Berley Kerr’s Top 5 Favorite Magic Systems (from novels)

For any fantasy author/writer worth their weight in salt knows that one of the key elements to a successful fantasy book isn’t just a good magic system, but a great magic system that works. Not all fantasy books need magic systems mind you. However, seeing as magic and fantasy tend to go hand in hand it’s more likely that if you want to write a good fantasy, you might need to throw a little magic in there. So I hereby present you for this week’s blog. Berley’s Kerr’s Top 5 favorite magic systems (from novels). If it went beyond novels I would have to include video games (eg: Final Fantasy VII) where the mechanics of a magic system serve a different purpose.

Moving on…

5. The Lord of the Rings (The Magical Object aka the “MacGuffin”  Magic System)

First off I’m a fan of both the books and the movies even though I now find myself with very little time to reread or rewatch either of them. Considered by many, myself included, to be the first modern fantasy book, its magic system is very basic. Since it was based on old Celtic and Anglo Saxon folklore the magic system implemented in LOTR is, objects have magic powers. The One Ring can make you invisible if you put it on. Dwarf doors can only be opened at certain times or if you speak the magic words. Isildur’s sword, Narsil (the sword that cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand) can summon an army of the dead. Objects are like phones or televisions or guns. You pick it up, turn it on, and it does stuff. It’s by far the most basic of magic systems and when well written, can be a lot of fun to read about. However, because of its basic structure, MacGuffin stories tend to turn up far to often, leading to annoyingly cliche stories. (eg: The Evil Wizard using the Staff of Chaos to summon the armies of the dead to go to war with the free kingdoms which are each guarded by the Sun Crystal of the 5 Goddesses. In order to destroy the wizard’s staff you need the Blade of Ancients made from the metal from Star Valley. But in order to get to Star Valley you need the Map of a Thousand faces, which, Jeff the Thief King has, and the Compass of Truth, which you grandfather gave to you on his deathbed…) This sounds like a pretty interesting story, but after the second or thirst magical object I was already pretty bored. If you plan to use this system, I advice you that less is more.

4. The Harry Potter Series (The Wand Magic System)

Although I admit that I’m a much bigger fan of the Lord of the Rings books, I am however a bigger fan of Harry Potter’s magic system. (Before you boo let me explain) The average person has a very short attention span and even shorter patience. Long explanations tend to confuse and irritate people more now than they did back in Tolkien’s time. In Harry Potter  the system of magic is little more simple. Wands. Wizards (non-Muggles) have magic powers, and it seems to be genetic with the occasional hiccup in the bloodlines. Wizards can use magic by simply channeling their energy through their wands which also seems to amplify their powers as well. And certain wands can do certain things better than other things. Like James Potter’s wand which is described as ‘excellent for transfiguration.’ The only thing about this systems are limits. While their certainly seems to be some limits to a wand’s power (because wands do break break or shatter depending on what spell they use) but that limit is never really explained. Which is why jerks like me tend to wonder if Dumbledore can make an armchair appear using his wand, can he make an armchair the size of the Empire State Building appear out of nowhere? Why is this question so important? It isn’t. Judging from the success of the books, you can see how just how important it wasn’t. Why? Because J.K. Rowling focused on characters and story more than focusing on having a perfect magic system. A very good thing to know and practice for any writer.

3. The Wheel of Time Series (The One True Source Magic System)

I’ve always loved Robert Jordan’s books. In fact he’s the reason why I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s novels to begin with. Although I’ve only reached “The Shadow Rising” the fourth book in the series. The magic system is by far one of my favorites for one very wonderful reason. The word ‘magic’ isn’t used AT ALL. Maybe in the later books they say the word, but trust me, after reading 3 and a half books I have yet to come across the word. In this world you don’t ‘use magic’ you ‘channel the One Power from the One True Source’ and there are other variations of that throughout the novels. The magic system doesn’t just rely on magical objects (and believe me the books are full of them). No. People are born with the ability to channel or not. Women can channel one type of power and men can channel another type of power. The system is based more on Asian philosophies of magic rather than traditional Western-European-Celtic-Anglo-Saxon like in Tolkien. Ying and Yang. Balance. Harmony. And so on. The best way to describe the magic is system is that they see it as energy, and once that energy is taken from the ‘One True Source’ it can be used for good or for evil depending on the user. There’s no such thing as evil magic, just evil people.

2. The Sword of Truth Series (The Web Magic System)

Let me get this out of the way. I love the books and hated the TV show. Now that that’s out of the way, back to the magic system. Like previous magic systems, this series has wizards and magical objects galore. HOWEVER, Terry Goodkind, the author of the series always has a way of keep you guessing. New rules always pop up and both the good guys and the bad guys are always finding new ways to bend the rules in their favor. One of my favorite sayings from ‘Wizard’s First Rule’ the first book of the series actually comes from the bad guy Darken Rahl: ‘A paper, as thin as it is, still has two sides’. The best way I can describe the system is like this. Certain people can use magic, other’s can’t. And although people can do things like make fire or move water and all that jazz, the system uses webs, or binding magic. It’s pretty much like a trap. In fact most of the magic in the books are traps. You walk here and this web stops you from speaking. If you try to use magic against a Mord Sith, they can trap your magic and use it against you in quite a painful and equally annoying fashion. Certain places have special webs that only allow special people to go through. Certain kinds of webs allow special kinds of wizards called Confessors to turn anyone they touch into mindless slaves willing to confess (hence the name) to anything. Despite it’s many rules I love the system because just when you think there is a web that can’t be broken, it turns out you can break it, just as long you follow the rules this way and not that way. Terry Goodkind, to his credit, never cheats, not once when it comes to the rules of his world. Magic has it’s strengths, it’s weaknesses, it’s limits and he’s not shy about who he hurts and how. In fact, the magic in the Sword of Truth Series is all about hurting someone. Unlike other magic systems that are designed to be benign in some areas and malicious in others, the Web system is always malicious, which makes for very suspenseful reading.

