Designing A Magic System for your Fantasy World by Janet Tait

Posted on Nov 20, 2014 by   7 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized

CID web smallFrom the magical vintners of Laurie Anne Gilman’s Vineart War series to the ring-based magic of Middle Earth, authors have designed many fascinating ways to cast a spell. Today I am going to talk about how to create your own take on magic for your fantasy world, one that works to both enhance your storytelling and brand your world as uniquely yours.

Consider the following elements when designing your magic system:


  1. Setting and mood – what kind of novel are you writing? Your magic system should complement and enhance it. For example, a book set in a magical version of the Borgia’s Renaissance Italy might call for magic that is subtle and manipulative, cast behind the scenes to advance the caster’s goals. On the other hand, a novel set in the middle of a fantasy war between good sorcerers and evil wizards might require the characters to throw a few fire spells at each other. Once you’ve worked out your setting and mood, you can move onto…
  2. Public or covert? —who knows that magic exists? Is sorcery the guarded secret of a powerful few or can anyone hire a spellcaster down at the corner shop? This choice will have a significant effect on the mood of your novel. After you’ve figured that out, the next step is to decide…
  3. Source – how is your magic powered? In traditional tales of magic, the power to cast spells sometimes came from divine sources—such as a mythological god—or an infernal one—such as powerful demons. But in Larry Niven’s classic tale The Magic Goes Away, magic was a natural resource, called mana, that could be (and was) depleted. Other options include magic as a force of nature, like gravity, magic residing in enchanted items, and pretty much any source you can imagine. No matter what you pick, your choice will help drive the rest of your worldbuilding. For example, a world where the fuel to cast spells can only be found in rare meteors hoarded by a wizard caste will have a different tone than a world where anyone can use magical plants or flowers growing freely in the woods. Which brings us to…
  4. Availability—can anyone in your world cast spells, or only a select few? What gives a person the ability to do magic – genetics, caste, ability? How much training does a caster need before he is proficient? Once you determine these issues, you can move on to…
  5. Focus – does your magic need a focus to work, such as a ring or a wand, or does it come directly from the mind or will of the user? In the Harry Potter books, Harry and his friends use wands and words to focus their spells. But in David Eddings’ Belgariad, the only things required to work magic are the Word (a spoken spell) and the Will (the caster’s intention). Choosing to require a focus can add potential for conflict and drama – your heroine will have an uphill battle in her quest to rescue your hero if her magic ring is stolen by the bad guy. Another way to increase conflict and tension is…
  6. Price—do spells have a cost, or are they essentially free? When magic has a price it limits how much your characters can use it and gives you a potential gold mine of problems for them to overcome. For example, in my novel, Cast into Darkness, paranoia is the price of magic. Each spell cast makes the caster more and more paranoid, and as a caster ages, he loses his grip on reality. Using such a steep price for magic let me create interesting problems for my characters, such as lack of trust and poor decision making due to a messed up perception of the world. Once you decide your magic’s cost, you next have to determine…
  7. Rules and Effects – what does magic look like? How powerful is it? What can it NOT do? Is your magic more like ritual witchcraft, where groups of people chant in a circle of candlelight to call up a spell? Or do solitary wizards shoot lightning bolts from their outstretched hands? Can your magic bring back the dead and reverse time, or only grant more subtle advantages, like making someone very lucky? Be aware that your system must have internal consistency. If you use magic to raise the dead in Chapter One, but don’t use it to bring back the heroine’s murdered mother in Chapter Twenty, your readers will not appreciate the lack of consistency.    

Now that you know all the elements, you can pull them all together to form your own customized magic system.

What’s your favorite magic system? Leave me a comment and let me know!

JanetTaitAbout Janet Tait: Janet Tait is the author of Cast into Darkness, an Amazon bestseller in Urban Fantasy. She is the President-elect of the San Diego chapter of the Romance Writers of America, and a member of FF&P. For as long as she can remember she has loved to write, but tried IT administration, website development, market research, and product management before surrendering to her inevitable destiny. She lives in San Diego, California with her husband and, in her spare time, enjoys haunting the halls of comic and science fiction conventions, playing old-timey tabletop role-playing games with her friends, and binge-watching British TV shows on Netflix. You can connect with her here:

Website: Join her mailing list: Twitter: @janet_tait Facebook:

About Cast into Darkness, her latest release:

A fun, creative, non-stop adventure! Tait brings us a well-realized magical world full of double dealing, action, and romance that fans of urban fantasy (like me!) will really love.

-Chris Marie Green, author of ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG, Ghost for Hire, Book 1

An ancient, deadly magic is rising, and she’s the only one who can harness it…

Kate Hamilton hates being treated like an outcast. Born a powerless Null to America’s pre-eminent magical family, she escapes to a distant college and the life of a theater major. The last thing she wants is to be dragged into her family’s war for global domination against the rival Makris clan. But when an innocent favor pulls Kate into a perilous contest with a legendary magical stone, she plunges into their dangerous world of spellcasting and scheming. A world Kate’s sexy, devious boyfriend Kris is all too familiar with…

Hardened magical operative Kristof “Kris” Makris chafes under the rule of his lunatic father, but he’s found the perfect way to overthrow his leader and save his people. But the artifact he needs is in the hands of the Hamilton family, and each attempt to steal it from Kate brings him closer to blowing his cover. If he does, he’ll do more than alert his father to his treachery. He’ll lose Kate. And that possibility bothers him more than he cares to admit.

As the ancient power inside the stone begins to transform Kate into a vessel of world-destroying magic, the line between friends and enemies blurs. Kristof must choose between his family and the girl he’s grown to love. And Kate must either trust the man she thought she knew or lose herself to the stone’s deadly embrace.

You can find out more about Cast into Darkness here: Janet Tait’s Book Page (

7 Responses to "Designing A Magic System for your Fantasy World by Janet Tait"

  1. Comment by Susan Burns
    November 21, 2014 9:27 am

    Thanks, Janet.

    My sci-fi romances include those details you mentioned, except I go more into the scientific explanations of the hero and heroines psychic powers.

    Thank you for listing all these key ingredients for a super supernatural.

    S.B.K. Burns
    Award-winning author of “Forbidden Playground” and “Dancing Dragons” from the Legends of the Goldens Series.

    • Comment by Janet Tait
      November 21, 2014 12:41 pm

      Hi Susan! Thanks for stopping by. I agree that my formula could apply to psychic powers with a scientific basis – so many of the questions are the same. Both fantasy and science fiction need to have a grounding in solid worldbuilding.

  2. Marie Andreas
    Comment by Marie Andreas
    November 22, 2014 2:55 pm

    I love this! You did a great job really breaking things down to make an overwhelming subject understandable. My favorite magic system- hmmm. It depends. I like any that work within the book, is consistent, and doesn’t make me stop reading and say, “wait- what?!” I do like the will and the word from Eddings, that was simple and it worked really well in the series.

    Great blog, Janet!

  3. Comment by Ryan Westlund
    January 12, 2016 6:00 pm

    Good post! By far the most interesting magic system I’ve ever seen (that I didn’t create) was the one in the Mistborn books.

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