Fiction-Writing Boot Camp: Constructing Magic Systems | Maxxe Riann | Skillshare

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Fiction-Writing Boot Camp: Constructing Magic Systems

teacher avatar Maxxe Riann, Author|Artist| Student

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Understanding Your Fictional Environment


    • 3.

      Crafting Fictional Societies


    • 4.

      Magic's Effect of Society


    • 5.

      Elitism and Stigma


    • 6.

      Formal Rules/Teachings


    • 7.

      Magical Limitations


    • 8.

      Moral Implications and Limitations


    • 9.

      Magical Creatures


    • 10.

      The Hero’s Journey


    • 11.

      Final Project


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About This Class

In order to write a believable, clever magic system, one must understand not only the mechanics of how that system works, but also its most simple and far-reaching implications-- the effect it has on your fictional world, the way it affects how your characters think, and the ways it might affect your fictional societies.

We’re going to talk about everything from the social aspects and implications of your magic system to the actual physical mechanics of how it works—all drawing from my background in history and anthropology, as well as my experience writing novels. 

There’s a ton of existing mythology built around magic in modern-day literature, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with borrowing ideas here and there, but if you’re going to write something from the ground up, completely inventing your own system with all of its complexities, these are the elements you’re going to have to take into consideration. This class will help you better understand the systems you're building, as well as how to incorporate them into your worldbuilding and character designs, to help your writing become as immersive and well-rounded as it can be. 

