As a fantasy and sci-fi writer and fan, I spend more time thinking about different magic systems than I probably should. In every system I design for my worlds, I like to answer several questions to myself:
- Are people equally equipped to access or utilize magic? (example: if the system is based on alchemy than the limiting factor would be the character’s ability to get raw materials)
- If there is inequality (mage A is stronger than mage B) what determines their relative strength? Genetics? Luck? Dieties? I get it, my protagonist might be the strongest mage, but why?
- Where does magic come from? Is it a limited resource, and how does it reproduce?
- Are all mages/magic users good at all types of magic or do they need to specialize in something?
- Does magic have rules for how it impacts the natural world? (ie: how does the presence of a dryad affect the forest)
Sometimes I wrestle with one or more of these questions throughout the novel. Sometimes things start clicking pretty quickly. It depends on the piece, sometimes answering question number 3 fills in questions 1 and 2 immediately.
Example system: Magic is based upon the idea that all magical life lives within a sphere. This sphere is made of three axis-es: the first axis (y) is chaos and order. the second axis (x) is good and evil. The third axis (z) is reason and instinct. When I first started planning this, it was x and y (chaos>order and good>bad). Unicorns have incredible power because they are far from center – very good and very chaotic. Ah! The closer to centered, the weaker in magic someone is. That is why most humans and elves have low magic power. Which also is why mages who focus on order and intellect can grow in strength. as they move further from chaos (whether good or evil) they become stronger.
But that didn’t feel like it was enough. There is a big difference between a unicorn (good chaos) and a tengu (Japanese bird demon – bad chaos). Both of them work on a chaotic level yes, but tengu are also smart – and unicorns (at least as I’m using them in this world) are not. At all. Unicorns work on instinct. So there is another level – do they think it out or do they do it because they don’t know any better? -Hence I added reason and instinct. Mages are also smart, and smarter means ALSO more power.
Still with the idea that the further from center someone is, the stronger their magical gift. And yes, movement can happen within a lifetime. So if someone goes through total hell, for a time they may have access to magic – instinctual or on purpose – because they’ve been moved towards chaos. A lot of times when people go through terrible life circumstances (war) they get instinctual chaotic magic beginning to work around them.
Tapping into chaos magic (using reason) would be harder – but think of like water divining. Using a stick and “wandering” the magic user is reasoning on the chaos inherent in water and past experience.
It’s rare that the reader sees the full depth of my magic system. I love to write the data-dumps to explain it, but it is considered poor form for the writer to explain things to the reader. So I sometimes draw diagrams, write it out in separate documents for myself. Basically, I data-dump in my own ways and then feed the most important pieces to the reader – if they even need to know it. In the above example, the protagonist is incredibly powerful because she is actually a chaos magic weilder (because of a unicorn, hence they were so important in my example). The character never learns the matrix. The magic matrix isn’t really part of the story. But I know it. and when I create a character with magical skills, I place them on the matrix. When they start moving through the story because of growth or development, I consider how their changes will affect them on the matrix. Including the main character.