From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic

Banner Credit: Sue Bavey

I’m so excited to spend a week discussing magic in fantasy books! A creative and epic magic system is always a huge draw to me when it comes to fantasy. While some magic isn’t necessarily fully explained, (which is absolutely fine) other novels have unique and complex systems. This week is going to explore some of those books.

Due to either time constraints or inexperience with a specific book (I haven’t read every fantasy that’s ever been written, to my obvious consternation), there will of course be holes in this series. There will be books that maybe aren’t discussed that you feel ought to be. Please mention them in the comments: I’m a glutton for punishment and love seeing my already-teetering tbr list grow ever longer.

Fortunately for me, there will be far far less holes because both bookbloggers and authors have offered to give their time and talents to this little project! There will be more books mentioned and explained by bloggers, as well as some amazing introductions to unique magic systems by their authors. Stay tuned because this week is going to be great!

To start things off, author M.D. Presley has an excellent breakdown of different kinds of magic that can be found in fantasy novels. Among other books, M.S. Presley is the author of Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors, a guide on fantasy worldbuilding. Enjoy!

M.D. Presely: Magic systems are a lot like worldbuilding in that we frequently discuss what we like about them, but we don’t have a shared understanding as to what makes a good magic system. Brandon Sanderson has laid the foundation with his three (secretly four) laws of magic, but few outside of serious worldbuilders can quote them beyond the first, which differentiates between hard and soft magic systems. So then, what makes a great magic system?

The short answer: The right kind of magic for the story you’re trying to tell. 

Like worldbuilding, magic systems run the gamut for the highly mysterious soft systems to hard ones exacting enough to make computer programmers blanch, whereas most reside somewhere in the middle. However, while working on my upcoming Fantasy Worldbuilding Workbook, I noticed there’s a progression of magic systems. And these four types just so happen to align with Sanderson’s laws of magic as well as the Four Cs of Worldbuilding. Each of these types builds off of the ones that came before, such that Point Systems include all the facets of Soft Systems, while Level Systems include the aspects of Point and Soft, and Cost Systems include them all. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the A.A.L.C. system:

Appearance: Soft Systems

Soft systems focus mostly on what the magic looks like in the story and serve to either make the world more fantastical, make the villains more powerful (and the heroes greater underdogs), or attach to the protagonists in such a way that they must overcome the mysterious magic through a character arc. Because of Sanderson’s first law, these soft magics cannot step in to solve the main conflict of the story without feeling like dues ex machina. So they make the world more awesome in the fact they inspire awe, which is Sanderson’s secret fourth law as well as the C of Compelling. 

Abilities: Point Systems

Point systems follow the classic video game model with a certain amount of fuel (mana) that can be exchanged for varying abilities, with the understanding that the fuel is finite and the characters must make choices as to which abilities to use. And when the fuel is overtly referenced like in video games, this is the hardest of magic systems and can solve the main conflicts since the audience understands the rules (Sanderson’s first law). However, most stories only make oblique reference to how drained the characters are after using their powers, which softens the system considerably. Because the mana levels are not overt, it still feels like dues ex machina when the exhausted heroes find their hidden reserve in the finale. But Point Systems can employ a cost when dramatically necessary to make it more satisfactory. Because the powers are worked out ahead of time, this maps to the C of Consistent.

Limits: Level Systems

Sanderson’s second law states that Limitations > Powers since audiences want to see how characters creatively use their limited abilities rather than gaining godlike powers. As such, leveling systems have clearly defined parameters of what the characters can and cannot do at each stage of their development. Without the need for a point system, the characters have unlimited use of their powers established within their levels, which includes Airbender, Harry Potter, and the Jedi in Star Wars. Because they have unlimited uses of their abilities, characters in level systems usually face down villains of a higher level, and have to come up with clever uses of their lesser, limited abilities to overcome them, thus demonstrated the C of Creativity.

Cost: Cost Systems

The best things in life may be free, but everything else has a cost; so it makes sense that magic would too. And authors have unconsciously been using cost systems for centuries to make magical effects feel earned. In so doing, the magic suddenly has implications, which forces choices and dilemma among the characters. Cost systems create drama because the characters know they must either give up time, valuable materials, their health, sanity, or even life, to use their magic. Cost systems can either be overt from the onset, or can (and often are) tacked on to Soft, Point, or Level Systems when dramatically necessary, meaning that systems can move up the hardness scale at will (although it’s ill-advised to ever go the other way). Cost systems map to Sanderson’s third law in that they extrapolate further on the magic, which in turn makes the magic more Complete. 

These four types then break into 13 different subtypes, with more than one showing up in some of the most popular systems like Harry Potter and Airbender. In fact, the Force in Star Wars has been a Soft, Point, Level, and Cost System depending on who is writing it over the years. Which should demonstrate all the effort that goes into making an inspired magic system and the importance of finding the one that works best for you. 

About the author:

Never passing up the opportunity to speak about himself in the third person, M.D. Presley is not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Born and raised in Texas, he spent several years on the East Coast and now waits for the West Coast to shake him loose. His favorite words include defenestrate, callipygian, and Algonquin. The fact that monosyllabic is such a long word keeps him up at night.

Where to find M.D. Presley:

For more posts in this series:
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Wheel of Time
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- The Coldfire Trilogy
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Magic in the Copper Circle
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Magic for Mercenary Kings
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- The Weather Warden
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- And Now This
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Blood, Fire, and Death
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Teaching Physics to Barbarians


19 thoughts on “From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic

  1. I find systems and characterizations like these rather hard to work with, and though I have a strong idea of what some of the magic in my novels is like, I have a hard time pinning a lot of things about it. Of course, I have this difficulty with other people’s magic, too.

    Two magic systems I found interesting and enjoyable are the siden/sterren magic in The Priory of the Orange Tree and the various different Mages in Breaker.


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