Aug 11 2011

Building a Magical System: A Questionnaire

This questionnaire will help you design a solid magic system which won’t have your readers asking questions of their own.

 

1. What can magic users do?

  • Do they use tools, their body and/or sheer willpower?
  • Are there subtypes or specialties?
  • Is magic a born talent, a learned skill or both?
  • If there are races, which ones are most adept at magic and why?
  • Are there certain areas with high concentrations of magic?  What happens in those areas, and how are people who inhabit those areas affected?

 

2. What costs and limits affect the use of magic? 

  • Are there personal costs like running out of energy or the possibility of physical/mental damage?
  • Are there societal restrictions like actual laws affecting magic use?  What is the main goal of these laws?  What are some of the consequences like for disobeying these laws?

 

3. How do magic users learn to control their powers and obey the above laws?

  • Are there schools, like in Harry Potter?
  • Do they have one-on-one apprenticeships, like in Star Wars?
  • Do they teach themselves?

 

4. Besides killing them, what countermeasures can those without magical abilities take to prevent magic users from performing?  (For example, silver shackles or handcuffs are often used to restrain werewolves).

  • If there are no countermeasures, why not?
  • Are there any circumstances where magic cannot be used?  (For example, perhaps there are dead zones where magic does not function or certain holy days where magic is forbidden and/or unavailable).

 

5. What is the relationship between magic, magic users, and non-magic users?

  • Is there prejudice, or general acceptance?
  • If there are more specific types of magic users, or races defaulting to magic use, how do magic users treat different magic users? Do they band together, have a friendly rivalry, or is there infighting?
  • How do families with magical ability treat those born with no magical abilities? How do families with no magical ability treat those born able to manipulate magic?
  • Is there a ranking and/or caste system for different kinds of magic users?
  • Is there a specific form of address for magic users?  (For example, knights and noblewomen would be addressed as Sir or Dame as a sign of their high status).

 

Jonie Legaspi is a perpetual scholar, aspiring novelist and middling-to-fair seamstress that enjoys studying the world, language and fiction of all sorts.  

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Building a Magical System: A Questionnaire”

  1. Mynaon 11 Aug 2011 at 7:26 pm

    I’m not a fantasy writer, nor do I write about magic, but this is extremely helpful nonetheless! I need to link this to fantasy-writer friends of mine. It’s always good to know the limits of a magical universe, lol. Thank you!

  2. Chihuahua0on 11 Aug 2011 at 7:42 pm

    That reminds me. I’ll have to work on my own magic system for psychics. All I have are three categorizes of powers, and almost nothing else. Actually, there is a society…

    Got to work on that article too.

  3. Wingson 12 Aug 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Me, I’m harnessing the power of Punnet squares among other things to figure out superpowered genetics, whether mutations can be recessive to normalcy, all sorts of fun stuff. Let’s hope I don’t bend genetics too much.

    – Wings

  4. Gurion Omegaon 12 Aug 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I just starting reading the Mistborn Trilogy today. Brandon Sanderson is really creative with his invention of magic systems. I’m trying hard to make a unique one myself.

  5. Silvercaton 13 Aug 2011 at 9:02 pm

    I can see this being easily adapted to super powers or other special powers as well.

    I would add a few more questions:
    If applicable, what are the origins of the powers (mutations, gods, spirits, etc)?
    What are the limits on the kind of powers?
    What are the limits on how powerful someone can be?

  6. RL Junioron 14 Aug 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I love fantasy and i have an idea for story but i been trying to develop a unique and original system of magic to use, so this will definitely be a huge help to me. Thank you!

  7. Susan Sipalon 16 Aug 2011 at 9:01 am

    Wow! This is so cool! Thanks so much for putting it together.

  8. Jason Blackon 16 Aug 2011 at 9:41 am

    One question I’d add to this list would be “is there an over-arching metaphor that can be used to conceptualize the magic?”

    Because if there is, you can often use that to answer a bunch of the other questions in a way which yields a coherent, consistent feeling to the whole magic system.

    For a lovely example of this, check out _Plain Kate_ by Erin Bow:

    http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Kate-Erin-Bow/dp/B005CDTVGE/

    In that story, the underlying metaphor is “magic as gift-giving.” It’s an interesting, unusual conception of magic, but one that makes a certain sense, and Bow has done a very nice job of working through the metaphor to answer questions about the costs and limits of the magic, the countermeasures, et cetera. It all adds up to a very believable portrayal of the magic within the world of the story.

  9. Jonie Legaspion 17 Aug 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Thank you all for your feedback! I honestly didn’t expect such a positive response.

    Silvercat: If you would like to change it to be applicable towards superpowers, go ahead! However, I actually left out most questions about origins (save for the “Is magic a learned skill or a talent?” in #1) because most stories are only set when a magic system has been well established, not when magic is just beginning to manifest. So, it’s a nice piece of backstory to know for building cultures and such, but not really relevant to the present. As for limits, that’s covered in #2.

