Worldbuilding

Five Ways Your Characters Can Acquire Magic

A woman holds out a glowing purple plant pod.

In Black Panther, the kings of Wakanda gain powers from ingesting the heart-shaped herb.

Whenever we create a magic system, we have to choose how it ends up in the hands of our characters. While this comes in an unlimited number of flavors, acquisition generally falls into five basic methods. These methods determine who has magic, who doesn’t, and what it takes to use it. That, in turn, has large ramifications for your story and your world. Let’s go over the options and discuss the pros and cons so you can choose the best one for your situation.

1. Being Born With It

Gandalf the White In Lord of the Rings, wizards can cast magic because they are born with powers humans don’t have.

This means some characters inherently have the capacity for magic from the time of their birth or creation. Most commonly, this type of magic is like eye color or height – just something a person gets from their genes, or their midichlorians if you wanna get all fantasy about it. Or maybe magic workers in your world are like Gandalf – angelic beings created with power and a purpose. Regardless of the details, with this option you can’t teach magic to someone who doesn’t have that special spark.

Advantages

Explaining the distribution of magic through an accident of birth makes it easy to limit magic in your world. Why doesn’t everyone just teleport instead of travel? There aren’t enough mages to teleport everyone! This way, you don’t have to change a real-world setting much. High magic doesn’t have such big consequences if almost no one can do it.

Similarly, you can arbitrarily decide not only which characters have magic, but also what type of magic they can perform. Like in Avatar: The Last Airbender, some spell-casters might control fire, whereas others control water. While they can dabble with each other’s moves a bit, the categories will stay separate because a fire mage doesn’t have the potential to control water.

This option is also strong on wish fulfillment, if that’s what you’re going for. People like the idea of being born special.

Disadvantages

Because this option for magic has been done so often, it might be seen as cliché, or at least, it won’t make your magic interesting. It’s best paired with other magical aspects that are unique.

Compounding how unoriginal it is, this option can have troubling implications. A character that saves the day with a special magical ability didn’t do anything to earn their status as a savior, and that can be grating for some audience members. In real life, the idea that some people are just born “better” is the uniting philosophy of white supremacists and other hate groups.

If you establish that magic is tied to bloodline or is otherwise inheritable, it creates certain eugenic implications that aren’t fun to deal with. If people can reliably breed stronger mages, it’ll be hard to explain why people aren’t doing that, even though it’s really gross.

2. Receiving It as a Divine Favor

Lord Cthulhu, from the Call of Cthulhu cover art. In cosmic horror, magic is often granted by worshipping dangerous and powerful elder gods. This makes magic creepy and sinister.

With this option, characters get their power from otherworldly beings. To those beings, spells might not even be magical. After all, it wouldn’t seem magical to us if a two-dimensional being requested that we move a brick out of their way. This covers overtly religious systems like D&D’s divine magic, along with darker stuff like the summoning of Great Old Ones found in Call of Cthulhu, or even magic systems where you commune with the spirits of nature.

Advantages

This option makes it easy to set limits on how many spells magic workers can cast, along with what type of spell. The otherworldly beings might be picky about who they work with, or they might be demanding. It’s not that useful to have a healing spell that requires a human sacrifice in payment.

Depending on what flavor the beings take, this option allows you to explore themes of faith and devotion or cast your sorcerer as a kind of magic negotiator. Every time your magic worker casts a spell, you have an excuse for some deep personal development or witty repartee.

It’s also easy to make your magic creepy with this option. Superpowerful beings handing out power for their own purposes? It gives me the shivers just thinking about it.

Disadvantages

If you have actual divine magic in your setting, some thorny theological issues could stop being merely theoretical and become quite literal. For instance, if you have a world where a benevolent god will just hand out powers, why doesn’t everyone worship them, live well, and get sweet powers? And since those gods have no issue with handing out magic, why do they let bad things happen?

