Magic Systems 101: Pt. 4 “Literary Magic Systems”

This post is a continuation of a presentation originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.

Don’t miss the first three parts of the series:

The fifth and final part of this series, “Create your Own Magic System” will be posted soon. Please like and subscribe either here on the sidebar or on Facebook so you don’t miss out.


Examples of Literary Magic Systems

As we explore these different systems we will be considering the following questions:

  • Who gets to use the magic?
  • What are the costs?
  • What are the limitations of the magic?
  • How was the main conflict solved?
  • Is this a hard or soft system?

6359333648355712821253840626_lord-of-the-rings-2Lord of the Rings

Who? Of all the races that take part in Lord of the Rings only the Wizards and the Elves who possess rings can use magic.

Cost? It is unclear what it costs wizards and elves to use the magic or where the energy comes from. We know both races possess phenomenal powers of self-restraint so it might be infered that they have learned that magic often causes more problems than it solves. Culturally, both wizards and elves tend to live isolated, secluded lives which may be a result of possessing said magic. They don’t want to be constantly petitioned to help with the problems of the world.

Limitations? It is unclear what the wizard’s magic can and cannot do. Gandalf seems to have a variety of powers including fighting Balrogs and talking to insects and animals. Saruman can create new frightening lifeforms. Whether they had special limitations is never explored and the reader is left to imagine.

Conflict? The main conflict revolves around destroying the one ring. In the end, this happened when Frodo cast it into the fires of Mount Doom at great personal cost. Gandalf’s magic helped the group survive long enough to get Frodo where he needed to go, but in the end it wasn’t magic that solved the problem.

Hard or Soft? Definitely a soft system. So many variables aren’t defined.  The reader is never sure what might happen.

promo324074177Harry Potter

Who? There are wizards and muggles and the distinction between them is very clear, even going as far as distinguishing bloodlines and discriminating against any wizard or witch who isn’t a pure-blood. Unless a young wizard comes from as wizarding family, they learn about their ability to use magic when they turn eleven and are eligible to attend a wizarding school.

Cost? As far as we know, it is the complexity of the spells themselves that limit the magic’s use. No thought is given to where the energy for the magic comes from. We see magic being used for a variety of mundane everyday things, especially in the Weasely’s home.

Limitations?  If a wizard has mastered a spell then they know precisely when and how to use it. Therefore, it’s their knowledge that limits them. Hermione had a wonderful functional memory and therefore could remember and use far more spells than other students. The government of the Wizarding world has set out very strict rules regarding the use of magic, including when and where it cannot be used.

Conflict? Harry’s extended conflict revolves at first about surviving the efforts of Lord Voldemort to kill him and in the end, how to defeat him. He must use his hard learned lessons to each battle and with each year the battles are more challenging.

Hard or Soft? Harry Potter is mostly hard magic where there are strict rules and incantations and gestures that must be performed. However, since there are no physical limitations and endless energy, I consider it a hybrid system.


Who? If we are defining magic as something normal people can’t do, then yes, Superman can use magic.  He, and any one else from his home planet have unusual powers on earth.

Cost? Luckly, Superman has endless amounts of energy and therefore doesn’t tire of saving the inhabitants of earth.  His only cost is purely emotional, he must often choose between the fate of the planet or the life of Lois Lane.

Limitations? Superman only has a few very select powers including flying, super strength and speed, and magic eyeballs with lasers and x-ray.  His only weakness is that he becomes mortal in the presence of krypton.

Conflict? Save the earth and Lois Lane! The exact conflict depends on the specific story, and there are lots of them. Usually, he must use his powers to overcome a huge obstacle that pushes him to his limits. In most scenarios, he is weakened by Kryptonite or has chosen to be human and must overcome those weaknesses first.

Hard or Soft? Superhero stories are mostly hard magic systems because they are so clearly defined. We know exactly what Superman can and cannot do and what his weaknesses are. In Superman’s world, he has limitless power – and therefore great responsibility – so it does have that one element of a soft system.


I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about magic systems. Stay tuned for the final part of the series where you will learn about how to build a strong magic system of your own!

