WRITING KNOWHOW Magic and Worldbuilding

Our magic series concludes as
KnowHow editor, Eleanor Pender explores the way magic and magical systems are integrated into fantasy worlds, and how each decision made affects your worldbuilding. 

In this series on magic, we’ve looked at magic systems, explored soft magic and hard magic, and how each decision made around how your magic works is integral to your worldbuilding. 

It can help to think of it as a sliding scale, with soft magic at one end and hard magic at the other. Where might your magic system best fit? 

Your story can have a magic system that is anywhere on this sliding scale. Both styles have their merits and limitations for different kinds of stories. You can even use a blend of both, or one of each, like Garth Nix has done. 

Garth Nix's Sabriel
In Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series, there is both Charter Magic and Free Magic. Charter Magic is bound by a multitude of symbols, either drawn on paper or in the air, spoken, engraved or embedded in an object, or whistled. Free Magic is unconstrained by the Charter and, in turn, is the magic of necromancy. Both magical systems play strong and intricate roles in the universe, playing into characters’ wants and needs and how problems and conflicts are created and resolved. 

It all comes back to what characters can or can't do, their abilities. How magic can be used to solve problems needs to be consistent and obey any rules you have laid out. In this instance, magic becomes a defined tool. It feeds through the characters’ experience, intelligence and ingenuity, allowing them or stopping them from solving problems. 

Sabriel is a teenager when she first uses Charter Magic, feeling her way as she had been taught by her father, the Abhorsen. This first use of Charter Magic places her on a new path and starts her on a journey from her life at school into adventures in The Old Kingdom. 

When designing the style of a magic system, some focus on this more than other parts of worldbuilding. We all know it is a lot of fun to design the aesthetics. However, keeping those key areas we have looked at in mind can make all the difference: 


Each of these elements will play into the conflicts, problems, and character interactions of the story. 

This series is here as a guideline, to help you consider different elements at various points within your world building and, after everything, you need to decide what will work best. Thinking in soft and hard magic will work for some people, and not for others. It’s about finding those parts that work best for you, a little bit like magic.


Based in Bristol, Eleanor divides her time between lecturing in digital communications and talking about literary and arts projects. She lived in Edinburgh for six years where she worked for Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and discovered her passion for young readers, going on to chair at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Eleanor has had short stories published in Inaccurate Realities and anthology We Need To Talk published by Jurassic London. She is currently working on a young adult fantasy novel.

Do you have any suggestions for KnowHow? If there's something you'd like to know how to do or know more about, tell us. Email KnowHow editor, Eleanor at knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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