The magic negotiation that can be so fun can also get in the way. If you want your characters to cast spells a lot, after the tenth time a spell is cast, you’ll probably struggle with ways to keep the interaction with the magical being fresh. However, if you start neglecting those interactions and let your characters cast whatever magic they want whenever they want, it could feel lazy or contrived to the audience. Gods are not vending machines waiting to give power in exchange for quarters, or at least they shouldn’t be.

Last, this option isn’t so great for wish fulfillment. People daydream about throwing lightning bolts, not about asking some higher being to throw one for them.

3. Learning It

Two sword fighters face off while standing on thin tree branches. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, secret martial arts forms allow combatants to almost float on the treetops.

This is the scenario where anyone can learn magic; it just takes a lot of study and effort. A wizard’s magic comes from their knowledge of runes and diagrams, not any inborn spark. While we associate this option most with an academic environment, it also applies to a world where anyone can learn to control the elements through sufficient mastery of martial arts.

Advantages

Because magic workers aren’t born with a gift, it’s much easier to make it feel like the protagonist earned their heroic status. Even if they have some natural talent, there’s no way they could get ahead of all the other people studying magic without putting in lots of hard work.

Given that, it’s easier to create an egalitarian setting with this option. Anyone with access to the right educational materials can do magic, regardless of how they were born, what resources they can afford to buy, and what personal connections they have.

Since knowledge-based magic requires a consistent set of actions that result in magical effects, this option also lends itself well to creating a rational magic system.

Disadvantages

There’s only one significant disadvantage for acquiring magic this way, but it’s a big one. Why doesn’t everyone learn magic? Storytellers wouldn’t be so fascinated with magic if weren’t incredibly useful, but having everyone wield it will make it feel like another mundane piece of technology. Not to mention, not everyone wants a setting steeped in magic. Storytellers end up threading a needle, making magic useful enough to be fun, but not so useful that learning it is always worth the time invested.

4. Using a Special Substance

A girl in a black robe with glowing blue eyes In Dune, a coveted substance called spice grants special abilities.

Another option is for magic to come from some kind of material substance. It might be a special plant that mages ingest to unlock their abilities, or it might be a weird crystal that powers spells. While it may still require special training to use magic, spellcasters can only cast as much magic as they have medicinal plants or battery crystals. This resource becomes magic’s biggest limitation.

Advantages

The rarity of the special substance provides an automatic cost and limit on magic, which is really valuable for keeping magic from getting out of hand in your setting.

This option also provides a limit on individual mages. To take mages prisoner, a captor just needs to take away their magic substances. This might seem insignificant, but capturing mages is a real problem in many stories.

Because it’s not used as often as other ways of acquiring magic, this option also has more novelty. For instance, you can also create all kinds of fun economic parallels with it:

  • Is there not enough to go around? Who gets first crack at the limited supply?
  • Is extracting it damaging or dangerous in some way? What are the consequences?
  • Do mages who can’t get the real thing resort to low-quality knockoffs? What are the dangers?

You can go on forever with this idea.

Disadvantages

The advantage of using common magic conventions is that audience members become so used to them that they often accept them even if they don’t make much sense. Because this option isn’t used very often, people are more likely to examine it critically. That means you have to work harder to make your magic system feel consistent and intuitive. Otherwise, you may end up with a system like Mistborn‘s, where the pairings between metals and the powers they grant feel arbitrary to many readers.

While substances provide a handy limit on a character’s magic, it takes some logistics to get them spellcasting again. A character who’s been imprisoned can’t whip out a spell until they get their hands on something that can’t be found at the nearest corner store.

Last, basing magic on a commodity can imply economic consequences even if you aren’t interested in them. If the magic source is so rare, can only the rich use it? Readers may feel disappointed if you don’t cover how the magical market works.

5. Undergoing a Strange Procedure

A hairless man reaches towards a plug in the back of his head. In The Matrix, Neo is able to manipulate the world around him once he is awakened to the fact that it isn’t real.

In this last option, characters get magic through an operation, experiment, or other permanent or semi-permanent alteration done to them. This is an especially popular means of granting magic in superhero stories, whether it’s a radioactive spider bite or the effects of a shady government program. An alteration could also be caused by new eye-opening experiences such as in The Matrix, in which people gain special abilities after being unplugged for the first time.

