Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 1

The most popular books and movies of all time all have one thing in common: They transport audiences better than other books and movies in their genre. Usually, as in films like Avatar or books like Lord of the Rings or Dune, the tale transports you into another time and place. But the tale also transports its audience emotionally. In short, whatever emotion the audience is feeling at the beginning of the tale is swept away as the audience is transported into the writer’s world and carried through the story.

Understanding the emotions that your audience is hoping to feel is extremely important. In case you haven’t noticed, they purchase books and movies based upon the emotions that they want to feel. Thus, if a person is feeling lonely or underappreciated, she might want to get lost in a good romance. If a person feels trapped in the mundane workaday world, he might look for a good thriller. And particularly with children or teens, if a person is bored, she might look for a story that delights her sense of wonder.

Years ago, if I recall correctly, it was editor Donald Wollheim who recognized that science fiction and fantasy were alike in that they both aroused a sense of wonder, and he petitioned the bookstores to create a new category which he called “wonder literature,” so that books that aroused wonder would be shelved under the category of “wonder,” much in the way that romances are categorized under “romance.” It was a good observation, but unfortunately the retailers chose to ignore it.

In any case, he recognized that wonder is a powerful emotional draw, and that for young readers in particular, it is the single most powerful emotional draw. In short, readers seek out science fiction and fantasy so that they can feed their craving for wonder, and if you write it well, if you satisfy their needs, you can be immensely successful.

But the first point that I want to make here is that most authors tend to fail as writers of fantasy and science fiction primarily because they don’t arouse a strong sense of wonder.

Some writers create fantasies for example that don’t have magic in them at all, or only have a tiny bit of magic. I knew one fine writer years go whose fantasy tales were beautifully written, but in an entire novel, a person might cast one small healing spell. Ultimately, her career kind of faded, I think because her work felt more like historical fiction set in the middle ages, written by someone who wasn’t interested in the real middle ages, but simply created her own fantasy worlds and populated them with imaginary kingdoms.

Editors often rejected her work because her magic levels were “too low.” They pointed out that people who wanted a strong sense of wonder just weren’t satisfied with what she had done. So they begged her to write “high magic.”

What did they mean by that?  They wanted tales that kept the readers mystified and in awe, stories that took the reader to magical places and introduced them to magical creatures and powerful wizards.

What kind of story does that? I’ll give you an excellent example. Back in the late 1990s, when I was writing Star Wars books for Scholastic, the president of the company asked me to look at some books and help select one to push big for the coming year. So I went through about forty novels and found one that I liked a lot: Harry Potter.  It did a great job of transporting the reader into the magical world of Hogwarts, and of catching a wide audience, but as I began to read into chapters three and four, I worried whether Rowling would be able to sustain the high level of wonder that she’d started out with. You see, that’s where most people fail. A lot of them will take the reader into a wondrous world, then get involved in some sort of drama or political intrigue, or even romance, and thus leave the reader unfulfilled.

But Rowling did a great job of sustaining her sense of wonder throughout by taking the reader to magical places, introducing magical creatures, and revealing one intriguing wizard or witch after another, so that she sustained her high sense of wonder throughout the novels.

So what does that have to do with magic systems? Well, I find a lot of magic systems that feel tired and stale. They don’t arouse a sense of wonder quite simply because we have seen them too often before.  In other words, they are cliché.

Here are some things that I see too often:

  • Healing. In every fantasy, there is some character who discovers that he or she has healing powers—usually just when they need it most. To be honest, I’ve seen this happen so often, that I groan inside each time that I see it now. The author very often has a young hero who experiences a heroic demise—only to have his young girlfriend sprout the ability to raise the dead. Yawn. “Let him die,” I say.


  • Prophecy. The literary critic Algis Budrys once pointed out in a talk that among Christians, most of our fantasy tropes are drawn from Christian tradition. Thus, most of our magical powers are drawn from Biblical roots. Since the Bible is by some definitions a book that is unique in that it contains example after example of prophecies that are then fulfilled, it is no wonder that Christian fantasists like to deal with prophecy. It isn’t enough to have a hero, you have to have a prophecy that a young hero will arrive. So every time that I see such a prophecy, I have to yawn.


  • Stock Magic Systems. Most of our magic systems are drawn from the culture that we were raised in. So, for example, if you are raised in a culture where your ancestors believed in enchantments, your magic system will often contain enchanted items. Or if your ancestors believed that the earth itself had a will, you might develop a magic system based on the power of the elements themselves—earth, water, wind, and fire. Again I yawn, despite the fact that I’ve used these myself in fantasy.

I could go on and list more tropes and common failings, but I’m just trying to point out a couple of examples so that you recognize what is wrong.

You see, the problem with creating a magic system that is just like all the others is that it really doesn’t arouse a strong sense of wonder. It doesn’t feel magical. It doesn’t invite the reader to think, to become intellectually involved in your story. Instead of arousing wonder, the tale plays upon our sense of nostalgia. You might think while you’re writing your story that “I’ve always loved elves, so I’ll write about elves,” but in doing so you haven’t set the bar high enough for yourself.