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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 3 Sanderson’s Laws of Magic

This post is a continuation of a presentation originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.

Don’t miss the first two parts of the series:

Parts 4 and 5 will be posted soon, please like and subscribe either here on the sidebar or on Facebook so you don’t miss out.


20170426-labyrinth-heroAny discussion regarding magic systems must include talking about Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. Brandon Sanderson–author of Mistborn, Elantris, the last few Wheel of Time novels, and the Stormlight Archive, to name a few–is no doubt the master of technical magic systems. He has created this set of three laws to govern the creation of systems he creates. These laws are both brilliant and insightful and can be applied to any magical system.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magic

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

I mentioned before that when “convenient” magic solves a problem it cheapens the victory. All the effort our characters have gone through to arrive at the climax needs to be rewarded with a good fight. However, if our main character happens to discover a magic spell that vanquishes the bad guy right when he needs it then the problem is solved too easily.

In the first Harry Potter, each of Harry’s friends had to use their smarts to get through the obstacles to allow Harry to reach Quirrel and recover the sorcerer’s stone. Harry is granted the stone through the Mirror of Erised, an existing magic which was explained earlier in the book. Quirrel touches Harry and then disintegrates due to the magic of love that Harry had been given by his mother. We already knew that Harry had something magical happen to him when he survived Voldemort’s attack, and it’s the same mother’s protective magic being used here.

Had we not known understood how the mirror worked or that Harry had survived an attack by Voldemort before, having the book end this way would be highly unsatisfying.

If a conflict is going to be solved by an application of magic, it needs to be an extension of magic that the reader is already familiar with. When the reader understands the extent of what magic can do and it’s cost, they can more fully appreciate the struggle of the main character as they try to use it. This also creates a more immersive reading experience.

Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic

Limitations must be greater than powers

There has to be a reason why magic can’t be used for everything all the time. A character using magic to do literally everything won’t resonate with readers because it’s unrelatable. However, make that same magic have a cost and presto, there will automatically be good reasons when that magic should or should not be used.

When we give our characters limits, then they have all the more reason to test those limits creating additional conflict – and the base of any great story is loads of conflict to resolve.

A character with unlimited power isn’t really a character at all as they have ascended to a god-like state. Can you have god-like characters? Of course. Should you use them as a POV character? I wouldn’t recommend it.

Remember Q from Star Trek? He had unlimited powers as well as a perverse sense of morality. He could do untold amounts of “magic” causing all sorts of grief for the crew of the Enterprise, especially Picard. His character uses god-like power. It is unpredictable and dangerous. Because the audience and the crew had no idea what might happen next it caused huge amounts of stress and anxiety. There is no neutral ground when it comes to fans of Q, either people love him, or really hate him.

Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic

Expand what you already have before you add anything new

Creating new and wonderful things in the name of fantasy is one of the perks of the genre. In the first third of any fantasy book the author has the license to create what they feel their world needs, including unique creatures, fantasy races, and magic systems. However, after the first third everything needs to already be established. After that point, if something amazing and wondrous needs to happen, it needs to be drawn from what has already been introduced.

The reason new things shouldn’t constantly be introduced has everything to do with creating a deep, well-constructed world. When there is something new around every turn there is too much for the reader to take in and the world feels thrown together. Think of the movie, Labyrinth. There were literally new things at every turn of the maze. It was confusing and bizarre. If David Bowie hadn’t been in it to tie everything together, the movie would have failed.

By forcing yourself to think deeply about what already established magic elements can do, you can create a more realistic and rooted system that makes the readers feel like they have an understanding of the world.


Thanks for stopping by! Stay tuned for the next installment of Magic Systems 101 where we will discuss the key elements of several literary magic systems.

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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 2 Hard Magic vs Soft Magic

This post is a continuation of a presentation originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017. Don’t miss the other parts of this series:

Other parts will be posted soon, please like and subscribe either here on the sidebar or on Facebook so you don’t miss future posts.


Mickey MagicIf you are going to write a good magic system, one of the first things that needs to be decided is how that magic is going to feel to the reader. This is often described as how hard or soft the magic is.

