Alternative Terms for "Magic" and How to Come Up With Your Own
This article is inspired by a viral TikTok video my friend (and co-host of The Worldbuilder’s Tavern podcast), Christiana Jones, posted a few months ago. They asked viewers for the names of their favourite magic systems, and so many people responded! Though there are zero things wrong with just calling it magic, the five names below are some of my favourite terms and takeaways for naming your own magic system.
1. The Small Science (The Grishaverse by Leigh Bardugo)
In the Grishaverse novels, magic has distinct rules. Leigh Bardugo says she had two motivations for naming her magic system:
“One was I knew that I wanted to create a world where the advent of modern warfare was a threat to magic, and the only way for that to have any meaning is for the magic to have rules. If you have a loose magic system where anything is possible, it doesn’t really matter if somebody has a repeating rifle, because somebody else can conjure a dragon. So I knew I wanted a magic system with real rules.
“The other part really came out of my own love of reading fantasy but really wondering what was happening when somebody waved a wand or spoke the words of a spell. And I thought, ‘Well, what if this is actually happening on a molecular level.’ And so the Small Science is really a kind of magical molecular chemistry.”
Takeaways for naming your magic system: What are the rules of magic in your story? Why did you choose to write a hard or soft magic system? Is there inspiration there for a name?
2. Furycrafting (The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher)
Jim Butcher wrote this series after someone challenged him to combine the Roman Empire with Pokémon. In the story, Alerans bond with elementals of earth, air, fire, water, wood, and metal, called furies. Most people have minor abilities with one or two furies, such as creating a mild breeze or sensing things in water. Some Alerans have higher power-levels with one or two furies, such as wielding a fire sword or manipulating weather. Only the highest nobility are strong in all six types of furycrafting.
Takeaways for naming your magic system: Is there something related to magic in your story, which already has a unique name (such as furies), that you could tie to the name of the magic itself?
3. Hallow (Raybearer series by Jordan Ifueko)
In addition to other magic, such as the Ray that psychically connects the prince’s council, some of Raybearer’s characters are born with Hallows, which are basically superpowers. The protagonist’s Hallow is the ability to see memories of living or nonliving things through touch. Even if you don’t know the meaning of the word hallow, it gives off spiritual vibes, because it sounds similar to holy and halo. Hallow literally means to make holy or sacred, which suggests that these magical abilities are revered in Raybearer’s world.
Takeaways for naming your magic system: In your world, is magic respected? Hated? Feared? Kept secret? Can your magic system’s name be inspired by the way society perceives it?
4. Sympathy (The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss)
In The Kingkiller Chronicles, sympathists can create a link between two objects—manipulating one affects the other. For example, the first binding Kvothe learns is the Sympathetic Binding of Parallel Motion; he binds two coins and, by moving one, moves them both. There are a variety of bindings, rules, and scientific principles involved.
The word sympathy means a relationship or exchange of feelings, “an inclination to think or feel alike,” or “unity or harmony in action or effect” (Merriam-Webster), so the name fits Rothfuss’s system on both a metaphorical and literal level.
Takeaways for naming your magic system: What is a word that describes the way your magic functions? Try looking up that word in a thesaurus to come up with a variety of options.
5. Qi (Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao)
In Iron Widow, Qi is the life essence of everything, divided into five types: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water; this system is directly inspired by wuxing, a Chinese philosophy centered on these five elements, and qi or ch’i is a word in Chinese culture that refers to life force. In the novel, qi can be channeled by people with high enough spirit pressure (i.e. mental power). Most people have two types of qi, though they are stronger with one. The novel’s culture, inspired by ancient China, also genders the magic system; certain types of qi are considered more yin (feminine) and others more yang (masculine). However, the protagonist challenges these stereotypes (check out my TOR.com article about comparing the gendered magic systems of Iron Widow and The Wheel of Time).
Takeaways for naming your magic system: Is your magic inspired by real-world culture, beliefs, or systems? Could the name of your magic system be similarly inspired? (Caveat: Be careful of cultural appropriation; I don’t recommend doing this with a culture that is not your own.)
Affinity (Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao)
Alchemy (Fullmetal Alchemist)
Allomancy (Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson)
Bending (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Chaos (The Witcher)
Charter Magic (The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix)
The Force (Star Wars)
Gramarye (The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini)
Juju (Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor)
Materia (Final Fantasy)
What is an alternative name for magic in a book, show, or video game you love? What’s the name for magic in the story you’re working on? Tell me in the comments!