Tag Archives: Magic Systems

Magic’s Pawn

One of my favorite styles of magic, though not often see is not a clever way for the protagonist to control the forces of magic, but a system where the forces of magic control the protagonist.  I suppose an ancient prophecy ca work kind of like this or a higher being giving direction, but I’m talking a more concrete and local form of control, yet exercised by a more abstract force.

The forces of magic involved don’t necessarily have to be sentient or intelligent in the way a human is or, even an animal although they could be.  Honestly, I think not being so makes the situation all the more interesting.

Think of the way a bee is involved in an ecosystem: generally as a pollinator.  Now imagine that a human (probably a mage or this world’s equivalent, but not necessarily) has been incorporated into the magical ecosystem of the world in the same way.  Some force of magic has evolved to encourage certain behaviors in human mages that are beneficial to the magic of the world that force of magic is part of.

Perhaps there is a cycle sort of like the water cycle that benefits from humanity in chaos, and so the magic has evolved ways to create that chaos through empowering some mage or person.  The specific actions of the person are irrelevant to the magic, as long as they cause a great upheaval.  The system may not even care if humans would describe this pawn of magic as “evil” or “good”.

Humanoid characters are almost always portrayed as exerting control over the magic of their world, but they are rarely shown to have been integrated into the system–as we are integrated into nature, even despite our control of it–despite what is portrayed in the world’s history as thousands or even millions of years of coexistence.

Where are the magical world equivalents of modern climate change?  There are apocalypses sort of like nuclear bomb analogs.  Mercedes Lackey’s Winds series, for example, with it’s effects on the world of the end of the war depicted in her Gryphon’s series.  But rarely if ever are there subtle build-ups of all the interference caused by humans harnessing magical forces.  Not even on the local level like the magical equivalent of the flooding and ecological damage caused by damning rivers, or the water shortages caused by different political entities failing to cooperate on usage rights of the local river.

I would love to read (or write!) some fantasy exploring a closer relationship between man and magic than simply human master and magical servant/slave.


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Magicology: Frames of Reference, Part 2

Last post (which was posted far too long ago) I rambled on about “frames of reference” and POV and how fantasy writers need to get with the program and come up with some useful jargon, and…  Well, you read the post, right?  Right?

Remember how I divided things into relative and absolute frames of reference?  The absolute frame is a simple concept; relative frames are not.  So today, I’m going to delve into just what I mean about multiple frames of reference and how they are useful. 

But first, I want to make an important distinction:  A “perspective” is a narrative device, a frame of reference is a world-building one.  A perspective in fiction is how a character relates to the story.  A frame of reference is how they relate to the world in which the story takes place.   There’s a difference.

(As far as I am concerned, a “point of view (POV)” is a structural device and refers to either first, second, or third person past, present or future.  A perspective is strictly which character (or the narrator) we are following at any given time.  Other writers may have different ideas.  That’s okay—whatever works for them.  In posts here, we will be using my definitions.)

Now, what makes relative frames of reference complicated is that each character has one—just like each person in the real world has their own ideas and opinions.  It’s not hard to get lost among all of these frames, and a common critique of bad characterization is that all the characters “felt/sounded the same”.  This is a very common criticism in regards to dialogue.  And there I am drifting off-topic.  Back to magic.

There are two main ways that the relative frames of reference can affect a character in regards to magic:

  1.  Their reaction to it-  Are they amazed, indifferent, or possibly contemptuous.  They could also be prejudiced or hostile or fawning or respectful.  The greater the difference in their knowledge of magic—whether theoretical, ethical, or emotional—the more likely their reaction is to be strong or intense.  If there’s less difference, they’ll have less of a response.  Pretty basic, right?  It’s actually more complicated than that, and in my next post, (which is already written this time, so no long wait), I’ll discuss character reaction to magic, and why many people have mistaken impressions as to what is and is not a realistic response.
  2. What they can do with it-  Are they good, gifted, hopeless, or helpless?  I know, this is fantasy.  There’s a lot of emotional symbolism involved in the narrative representation of magic.  But from a purely theoretical standpoint, knowledge is power.  No matter how strong you are (if this is aa consideration at all), you can’t win if you can’t do anything.  I’d like to leave the issue of “power vs. part of me” that often springs up here out of the discussion.  For now, “magic” isn’t “as natural as breathing (in the literal sense)”, but rather “something learned and perfected through study and training”… even if there are natural “gifts” involved.  The point here is that the more you know, the more you can do.  And knowing means learning, and learning means studying.  Hogwarts here we come! (Okay, not so much.)