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Maxxe Riann

Author|Artist| Student

Level: Intermediate

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1. Introduction: Hey, welcome back to fiction rating bootcamp, a series that I'm going to be posting over the course of the next few months. And this series we're covering everything you need to know to write a piece of successful long-form fiction. Whether you're storyboarding, graphic novel, home brewing a role player game, or writing a book, and maybe even gearing up for nano retinal. I'm Max, I'm an anthropologist and historian as well as a published author, and I just really liked to read. So today I'm going to talk you through all the important aspects of writing about magic. More specifically, building a magic system from scratch. There's a lot of existing mythology built around magic in modern-day literature. And of course, there's nothing wrong with borrowing ideas here and there. But if you're going to write something from the ground up, completely inventing your own system with all of its complexities. These are the elements that you're going to want to take into consideration. We're going to talk about everything from the social aspects and implications of your magic system to the actual physical mechanics of how it works. All drawing from my background in history and anthropology, let's get started. 2. Understanding Your Fictional Environment: Alright, so the first thing that I want to talk about is how to draw from your environment. So I'm not talking about your environment, you as a writer and talking about the environment that surrounds your characters, the environment that creates the magic system. When you do have to think about what resources are around and how magic interacts with that. I mean, do you need certain elements to perform magic? If so, how are they obtained? Is your society literate? If not, then you might have a couple of issues with making runes and symbols and elements of your magic system. Say if your people live in a desert, you probably don't want to have a magic system that relies heavily on water and plants, unless you have a really good way of making that happen. Something else you can think about is our animals raised in captivity for food or treated as pets. This might affect whether or not animal sacrifice is the thing in your magic system. If they're treated as paths, maybe not, if they're raised for food or their hunted. Absolutely. So, you know, maybe unicorns shed hair or Dragons shed scales. So it's okay to use them in spells and potions or what have you. But actively go into going in hunting them down is going to create some different effects within the magic system. If animals are pets or they're considered intelligence, then maybe sacrifice is horribly frowned upon and seems genuinely evil to the people in your world. It's also worth questioning whether or not your world has reached an industrial revolution of sorts. I mean, are there metal slipping and forges? Is electricity effect? I think it's important to remember that fantasy worlds will they often look a lot like our own cost, can have different evolutionary trajectories, especially with regard to technology. I mean, they might have reached a completely different degree of technological innovation. And maybe they haven't discovered some things that we have. I mean, something else to consider on that front is how much it might have changed some elements of a technological revolution. And these are all just ideas that you can draw from, but they'll really helped to create a more developed, more realistic worlds for your characters. Add magic to interacted. 3. Crafting Fictional Societies: So the next step once you have your environment figured out is to understand the society that your characters live in. And if you've already taken my class on rating fictional societies than you probably knew. This video is coming. As important as understanding your magic system is. I would argue that it's even more important to understand how magic fits into the society that you're writing it for. How it fits into the world building of your book or your game or your comic, whatever drove you to click on this class. It's really important to realize that you're never just writing about your one batch of characters and their individual backgrounds. As an anthropologist, I can confidently tell you that we are products of our environments. The way that we speak, the logic we use to solve problems, the way that we interact with other people. All of that is the results of nurture just as much as it is nature. So with that in mind, you should always be thinking about what is a typical home life in your society? How does your society interacts with magic? Is it normal and accepted? Is that a thing that's kept secret? How do language and magic effects one another? How do people think about magic in the grand scheme of history? I think that it's also worth noting that there might be a subculture within your group of magic users. Event is different in possibly significant ways from the outside group of non-allergic users. So with this, you're gonna wanna think about EDA versus Emic perspectives, which is just the difference between being an outsider looking in or an insider reflecting on the world around them. And that can be as simple as little social cues like shaking hands or saluted as a sign of trust. And those gestures possibly shifting as a result of changes to social niceties, or as complex as adding in new positions to the social hierarchy. If magic is an element of the governments or something like that. In general, understanding what subcultures think of one another can also be really important. If one magic user subculture feels that they've been looks down upon for all of history, then that's going to create a sense of bad blood between them and whoever they feel is doing the looking down, which is gonna give you a great sense of conflicts and political intrigues happened to. Likewise, I think it's a little bit unrealistic to assume that all of the different subcultures in your world get along and everything. Super hunky-dory. Summer life alliances can be long lasting and enduring, but so can graduates, historically speaking. And it's always worth a look at how the outside players get dragged into those conflicts, as well as how conflicts can change, create, or destroy relationships between subcultures over time. You can also look at little language cues. There's, I mean, just look at