In short, you need to stretch, to push yourself to some new creative heights, and create your own wonders so that you can delight and entrance your readers.

So I’m going to talk about how this is done in a few series of articles.

Note: On Sunday, a young writer stopped me and suggested that I start a Patreon account so that she could pay a small fee for my online writing tips. Now, I’ve been doing this for ten years and haven’t ever asked for a fee, but the truth is that it does carry some costs—the monthly fees for maintaining my list of contacts, the expense of providing images to put with the articles, the cost for having my assistant edit it and send it out, and far more importantly, the cost of my education and the hours spent writing. Realistically, I figured it out, and realized that I spend $1,000 per month providing this service.

So I thought that her suggestion sounded helpful.

In the near future I hope to take this even further and begin a video blog with the writing tips, with proper lighting, sound equipment, cameras, and so on, which means I’ll be going to greater expense.

If you would like to help by donating a small monthly amount to my Patreon account, that would be greatly appreciated.

Here is the link.

Thank You!


Elisha Daemon

My friend Elaine Isaak has a new book out. Here is what she says:

It’s book launch day! Elisha Daemon, the fifth and final volume in my Dark Apostle series as by E. C. Ambrose, comes out today! Exciting, and a little bittersweet to wrap up a series I’ve been working on for  almost 10 years. I was at Superstars the year before the series launched, and will be forever grateful to David Farland, Kevin J. Anderson, and Brandon Sanderson for the workshop!

Get 40 Clean Romance Books for Valentine’s Day!

All of these romance books are on sale from now until Valentine’s Day. There are contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, christian romance, and speculative romance books. See them all here.

Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop

Provo, Utah
Provo Courtyard Marriott
March 19-23, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
10 Attendees Total

In this workshop we will work heavily on imbuing your prose with the richness and details that bring a story to life. The goal is to teach you how to fully transport readers as you take them on a journey that captivates their hearts and minds. David Farland will teach you how to totally transport you readers so that they become so immersed in your story, they forget where they are—they forget they are reading at all.

This workshop is similar to the Writing Mastery workshop, but will be more exercise-oriented, with in-class practices. Writing Enchanting Prose is more in-depth than any of David’s past prose workshops.

In this workshop, Dave would like to create an intimate environment where individual students will receive ample time for one-on-one interaction and critiques. Dave will be spending personal time with each student. Because of that, we will be strictly limiting the number of students allowed to attend to 10.

The Dallas workshop is now full, but you can also learn some of the same principles from my workshops below.

Fantasy Writing Workshop

YHA Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
August 22-August 28, 2018
Number of Students: Strictly Limited to 12
Number of Days: 7
$1099  (Lodging, food, and travel are all the student’s responsibility)

Join us for our most magical workshop ever! In this workshop, David Farland will be focusing on writing fantasy—building powerful magic systems, cultures, and worlds, creating fantasy characters, plotting fantasy, and writing powerful prose.

Students will need to bring a laptop, an unfettered imagination, and a strong work ethic. Being half-mad would also be a help.

This workshop will last three days longer than most of Dave’s workshops so that you will be able to focus on writing each day but still have some afternoons free to do some sightseeing. We will spend time visiting nearby sites like Stonehenge, The Eagle and Child Pub (where Tolkien and Lewis met with the Inklings writing group), Warwick Castle, Shakespeare’s home, and we will be within easy striking distance of London.

Advanced Intensive Writing Workshop

St. George, Utah
Ramada Inn
October 22-26, 2018
10 Attendees Maximum
$799 (Room, travel, and meals are separate)

Prepare for National Novel Writing Month right in this workshop exclusively for those who would rather be dead than unread!

Dave is ratcheting up his popular Writing Mastery camp and this will be an advanced workshop where we perform daily writing exercises, give daily critiques, and work to improve our writing craft.

During the workshop, instruction and exercises will cover such topics as:

  • Adding intrigue to your tale
  • Creating tension
  • Using the eight kinds of hooks
  • Using appeals to various senses to hypnotize your reader
  • Weak appeals versus strong appeals versus “failed” appeals
  • The music of writing–assonance, consonance, metaphors, etc.
  • Developing and using both your voice and your character’s voices
  • Advanced descriptive techniques
  • And more!

We will have at least ten assignments over the course of the class, and Dave will review each assignment and offer critiques. We will also invite other writers to offer their own insights.

During lunch and dinners, authors will be able to set up appointments to dine with David in order to talk about specific concerns that they have with their writing, or to plan their careers.

Note to David Farland’s Advanced Intensive Writing Workshop Participants: You must bring a laptop computer with you. If you don’t own one, then borrow, rent, or buy one.

While the goal for this workshop is to allow the writer to have fun, to get inspired, to work in an intellectually rich and emotionally fulfilling environment, this will be David’s most intensive class ever!


Learn more or register here.

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