Let’s discuss the defining features of each system:

Soft Magic

A soft magic system won’t have clearly specified rules or limitations. It won’t be clear where the energy to perform the magic comes from or how it affects the person using it. When soft magic is used it creates a sense of wonder, much like if we were to attend a modern day magic show. We allow the magician to delight and fool us into believing that the impossible is possible.

Soft magic is wonderful in books meant for younger readers because they don’t care why the magic works and they don’t tend to question things as much as older readers. They want to be enchanted by the possibility of people flying and food magically appearing. Often, soft magic will be used in coming of age fantasy stories where the main conflict revolves around the main character learning an important life lesson while being part of an interesting magical world.

There are a few drawbacks to soft magic that need to be discussed. Because the focus of the story usually isn’t the magic itself, the main character usually isn’t a magic user. This way they are allowed to experience the wonder of the magic, without worrying about the details or costs of creating it.

In soft magic stories we find that the main conflict isn’t solved by magic at all but rather by the valuable lesson that the main character learns throughout the course of the book. Often, when magic is used to solve a problem it will actually make the problem worse. Think of the Mickey Mouse clip “Magicians Apprentice,” every time Mickey tries to use magic to help him clean up, the magic has other ideas.

Historically, early fantasy, like Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, tended to have softer, more flexible magic that served to make the world and characters more interesting. The current trend is leaning toward more technical “hard” magic.

Hard Magic

The term “hard magic” is misleading as it leads writers to believe that the magic is hard to learn. The “hard” refers to inflexibility in how the magic is allowed to be used. I prefer the term “technical magic” because it places the emphasis on the science of the magic itself.

Technical magic has defined limits. It is clear what can and cannot be done. Often there are specific rules surrounding its use outlined by the culture at large or a governing magical society. There is a clear cost in the use of this magic to the user. The energy must come from somewhere.

Because of all these details, a story featuring technical magic will spend significant time teaching the main character how it works, and as a result the reader will develop an understanding as well. Often in this kind of fantasy, the main conflict is solved in part by a unique application of the magic that the main character has been struggling to develop.

Readers read this type of fantasy because they crave to feel like they are part of the magical world. It feels more realistic and can pack a stronger emotional punch.

Interesting note, many superhero story fall into the category of technical magic. Their abilities are unique and narrowly defined. They have limits and weaknesses. Spiderman creates webs and has the agility of a spider. Superman flies, has super strength, and magic eyeballs. Doctor Who (yes, he is a superhero, think about it) can time travel and regenerate.

There are a few pitfalls in using technical magic. First of all, its harder for a writer to come up with a solid technical magic system and be able to weave it into the narrative without risking the story getting boring and slow. This is often the reason why these stories lose their sense of wonder, there is a tendency to over explain. The power of the story lies in the strength and grit of the main character. As writers we must use caution not to let the magic take over the story.

Hybrid Magic

There are so many good things in both soft and hard magic systems that upon closer inspection, many popular fantasy books will fall on a spectrum that ranges between both. The Wheel of Time series is mostly technical magic. It is fairly clear what the magic can and cannot do, however there are always loose ends that imply there might be something new around the corner.

Harry Potter falls into the 50/50 range. The students have clear rules about magic and its uses. However, the rest of the magical world holds a cornucopia of unexplained and wonderful spells and abilities.

Regardless of the system a story ends up using, there are a few vital things to remember:

  • “Convenient” magic puts off the reader. Discovering a new magic spell in the nick of time to beat the bad guy cheapens the victory. A good victory means that the character has to stretch his limits to find a way to solve the problem, often at great personal cost.
  • Consistency is crucial. Remember Elsa on Frozen? Her magic was awesome, however there was a problem. If she could only manipulate ice, what was her dress made of? Also, most critics thought it a bit of a stretch that she could animate snow objects and bring them to life.
  • Don’t forget the cost. This often overlooked detail can make or break a magic system. Having a clear cost will add depth to the conflict and answer the question, “Why can’t we use magic for this?”


Thanks for stopping by! Loving this topic? Jump on over to the next installment of Magic Systems 101 where we discuss Sanderson’s Laws of Magic.