our own language. There's a huge difference between ice cream and frozen cream. And the only difference language wise between those is that we have technology that creates the substance that we call ice cream. Whereas if we didn't, we would be calling it frozen cream. It's the same idea behind the difference between the sentence, forgive me Father for I have sinned. And the sentence, sorry Daddy, I've been naughty, wildly, wildly different connotations. And that's the keyword, really, connotation. It's not always about literal meaning, particularly when you're dealing with magic and the idea of a fictional society. We think to keep in mind always contextual meaning, allowing it to be a little bit different between different social groups. And on that note, different from our own society, just based on social mores, social cues, and the idea of what's deemed acceptable to any given society. That's really the key to coming up with a unique but believable fictional society is understanding those little idiosyncrasies. So as for how this relates to magic and writing a system, I think the important thing here is that you understand all you're moving pieces. If you have multiple societies interacting with one another, then make sure that you keep them distinct in some way or another. Whether that's in visuals and aesthetics or mindsets and practices. Because that's how it'll stand up to your characters. And sheer readers, which in turn will help keep your societies for all blurring together. Which gives you a really nice, multi-layered, multicultural approach to magic. A good example of people who've done this really well is the people behind the avatar the last EHR vendor. Notably, that's one of the things that's really missing from its follow-up series. But the little idiosyncrasies of each society and nation in that story. That's what Sheik, The different forms of bending, which is really just another form of magic. I would also argue that Lord of the Rings manages this whole fictional anthropology thing better than anyone. Which is why it's become a model for so many magic systems published later. Autonomy that comes down to Tolkien's writing style. But yeah, if you want an example on how to do this, right, it's worth looking into the way that he understood and wrote about all the different aspects and moving pieces of Middle Earth. 4. Magic's Effect of Society: All right, so once you've figured out what your fictional society looks like, it's time to figure out how magic affects them. So, is magic a secret? You know, maybe the people who can perform it know about it, but few others do. That's what a lot of why a author's choose to do. Does magic alter people's physiology or psychology over time? You know, is there a high that comes with performing a spell? Is there a cost or their long-term consequences to using some kind of magic are being subjected to it. It's dark magic a thing in your universe. Those are just things that you're going to want to think about. I mean, how has magic altered the way that people think about the world is the idea that this really comes down to. Because if you have a real tangible magic, does that change the way that people think about religion and miracles? Does it change the way that people logic their way in and out of problems? I mean, if you're using magic for heat instead of fire, then maybe you're cooking with magic instead of fire, or maybe you haven't gotten to fire at all, or you build fires drastically differently. I mean, if you're looking at magic related solutions instead of math or science related solutions, then, does magic change education? Does magic totally eclipse science? Or they effectively one and the same? I mean, I'm not going to discount the idea that magic is just a science that hasn't been fully understood yet. Unless in your case, it's something that is supposed to be a novelist and vague in which case you should treat about such. So these are just ideas that you're gonna want to keep in the back of your head as you're writing about any fictional society and any magic systems placed within it, is just how does one affects the other. 5. Elitism and Stigma: Okay, so something that I think is really important, and it's really just another follow-up to this concept of fully developing your society. But specifically with magic use, I want to talk about elitism. Anytime that you're dealing with some incredible power that is limited to a number of people. I think it's important to think about who those people are and how this idea of these are the only ones who can use it develop. So if we're talking about magic, Do you have to be born with it? Is there stigma against people who are born without it? So if you're thinking about this in terms of Harry Potter, Think about the stigma against squibs and mother Warren's. If you read a lot of Sanderson, think about drabs. On the flip side of this. Is there stigma against the people who do use magic? I mean, I didn't even have to give you a fictional example for this look at US history, especially in the 17th century, witches to be burned on marginalized. I mean, it's written into town constitutions for decades. So that's just something to think about in terms of elitism. If there is a significant people who can, then people who can't. And there's a difference between modes. If magic is not an inherent born without, born without a kind of thing, then is there a question of who can learn it? I mean, a lot of authors, especially Tamara peer select to grapple with this question of maybe only boys get into the schools of magic, or maybe anyone can learn it, but it's difficult. And a lot of people don't have the discipline to really dig in and try hard. That's a premise behind Patrick offices writing. I think the other really big question here is, is Magic just a regular part of everyday life to the point where no one really questions at and everyone has access? Or is it something that changes your status within your society if you are or are not capable of performing it. 6. Formal Rules/Teachings: Okay, so let's talk about formal rules and teachings. Is there a formal school for your magic system and do your characters attended? If so, then is there some degree of similarity and how these people practice magic? I mean, are there defined disciplines? It's also worth questioning if there's a system to learning, are there multiple systems or their rankings? And within those systems, that'll help you gauge Who is, how successful Brandon Sanderson and