You may have noticed from reading the above that knowledge is a very important part of the frame of reference.  The more you know, the more you can innovate.  (You can innovate knowing nothing as well, but you’re more likely to fry your brain—or at least fry something).

So, knowledge is power.  Right there you’ve discovered a way to make your fantasy magic system different from around 99% of the magic systems out there.  A great deal of fantasy (most bad, but some good) focuses on gaining “power” in the physical sense.  Increasing the characters’ “strength”.   It’s what a lot of fantasy writers and readers refer to as “RPG” fantasy.  And that paradigm makes sense for an RPG,  where learning new spells, and fighting, and acquiring new and better gear,  and grinding… er, “increasing your stats” (yeah, whatever) is all part of the fun.  But the fun in fantasy is the story, the conflict.  Eighteen swordfights in a row would be boring.

Now, magical conflict relies on a power differential.  But by the principle above, it’s perfectly acceptable to convert this to a knowledge differential.  You can’t hurl fireballs and call lightning if you don’t know the spell.  Lackey’s Herald Mage trilogy makes good use of this concept when one character is defeated (okay, killed) by a “mage-storm” which wears away at his magical shield.  But in a later book, we learn such an attack can be rendered ineffective if you leave the shield “un-grounded” and thus free to spin right along with the attack in question.

So, that explains how you can use the second effect of frames of reference.  The first is a bit tougher, and requires more subtlety and finesse.  I think it might be best to leave until the next post.


Posted by on November 24, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Magic, Magicology, World-building, Writing


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Magicology: Frames of Reference, Part 1

Or, how to talk about something so that everyone is talking about the same thing

I was reading a lovely discussion on NaNo, and there was a bit of an issue with the definitions of “rules” versus “limitations”. I thought it might be interesting to look at how different terms are applied to fantasy magic systems and how we can harness and mold these terms to discuss magic systems more usefully.

See, the first problem with any discussion on world-building in general—and magic systems in particular—is the lack of a set of formalized terms. Writing has these: POV, Main Character, Protagonist, etc… This allows writers to talk meaningfully about different aspects of the “craft”. But what about for magic systems? What we have for this “craft” is a set of broadly defined terms re-tasked with specific meanings by every author or world-builder or game designer who makes use of them.

And this leads to a big fat mess. What is a “mage”? Someone who casts spells? Someone who manipulates energy? What is a “sorcerer”? Or a “charm”? Depends on the story we’re dealing with. But it shouldn’t have to. That’s one reason behind the prevalence of the neutral term “magic user” which ignores the magic system involved and focuses on the fact that the character in question can use magic. Anything else is just cosmetics. It’s pointless to talk about “sorcerers” when there are so many different conceptions out there. You can’t really talk about magic intelligently in this sort of environment.  Keep in mind this isn’t about how magic is presented in the story, it’s about writers and readers talk about magic.

So, how can we talk about magic systems more intelligently? We first have to establish frames of reference. Let’s begin by distinguishing between the way magic is talked about by the characters of a world–or relatively, and how it is talked about by world-builders–or absolutely.

So, in the absolute frame of reference, we have an absolute magic system (obviously). “Absolute magic system” refers to the workings of the magic as understood by the world-builder. The world-builder creates this system to regulate the magic. In the relative frame of reference, we have the “relative magic system”. This is the characters’ conception of how magic works. (And we can actually have several of these, but we’ll get to that in a later post.) Have we got this distinction down? I hope so.  It’s important.

The next step after establishing a frame of reference is to consider how magic is perceived within these frames:

Through the absolute frame, a magic system is an artificial construct whose structure is known and carefully crafted to affect the plot in the desired fashion, or not. The rules as laid down in a magic system are absolute knowledge—completely true and uncontestable. As the world-builder, you must know how the external magic system is structured, what the rules are.

Through the relative frame, a magic system is an organic and natural construct whose structure is unknown and must be explored to gain practical benefits. This structure is often in the form of rules or theories that best explain what is known of magic at the time. They are mutable and “true” only insofar as they achieve the desired effects. This is what the characters know about magic. The world-builder must also know how each characters relative magic system is structured.  It’s part of that “point of view” thing writers are always rambling on about.

