natural means.
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a great example of deity magic. It centres around the Norse religion, with characters like Odin and Loki affecting the world around them in small but significant ways. The important thing to note is that these gods are not all-powerful. Their magic is directly related to why they were worshipped when they were at full strength–and their powers wane when people no longer worship them. Their source of power comes from people believing in them, which gives their magic a limit.
Another way that you could introduce magic into your world is through your characters being partly divine themselves. For example, Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon, which means that he manipulate water and draw strength from it; his special abilities have a direct link to the god he is associated with. This means that his magic is a mix of blood magic, elemental magic and deity magic. Other members of Camp Halfblood have different abilities because they are born from (and worship) different deities.
However, as with all things, there are positive and negative traits to the divine. Where there are angels there are also demons, which ties in nicely with prayer-answering / wish-granting theme of deity magic.
In pre-Islamic Arabian mythology, Jinn are spirits who can assume different forms. In more recent traditions, they also have the ability to grant wishes. However, in true cautionary tale style, these granted wishes can have a negative, dangerous and often deadly side. This is a trope also enjoyed by Christianity-based fiction, with the Devil acting in place of the Jinn and answering prayers in a way that make the character wish they’d never said anything at all.
Examples of Deity Magic in fiction
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- The Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan
- The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare
Scientific magic is anything that has close links with science or could cross over with Science Fiction. Examples of this in practice would range from the historical art of alchemy (most famously turning base metals into gold), or gene mutation, as found in the X-Men universe or Vicious by V.E. Schwab.
Potions, Lotions and Alchemy
At its heart, scientific magic is just science. It’s trying new things in order to achieve something that has not been done before. Centuries ago, women were burned and drowned as witches because they knew how to brew effective herbal remedies for colds, stomach bugs and headaches.
This type of hedgewitchery has strong ties with elemental magic; it uses materials from the natural world to achieve a specific end. Nowadays, we recognise the effective potions and lotions for what they are: medicine. This means they now fall firmly in the ‘science’ category rather than the ‘magic’ category, but there were many eras in which these two things overlapped. This is because we now understand why mint tea settles your digestive system, or drinking milk can help with acid reflux. Once we know how it’s done, it stops being magic.
However, there is a point at which science turns into magic again, and that is when the effect of these experiments achieves something unnatural, such as turning someone invisible or–like the Philosopher’s Stone (a result of alchemy)–grants them the ability to cheat death.
Some forms of scientific magic achieve the impossible and therefore break the laws of nature. The best example of this comes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which a scientist brings a sentient being to life. This is a form of necromancy, which goes against the fundamental laws of life and death. Victor Frankenstein essentially ‘plays God’ and–having no inherent divinity, such as a son of Hades might–has stepped out of his acceptable realm of influence. He, like his Creature, has become something new.
In a similar way, the main characters of V.E. Schwab’s book Vicious (and its sequel, Vengeful) become something new when they play around with science. Eli Ever and Victor Vale start out as humans and, through their own scientific experiments, become something other than human (EOs; ExtraOrdinary). They are granted powers after this shift of being; Eli has regeneration powers and Victor has the ability to control pain. These are both types of magic (something other than basic human abilities) but they come from a scientific source.
The difference between ‘Mad Science’ and ‘Mutant Magic’ comes from the origin of the character’s magical powers. If a human character becomes superhuman through external means (nuclear explosion; lab experiments; radioactive spider) then the powers they are granted change them into something or someone else.
However, if the character was born with abilities on a genetic level (even if their parents were not) then they are mutants. This is a scientific form of blood magic, and enjoys all the pros and cons of that type.
One thing I hope has become clear in this article is that, even though there are four basic sources of magic in fiction, they can be mixed together in more than one way. This means that the possibilities are endless for worldbuilding with magic–as long as the resulting magic system adheres to the rules that inspired it.
Examples of Scientific Magic in fiction:
- The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- The Alchemist by Lovecraft
Bonus: “Untamed Magic”
There are some books don’t have obvious magic systems, just magic. This might mean that there are magical objects within the novel but that no one seems to control them, or that the magic exists within people isn’t fully explained within the novel.
Some could claim that this is lazy worldbuilding. I prefer to argue that the author of these books probably does have a system in their minds, but it has never become necessary to reveal it in detail.
- Exposition sucks
- Word counts are limited.
Fantasy books tend to be on the thicker side to allow for worldbuilding, but no publisher will touch a 700,000-word debut novel. They’ll ask you to cut it down, so you need to balance the detail without disturbing the integrity of the story.
So, how do I create a slimline magic system without being accused of lazy writing?
- Always make sure your magic system makes sense to you.
- Include any rules or constraints that directly affect your plot or the characters within the novel.
- Always, always, be consistent.
That way, you don’t need to include every detail about how your magic system works or why it exists. If what you choose to include is relevant and consistent, your readers will have a sense of the deeper rules and constraints that exist within your novel. They’ll also be able to fill in any gaps!
So, where does magic come from in your fantasy novel? Have you added or changed anything about the archetype to make it unique? Comment below!