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Magic systems in the literature.

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Have you ever heard about systems of magic in literature? This is a very common tool used by fantastic literature authors.

One of the most significant characteristics of fantastic literature is the presence of systems of magic. These systems make possible to a book character(s) uses magic or extraordinary elements in order to solve problems, win battles or fights, impress other characters, or simply survive; all within the narrative.

A very known example of this system is Harry Potter. The story itself happens in a witchcraft and wizardry school. As the presence of magic is one of the fantastic universe pillars, the authors have to plan well the way they will build this system within the plot. 

In general, there are two magic systems approaches, the hard magic and soft magic. The first is known for having explicit and clear rules, which prevents the author to find a solution out of thin air when it comes to solving a problem inside the story; whereas the second one is used to give the creative freedom, more option to the author, so the reader would not feel cheated when magic is used to deal with an issue.

When the author makes use of the magic system, three important rules help when defining laws and paths to be followed in the narrative.

1st: Weakness is more interesting than strength

It is important to delimit the limits and weaknesses of the magic system. What a character who practices magic can and cannot do? How can one prevent that this same character reaches their goal? Are there any costs to pay when the character practices magic?

An example of this is The Lord of the Rings. By wearing the ring, Frodo becomes invisible to the humans’ eyes, however as a consequence of wearing the ring, his enemies can access his location. It is a very useful “power”, but the character suffers the consequences of using it.

2nd: Depth is better than quantity 

When the author is choosing the magic and spells for the narrative, it is a good idea to opt for depth in a few (or a single) magic systems instead of choosing several shallow ones. The narrative will not be richer with numerous descriptive systems, the reader is more engaged when there are well developed and consistent one.

3rd: The ability to solve problems with magic is directly proportional to how much the reader understands that magic. 

Even in flexible systems of magic, and this is the main point. Once that the reader understands how the magic works, it is possible for the author to use it to solve problems and conflicts inside the narrative. In any plot, problem-solving is only satisfying if the rules are clear.

In Harry Potter, a universe with a highly flexible system, the final conflict resolution occurs within one example of the hard magic rule: “You only become the master of the Elder Wand by defeating the previous master”.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a great example of flexible magic, it is never clear to the reader what he can or cannot do. However, the plot resolution has a very clear rule: “The one ring can only be destroyed in the Cracks of Doom where it was made”.


As seen in the examples, when an author is about to create a story it is important to bear in mind that even in highly flexible scenarios, they can only use magic to solve the narrative central point when the rules are clear and the reader is acquainted with the system in use.

If you wish to know more about it, here is a short podcast episode.

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