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Two Methods of Writing Magic

Young Adult fiction writer Lauren DeFelice contemplates two types of magic systems and determines which one she should use in her fantasy thriller novel.

By Lauren DeFelice

July 13, 2023

My first encounter with real-life magic was at ten years old. The boat rocked beneath me in the Thousand Island Archipelago of Canada as I lay down and looked at the stars. The milky way split the sky in a silver river of stardust, and the night was alive from billions of lightyears away.

I thought of how miraculous the light of a singular star was, and I thought of all the ancient stories written in the constellations. All my wonder merged into a singular idea: what if people could draw magic from the stars and their stories?

At that moment, I decided to write a novel about this concept, and for over a decade, I have been radically revising the same series to execute the vision I had. 

I originally framed my book’s magic system—or the sources, effects, and limitations that define what magic can do—around the constellations and their myths. The source of magic would be the constellations, the magical effect a user could manifest would be based on the myths and the limitation would be physical exertion.

However, I came across a major problem: there are 88 constellations, and that created 88 different magical effects. That’s far too much to explain to a reader or keep track of. And the feedback I received from my Book Revision Lab readers confirmed my suspicions.

So I returned to the basics to rework the magic system from the ground up. When I began writing fantasy, I studied the author Brandon Sanderson and his “Laws of Magic,” so I returned to his philosophies.

Sanderson talks of magic on a spectrum of softer systems to harder systems, and understanding these two extremes of magic is crucial to understanding its function in a story and what point on the spectrum best suits the narrative.

Soft Magic

As seen in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, soft magic is when magic is used to build a sense of wonder. Though there may be rules, they aren’t explained to the audience and aren’t necessary to the story’s function.

As Sanderson says in his blog “Sanderson’s First Law,” “The really good writers of soft magic systems very, very rarely use their magic to solve problems in their books. Magic creates problems, then people solve those problems on their own without much magic.”

Hard Magic

In Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson utilizes hard magic to define rules that create and solve conflicts or create puzzles for the reader to figure out. The rigidity of it limits a sense of wonder but gives the reader a deep and scientific understanding of it.

Hard magic creates and solves conflicts. Magic sets stakes and builds twists bound by the rules.

My Solution

Sanderson’s first law of magic states that an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well a reader understands the magic system. 

I intended to write a hard magic system, but with the amount of variations and fluidity softening it, my readers could not understand it fully enough for me to solve conflict with it and not confuse them. I needed to make the effects and limitations of my magic more focused and tangible.

I kept the constellations as the source of magic, but I made the effect a manifestation of one of four elements: earth, fire, air, and water. Not only are the elements tangible things readers can understand, but four elements are certainly less broad than 88 constellations. I did this by categorizing the constellations into seasons and assigning elements to the seasons.

I wrote all the rules, limitations, and intricacies out in a document, presented it to a few fresh eyes, and they told me three beautiful words: this makes sense. So I moved on to my next stage of revision.

Trying to preserve that initial wonder I felt as a child is one of the unique challenges of this project, but returning to the basics and sources of inspiration never fails to solve a revision block. 

Though the book is unrecognizable from the draft I wrote at ten years old, it improves each time I revise it. I can’t wait to see how this next draft changes with me, too.

Lauren DeFelice is a novelist and illustrator pursuing an English major at Monmouth University. She is currently revising her debut YA Fantasy/Thriller series, CALL OF EMBERS.