construct officer both fantastic witness. I would argue that Harry Potter is as well just because there is a magic school. It's become enough of a trope that some authors actively lampooning. But it's still a useful tool if you're developing a society that has to be taught. I think it's also worth asking if there's a language that is given over completely to magic. Harry Potter draws really significantly from Latin. A lot of fictional magic systems use ancient ruins, and sometimes they go really deeply into the history of those. Sometimes they do not. Some authors like to talk about ancient languages leftover from more magic imbued times. Victoria Schwab leans into that really hard and it works brilliantly for her. There's also this question of whether or not there are multiple ways to learn a magic system and whether or not one is better than the other. If you look at the Night Circus by Aaron Morgenstern, it's literally two different magic systems in play with one another. And that's what creates the premise of the book. And it works beautifully. And like I alluded to in the past videos, is magic a thing that's meant to be understood in the first place? I mean, cannot simply be a mystical thing that character's interacts with but can't tap into themselves. I think the one thing about working with formal rules is that you do actually have to write them out and understand them. At least as far as I'm concerned. That's where working with a well-established system can be really effective. Because yes, it's kind of the cheaters way out. But it's much easier to adopt a pre-existing system and come up with new applications for it. Then it is to create your own system of rules and your own list of disciplines and all of it completely from scratch. 7. Magical Limitations: Let's talk about limitations. Something I think is really important to think about with magic systems is the idea of what limits them. I mean, what are the hard? You can't do this things within the system. It's pretty well understood in a lot of high fantasy and urban fantasy for that matter, that messing with the boundaries of life and death is a hard NOW, whether that's Voldemort with Horcruxes or plenty of other books with the insistence that while a body can be re-estimated or a spirit can be brought forth, you can't actually bring life back to someone or something that is completely dead. There are a few exceptions to this, but only a few that I can think of. Well, the reason that's usually given for this is that our society has some pretty strong feelings about death and necromancy as a whole. A lot of that comes down to religion and the idea of holy reanimation. But I think it's also to create the point that death is an endpoint to life. And having those endpoints can be absolutely crucial to raising the stakes. Otherwise, you'd just have really powerful characters and crazy dangerous scenarios. And it tends to get a bit silly because if there is no real danger, because everybody can just get re-estimated if they die. Well, your audience doesn't really have much of a reason to care if your characters are off doing something perilous. Another reason for this is to create a sense of moral high ground. And I'm going to talk about morals and ethics and those limitations in a minute. But someone who messes around with dead things is usually considered to be evil. Somebody who does not is usually considered to be good. You can make it more ambiguous than not to characters both mess around with dead stuff and then they're at odds with one another. And so then the question becomes, what makes one right over the other? If moral high ground isn't an option, there's a lot that you can do with that if you choose to take that route. But I'm just going to say any form of magic needs limitations. I think there are things that should be impossible. Even if the whole point is that your character is about to go and prove that something is possible. Even though everyone says that it isn't, that limitations should be built into the groundwork of the system from the get-go. Part of the point here is to ensure that your characters struggle. And I'm going to talk about this in a video later on as well. But it's OK to create the illusion that anything is possible. I think that is the enticing and throwing nature of magic. But it's important to understand what the limits are. I mean, maybe you can't magic up food from thin air, but you can create the illusion that nutritious but bad tasting food seems to be delicious. Maybe you can't kill people with magic, but you can weaken them. Or maybe you can kill people with magic, but you can't bring them back. It's irreversible. Maybe the magic that you use is totally dependent on physical strength or mental concentration. If you get cold, if you lose focus, if you're weaker than the other person, then your magic flickers out. There aren't any hard and fast rules for the whole genre. And frankly, anyone who tells you that there are is lying or not all that creative. But there do need to be hard and fast rules for your writing. Even if you don't fully explain them to your reader, you should understand what they are. 8. Moral Implications and Limitations: So we've talked about the magical limitations. Let's talk about moral and ethical boundaries. You're going to want to think about the society that your characters live in and what the hard moral boundaries are for them. I mean, maybe messing with death isn't a huge deal as far as your characters are concerned. But on the flip side of that, if you have a bunch of peace loving Vg and would else, I'm pretty willing to bet that any kind of magical practice that involves making animal sacrifices is not going to go over very well with them. Only hit clear that I'm not telling you to create boundaries and then never, ever to let any character push past them. I think that it can actually be a really helpful narrative tool to find out what does happen when someone pushes past those boundaries. I mean, what kind of toll does it take? Does doing something evil, even unknowingly, or being around something perverse have a negative effect on the user or the power or the person exposed to it? I would argue that the answer to that almost has to be yes, whether it's the society's reaction to the magic user, the magic itself takes a toll on the magician. If you don't have that, then why is there a boundary? Something that I like to do is all question what the worst possible thing that someone can do with their magical power