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Magic Systems 101: Pt. 1 Why Write Good Magic

This presentation was originally given at the Eagle Mountain Writer’s Conference held on Sept 9th, 2017.

This is the first part of a five part series. Other parts will be posted soon, please like and subscribe either here on the sidebar or on Facebook so you don’t miss future posts. Here are handy links to the rest of the series


On to our discussion!

“The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along . . . The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition—then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”

-John Campbell, Analog Editor

I’m sure many of my fellow fantasy writers have heard this sentiment expressed by other writers, both fantasy and other genres alike. It’s maddening, but I am guilty of at one time stating the same idea – that one of the biggest perks of writing fantasy is the ability to make up new amazing things.

This does not mean we get to break the rules, kids. In many ways, fantasy and science fiction are very similar. A new and unexplored world is introduced. In this world is a problem that must be solved. However, the power in a fantasy, just like in science fiction, lies in the struggle to solve that conflict, not in what cool magic we can come up in the moment.

Put simply – A fantasy world has a problem that usually revolves around a creature or thing that has capabilities that cannot be explained. The tools given to those trying to solve the problem might include items or people with special powers or abilities. At it’s heart, fantasy takes reality and turns it up a few notches so that the problems seem larger, the heroes greater, and the victories worth winning.

It’s the same with science fiction. In fact, take that previous paragraph and replace “fantasy” with “science fiction” and the result still works. Check it out:

A science fiction world has a problem that revolves around a creature or thing that has capabilities that cannot be explained. The tools given to those trying to solve the problem might include items or people with special powers or abilities. At it’s heart, science fiction takes reality and turns it up a few notches so that the problems seem larger, the heroes greater, and the victories worth winning.

Cool, eh?

So, why spend time building a good magic system? Why can’t we just wing it, like so many people believe fantasy writers do?

Here are three reasons why building a good magic system is important –

Magic is the key distinction between ordinary fiction and fantasy.

For purposes of our discussion today, let’s define magic as anything that can’t exist in the world as we know it. This includes people and items with special powers, mythical creatures, and human-like races.

Why would we want to do that?

The presence of these magical elements creates a degree of separation from real world drama, making fantasy an escape. It allows readers to dream of the impossible and gives them a sense of wonder and adventure. The more concrete world the author can create, the more realistic this illusion can be.

Magic allows readers to explore the amazing, unbelievable, and terrible through the eyes of a hero in the making.

Fantasy stories often have much greater stakes than real life. Our heroes are fighting dragons and facing demons. Their villians can destroy worlds. They do this while also facing personal challenges, like feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Embarking on these quests requires enormous courage. When we see our hero succeed, we feel a sense of victory. It gives us strength knowing that there are people out there, even fictional ones, who are brave enough to take on dragons.

Magic builds greater compassion and understanding through metaphorical storytelling.

Real people have real problems that cause real pain. A character facing the same problem in a book is almost too uncomfortable to read because it dredges up painful emotions. However, if we are to place this character in a magical world and give them a similar problem cloaked in imaginative elements, there is enough difference that the story can be enjoyed and learned from.

Harry Potter wasn’t about kids going to school to learn magic, it was about friendship and overcoming obstacles.

Lord of the Rings wasn’t about the ring, it was about a brave little hobbit Frodo stepping outside his comfort zone and being brave in the face of adversity.


Loving this discussion? Keep reading! Here are those links again:

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Be part of the conversation, comment below!



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How to Write a Villain

Writing villains never looked so good! This post is by my friend Tara and shares some great insights on creating a well rounded villain.

It seems like it has been a while since I have done a solid writing tip. I’ve skimmed through the files in my brain and pulled out the folder labeled “Villain.”

Mwahahaha . . .

Everyday I get more and more people looking at my post about How to Write a Bad Boy. I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe there will be a huge influx of bad boy characters coming into novels pretty soon. Anyway, in that blog post, I said I would expand on the Villain character. So here goes.

Who is your favorite Villain?

Here is a list of some of mine. I’m going back to my post on resonance a bit.


The Lord of Darkness from Legend


The Joker from Batman


The Governor from The Walking Dead


Queen Ravenna from Snow White and the Huntsman


The Goblin King from the Labyrinth

It’s all about seduction.