1. The Mistborn (The Allomancy Magic System)

This magic system is without doubt my favorite magic system (in novels) If you don’t include novels it’s only beaten by Avatar: The Last Air Bender (Bending system) the Final Fantasy VII (Materia System) and my absolute favorite the Full Metal Alchemist (Alchemy magic system) Although ‘magic’ isn’t the right word to describe alchemy. Especially in Full Metal Alchemist. But getting back to the point, I read on Brandon Sanderson’s website about the importance of a good magic system: Here’s the link ( I highly recommend. In the Mistborn series, people called Mistborns or Mistings can use special abilities by ingesting certain types of metals in order to use special abilities. If you want super strength, ingest pewter. If you want to sharpen your senses, ingest tin. You want to soothe someone and make them more compliant, ingest brass. And instead of two kinds of people where you’re born with the ability or not, they’re 3 kinds of people. Mistborns who can ingest all metals and use all abilities. Mistings who can only use 1 ability. And everyone else who can’t do anything. Such a dynamic makes for some interesting story telling, especially when Brandon Sanderson starts applying Allomancy to social aspects of the story. Not all nobles are Mistborns or Mistings, but nearly all peasants or skaa are just regular people. The key success to the Allomancy system is that it’s unique. Simple to explain and easy to use once you know the rules. Like playing basketball for the first time. The system has limits. Once you ingest metals you can burn out your supply depending on much or how long you use it. Because the system has limits, the characters, both good and bad, find ways to bend the rules. And that makes for very good suspense throughout the trilogy.

The Secret of Magic Systems:

The great secret, of a good magic system isn’t so much to bring to excitement and wonder to a fantasy novel. It’s apart of it, that much is true, but the true strength of it, believe it or not, is product placement. The magic system helps the reader to remember the characters more. The better magic system, the more easily you remember the characters. Don’t believe me? In Lord of the Rings, who’s charged with carrying and protecting the One Ring? Frodo. In Harry Potter who has had the Elder Wand in his possession since the first book? Dumbledore. In Star Wars, who uses the Force to get past the Storm Troopers at Mos Eisley? Obi-Wan Kenobi. In Mistborn, what is a Thug? A Misting that only burn Pewter. In Full Metal Alchemist, what is the basic law of Alchemy and by extension, the universe? If you don’t know the answer, I suggest you find out yourself. But for something more specific, which character’s special alchemic talents allow him to control fire? Roy Mustang. Or turn a human in to a bomb? Zolf J. Kimley. For anyone who is a fan of any of these series, any all answers to each of their unique magic systems practically fall out of their mouths. Most people can’t even remember their own family’s birthdays that well. Myself included. A good magic system, especially a unique system serves as wonderful way to not only make your story unique as well, but depending on how well you make it, helps the reader remember characters much better, long after they’ve read the final sentence of your story.

Until next week. And as before, as always. Thanks for reading.


About berleykerr

A Steampunk Author from Los Angeles.
This entry was posted in My Writing Process and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Berley Kerr’s Top 5 Favorite Magic Systems (from novels)

  1. ispiderbook says:

    I thought that was great. I have a fantasy book that I can’t quite get my head around. I have an idea that involves magic. Perhaps I needed a tighter reign on the magic system.

    • berleykerr says:

      My advice for a good magic system is if you’re going to do the Tolkien thing, focus on characters and plot and keep the magic objects to a minimum. But if you’re going for a unique magic system, do what I do and study other magic systems from, not just novels, but TV shows (the Last Air Bender) Manga (Full Metal Alchemist) or video games (Final Fantasy) Just make sure your system has rules, limits and most importantly, ways for characters to bend or break the rules 😉

  2. Proseia says:

    I guess I need to read Goodkind’s books–I like what I saw here. I triiiiied to like the Legend of the Seeker series, but couldn’t deal with it past the first episode. Liked the story, but could not unhear the false American accents. I would have loved to hear the cast’s natural Australia/New Zealand accents.

    Also, check out Sean William’s Books of the Cataclysm and Books of the Change for excellent magic. Very mysterious, but based on alchemical principles and geometry. Kind of a “math is the language of the universe” deal. There’s an element of study and refinement to using it, but at its base it’s the imposition of will upon one’s reality, with consequences most dire should a character over-expend their will . Very cool, very well-rounded, and one of the best stories I’ve read, to boot.

    Great post! 🙂

  3. Try The Axis Trilogy by the Australian author Sara Douglass..who unfortunately is no longer with us. I found her various magic systems within the story to be refreshingly different.

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