Thoughts on Writing – Developing a Magic System

I’m in the process of polishing Magic’s Stealing, and a beta reader pointed out a plot hole regarding one of my magic systems. Since my mind is now stuck on working through that problem, today I’m going to go into the process of developing magic systems.

In Magic’s Stealing there are three types of magic: ribbon magic, string magic, and word magic. The problem system is ribbon magic, which is the most common. It’s the magic that gets stolen, leaving the two main characters as the only mages.

As it stands in the current version of the story, ribbon mages either have all-magic—which allows a user to do most any common type of ribbon magic that they train for—and there is specific magic—in which the user is only good with one specific power.

Depending on their specialty, the colors of their ribbons vary. For example, a fire mage has yellow ribbons, while a light mage has turquoise ribbons. The problem is that once we get into all-magic, where there is no official specialty, the color system breaks down.

For example:

Toranih: Green ribbons. All-magic. She’s not particularly good with magic, though her specialty is telekinesis. She is also seen shape-changing and using her powers to heal wounds.

Daernan: Blue ribbons. All-magic. Specialty of shape-changing. Also seen casting fireballs and healing wounds.

Siklana: Turquoise ribbons. Specific magic. Specialty of light manipulation. Enchants light crystals for others to be able to see magic.

Shevanlagiy: Green ribbons. All-magic. She is seen creating portals, using telekinesis, and there is a mention of her enchanting a light crystal.

Cafrash: Yellow ribbons. Specific magic. Specialty of fire manipulation. (He’s a blacksmith).

We don’t see many different ribbon colors in the first book because the main character, Toranih, can’t see magic without a light crystal, and magic is stolen shortly thereafter. However, a beta reader pointed out that from the way I describe the ribbons in the book, the color of the ribbons seem to be based on the magic user, rather than on the type of magic. (Note that Toranih and Daernan can do the same things, but Daernan’s magic is blue, while Toranih’s magic is green.)

So I took a second look at how I explained ribbon magic. The only truly consistent piece of information was in regards to the strength of magic, and even that is not directly stated. (Ribbons are influenced by how often magic is used. Thin ribbons reveal magic that has been neglected. Thick ribbons show well-practiced magic. Like a muscle, the more practice a mage has, the stronger their ribbons will be). The other consistent deal with ribbon magic is the use of a certain color pertaining to a certain mage.

Since I want consistency in the system, especially as the series continues to evolve, I brainstormed a few ideas that might make the system stronger.

It didn’t immediately come together. The brainstorming process is messy, and you can see that from the ideas I have here:

Importance in the shade of magic: Inherent at birth. The more vibrant the color of magic, the more likely a mage has all-magic, or can do more with his ribbons. The paler the magic, the more specific their magic is, limiting them to what can be done.

Importance in the color of magic: Inherent at birth. Technically, similar colors should be similar powers. We also run into the problem that if the shade of magic says that the paler the magic, the more limited the mage, then we shouldn’t be able to tell what kind of magic a limited mage has. Their magic would be white.


I wondered if I could flop these around.

The deeper the shade of magic, the more specific the power. This would be consistent with immortal magic, a type of ribbon magic which is described in the book as being “silver with black edges.” Their magic tends to be a little more all-encompassing (even though they each have their specialties). When Toranih and Daernan are granted a tiny bit of an immortal’s power, their ribbons take on an iridescent sheen. Which would make sense if the more all-encompassing their power, the more silvery-white it became.

Granted, that still doesn’t help me look at magic in terms of a visible light spectrum based on their current ribbon colors. But, if you take all the colors of the rainbow and put them together in the form of light, the light is white… which fits the idea of all-magic being paler in color (though brighter in luminescence).

That in mind, mortal mages would probably still have a visible color of magic because they don’t have nearly the kind of power that an immortal has.

Let’s look at the specialties in terms of a rainbow spectrum… with the addition of turquoise.

Red – (Not mentioned in this story)

Orange – (Not mentioned in this story)

Yellow – Fire

Green – Telekinesis

Turquoise – Light manipulation

Blue – Shapeshifting

Indigo – (Not mentioned in this story)

Violet – Portals?

Now, if specialties that are related are close together on the spectrum, then light manipulation should be more of a lime green or yellow-green than turquoise, and thus be closer to fire. If I go with the idea that each type of ribbon magic has a different color, unrelated, then those could remain the same.

But I still wasn’t really happy with this. I liked the idea of light manipulation being turquoise and fire being yellow, sticking straight to a rainbow spectrum is limiting, and besides that, this system still doesn’t help me with all-magic users.

I talked about this conundrum with my husband, Isaac, and the resulting discussion gave me the idea that maybe mages shouldn’t have one single color of magic. Instead, their ribbons could vary with multiple colors, depending on what kind of magic they have the potential to use. In this case, Daernan’s primary ribbon color would be blue, because he’s a gifted shapeshifter, but he would also have several thick yellow ribbons for fire, along with a few green ribbons for telekinesis and whatever other color I assign to the magic he practices. As he’s not particularly skilled with something like portals, but he’s capable, he might have a couple thin violet ribbons that no one really notices because they get lost among his blue ribbons.

Let’s take a quick look at a before-and-after of scene involving magic. This is how the section reads before I make changes:

The owl shrugged and puffed out its plumage like a feather duster. Not my fault you’re so jumpy.

Toranih crossed her arms. Though faint in the moonlight, the crystal’s twilight revealed blue ribbons swirling thick through Daernan’s owlish body.

Coming? The blue ribbons carried Daernan’s thoughts to Toranih’s mind, and she fought the urge to swipe them away.

However, if I make the changes I’m considering, the scene might read something like this:

The owl shrugged and puffed out its plumage like a feather duster. Not my fault you’re so jumpy.

Toranih crossed her arms. Though faint in the moonlight, the crystal’s twilight revealed various blue and yellow and pink ribbons swirling thick through Daernan’s owlish body.

Coming? The pink ribbons carried Daernan’s thoughts to Toranih’s mind, and she fought the urge to swipe them away.

Granted, I haven’t decided that pink is telepathy, but it’s an idea. This early in the story, readers should be able to immediately understand that different ribbons do different things. Before this segment we see Siklana’s turquoise ribbons of light magic, and after this segment we see Toranih using her own scrawny blue ribbons to transform into an owl.

If I go this route, I’ll need to make a chart of which colors represent which specialty, and I’ll have to be careful in editing to make sure the use of ribbon magic remains clear and consistent. But this last change might enhance the world, as well as fix a plot hole.

The system is still in development, but I hope this post gives you a bit of insight into how such a system can be developed. 🙂


Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Developing a Magic System

  1. I love really precise magic systems with clear rules. Yours sounds wonderful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s