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Using Rites and Rituals in Fiction

Jodi L. Milner, Author

StarWarsIV_327PyxurzWe’ve come around back to writer Wednesday once more and today we are talking about using rites and rituals in fiction.  When I say rites and rituals, I’m referring to any choreographed set of actions performed by several people that is meant to add importance to an event. For the sake of this post we will use the term “ceremony” to include all rites and rituals and related events. These events include formal religious rites and public occasions such as awards, weddings, anniversaries, coronations, and funerals.

Some ceremonies are simple. For example the Japanese Tea Ceremony is performed by one host and is meant to show respect for the honored guests through a demonstration of grace and good etiquette. This isn’t to say that is is easy, the ceremony takes years to learn and a lifetime to master.

Large ceremonies can require hundreds of well-trained individuals to do their part…

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Keeping the Story Real

Writer Wednesday strikes again!

Jodi L. Milner, Author

If Ace Rimmer can ride a random alligator then it must be ok, right? If Ace Rimmer can ride a random alligator then it must be ok, right?

It’s writing Wednesday and yet another chance to inundate the webverse with more unsolicited writing advice. Woo Hoo!

Today’s topic is about keeping it real when it comes to plotting a story. I’m sure we’ve all seen or read at least one story where something happens that’s hopefully exciting or at least vaguely interesting, but has nothing to do with the story. Jack M. Bickham refers to this as “dropping alligators through the transom.”

Unless your story is about mutant alligators taking over an office building, there is probably no good reason for it to happen.

I can hear the argument already.”This scene was kinda dull so I thought adding killer bees would add a bit more interest.”

Ahem… If your scene was dull, and you knew it was dull, why is it even in your…

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Writing Fresh

Jodi L. Milner, Author

If your writing isn't as fresh as this orange, you better read this. If your writing isn’t as fresh as this orange you better read this.

It’s writing Wednesday and today we are going to talk about writing fresh. Each writing conference I attend teaches me something new and sometimes these lessons profoundly change the way I think about writing. At this month’s LDStorymakers writing conference one of the most influential lessons I took to heart was also one of the simplest.

Write Fresh.

This idea was discussed by several presenters including the evening keynote Martine Leavitt. She spoke about her writing journey and how at times her life was so hectic that often her writing goal for the day was to write one perfect sentence that had never been written before.

Margie Lawson shared the same idea in her deep editing intensive workshops. She added ideas about how to use enhanced description and literary devices to keep the writing alive and also to…

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Writing Fantasy Profanity

Jodi L. Milner, Author

Bantha-ST Don’t mix up your Bantha Poodoo with your Nerf Herders! Getting swearing right is important.

It’s writer Wednesday and today we are going to delve into the risque topic of fantasy profanity. Well, ok, it’s not all that risque. In fact, the reason many people like fantasy novels is that there is rarely ever any swearing.

Instead, we enter the world of alternate swearing. In a fantasy world there are different beliefs and different cultural practices that lead to different terms being considered profane, just like different English speaking countries have distinct swear words. Saying ‘bollocks’ or ‘bloody’ in the US barely gets an eyebrow raise because most people don’t know what they mean.

Using standard swearing in a fantasy novel doesn’t make sense because you wouldn’t expect an alternate civilization to develop the same swear words. When they are used they pull the reader from the narrative – a…

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Writing Exercise: The KISS Principle

Jodi L. Milner, Author

It’s Writer Wednesday here at the blog and today we are going to discuss the KISS principle.

KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I’m not calling any of you dear readers stupid, rest assured. Only the smartest of readers and writers end up here. The KISS acronym has been around since the 1960’s when it was used as a design principle in the US Navy.

Some have morphed the acronym to these more suitable alternatives –

  • Keep It Short and Simple
  • Keep It Small and Simple
  • Keep It Simple and Straightforward

Choose the one that works best for you.

A handful of writers fall into the “If it’s complicated, it’s better”  category, thinking that if a plot has twists and surprise reveals on every other page then it must be an awesome read. Yes, there are readers out there that love a book like this. There are also readers…

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