Magic Systems and Other Worldbuilding Problems

I love writing fantasy, and I absolutely adore world-building. It’s the reason why I love to read fantasy and sci-fi. It’s the reason I’m obsessed with open world video games. I love being able to explore new and unusual worlds. I’m intensely curious and it feeds my curiosity in a way other stories just can’t.

I’ve suffered the dreaded world builder’s disease and I have notebooks full of notes about strange and fantastical worlds, so I’m no stranger to world-building and how intense and in-depth you can be.

And yet…magic systems continue to frustrate me.

I’m not sure if it’s because we have nothing in the real world for me to relate it to, or because it has such an impact on the plot and what the characters are capable of, but it is something I consistently struggle with for every story I write.

I mentioned before that I was writing a short story, and I’ve lamented on Instagram recently about my struggles in creating a magic system for it.

Normally, the fact that it’s a short story would make me less inclined to spend so much time fleshing out the magic system and what it is capable of. But this isn’t going to be a one-and-done situation. I’m trying to create a world I can repeatedly dip my toes into, and write a series of short stories centered around a character with a very specific magical ability.

For clarity, I’m writing a fantasy mystery story about a detective (in this world they’re referred to as Inquisitors) who possesses a highly specific sort of truth magic that allows them to pull confessions from people. But, he’s also very perceptive and prefers to interrogate people in a way we are more familiar with. Of course, in a world where you can be forced to tell the truth, this is a method they don’t really understand, and I thought that would be a fun concept to explore.

How would I create a world where that sort of twist was the norm? I didn’t want the magic to be all-powerful. I created limitations in both the Inquisitor’s abilities and the scope of ‘truth’ that can be pulled from someone. But that’s just not enough if I’m going to write a bunch of stories set in the same world. I need to understand the magic system of this world more deeply than I currently do.

How are Inquisitors chosen and how are they given these special abilities? Is it limited specifically to what someone says? Is it like a magical lie detector or is there a bit more nuance? What are the origins of this sort of magic?

There are plenty of lists out there to help you flesh out your magic systems, and I’m slowly brainstorming my way through that, but there is something else nagging at me while I try to do this, and it’s becoming something of a problem.

The thing that I am struggling with the most is how to connect this magic to the themes of the stories and the overall arc of my main character, the Inquisitor Damir. I don’t want to just shove it in for the fun and the fantasy of it. It’s a type of magic that forces people to tell the truth, and I think it’ll be really fun to play with ideas of privacy and white lies and guilt, and I want the magic system to mesh with those themes and play into them, rather than just be a paint of coat on top.

And I know, in theory, how to do it. I’ve read lots of articles and blog posts on the subject and I know what I need to do to flesh out the magic system in a way that will support a series. But the truth of the matter is that actually making the connection is hard.

Maybe I’ve gone about this the wrong way – maybe I should have had my themes laid out plainly in front of me and built the magic systems from there instead of coming up with a cool idea and trying to shove it into a mould. Maybe I am just making life harder for myself – not every aspect of my world has to have some deeper meaning. Sometimes it can just be for the fun of it. I don’t consider the deeper meaning every time I read a book or watch a movie or play a game.

And I can allow some of that cool factor where the world is concerned but where magic is concerned I feel the need to introduce a little more intent. It plays such a vital role in the power dynamics and it isn’t something I can just throw together willy-nilly and call the job done. It’s not how I like to write these stories.

And writing is hard. This is just a part of the process that I’m going to have to struggle with. It’s all up to me, and there is no easy method that will tell me what I need to do. I can create a magic system based on certain criteria but crafting one with a deeper meaning isn’t something you can read about on a website. It’ll really depend on the world you are writing, the characters whose story you are telling, and the sort of story you’re trying to tell. It’s too subjective. Creating ideas is all well and good, but creating those meaningful connections? I’ve just got to keep brainstorming and hope that what I come up with is satisfying.

Maybe I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be. But as I edit this first short story, I can see that the problems are related to the lack of a cohesive magic system, and the more I try to brainstorm the magic system, the more I struggle with crafting it in a more meaningful way.

And that’s not an easy truth to deal with.

Let’s Chat!

Are you a fantasy writer? Do you write magic systems into your stories? Do you go for the fun and the sense of wonder or are you, like me, the type to craft a more meaningful magic system? How do you go about it? Where do you begin? Let me know in the comments!

4 Comments

  1. I’m more of a sci-fi writer myself, but I totally relate with you on the issues regarding world building. In the case of my manuscripts (cyberpunk genre), it’s the government I struggle to bring to life.

    What are the people in power doing? How did they get there? Why do people listen to them? Why can’t they be overthrown? And what jobs are out there if the man is controlling everything?

    And also, yes to open-world games!

    Thanks for sharing this insightful piece, Alyssa!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really love worldbuilding but I agree that magic systems are really difficult to make, especially if you’re trying to be super consistent with everything. Even in a system without many rules, it’s still difficult to keep track of everything to keep things cohesive.

    Liked by 1 person

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