    Jason Black: Actually, I made a point to leave out questions involving metaphors and themes. I find those questions blur the lines between technical writing and creative writing. This questionnaire was intended to build a reference, for consistency of a magic system within a work. While metaphors are nice, they are not exactly technical, and thus they’re more suited for the actual work.

  10. Silvercaton 17 Aug 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Jonie: In regards to limits, I was thinking more of how powerful an individual can be. Like, can you get to Gandalf levels (who is functionally an angel) or closer to Harry Potter? (I realize they have very different feels)

    I have a mental story where a set of mages have almost no limit, as long as they can think of something in terms of their theme. (Which is one of the reasons the story will never get written.)

    The story I am writing, the powers are very limited, although I don’t really have any set limits. It’s mostly by feel. Superman wouldn’t fit. Many of the X-men wouldn’t either.

    I think having a set limit helps prevent egregious power creep (like, say, Superman).

    As far as origins, I meant sources as well. Is it mana and there’s only a certain amount? Is it from gods? Do they have to get power from somewhere (for example, in my mental story, the fire mage mostly uses body heat, life power, and sunlight, depending on the spell)? Sort of covered in #1, but not explicitly, and probably something to think about, depending on the flavor of magic.

  11. Jonie Legaspion 19 Aug 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Silvercat: The question is right there: “Are there personal costs like running out of energy or the possibility of physical/mental damage?” I was, however, intentionally vague to allow for a wide variety of ranges.

    Also, I explained that knowing the source or origin of magic was NOT integral to the story’s consistency on a plot level (for example, “Character is specifically stated to be unable to do perform Action 1 without Requirement A, and in a later chapter does Action 1 without it”), which was why I did not explicitly include it.

  12. Silvercaton 19 Aug 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Jonie: I think we’re talking past each other. And naturally, each story and writer is going to have different needs. ^.^

  13. RoLandoon 25 Oct 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Should there only be one magic soure or system for the world that you create?

  14. B. McKenzieon 25 Oct 2011 at 10:34 pm

    I think it’s okay if there’s more than one. However, the more there are, the less space you’ll probably have to get into the details.

  15. Comicbookguy117on 18 Jun 2012 at 8:58 pm

    I’m trying to create a system of magic for my comic book universe. But am caught on one hard to answer question. In regards to magic, how do you define such an indefinable force?

    I know what I’d like to see in my universe, I’m just not sure how to get there. Does anyone have any tips for defining magic?

  16. Comicbookguy117on 20 Jun 2012 at 8:29 am

    No rush guys, I’ve got it figured out. If anyone needs help of any kind, let me know. I’d like to help if I can.

  17. JVKJRon 14 Dec 2012 at 4:45 pm

    1. The magic in my book is elemental. They just need will power and the ability to use magic. They have one primary element, which they are vastly better at using than any other. They are born with their magic.
    2. It can be physically exhausting to use magic, especially for an extend period of time, or if it’s really difficult and not their element.
    3. That really varies. Usually it is a one on one sort of teaching, with the parents teaching them, but there are some circumstances which lead some witches and wizards having to learn in other ways. Those tend to have a more difficult time, but they also tend to become the best.
    4. Hmm… Well if they are deprived of their connections to water, or something then they would be weakened, but they’d still have their magic in other elements. Non magic people could always ask for assistance from other witches or wizards.
    5. The views vary from kingdom to kingdom. There’s a few wounds that haven’t exactly healed, you could say. Some of them would put all the witches and wizards to death, but others would gladly have them at their side.

  18. Anonymouson 13 Apr 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I was wondering if anybody had any ideas for a magic system using categories other than the usual elements, colors, etc.?

  19. Dr. Vo Spaderon 13 Apr 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Mages use magic that comes from within themselves. A mage’s say, fireball would have a personilized color. Wizards use magic that is generated by items (such as staffs, or wands if you will). Wizards get…vibes from people that inform them of general moods. Sorcerers are basically necromancers and get their power from spirits.

    —–

    Every time I see somebody post as “Anonymous”, I hear a half robotic voice. 🙂

  20. TechnicDragonon 03 Jul 2013 at 10:13 am

    For the story series I’m working on, here are my answers…

    1. What can magic users do?
    — Virtually anything, given enough time to research how.
    1A. Do they use tools, their body and/or sheer willpower?
    — Yes, Yes, and Yes
    1B. Are there subtypes or specialties?
    — Specialties, yes, but they are by choice rather than skill or talent.
    1C. Is magic a born talent, a learned skill or both?
    — Born Talent only.
    1D. If there are races, which ones are most adept at magic and why?
    — Everyone is Human.
    1E. Are there certain areas with high concentrations of magic? What happens in those areas, and how are people who inhabit those areas affected?
    — No.

