Well, last week Neal started the series on historical systems of magic that I promised a while back, and to compliment him in that I want to write a couple of posts concerning how to start building a system of magic for your fantasy world. If you read a lot of fantasy (and if you’re bothering to read this blog I pretty much assume that either you do, or you have at some point in the past), then you’ve probably noticed that every author has his own take on the way magic works. So, before we do anything else, the first rule in creating a magical system is the same as the first rule in creating a fantasy world: do what you want, just make sure it works. That being said, there are a few thoughts that will help you make sure that you’re creating a magical system that works.
First of all, every magical system has rules. Sometimes these rules are extremely (extremely) complicated, and sometimes they’re fairly simple, but just like physics or chemistry, magic always has rules. Just like chemistry or math, those rules are based on fundamental truths. If 2+2 doesn’t equal 4, then you’re calculus equations won’t work out the way they should, even though 2+2=4 is one of the most simply mathematical equations. So, the first thing to do when creating a magical system is to figure out what those principles are. Many authors use the classical elements from Greek culture: earth, water, fire, and air, as the basis of their magical system. Others use the classical Chinese or Japanese elements: water, earth, wood, metal, and fire; and wind, water, earth, fire, and void (spirit, nothingness, etc) respectively. Some of the more complicated authors (such as Steven Erikson) use the fact that history gives us many, many magical systems to create many complicated systems of magic in their own worlds (often vying for followers or authority). Other authors (such as Brandon Sanderson) start from scratch to create their own magical systems (while I’m not a fan of the Mistborn series, the Allomancy that Sanderson created for this world is intriguing).
As another example, I’m currently working on the magical systems for my new Kalagrosh world, and I really wanted to do something that I’d never done before. So, while I’m far from finished with the system, I have some of the basics. So far, the fundamental forces that magic manipulates are Being, Heat, Force, Psyche, Truth, Void, Earth, Vapor, Gravity, and Soul. Each of these is intended to represent a very broad force that different magicians manipulate in different ways. So, magicians working with healing magic, death magic, shape-changing magic, etc would all be drawing on the power of Being. Similarly, soothsayers, illusionists, and diviners all draw on the power of Truth. Some magical techniques also draw on multiple powers at once, for instance an evil magician may draw on the powers of Being and Soul using binding techniques to bind another person’s ‘self’ to his own ‘self’ and sap his life force, though in doing so he would also sap his victims mind and soul as well, which could lead to complications, unless he learns to manipulate the power of Psyche and also finds somewhere to put the mind and soul of his victim (Earth, Void, or Being magics can all serve for this).
Along with fundamental forces you need to figure out how people manipulate those forces. For instance, Ursula Le Guin used true names as the manner in which mages manipulated the forces of her world. Sanderson requires his Allomancers to consume the metal which allows them to manipulate a particular force. In Kalagrosh there are many ways of manipulating the fundamental forces of the cosmos such as Binding, Drawing, Iconography, Naming, or Knowing (actually, to go along with Neal’s posts on Philosophy in Fiction, the technique of Knowing draws heavily on Kantian epistemology) among others. Each of these techniques is used by different magicians in different ways, and some allow a greater degree of manipulation than others. For instance, Drawing is a primitive technique in which the magician essentially rips apart the fabric of the cosmos and hopes that doing so does what he wants. It is extremely dangerous for the caster, the world, and pretty much everyone around him. The more the caster tries to do with this power, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. On the other hand Naming is a much more advanced form of the technique in which the caster uses his body and a powerful name to filter the force that he draws, thus making it safer for everyone involved.
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