Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 2

In the last lesson, I pointed out that most magic systems tend to be rather stale, that they don’t create a sense of wonder.

We typically only encounter a strong sense of wonder when we come upon something new. In fact, wonder comes when we find ourselves in a strange situation and then are left in a state of emotional confusion. Imagine for a moment that a young man goes down into his basement and finds a glowing ball, the size of a basketball, hovering in the air. It sizzles with electricity, crackling and popping, and makes a humming sound. The air around it is colder than ice, and it calls his name and begs, “Touch me?”

What should he do? Should he touch it? Should he run? Talk to it? Call his dad? Phone the police? What happens if he does touch it? Will it freeze his hand, give him magical powers, suck him into another world?

That moment when we do not understand the consequences of an action is called wonder. It’s curiosity mixed with fear and expectation.

We learn to wonder as infants. When we’re crawling on the floor and find something strange, we stick it in our mouths and taste it. We don’t really know what we’re doing. The thing that we find on the floor could be a button, or a jellybean, or mom’s baggie of heroin. So as children we learn to experiment and hope for the best.

In fiction, that sense of wonder can be a powerful draw, especially for youngsters.

But think about it: wonder only can arise when we first experience something new. If I stick something in my mouth, and it turns out to be a crayon, I quickly learn that there is no great reward that comes from eating crayons. Mom might even spank me.

But what if, in your fantasy, I meet an orc?  Well, if I’ve seen orcs before and your orc is just like all other orcs, so the sense of wonder is diminished. I might enjoy meeting a nice orc, say from the Clan of the Severed Claw, but I don’t really feel a strong sense of wonder.

Instead, I will probably be curious about your orc. I’ll wonder if you and I have the same beliefs about how orcs operate. I’ll wonder if he has any interesting powers, or personality quirks.  If he doesn’t, I’ll probably be disappointed. Any sense of wonder that I might feel will be . . . lost.

So often, that is what happens.  I read a lot of fantasy that is okay, but it just doesn’t arouse that sense of wonder for a mature fantasy reader—especially if he’s a jaded literary critic, like me.

There’s a continuum here.  A new reader who has never read Tolkien or any other fantasy work might feel a powerful thrill of wonder simply because he is encountering an orc for the first time. After he’s read for a couple of years, he might still enjoy the nostalgia of meeting up with orcs and trolls and elves again, and nostalgia can be a strong emotional draw in itself, but it isn’t as strong as wonder.

Of course, after years of reading fantasy, that powerful sense of wonder diminishes, and eventually the average reader feels disappointed most of the time and simply quits reading wonder fiction altogether.

As a writer, you need to understand this continuum.

If you’re creating a magical system–or magical characters, or magical places or implements—that you’ve seen used over and over again, you know that you’re probably going to disappoint your readers, if they’ve been around the block a few times.

So you need to imbue your magic with wonder. You need to look for ways to either come up with something original, or else you need to figure out how to “twist” an old system so that it has its own unique concepts behind it. Twisting something familiar has the added benefit of creating wonder and nostalgia at the same time. These twists might include things like the price of the magic, or how it works, the nature of its effects, and so on.

Let me give an example. Years ago I was teaching a writing class and talked with a young writer about writing a romance novel that had a strong sense of wonder. She decided that she wanted to include a vampire as the love interest, and we talked about how to twist the vampire and make “vampires” her own. So she revisited the old idea of vampires fearing the sunlight (an idea that wasn’t seen until the 1930s, since it didn’t come from folklore, but from a black-and-white movie).

She eventually decided to make her vampires glow in the sunlight, rather than burn, as some modern writers have done. The choice seemed a little odd to me, but over the weekend I heard women talking, and one was telling the other just how ingenious and appealing she had found the idea to be.

The point here is, the twist should simply make people wonder. Just remember that if you’re using a stock magic system, and especially if you’re writing for an older audience, you’re failing your audience. So you have to go back and reimagine your magic system.

Here is a simple rule for writers that you would do well to remember: All failures in writing result from the author’s failure of imagination.

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 to 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.



Barbarians by David Farland

Starting tomorrow (Friday), my short story Barbarians will be up for free over the weekend. It is set a thousand years before The Runelords. You can get it here.

Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop – TWO SPOTS LEFT

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.

Learn more or register here.

One thought on “Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 2

  1. Scott T Barnes

    Thank you Dave for the excellent piece on Magic Systems. I’m struggling with this right now for a YA novel–how to make the magic interesting and important to the story, but not so weird it turns off readers. Another fine essay on this subject is by Brandon Sanderson, his Sanderson’s First and Second Laws. I haven’t read his Third Law yet. His pieces are complementary to this but don’t cover the same ground.


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