    2. What costs and limits affect the use of magic?
    — See Below…
    2A. Are there personal costs like running out of energy or the possibility of physical/mental damage?
    — A Magus could run out of energy, and even blackout while his/her body recuperates.
    2B. Are there societal restrictions like actual laws affecting magic use? What is the main goal of these laws? What are some of the consequences like for disobeying these laws?
    — Yes (Secrecy, restrictions on what can be done with magic). The goal is to keep the magical community safe from the rest of the world. Disobeying the law could lead to having one’s powers stripped away and their memories altered so they no longer remember anything about the Magical Community. Some actions could constitute execution.

    3. How do magic users learn to control their powers and obey the above laws?
    — See Below…
    3A. Are there schools, like in Harry Potter?
    — No.
    3B. Do they have one-on-one apprenticeships, like in Star Wars?
    — Yes.
    3C. Do they teach themselves?
    — After spending time with their teacher, yes.

    4. Besides killing them, what countermeasures can those without magical abilities take to prevent magic users from performing? (For example, silver shackles or handcuffs are often used to restrain werewolves).
    — No.
    4A. If there are no countermeasures, why not?
    — The general populous isn’t aware of the existence of the magical community.
    4B. Are there any circumstances where magic cannot be used? (For example, perhaps there are dead zones where magic does not function or certain holy days where magic is forbidden and/or unavailable).
    — No, none.

    5. What is the relationship between magic, magic users, and non-magic users?
    — Magic users refill their personal power reservoirs via sex with non-magic users.
    5A. Is there prejudice, or general acceptance?
    — Magic users sometimes believe they are better than non-magic users but mostly it’s general acceptance.
    5B. If there are more specific types of magic users, or races defaulting to magic use, how do magic users treat different magic users? Do they band together, have a friendly rivalry, or is there infighting?
    — N/A
    5C. How do families with magical ability treat those born with no magical abilities? How do families with no magical ability treat those born able to manipulate magic?
    — Since the magical community is a secret only the first question applies. Families with magical abilities vary in how they treat families without magic.
    5D. Is there a ranking and/or caste system for different kinds of magic users?
    — No.
    5E. Is there a specific form of address for magic users? (For example, knights and noblewomen would be addressed as Sir or Dame as a sign of their high status).
    — Within the magical communities, there are different titles for different jobs/positions. It’s no different than calling a Policeman “officer”. It has nothing to do with status.

  21. Andrewon 02 Jun 2016 at 2:36 am

    1: My characters are Elementals and use power given to them by the Elemental Spectrum
    1A: Their bodies mostly though use of weapons are optional
    1B: No general subtypes, the Elements are pretty equal. But they do provide secondary powers
    1C: Usually an Elemental will develop their powers either as children or teenagers, no later than 20YO
    1D: Regular humans are chosen at birth to wield a certain Element but won’t learn of them until later
    1E: Not really, Elementals can use their power but can supercharge themselves if need be

    2: Some Elements require a recharge time
    2A: Given who is chosen, Elementals can sometimes be corrupted and become more eager to fight, no matter who
    2B: No laws whatsoever can restrict an Elemental from using their power, they themselves choose how and when to use them

    3: All of these are how they learn. Sometimes they’re students, some have teachers and some learn on their own

    4: A non-Elemental can be on par with them if they have the right equipment and fighting skills
    4B: If the Elemental is restrained by Vengestone either in ball in chain, handcuffs or shackles, their powers are rendered completly null and void until they get it off

    5: The Spectrum chooses who gets an Element, how they use it is up to them
    5A: It all depends. Light Elementals will accept and protect all people. Dark Elementals on the other hand think themselves superior to non-Elementals and will treat them as a lower species
    5B: Again it all depends. Light or Dark, Elementals have total choice to work in a team or alone
    5C: Light Elementals love their families, Elementals or not. Dark Elementals couldn’t care less about them and often kill them to sever any emotional connections
    5D: No real ranking, it all depends on the Elemental’s knowledge of their Element
    5E: As stated before, Elementals can be anyone. They can be kings, queens, emperors, artists, engineers, warlords, even a homeless man. Address them as you would a normal human in that position

  22. Cat-vacuumer Supremeon 11 Oct 2016 at 9:46 am

    In my story, there are 3 magic classes, the top 2 are kind of blurred. It goes: people with no ability to control magic (they just can’t do it, and their personal magic levels are very low), people with little power (low personal magic levels, usually have magic-focusing and storing items), and people with a decent to great amount of power. Demons are a mysterious race that are attracted to magic, so the higher a concentration of magic, the more likely a Demon will appear. Usually, if magic users can’t concentrate or move/see their hands, they will not be able to reliably use magic. Also, organic materials are conductors of magic, so inorganic materials (like metal armor) are really good at stopping magic. Magic comes from the user’s personal reserve (mostly life energy), energy stored in items, or the energy of nearby living things. Magic users are usually either trained in a school or apprenticeship, depending on their race and what is available (whether there is a school).

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