Advantages

Like bestowing magic on birth, this option puts a hard limit on how many people can have magic, but it also allows the greater agency granted by other options. Depending on your needs or tastes, characters can be “chosen” for their power, work to gain their power, or something in between.

This also provides an easy way to hand wave the existence of magic in a modern setting. Having ancient powers opens up a lot of questions about how magic stayed hidden rather than changing the course of history. However, magic powers created through some procedure can be the result of cutting-edge technology or science.

Disadvantages

Like magic that is learned, it can be difficult to explain why the experiment isn’t repeated often enough to give much of the population magic. While medical procedures could be quite costly, the type of magic featured in most stories would give a great return on investment.

If a scientific procedure is rare and its results highly varied, it can come across as contrived. Scientific innovations typically require a lot of groundwork by a sizable community of researchers. You don’t want your audience to feel like a scientific breakthrough popped into existence just to bestow a random power and then disappeared again.


For extra limits on the magic in your setting, these options can be combined to good effect. Adding a learning requirement gives any hero a way to earn their powers, whereas having to maintain divine favor can provide a way to remove powers from those who have it. Doing some thought experiments can help you find the combo that makes conflicts easy to generate without putting too much burden on your setting.

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Comments

  1. Lizard with Hat

    A very good article but now i wonder about my magic system because it doesn’t not seem to fit with any of those 5 points.
    In my fantasyworld people can get magic if the experience a trauma after which they get a type of magic related to the trauma. Example: If you nearly drowned you could get water magic… or just drown. Is that problematic?
    After that the mages need to get magic tattoos on certain point on their body to help control the flow of magic energy. Magic will get weaker but easier to control and the mages don’t need to focus on control their magic anymore.
    Using magic means letting the energy flow through your body’s energyline-network – how a mages does this up to the individual mages most use body movement and syllables to “open gates within Body, Mind and Soul”. Mages can train and increase the control over the flowing magic-energy, learn to increase the amount of energy and so on but it takes time and dedication – like a martial-art. (Yeah, I confess I like ATLA ). That means using Magic is strenuous if large amounts are used and I is be default not very subtle nor precise.
    I have to mention that the Energieline-Tattoos and the eyes of a mage emit glowing color mist while magic is used.

    Spoiler, Spoiler Spoiler!
    On an unrelated note: I think mistborn metals are arbitrary because some higher being cobbled them together like they saw fit.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      To me, magic following trauma sounds like a version of #5, a strange procedure. I’ve actually seen that before, as specific as it is, in the novel Weather Child by Philippa Ballantine. It has the advantage of being harder to repeat, though there’s still a dark implication of people intentionally causing trauma to imbue magic.

      • Lizard with Hat

        Thanks, I think a make an alternative rout with some longwinded and strenuous meditation to unlock magic – but it will cost much time. But I think if I bring in a safe method to get magic people can use if it’s worth the risk. It’s also hard to find volunteers for the fast-trauma-method. I thing neither method is 100% reliable.

        Also: Getting a potent power so soon after a trauma relateted to said power – that as many implications to sort through.

      • Rakka

        I toyed a while with the idea that magic is essentially human will raging against their circumstances. A strong belief that /this is wrong/ and lashing out at the wrongness. Cue children being raised in horrible conditions to bring out the magic. Never got around to writing about that since I can’t think up any plots by myself.

        Another one, with considerably more worldbuilding involved, had this traces of what might as well be called dragons, from previous geological era, that caused large deposits of magic-active substance close to surface in couple of regions of the empire. In one, they grow “glass apples” which when ingested let one experience weird stuff. In another, they use the transparent clay and specific trance to create wonderful things… both at the cost of significantly shortened lifespan, because the stuff itself? Sorta not very good for human beings. The story in the latter world was supposed to be about a teacher-scribe for the empire, and a claywright from the rural area being caught up in small scale revolution (from god-emperor to basically oligarchic bureucrats running the place). Didn’t get around to writing that one either, but it was fun to plot.

