Speculative Fiction: How do magic systems work?

March 18, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

When I’m reading speculative fiction (e.g. science fiction and fantasy), I feel like I have the freedom to be my natural self. It’s not mere escapism, as critics often say; it’s using a story and its enumerated elements for self-realization. I’ll always remember the first time I picked up “Harry Potter” and my first Ted Chiang novella “Story of Your Life,” and how they’ve shaped who I’ve become.

This genre is unique in that it’s all about giving the reader the space and power to dream, to be able to place themselves in the story and feel like they could act in accordance to the world’s culture and beliefs. Magic systems are a part of, but not all of, why this genre draws in countless numbers of people.

While I originally set out to write an article critiquing magic systems, I’m too biased to write something impartial enough to constitute as a “critique.” So I’ll just discuss three as best I can through my sentimental lens.

1. J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter”

Magic system: A multifaceted mixture of wizards and witches mostly controlling their power through wand spellcasting, using spells classified under Charms, Transfiguration, Dueling and more. Other fields of study, like Herbology and Potions, depend more on interactions with magical substances, while some abilities like metamorphosis can be mastered or passed down genetically. This series is famous enough that I don’t need to explain further.

Comments: One of my friends joked that it’s “a sporadic hot mess.” Discovering new spells or potion recipes seems more of a result of trial-and-error (and Latin guesswork) than following consistent logical principles, though Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration is one of the few exceptions in which limits are clearly defined. To be fair, Rowling’s sprawling story is of such magnitude that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain magical principles across so many different fields. Nevertheless, one common critique is that she could have focused more on depth rather than breadth, reducing complexity while inventing more creative uses for a few branches of magic.

And depth does not mean repetition: despite the world-building, consider how many times Expelliarmus has been used in a fight scene, and how Harry has a limited arsenal of spells even with his 6 years of Hogwarts education.

Personal thoughts: Harry Potter is so well-known that I’ll just say I enjoyed the series (like the other 400 million book-owners, and 1 billion or so readers) and keep it at that. I’m just using this series’ magic system as comparison for the next two Sanderson magic systems.

2. Brandon Sanderson, “The Emperor’s Soul” with a little bit of Elantris

Magic system: Forgery, in which users carve stamps that effectively rewrite an object’s history, and then stamp said object for it to take effect. The challenge arises from rewriting its history in a plausible and comprehensive way. For example, a dull, cracked window cannot become a wooden chair, though it can become stained glass window if one etched a story into the stamp of how the window had fallen in the hands of a master craftsman who had lovingly fixed it.

Comments: This is one of my favorite magic systems, as it depends on constructing a narrative to literally redefine an object or person. The protagonist Shai has carved five stamps that rewrite her backstory so that when used, she can assume different identities, such as a talented martial arts fighter or a simple peasant girl. Something very fascinating is its consideration of how art and other objects have a life of their own, and how one’s perspective can reshape its physical manifestation — even knowing why someone likes their favorite color or hates fish is integral to stamp-carving.

This novella is set in the same world as Sanderson’s first published novel, Elantris. Something that’s underrated in world-building, yet is done brilliantly here, is exploring how two cultures can have the same magical source, yet still have radically different magical lore as a result of how their people interact with it. The magic systems in both works are somewhat similar in that they rely on runes, landmarks and drawing, but their respective kingdoms have dealt with “the magic problem” differently. For example, most people in Elantris use Aons (runes) to transform objects as they please — one main character, Raoden, can turn garbage into food — but Forgery, as hinted by the given name, is looked upon as akin to a black-market practice, reducing the number of practitioners as a result. When the protagonist Shai explains her work, her captors dismiss her career as ruining objects and destroying the concept of originality.

Personal thoughts: One of my favorite books of all time, it delves into the nature of art and the complexities of the human soul, while maintaining its action-based premise (Shai is jailed and has to restore the emperor’s soul when he is left brain dead, and must find a way to escape before she is put to death for “theft”). It’s also one of the few works out there that has no romantic subplot whatsoever! Rather, it focuses on Shai’s granddaughter-grandfather bond with one of the Emperor’s advisors, with whom she reflects on her own Forging abilities and life philosophy. My only critique is that there was more than enough material for this novella to have been expanded into a full-fledged novel.

3. Brandon Sanderson, “Mistborn” Trilogy

Magic system(s): Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy, all of which are based on metals that can grant specific abilities. In regard to prominence in the series, Allomancy is the most widely known, with the Mistborn (magic-users) ingesting metal flakes and metabolizing them when needed. There are 16 basic metals, with 8 elemental metals having a corresponding alloy with opposite powers (e.g. Mistborn can flare iron to pull metals closer to them, while flaring steel pushes metals away; combining just these two can lead to complex maneuvers resembling flight).

Comments: Overall, this is considered one of Sanderson’s best systems, especially since its comprehensiveness lends itself to story foreshadowing. With the discovery of an element — like gold, which reveals one’s past self — the protagonist (and the reader) can predict that there is a corresponding alloy that will provide an opposite ability (electrum, which reveals one’s future self).

When a user flares several basic metals in conjunction, the metals’ abilities are combined in fascinating ways that really emphasizes how an author’s expansion on a preexisting set-up is more important than just creating a new magic power. While there are two powerful god-elements (atium and lerasium), Sanderson integrated them very well into his world-building, making them two rare commodities that, unbeknownst to the protagonist, directly stemmed from the world’s creation and were actually the foundation for society. For example, lerasium was sparingly given to elites to create Mistborn bloodlines of magic-users that could be directly controlled under the Lord Ruler.

Personal thoughts: The whole trilogy was well-done, but the first book “The Final Empire,” which can also stand alone, remains my favorite for the protagonist Vin’s excellent characterization, harrowing plot and magical lore exposition. In the latter two books, she was somewhat sidestepped to make way for another character’s rise to prominence, and I just wanted more of her story (especially since I still get choked up when thinking about the bittersweet ending). After finishing the series at 4:00 a.m. one morning, I was certainly tempted to fling my books out the window and cry, so I’ll just say our literary relationship is very complicated.

I also recommend Sanderson’s “Warbreaker” (2009), which has a magic system of Awakening in which mages can activate objects or enhance their own abilities through their personal stores of BioChromatic Breath. The two protagonists are two princesses of Idris, and one of them later shows up in his epic series The Stormlight Archive. Best of all, it’s free, as Sanderson is that type of noble author who wanted to publish all his drafts — 6 versions — online to inspire upcoming young writers.

These are just a sampling of the various throughlines of countless novels and short stories that have weaved their threads around me and shaped my own writing inclinations. The lure of the tome brimming with the collective power of words, ensnaring readers with Mist-like tendrils… you could almost say that it’s magical.


Contact Shana Hadi at shanaeh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Shana '21 is a former Managing Editor for Arts&Life (Vol 256) who is studying computer science, English, and their many intersections. She is also an active night owl who enjoys green tea and flights of imagination (spurred from works like Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation"). When she’s not reading speculative fiction or attempting to write it well, she wonders if books are word sandwiches and their themes are different flavors of idea jam, and if that’s why they're so nourishing to the soul.

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