A relative magic system is constructed inductively—that is, the characters will take the facts at their disposal and try to create a generalization that explains these facts, what would allow these occurrences? An external magic system can be constructed either inductively or deductively—that is, the world-builder takes some chosen general premise and to discover what occurrences would this allow? Some world-builders start out with their goals for the magic system, and some start out with general premises they wish to explore, and some start out with a bit of both.  But rather than taking what is true as their premises, world-builders will take what they want to be true as their premises.

So, with just this single distinction, we have already cleared up a great deal. You may be thinking: “What, that’s it? I could’ve told you that!” Maybe you could have. I have yet to see anyone adhere to this distinction, even though it would be incredibly useful in all those interminable discussions on whether magic systems should have rules or not. Well, I bet the characters have rules, even if you don’t let anyone peak at your own. Including the reader.

And it’s good for more than just discussion. Many fantasy stories rely on the clever hero to take the limited resources at her disposal and figure out a loophole to let her defeat the villain:

“No man can kill me!”

“I am no man.”

I’m sure you all recognize that little gem. (I may have paraphrased just a teensy bit…)

Now, if you break your own rules (like soooo many bad fantasy authors), you look like a cheater or an idiot, or perhaps just absent-minded. But it’s perfectly acceptable to manipulate the disconnect between your understanding of magic and the character’s.  Many authors use this for lesser hurdles as well. MC just learning how to use magic? You can slip a small hurdle in there that could be overcome if they knew all the rules… but maybe they don’t. Or maybe you want them to look clever so they figure it out. 

A great example of this is from Pat Rothfuss’  The Name of the Wind.  (I feel there are significant flaws in the rest of the book, but the magic system is pretty sound, and an interesting take on “scientific” magic.)  There are spoilers here, so you may wish to skip this part if you haven’t read the book.  The inciting incident in Kvothe’s pursuit of becoming an Arcanist is seeing a traveler defend himself with “real” magic, as opposed to “sympathy”.  This involves invoking the wind by using it’s true name, thus the title.  Kvothe, not realising this is true magic, attempts to imitate the trick by using the connection between his own breath and the wind.  This almost kills him (protags have all the luck, ne?  You or I probably would have died) and he gets a nice big lecture about stupidity:  “Don’t ever do something like that again!  Magic is daangerous! …etc”  Now, if one were to just throw in an actual consequence, that would be a pretty nice scene.

A little bonus for you all is that most of the material in this series can (and will) bend has been applied to any and every aspect of world-building. History, for instance. What people “know” happened and what actually happened are usually two (or three or four) very different things.  Which can lead to all sorts of interesting conflicts, like racism (well, okay, that’s a bit cliche) and heroes that really weren’t (Mistborn, anyone?) and false myths and prophecies.  For now, though, I’ll be applying them strictly to magic systems.   Next post, we will explore the “relative” frame of reference in more detail.


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Common Magic System Pros and Cons: Elemental Magic

Last post I wrote about the top ten ways to make me put your book back on the shelf. Or hit the back button—but that’s a whole other issue. Now we’re going to talk about common systems of magic and how they work or don’t work depending on how you use them.

First up is elemental magic, one of the most commonly used systems in fantasy, and also one of the most “simple”. It’s just throwing around the four five classical elements, right? Or three or seven, but the most common form uses five: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, Spirit. I’ve listed them in order of perceived “coolosity” for when “cool” just doesn’t cut it which I define as “a scale running from ‘common amongst protagonists’ to ‘what kind of lame power is heart anyway?’”

You can’t deny fire is the coolest. Balefire, Balrogs, Firestorm, red-haired golden-eyed, fire-wielding necromancers… I’m sure I could name examples all night long and well past noon. And, of course, being its arch nemesis, water gets plenty of stage time as well. Frothing foaming river stallions, weather-magic, majestic water-falls and sacred ponds, rivers, and lakes. Wind gets in on the fun as well. At least, until you put a bullet through the mage. But since when has earth magic played the central role in a story? Why are people so afraid of earthquakes and mudslides? Maybe you get a few walking trees, or land-bonded kings, but fire is just that much flashier, I guess.

