Magic System or Just Magic?

Choosing the right form of magic for your novel

The debate is not new, and I’m not looking to reignite it, or even consider it a debate. Both are legitimate approaches to writing magic. But selecting how magic works in your story should be a deliberate choice not a subconscious default.

Magic in fantasy often comes through detailed written rules and conjured through incantation or ritual, like recipes in a cookbook. Complex rules contained within arcane spell books have appeared in the most popular fantasy novels—think Harry Potter. But many novels use muted, less defined magic. The works of Guy Gavriel Kay come to mind as does Tolkien’s. Patricia McKillip often uses what you might call natural magic where the magic is not conjured but simply exists in the world and inside its inhabitants. No one knows the full capabilities or limitations of the magic.

Which Form of Magic is Best?

Which should you choose for your novel? Or should you do a mixture? Like all things in writing, the answer is, it depends.

Many authors choose whichever form they prefer as a reader. If your readers share your tastes, this may be an acceptable choice. Just know that readers who don’t share your taste may be less interested in your books.

An alternative is to write to your expected reader’s preferences or the sub-genre’s accepted tropes. Literary and Low Fantasy often use subtle or natural magic. Epic and High Fantasy lean toward complex magic systems. Going against tropes and expectations might also limit your readers. You might see where I’m heading with this.

You Can’t Please Everyone

If your personal preference turns some readers off and breaking a sub-genre expectation also turns away a portion of the audience, what should you do?

There’s a third option. Each story has a type organic to it. Perhaps your epic fantasy world has magic living in the trees. This could be a case where going against typical epic tropes might serve the story better. Rather than a complicated codex of spells for tree magic, allowing the characters in the story (along with the readers) to discover what the magic is and can do, may make a more satisfying story but still within an epic setting. After all, the goal is to write an immersive, complete, and satisfying story.

To make these choices, the author must know their story deeply. Take time to examine your world and how it works. Understand how your characters connect to the world and each other. Once you have a deep understanding of magic’s relationship and role in your world, the form of magic that fits your story best is the one you should use.

Even if what fits the story goes against sub-genre expectations, if the story is strong and the magic works on a level that connects characters to their situation and each other, readers will be less likely to care about the magic’s form. They will enjoy a deeply imagined story because you made a deliberate choice in presenting magic that was organic and unique to the story.

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