is? And what the effects that would have is on that person's soul or the personality or their life. I mean, if someone does something that's truly morally wrong, how does their society reacts? Because the society is what sets the tone for this question of what is moral, what is ethical? It's also worth questioning whether or not that reaction is justifiable. And this I think, is why knowing your society and the subcultures in it is so helpful. That's what helps you gauge the societal response to whatever your characters do. I think that it's also worth noting. If you have a hero, they're unlikely to escape their major conflicts completely unscathed. I talk about this a lot in my heroes and villains class. To most people cross a few lines in their quest to do what they consider the right thing, because they believe that the ends justify the means. Frankly, sometimes that's their only option. That's something that we see repeated a lot throughout history. Pacifism and happy magical friendship are all well and good. But especially in morally conflicted high fantasy novels where you're exercising some form of moral relativism. It's not the most narratively realistic option. Especially if you want the lore of your worlds to feel as realistic as possible. I'm also going to point out, death is not the only morality issue that you can hover. I think another big one is taking away someone else's autonomy or control over themselves. So that can include, I don't know, the imperious from Harry Potter and the little slug aliens from animal ahrefs, anything of that nature. And my suggestion here is pretty much to think of the worst thing that one human being can do to another or a magical creature if you're working with non-human entities in your story and then figure out how they would use magic to make that happen. Then if you can backtrack from there, you can find the point of acceptable. That is morally okay. And that gives you your delineation between acceptable and not, at least in your character's eyes. I'm not saying that anyone in your story actually has to push that boundary, but it is helpful tool for gauging it yourself. 9. Magical Creatures: Alright, so I alluded to magical creatures earlier in past couple of videos, but I want to really focus on that for a second. I mean, do magical creatures factor into your world? If so, how? And gets especially important to think about this with magic systems that relate back to elements. And if what you're writing can be called elemental magic in any way whatsoever, then I think it's also worth it to think about certain themes and aesthetics for your world-building, which you might find helpful. I mean, do you find different kinds of creatures in different environments like selfies and sirens fit in water. Griffin's tends to be near mountains. Dragons we associate with fire. If there are some features that are ubiquitous to all environments, then it's worth considering why, what made them resilient enough to be that common across the board in all places. It's also worth noting that if you have limitations on your human characters, then you have to think about what the limitations are on magical creatures. Especially if those limitations don't exist for the humans or human equivalent characters or vice versa. If the humans are limited with their ability to control logic and the creatures aren't. If you're dealing with any form of communication between humans and animals, then it's worth considering, you know, why are they able to communicate? How did that happen? Is there a universal language of magic? Does verbal communication play into it at all, or is it more intuitive for its images and feelings rather than words? If magical creatures are going to be entirely mysterious, then, you know, are they understood entirely on their own terms? Is there a mythology built up around them? Think about the way that we interact with animals in our own world. And then think about any of the many, many ways that, that's reflected in mythology and the way that luck changes on a basis of storytelling. I would also question whether or not different creatures use an experienced magic, indifferent leaves. And I'm actually going to say that your best bet for understanding a lot of this might be to look at games with defined statistics. So Dungeons and Dragons, Magic, the Gathering, even adventure quest. They all have decent systems in place for figuring stuff out. If the creatures in your world are useful for channeling magic, like in Harry Potter with making ones. Then I think it's also worth thinking about how somebody would go about obtaining artifacts from those creatures that void create a sense of channeled magic. I mean, how long does not help your users live? Maybe they are near immortal. Maybe a dragon scale is really helpful, but a horn is even more helpful. And one of those requires a great deal more sacrificed spend MY other. There's also the idea that using magic or being around magic can make your character a magical creature. Whether that's a fish that is in water, that magic leaches into in the fish turns into a mermaid. Or where a human uses magic enough that it alters their physical appearance. So it's just some ideas to think about. Obviously, you do you, and there's nothing wrong with working with a system of creatures that already exists in literature that's already been published. But if, As always, if you're going to create your own system, it's worth thinking about all of its further reaching implications. 10. The Hero’s Journey: Let's talk about the hero's journey for a second. Learning magic should not necessarily be an easy process. Above all, what I'm trying to get you to avoid is DSX lacuna and that whole concept of someone who's just super powerful and can swoop in and save the day. I'm sorry, too powerful is annoying and no one wants to read it. I think we want to feel like we belong on the hero's journey too. We want to feel like we're learning something along with your protagonist. Your hero never makes mistakes and someone or something always sweeps into saved the day. That gets boring. I'm sorry, but it does. Instead, try letting your hero make mistakes, which in turn helps make him, her or them relatable to your readers. And then when it really matters, meaning that's when they finally get it right. Sure, it's a little cliche, but it works. It's a cliche for a reason. And it's way better than just having them need to do something big and important and just be able to do it every single