So, pros:

  1. Simple concept, easy to divide up and you can have the Five Man Band if you throw in a little “Spirit”.
  2. Easy conflict: Earth vs. Wind Fire vs. Water.
  3. Lots of Earth systems to draw inspiration from: Greek, Chinese, Arabic
  4. Combine elemental powers to get any damn effect you want. I’m looking at you, Mr. Jordan. Well, I would if he wasn’t RIP. I guess that means I’m looking at you, Mr. Sanderson. Not that you can help it much, but I need someone to point at.
  5. See Con # 1: Fertile ground for clever twists. Think about it.


  1. How the hell do you put a price tag on it? Fatigue? Magical energy? Sympathy? Who knows.
  2. Gets cliché, and fast. If I see one more fire/water mage battle, I might have to gouge my eyes out.
  3. Never has even distribution between elements.
  4. Sexism: WoT again.
  5. Lame symbolism. Frisky fire mages are so last decade. And fiery fire mages. And fierce fire mages. And “cool-headed” water mages. And “flighty” wind elementals. And stolid earth mages—well, you know there would be if anyone actually used earth mages. (Don’t lie to yourself.) Mix it up people.

Please, somebody, come up with a fresh treatment. Use the Chinese system more. It’s better than another round of fire beats water beats fire beats everything else. And, last minute thought: alchemy is out. Just as cliché as straight elemental magic.

So, in the spirit of Limyaael, ways to make readers Atsiko like your elemental magic:

  1. Give some other elements besides fire and water the spot-light. Earth could be even more devastating against armies than fire. Wind could defend your coast kamikaze style. Or, you could do that thing that wind mages never think to do: suffocate the bastards.
  2. Give your system more than the old foursome. Wood and metal are both elements from the Chinese version of the system. I’d think rock and ice and sand could be culturally important to many peoples. Widen your scope. Be creative.
  3. But not “spirit”. Just don’t. How the heck is that even an “element”? Is the physical world made up of it? Not usually. Does it have a specific arena in which to work? No, it’s an excuse for whatever the hell the author wants. Set some limits and stick to ‘em, dang it.
  4. Integrate your system into the world. You know, this would be a great way to have a creative cost. Mess with the wind to make for fair-weather sailing? Hurricane nails important port town down the coast. Burn the enemy army up, well fine, but the forest they were hiding in is on fire. Or have a grassfire. Those are always fun. This isn’t hard, guys—it’s fun.
  5. Give me more deals between mages and elementals. Not Final Fantasy pacts, but a fair trade off. Maybe they want pretty flowers, or protection for their little pond. Or just a very-likely-to-be-called-in-at-a-crappy-time-for-the-hero favor. But make it some sort of price, not a freebie because your hero is so awesome.
  6. Find an appropriate cost. Sorry Tamora Pierce. Blood is interesting, but it doesn’t count as appropriate. (To be fair, her system isn’t strictly elemental.) Loved Pat Rothfuss’s method, though I think he could have at least thrown in some brain damage.
  7. Last one for now: Throw in some cool associations or symbolism. The Sun represents Fire. Boring. And planets don’t count either. I’ve always fancied flowers, or a musical instrument as an interesting association. Or maybe bone or blood or tears. Sort of like the Humours, but less body-fluidy. A little.

Okay, I’m done complaining. I really love elemental magic, if it’s a new portrayal. Shoot, I write a lot of stories with some form of it. But I’m tired of the same old same old. You don’t even really have to original—just be creative. And be sure to give me credit for the idea check yourself against what’s been written. Maybe it isn’t completely original—or maybe it is—but if it’s uncommon, it can still give your story a fresh feel.


Posted by on November 6, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Writing


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How to Create a Believable Magic System

ETA:  This is pretty much my most popular post, and I’ve come to the conclusion that’s because of SEO advantages such as a convenient titles as opposed to great content.  So an edit is in order.  I’m going to leave the original post unedited below, so feel free to read all the way down if you like.

One of the most common questions about writing fantasy is what to do about magic.  How do you create a good magic system?  How do you create a believable magic system?

What Do We Mean by Believable and How do I Accomplish It?

