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WRITING TIPS: Charlie Holmberg

Charlie N. Holmberg is a Wall Street Journal and Amazon bestselling author, whose debut series, The Paper Magician, has been optioned by the Walt Disney Company. Her stand-alone novel, Followed by Frost, was nominated for a 2016 RITA Award for Best Young Adult Romance, and her novel The Fifth Doll won the 2018 Whitney award for Speculative Fiction. She is a board member for Deep Magic Ezine. Visit her at For more on the author and her work, visit

Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter @cnholmberg



Building a Believable Magic System

Do you tie down your magic with rules, or take it off the leash and let it roam free? Whether using a rule-based (limited) magic system or a free-roaming (unlimited) one, establishing the believability, originality, and world-building of magic is key to creating stories as methodical and real as Sanderson’s, or as sweeping and artistic as Tolkien’s. In this class, we’ll not only discuss the differing concepts and roles of magic systems, but factor the implications of a magic system into the world surrounding it.


Let’s talk about magic systems.

Magic is a staple for nearly all fantasy, whether it’s contemporary or epic, romantic or military (or both). Often, readers of fantasy pick up a book because it lets them experience something they can’t have in the real world . . . such as magic. So how does one craft magic that draws a person into a novel?

There are two schools of magic: limited and unlimited. Limited magic has a strict set of rules and a narrow repertoire of abilities. It’s almost scientific in function and can be easily explained and understood. Brandon Sanderson is superb at writing limited magic systems.

Unlimited magic is much broader in scope and abilities. It’s not fully explained, but neither is it infinite (there’s a reason Gandalf doesn’t just wave his staff and transport the ring to Mordor). This magic is a favorite for writing classic sorcerers and wizards.

When you sit down to figure out your magic system, perhaps the most important thing I can emphasize is this: be creative. Yes, the elements are cool. Yes, vampires are classic. But they’re also incredibly common. Readers have seen them again and again and again. Show them something new.

Next, limit your magic. Even an unlimited magic system should have some limits, unless you’re writing the novelization of the movie Bruce Almighty. Characters who are too powerful are not nearly as endearing as characters with handicaps.

Your first limitation? Cost, both in fuel and in toll. By fuel, I mean what is required for the magic to work. Can spells only be performed on a full stomach? Does a magic user have to be in direct sunlight? Does a person have to swallow little bits of metal in order to use her powers?

By toll, I mean the symptoms of using magic. Is it exhausting to do so? Does using his powers make your character age? Shrink? Get grumpy? Adding limitations like these will not only make the magic system interesting, but it builds conflict in plot.

How is magic acquired? Is it inherited by blood, or maybe by will? Is it species-specific, achieved by infection, or can one simply walk to the local university and major in it? Creating rules on who can wield magic is another form of limitation.

Finally, give your magic a weakness. A kryptonite, so to speak. What hinders the ability to use magic? If it’s a sun-powered magic, then night is its weakness. If it’s, say, powered by human hair, then a razor and some shaving cream could be a very bad thing.

If you want to write with magic, don’t rush it. Let it simmer like a fine stew. Don’t use the first ideas that come to your mind, either. Wait for rarer, more delectable ingredients. Doing so will make for a more delicious story, and your readers will be desperate for seconds.

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