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 other parts of the series:


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. In the next installment you will learn about how to build a strong magic system of your own!

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About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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4 Responses to Magic Systems 101: Pt. 4 “Literary Magic Systems”

  1. Pingback: Magic Systems 101: Pt. 5 Create Your Own Magic System | My Literary Quest

  2. Pingback: Magic Systems 101: Pt. 1 Why Write Good Magic | My Literary Quest

  3. Pingback: Magic Systems 101: Pt. 2 Hard Magic vs Soft Magic | My Literary Quest

  4. Pingback: Magic Systems 101: Pt. 3 Sanderson’s Laws of Magic | My Literary Quest

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