  2. Cay Reet

    The magic in the Lord Darcy stories (which I’m rereading at the moment) is a mix of 1 and 3. Certain people are born with the Talent (it runs through certain bloodlines, but also includes new ones every now and then, similar to the HP series), but it takes a long time of training and a lot of maths (there’s always a downside ) to actually do any magic. In addition, magic is complicated, which explains why it’s not used for everything, and has a strict corset of rules to it, which also make certain things impossible (for instance, magic doesn’t work through or over running water, so spells across the Atlantic are impossible, even for the most powerful sorcerer).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah a lot of systems include difficult training on top of being born with it, but I’ve found that being born with it is usually the deciding factor.

      • Cay Reet

        It is. The Lord Darcy stories do feature a scientist who does theoretical work in magic without having the Talent, but it’s clear that the deciding factor is whether or not someone is born with it.

        However, the training tunes down the ‘just given’ factor a little – only someone with the Talent who works hard can really reach a master rank and become an outstanding sorcerer. Someone with the Talent who is lazy and doesn’t learn and train much will never do more than the simplest magic.

  3. Grady Elliott

    Number 6: Bargain for it.

    Some characters acquire magic by selling their soul or making some other agreement to a powerful being in return for receiving magical power. Distinct from “divine favor” in that only a one-time negotiation is involved. There might even be a written contract, while some beings consider a verbal agreement binding.

    Number 7: Buy it retail.

    In some settings magic may be so common as to be available “off the shelf” in some form. It may be expensive, but if the character can afford it, they can get it from a magic dealer. If magic is illegal, they’ll have to get it on the black market instead, giving the phrase “black magic” a whole new meaning.

    • Jenny

      This is helpful and got me thinking about some difficult patches in my own story… thanks for posting!

    • Rose Embolism

      Divine favor and bargaining can also serve as an answer to the question raised in an earlier post: “How can magic users be oppressed?” The bargain for power can effectively exile the magic usr from society. For example, the witches from “The Witch” have obvious and effective magic, but the very nature of their bargain means they are fundamentally enemies of society, devoted to corrupting it and bringing it to ruin.

      Likewise cultists in the Call of Cthulhu rpg can have very powerful magic, but well, the price is insanity and preparing the way for the extinction of humanity. No sane government is going to have anything to do with them, and any that tried to Haynes those powers would quickly regret it.

      And them there’s fairy bargains. By their inherent nature they aren’t going to be useful to society on a large scale. Hell, usually thru end badly for individuals.

  4. Bubbles

    In one world I’m thinking of writing about (the one I’m most interested in now), magic is basically Option 1 (Inborn). The magic here is the one based on dualism and psychic powers I mentioned earlier in a different comment section. There are a few particular things to note: while inborn, it is not genetic (it does not run in families and is pretty random who is born with it), it is possible to improve it to some degree with practice, and in certain species, it is so common that not having it is very unusual.

    In another world, magic is basically Option 3 (Learned). However, I’m doing precisely what the disadvantage mentions: most beings learn magic to some degree, and overall, it basically has a similar role to technology. It is different from real-life technology in that some of the “flavor” is different (using things such as pools and moss to transmit sensations from afar, like a television can), and some things are possible with it that are not with technology (at least modern-day technology), such as shapeshifting and creating portals.

    And then, in yet, another world, any of the methods described, and perhaps even more, could potentially grant strange powers of nearly any sort. That world is vaguely inspired by the SCP Foundation collaborative writing project (although not directly related), and the whole point is, in some ways, that things there are not “rational magic.” It seems that there are no rules that unify all of the phenomena that apparently defy the laws of physics: at most, some individual anomalies have a consistent set of rules, but no one has managed to find laws that explain why each thing is the way it is. (Well, except for the mostly-consistent phenomenon that too many beings knowing about anomalies results in mental distress to members of the species of those beings, and can eventually even lead to extinction of that species. Out-of-universe, this is my attempt to create a plausible reason for a Masquerade).