First, let’s touch on what we mean by “believable”.  A believable magic system in my view is one that allows the reader to maintain their willing suspension of disbelief. (Don’t feel obliged to read every single link if you know what I’m talking about.  PS, link one is to TVTropes.  Reader beware.)  There are several reasons why readers might give up their suspension of disbelief:

  1. Deus ex Machina:  When your magic system makes things too easy.  As the third link above says, you get a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from your reader–I’ll call them confidence points, and you can use it up.  Especially by solving your main plot conflict by using your magic system in a way you haven’t shown that it can be used.  Your fire mage suddenly learning they can use water magic when that’s the easiest way out of the situation is a deus ex and it’s going to use up most or all of your reader confidence points.
  2. Your magic is too easy.  There’s a common sentiment that magic requires a cost.  That’s often understood in the sense of mana points in a video game.   But there can be many “costs” to a magic system.  The important point is that your magic can’t just solve the plot problems for free or with little or no effort on the part of your protagonist.  Your cost can be in mana points if you want, or maybe it’s less concrete and logical such as losing an arm or a life.  Maybe you get a crippling migraine and can’t do anything for three days so you miss work.  But there has to be a trade-off.
  3. Your magic only solves problems but never creates them.  In our migraine example above, Hero Protagonist misses three days of work and gets fired.  Sure, he got rid of the poltergeist haunting his little sister, but he had to pay a cost for it.  And in this case, that cost caused new problems even as it paid off his old debts.  Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is a great way to price your magic.
  4. Your magic is all powerful.  Not only does that seem pretty unlikely, it’s kinda boring.  Why am I walking halfway across Middle Earth if I can just nuke Sauron with a passing asteroid?  There are famous memes tackling this very question.  Similarly, why didn’t they just fly to Mordor on eagles?


So how can you make your magic system more believable for your reader?  It’s not that it has to be understandable in real world terms.  That’s not what we mean by believable.  After all, you’re writing fiction and we know magic isn’t real.  What you’re really trying to do is convince your reader that this is how things would turn out based on your description of how magic works.  Let’s try answering each of the complaints listed above:

  1. Don’t do it.  Don’t let magic all by itself solve your conflicts.  You can let it solve part of your problem, but make your character use other tools, too.  Cleverness, for example.  Maybe you can cast an illusion or change the text of a document with magic.  But your character has to figure out what illusion or change to make.  Maybe your supporting characters can hold off the evil minions with magic, but your character still has to beat them in a sword fight.   Or perhaps your main conflict can’t be solved with magic at all.  Perhaps it requires persuasion, or compassion, or strategy.  And please, please, for the love of the fantasy genre… don’t have your magic do something that breaks a rule you’ve previously established for it.  This includes giving your character unique powers you’ve said your system doesn’t have, giving them a new power–especially with no foreshadowing–right at the key moment because otherwise they’re screwed.
  2. Magic is too easy?  Make it harder.  You can put costs on it as I mention above.  You can make it take awhile.  You can require it to be prepared ahead of time like the old D&D trope of memorizing three spells at a time and forgetting them as they are cast.  Maybe it requires specific ingredients.  Maybe you have to learn a magical language or writing system.  Or complex magical theory.
  3. Have your magic create as many problems as it solves.  This is a pretty common method for non-magical plot solutions, too.  You steal the artifact to trade for your dad, but now you’re a wanted criminal.  Like Nick Cage in National Treasure.  Or consider something like my migraine example above.
  4. Limitations help to make magic believable.  After all, everything in real life has costs and or limitations.  You might be able to walk 20 miles a day.  A car can take you 600 miles a day.  But it can’t cross the entire planet.  A pallet jack in the back of Walmart can let you pull over 1000 lbs, whereas you can only carry 75 lbs.  But it can’t put them on the shelf, and you can’t take one home when you buy a futon.  Magic doesn’t have to work exactly like science or technology do on Earth, but if it can do anything you have to wonder why we’re not all living in palaces waited on by djinnis with zombies plowing the fields for us.  As an example perhaps your fire mage can manipulate fire, but they have to create the first spark through natural means.  If magic that can do anything isn’t believable, then all you have to do is not let it do everything.

Now, I realize these are general abstract principles rather than concrete suggestions.  That’s because the possibilities of magic are by definition almost endless when you consider all the systems together.  I can’t precognitively diagnose your specific problems without knowing what your system is and can do.