time. That's what makes the Patronas spell in Harry Potter, such ineffective narrative device in the third book. He couldn't do it for so long. And then when he finally does manage it, it's at the moment when he needs it the most. It's at the moment when other people are relying on him as well as himself. It's in line with the character, it's in line with the theme of the books. And it works really well for the narrative. And besides that, just thinking realistically, desperation often leads to adrenaline and a sense of purpose that you're not going to find in a practice setting. The dragon Prince TV show also does this surprisingly well. The magic doesn't work for the longest time. And it's only through failing and then understanding and then failing another few times before he can finally understand it well enough to do what he needs to do. But the hero figures out what it is he has to accomplish in order to save the day at the end. I would also argue that some of your solutions should be non magical. As cool as logic gives, it isn't the most relatable thing in the world. Like your character through a hunch every now and then, or let there be exceptions to what can be done with magic. I think that's the point of having those limitations that we talked about. Give your readers a complete understanding of how magic works in your world and make sure that something's lay outside the realm of magic. Magical solutions are great, but they don't solve grief or starvation. This is what makes something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer works so well. Magic saves the day nine times out of ten. But at that time, the time when you have to back up and be human, that's when the emotional gut punch happens. Brandon Sanderson likes to say that magical solutions to your problems can only be as good as your understanding of your magic systems. And what this is saying is really that you have to understand all the important aspects of what happens in any big deceived the world all at once. Magical things. If it's just a good magic defeats evil every single time, kinda thing, it's not going to work, at least not as well as you want it to. I do think that sacrifice is a good narrative tool to use here. Especially because of that idea that no one escapes everything totally unscathed. It's also a good opportunity to let someone unexpected be the hero. I'm not saying that you have to let your reader understand every single itty-bitty aspect of how your magic system works. Think that sort of defeats the purpose of calling it magic. But I do think that you need to understand the implications of magic use on your world the same way that we understand the implications of science in hours. And I think that learning those things should be difficult. We didn't gain a perfect understanding of science through tenth grade chemistry class perfectly. We had to Sunday, we had to struggle a little bit. So maybe your character does too. 11. Final Project: Alright, you made it. We're in final projects mode. What I'm going to ask you guys to do is write a textbook guide to the magic system in your book, as though you were teaching it to someone who lives in your fictional universe. So this should include an origin story regarding the environment where Magic started happening in your world, as well as who could or can use it, and why. You should have a Guide to who can use logic and how to use it in different places if that applies, if you have elements involved or geographical ties, you should also write down whatever hard and fast rules actually apply. So with that, you're going to remember what I said about the worst nastiest application of your magic. And maybe throw in a warning about that. Just keep it in mind. Whenever the worst perversion of magic is to your world, you should know what that is so that you can write about it or around it. If there are biases written into the rules of your magic system from the get-go, whether that's lysogeny or racism or just different cultural clashes. That should also be written into the rule book. I mean, maybe footnote it because your characters might be planning on breaking through those lines, have completely messing with the system. But keep it in mind as you're writing out the rules. You're also gonna wanna write down any hard NOW that exists. Any magic won't let you do it. That exists just because it's a good thing to have written down just to keep in mind. Likewise, you should have the costs of magic written down. Mean if there is a cost to your physicality, to your Soul, to under no, your resilience for that day. Those are things that you should have written down. Those are things that you should understand as uncodified System. I would also say that you should write down any specific elements or ingredients just to understand what each one is and does in the context of performing magic, as well as any magic words, especially if your magic system uses its own language. I am going to make a video course specifically about that soon. But it's worth noting in Your Guide to your own magic system what those magic words are, how that system works if there's a grammar that applies to it. I mean, if you have to make a glossary for yourself to keep track of all the spells. I think it's worth going and doing that. Really. You should just be keeping track of all the different aspects to performing magic. What that looks like, who can do it, how it came to be? I mean, what are the visual effects of magical, various acts and all of that? You know, what does it look like as cells are performed? I think the more detail you have the better. I would also argue that it's important to write about any inherent politics, women magic, or politics relating to magic users. I mean, keep an eye out for the video on fictional politics, I promise it is happening. But any aspects of using magic and what that feels like and what that looks like, that should be written down because the whole point of doing this is that you have a codify it example of how your characters interact with and understand magic, as well as the world that they're living in. I think it's also to help you just in the event that you need to go back and make sure that you're not contradicting yourself and your magic rules and you're writing over time. But the real ideas that will help you understand the magic system even better, which will lead to more consistent, clearer writing about it. Alright, good luck. You have all the tools that you need. Have fun writing.