Creating a Magic System, Part 2: Style and Powers — syndicated post from @thefourpartland


The following is syndicated from The Four Part Land and is posted here with permission.

Last time, I looked at how Strength and Prevalence affect both a magic system and a setting. This time around, I'm going to look at Style and Powers.

First off, a little background on each. Style is how the interactions with magic are portrayed to the reader, and how the characters in the story believe that magic acts. Powers is what can be done with that magic.

Here's a quick example so that you understand what I'm trying to say.

Iudas pulled energy from his cells to excite the air molecules in front of him, creating a barrier of superheated air between him and the foes that chased him.

Iudas caught at the elemental fire within, forming it into a roaring, blazing wall between him and the foes that chased him.

The Power in question is more or less identical – a wall of superheated air/flame. Anyone attempting to pass through it will be burnt. But the Style is extremely different. The first is something I would associate with telekinetics or psionics, a much more modern, scientifically styled description of what is going on, while the second is much closer to how I see more traditional magic being described.

With that example out of the way, onto to the choices!

Choice #3: Style – How do you want to describe your magic, your world? Does it have Arabian influences? Eastern? Celtic? Each of these is a distinct culture in Earth's history, and when authors choose a style to use, they are usually borrowing little bits and pieces of historical cultures and merging them together to create a unified whole.

Style is not the power itself, it is the trappings of power. This is most often seen when a wizard is casting a large, world-changing spell. Almost regardless of what is involved outside of that event, the particular casting will require long rituals, many complex agents and actors, and be capable of being spoiled in any number of ways. Yet if a god performs actions that have the same scale and scope, they are often described as taking mere moments and but a little thought.

This distinction is all about style. Style dictates how hard or easy casting a spell or accessing magic is for the user. Most often, this comes about from where the magic is sourced. Internal power tends to be easier to access, and most of the hold-ups and flaws are within the caster's mind. This allows for moments of tension as the mage struggles to gain control of his emotions, and then unleashes a satisfy blast at the last moment to save the day. As a reader, we've probably all come across this scenario multiple times.

You can't do that if the nature of magic requires that the wizard sit inside a magical rune and chant for one hour, at a minimum. If that is how magic is written in a given setting, then the author needs to plan out spaces and time for magic to be used. To create a similar feeling of duress, the caster would likely be under assault during the last few minutes of the casting process, with friends and allies attempting to stave off the incoming tide.

When creating the source of magic, it's vitally important to think about how that choice of source, and the rules that affect accessing it, will have an impact on what situations you can and cannot devise in your writing. I highly recommend writing a short story or two about the use of magic before starting plotting and devising larger scopes, so that as an author you have a feel for how your system looks on paper.

Choice #4: Powers – What can magic do in your setting? Can it rewrite continents, or does it get used to fix a broken boot heel? Neither of these is any more valid than the other, and both can have significant impact on a story, but it is important to choose what a mage can and cannot do. If a caster can do everything that can be thought of, that is both a strain on the author and the world, and a temptation to allow magic to solve every problem that exists. That takes away from dramatic tension, if the author gets to a sticky part of the story and knows that the main character can wave his hand and create a solution.

Please note that Powers and Strength are not the same thing, but interact quite closely. Take a firemage. His powers are that he can summon and manipulate fire, and only fire, within a radius from his physical location. His strength, and the allowed strength of magic in the given setting, says whether that fire will be candle's flame, or a ball of fire the size of a sun. If he can only produce a small flame, little more than a campfire, he is vastly more limited than if he can create a bonfire or an inferno. Yet his powers have not changed. It is the application of differing levels of strength to a singular power that dictates his effectiveness in a given situation.

Note that the choice of powers has a marked impact on how magic is viewed in the setting. If magic is primarily low in strength, and focused around fixing broken items, then in some ways a caster is the same as a modern day plumber or mechanic, and is probably treated similarly. Yet stay with me a moment as I layer style on top. Does it dictate that the magic can only be created in a sanctified temple? Or can the gifted mage come to a client's house? In one situation, the client must go to the mage in his temple as a supplicant. In the other the mage goes to the client, as a man providing a service.

It is somewhat difficult to describe Powers, because the only limits are created by the imagination of the writer, but there are a few general choices.

All-encompassing occurs when each and every mage has the possibility to perform every spell or ritual allowed within a given world. They may not have the strength, or the required items, but at a fundamental level they could perform the spell.

Subset or discrete magic is when there are different powers of magic, and once a character is slotted into one, there is absolutely no possibility of ever casting from outside of that category. The most common of these is elemental magic, wherein a magician is attuned to either Air, Earth, Water, or Fire, and cannot, at even the most basic level, ever entertain the possibility of being able to use one of the other three aspects.

So, we have now gone through and picked out four aspects of our magic. Next week, we'll wrap up this part of the series with the final two – Magical Interaction and Items and Artefacts.


Bringing life to a new captivating world of literature, James Tallett is the innovative author behind the fantasy series, The Four Part Land. The first installment of this provocative new series, Tarranau, was published by Deepwood Publishing in July 2011.

Delving into the trenches of a perplexing world far beyond our imaginations, James also created the Splintered Lands anthology project. The fantasy realm of the Splintered Lands takes readers on a mythical adventure and introduces readers to an assortment of colorful and endearing characters. Bringing together four outstanding writers, James Tallett led the birth of a dynamic literature collaboration for the Splintered Lands project.

James Tallett, an avid global traveler, infuses his passion for hiking and cultural exploration within his writing. He whimsically incorporates his most beloved travel destinations into his vivid storytelling.

Blog –
Twitter - @thefourpartland
Facebook – HERE