Scientific Magic Systems

To address the giant elephant in the room, one common way people have claimed you can make a believable magic system is by having a “scientific” magic system.  You can read that post if you don’t know what that means.  I’ve ranted a few times about the misunderstanding of what constitutes a scientific magic system, but the link above covers the gist of it.  This is one method, but it isn’t the only method, and it has its own problems.

Most “scientific” magic systems are not scientific but rather logical.  You list a few base premises, and then–in theory–by combining these premises the characters and the readers can figure out exactly what the system can and can’t do.  I discuss this at length in my post about The Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding.  The idea is that if your reader knows exactly what your system can do, they can be confident that the conflict won’t be solved by cheap tricks.  (A truly scientific magic system is slightly more complex and involves the idea of limited information, where we don’t have all the rules laid out for us.  Then the reader must make hypotheses, and seeing whether these turn out to be correct is one way to create believable tension.)

A logical magic system is a promise to your reader that you won’t undermine the tension of the story by solving your conflicts with cheap tricks.  They know the dire situation really is dire because by the rules of your magic system the protagonist can’t just wave their hands and say a few words and “Poof!” the bad guy bursts into flames.  Of course, there are two ways to deal with this.  One is to meet the readers’ expectations, and the other is to cleverly subvert them.  This is where a lot of logical magic systems fail to suspend the readers disbelief.  When they aim for subversion but actually just straight up cheat in the reader’s eyes.  It’s a tightrope.

A Metaphor!

And here I’m going to digress a bit.  A truly good magic system (or story) doesn’t rely on the reader to suspend their own disbelief.  It provides the harness itself and suspends the reader’s disbelief for them.  When the magic breaks a promise to the reader, such as that you can’t bring back the dead, it’s like cutting one of the ropes holding the bridge up over the chasm.  If you cut enough of the ropes, even if there are still some there, the bridge comes loose and drops the reader into the chasm of broken trust.  What makes for a really spectacular climax is when you drop the reader into the chasm but then at the last minute they find an intact rope to hang onto, restoring their trust and suspension of disbelief.  But if the rope you leave dangling for them is too slippery, they can’t grab ahold and still fall to their death.

The most basic answer to the question in the title of this post is that you establish trust with the reader by making promises with your magic/story and then keeping them.  If you promise a harrowing ride with death-defying leaps, it doesn’t really work out if the safety net below your characters is too obvious.


In the simplest terms, a believable magic system is one where the reader can believe what you tell them about it and one where they can believe that the story and the world it’s in really would turn out like this given what they know of how the magic works.  I haven’t addressed the latter point quite as thoroughly as I did the former in this post.  But it is a very important point from a world-building perspective rather than the story perspective through which we looked at the first point.  I hope to address it better in a later post.

I hope this time I’ve done a better job of answering your question.  For more concrete or specific suggestions for creating a sense of trust in the reader and then living up to it, please check out the “Magicology” page which links to all my posts on magic systems.

Original Post:

For the last two posts, I took a break from discussing magic to lay some basic groundwork on how stories function. To sum up:

Stories are kept interesting through conflict and suspense. These are created through tensionSuspense is built through external “story” tension, and conflict is built through internal “character” tension.

If you haven’t read those posts, I suggest you do. But if you understand what I just said, you’re good to go.

How do you create a believable magic system?

The first step is to decide on your goals for the magic. Ask yourself these basic questions:

  1. Does it create suspense? Perhaps the Dark Lord has the power to turn all the seasons to winter, and your characters are on the verge of starvation. Or maybe he can’t. But you as the writer must know which.
  2. Does it create conflict? You know vampires? And all the angst that fantasy has decided comes with being one? That’s magic-derived internal conflict. But magical conflict isn’t only about whether Louis wants to drink blood or not. How would you feel if you couldn’t give your daughter a proper burial because that bitch Carnival had sucked her dry? Or what if the dragons are taking back their country dammit, and themselves take whoever is getting in their way.
  3. Does it resolve suspense or conflict? For example, are your characters allowed to escape a situation by using magic? This is fireball country, people. Brutes or brains? Or both? Lavan Firestorm burned up an entire invading army that seemed destined to overrun Valdemar. And Dirk Proven saved the world by figuring out when the next eclipse would occur—and lying about it.
  4. Does it create a sense of wonder? Who wasn’t impressed by the Nazgul, or Shelob? But I bet you don’t know where they came from, or how their power works. Good thing it didn’t matter. Now, Lackey’s ley-lines were fun, and you might even have wanted to be able to use them, but were they mysterious and awe-inspiring? No. Just a way to move along the plot. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But is it what you—as an author—want?
  5. What themes will your magic express or explore? Yes, themes. I know you had enough of analyzing literature in high school. Or not. But whichever it was, this is still something you need to think about. Maybe you’re a panster, and you only know the themes after you’ve written the book. But they’re there all along, and it can be much simpler to follow them if you know what they are in the first place. Maybe you’re an environmentalist. Would you prefer a story about ghosts or trees that would rather not be cut down? What about the pollution of sacred sites? Ursula K. Leguin tackles this with the story of how one of the great cities used the Lips of Paor as a garbage dump. I bet they were really willing to help when our friend the Mender needed his powers temporarily removed.

