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Seven Unique Magic Systems to Inspire Your Own

Unique magic systems are a great way to hook readers. Plus, they’re so much fun to create. Whether magic has detailed rules or its source is a mystery, understanding the way it impacts your story will enrich your worldbuilding. Here are seven stories with fascinating magic systems:

Cover of Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, featuring a short-haired woman in dark clothes and a misty cloak, holding a dagger.

1. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson


When it comes to magic systems, Brandon Sanderson knows what’s what. In his Mistborn series, allomancy involves the “burning” of metals by ingesting them and using them to fuel various abilities. Iron allows you to pull on nearby sources of metal, pewter increases your strength and speed, zinc lets you feel others’ emotions, and so on. The magic system is revealed to be more intricate as the series progresses, and it fuels some fascinating fight scenes.


2. Fullmetal Alchemist


In this anime, magic sits under the guise of science. Alchemists understand matter’s structure and can manipulate it by transmuting an object into something else. Altering matter has rules, such as this one: “In order to obtain or create something, something of equal value must be lost or destroyed.” Problems arise when two boys try to bring their mom back from the dead, but have nothing equivalent to offer for the return of her soul.


3. Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko


In her novel Raybearer, Ifueko builds a complex, African-inspired magic system with wishes, djinns, the underworld, and superpowers called Hallows. The magic surrounding the monarchy is also fascinating; the ruler of Aritsar has a Council of Eleven, all mentally connected to each other through a power called the Ray. The Council basically makes the Emperor immortal—only one of the Eleven can kill him. Cue dramatic music!


4. The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix


Garth Nix created one of the most unique magic systems I’ve ever encountered in this middle grade series. In a world covered by a veil of darkness, people called the Chosen use light magic by wielding Sunstones. Different colours of light are used to weave various spells, and the Chosen’s society is based on a hierarchy according to the colours of the rainbow. In addition, the Chosen swap their shadows for spirit companions who are bonded to them and forced to do their bidding. Most of the Chosen are arrogant enough to believe they are the only people living on the planet and their magic is the only magic. Little do they know.

Promo image from Avatar: The Last Airbender, featuring Appa, Sokka, Katara, Aang, and Momo.

5. Avatar: The Last Airbender


Magic using the basic four elements—air, water, earth, and fire—is not a new concept, but Avatar adds some twists, including the addition of martial art-type movements to accomplish spells. The interesting part is how society has formed around these magical abilities. The societies built around water are small, tribal, and separated from the rest of the world; the air nomads are extinct; and the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom are at war. The show uses the aggressive potential of Fire, healing power of Water, defensive capabilities of Earth, and spiritual premise of Air to define the four major nations of the world and create a monstrous villain.


6. The Star Wars Universe


Whether you consider it science fiction or space fantasy, the Force functions as a magic system. It’s telekinesis, telepathy, and a dash of divination (plus lightsabers), but it’s so much more complex due to the society built around it. The contradictory philosophies of the Jedi and the Sith are what make the Force so interesting, and its mystery is part of its intrigue (no matter how often George Lucas tries to explain it away with midichlorians).


7. The Thirteenth Hour by Trudie Skies


Twelve races live in the Steampunk city of Chime, each governed by a different god and possessing a different magic ability. The Vesper can manipulate shadows, the Ember can summon fire, Diviners can manipulate time, etc. As the series title suggests, the gods are cruel, and this manipulative relationship with their peoples fuels the conflict and mysteries of the story.

 

Some of these magic systems are accompanied by an intricate set of rules, while others rely more on mystery—we don’t always need to know how the magic works, just that it does. However, the most interesting aspects of these magic systems are not the powers themselves, but the way societies, beliefs, and history have formed around them. When studying other magic systems for inspiration, try asking the “what if?” questions the creators must have posed and how groups of people are affected by magic’s existence.

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The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

ABOUT

Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

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