  5. Jenn H

    I’ve been having fun building a setting with 1,2 and 3 all in play.

    Most people who practice magic are wizards who have to learn it the hard way, and not everyone has the time and dedication to do so.

    Then there are people whose faith allows them to preform miracles. Though the fact that people of different, sometimes mutually exclusive, religions can do miracles does lead to some confusion.

    Then there those who are just born with magic powers, who annoy the hell out of wizards because they shouldn’t be able to do the things they are doing.

    Magic items also occur, and are a big part of the setting’s economy.

    • Bubbles

      Sounds interesting! Also, your comment reminded me that I forgot to mention I also have thought of a world in which there are both innate and learned magic types. (Plus, even for the second world that I had mentioned with learned magic, there are some innately magical species – although this innate magic tends to be much less versatile than learned magic, they can also learn magic. That’s a lot of magic!)

  6. Rose Embolism

    As far as the “Why doesnt everybody do it” question:

    2: Even beneficient dieties can very well have requirements for holyness that arent feasible for the general population. Say, vegetarianism, abstinence, nonviolence…not to mention the possibility of having to memorize hundreds of sutras, or spending hours every day in prayer.

    That in itself is leaving aside the requirement for having the right personaility and ability to sincerely believe.

    3. Learning sounds great! I mean anyone can do it, right? I mean, that’s why everyone is an Olympic athlete, right? All it takes is spending 40+ hours a week for 8 years in intense training, and there you go!

    Of course to maintain that level of ability one also has to keep practicing. And while that’s going on, who’s farming or building or cooking?

    On the other hand it MIGHT be fairly easy to learn incredible powers, and the only problem is getting enough people interested. In which case you pretty much have the situation in Shaolin Soccer.

  7. Sam Victors

    Magic in my fictional universe falls under the Receiving as a Divine Favor, sort of.

    By that I mean it was given/blessed to them, not just by Divine Forces, but also by Elemental Spirits, who serve a role as Godparent to their mortal charge. This is sort of based on the Fairy Godparent Trope.

    Magic is divided into two thing in my stories; Witches are blessed with magic by the legendary World Tree, which is common in most mythologies. Humans with psychic or supernatural abilities, whom I call Devas, have blessed with it by an archetypal deity (like Mother Nature, Father Time, or Death) or any deity. A Deva only has one power, and its considered rare for a Deva to have more than one psychic/supernatural power (which would indicate that they had more than one Godparent).

    Devas powers are different from Witches powers.

  8. Dave L

    As far as 3…

    Just because anyone CAN learn it does not mean it’s egalitarian and available to everyone

    Magic may be complicated and difficult to learn. Just because it would be useful and even cool to know doesn’t mean everyone would learn it. Auto mechanics, computer programming, tax codes, medicine, are all useful. Martial arts, sword-smithing, horseback riding, are all cool. How many of us have or even can take the time and effort to study all of these fields?

    The teachings could be secret, only taught to a chosen few, even if others could learn it. This is particularly possible if magic is oppressed or illegal. Or if magic is itself inherently dangerous, like Call of Cthulhu RPG type magic. Or if magic is actually trivially easy to learn, but very powerful. If YOU could summon an army of demons loyal to you by chanting three words, and you’ve used that army to conquer the world, would you want those three words to be general knowledge?

    Or perhaps wizards will only teach those rich enough, or of the right class and status, or w/ the right parents or connections. If magic IS power, well, there’s a long history of the powerful trying to keep that power to themselves. Look at the history of segregation in colleges for quick and easy example. Someone of the “wrong” type trying to learn magic could parallel various stories of integration.

    If anyone can learn magic but not everyone has the opportunity then a “wrong” group might try to learn magic, as you discussed in The Problem With Oppressed Mages

  9. Silly Name

    My solution to the disadvantages of number 1, which could just as easily apply to any of the others, is that while everybody is born with it it is extremely easy to permanently lose it.

    That makes it really not worth it to learn, if you can lose it so quickly. Those who are truly dedicating to learning how to use their gift have to observe a large number of restrictions that most would consider unreasonable.

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