Writing Magic: Invocation

By all the dark powers, I command this site to rise! Rise!

And we’re back, I guess. I won’t be posting stories on here, but rather personal essays and such. I’ll be focusing largely on writing magic for a while, as my mind’s been there for a while as I’ve been trying to develop one for a novel.

I suggest reading Brandon Sanderson’s essay on his First Law of Magic, which is both really good and really relevant to what I’ll be discussing. Also, reading Sanderson’s books would also help, since 1) they’re amazing and 2) I pull a lot of examples from them, since Sanderson’s done a lot of good, hard magic systems.


Magic systems generally fall into three categories when it comes to activation of magical abilities: mental command, invocation, and physics.

Physical systems refer to those where the fundamental interactions between objects are altered in accordance to magic. Such examples include Sanderson’s Hemalurgy and Fabrial systems.

Mental command systems refer to those where activating an ability requires a thought from the caster, such as in Sanderson’s Surgebinding and Allomancy systems.

But I’d largely like to talk about invocational systems, such as those found in Sanderson’s “Warbreaker” and “Elantris,” Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” and Arakawa’s “Hagane no Renkinjutsushi / Fullmetal Alchemist.”

I personally find invocational systems fascinating. Modern systems feel like they’re based on the mysticism of ancient pantheons and the ability of humanity to magically control their environment through specific words, phrases, gestures, or symbols. And that’s not to mention the base assumption that the universe can even understand the caster’s language.

Ultimately, invocational magic assumes some kind of sentience in the universe. Invocation is inherently divine, a sentience commanding and the command being followed.

The most straightforward example of this sort of thing is the system in Paolini’s “Eragon,” where a specific language has literally become the language of magic, and little (if any) magic can be performed without speaking this language.

But invocation isn’t limited to just spoken language. I can identify three main forms of invocation: verbal, inscriptional, and gesticular.

Verbal invocation, naturally, involves spoken words. We have already seen the system of “Eragon,” but Awakening in “Warbreaker” also counts. In this system, invocational words are far more limited, and indeed only certain targets are receptive to commands.

Inscriptional invocation is also rather common, with examples including the Aons of “Elantris” and the alchemy of “Fullmetal Alchemist.” Here, specific written symbols are required to access magic, attaching a mysticism to writing reminiscent of the Norse myths.

The third, and least used, is gesticular invocation. This is invocation via motion. The only system I can think that uses this is that of Harry Potter, though that has a strong overlap with verbal invocation (and a little inscriptional invocation).

Speaking of Harry Potter, this system features at least two invocational types in tandem, with a number of effects requiring multiple invocations in order to fuction.


2 thoughts on “Writing Magic: Invocation

  1. SharktoothJack says:

    This is cool! Another example of inscriptional invocation is Runewielding in the current Table Titans adventure. Runes written on things give them power, but they’re also used for normal things, like contracts, as shown on this page: http://tabletitans.com/comic/whispers-of-dragons-page-85

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