Now that we’ve gone over choosing goals, maybe we should talk about how to achieve them. There are several things you need to do to make your magic meet your goals:

  1. Know what your magic is and what it can do. Yes, flying is cool, but if your character is a water mage, there’s not much they can do about it. Making them a wind mage is not the solution, folks. The solution is to make compromises. Your character needs to part the sea in chapter 4? Then they can’t fly over the Mountains of a Million Trolls in chapter eight. If your character can do anything, we aren’t going to have much of a story.
  2. Know what your magic is and what it costs. Maybe you can part seas and fly. But it’ll cost you your first-born child. And you’ve already got one. Maybe you know the character will pay for this later. But the reader has a much shorter attention span. The more you can do, the more—and sooner—it should cost you. Physically or mentally, it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s permanent at some point. You can trade the cost as many times as you want, as long as you don’t trade it out of existence.
  3. Make it hard to learn. If your hero can learn the equivalent of a bible’s worth of spells in four weeks, why isn’t everyone and their pet hydra killing bandits and enjoying the magical equivalent of total climate control? If they are, then why does a prophecy about a fire-flingin’ half-elf princess so incredible to them? You’ve got to work out all the consequences. After that, it’s okay to indulge in some judicious ignorance.

Those are the basics, guys. There are way too any ways to create magic systems for me to fill out every little nook and cranny of magic-making theory. Later, I’m going to do some in-depth critiques of various magic systems, pointing out all the places things went right, and all the places they went wrong. And maybe I’ll even make up a magic system just for the Chimney, to really show you how the process looks. Field-work is fun, but “show don’t tell” is a real pain. Why do you think we writers don’t do it?


Posted by on October 29, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Themes, Writing


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Magic’s Price

Or, On More Principles Tricks of Good Fantasy and How Authors Screw Up The Third Principle of Good Magic

Now, those of you in the know have probably noticed there was something missing in my previous post on balanced magic. That’s right, the most abused principle of good magic systems: The Principle of Appropriate Cost. Oh, and its corollary The Principle of Suitable Sacrifice.*

The most widely used excuse for poorly balanced magic systems is the “cost” of magic. Cost can be physical energy, physical backlash (as in Lackey’s brilliant cost of… headaches?**), life essence(whatever that is), actual years off of life, powered by nebulous energy which may or may not be renewable or unending, blood, human and animal sacrifice, deals with spirits or demons, and many others. After “limits”, cost is the most badly abused balancer in fantasy. Why? Because a lot of costs don’t really “cost” anything. Maybe, if the author is feeling really reasonable, cost can limit the duration or strength of magic, but it’s still transient. The mage is back after some bed rest and a good meal, ready to go at it again. Or they just snag the nearest ley-line.

Another form of abuse is one that violates my First Law of Delayed Gratification, which most simply translates to “the sooner, the better”. Sure, years off your life sounds bad, but it’s a long way into the future. For example, how many teenagers do you know who would sacrifice ten years of life in the future for the chance to fly or throw fireballs now? Or get whatever wish they want most met? How many adults like that do you know? Probably enough to understand my point. Just like a newly married couple handing over their first-born child. “That’s okay. We don’t want kids.” Right… Readers like costs now, or at least costs that they know about. Writers, don’t wait too long to bring on the pain. Or we will bring on the wall.

There are all sorts of great costs that magic could have, but authors afraid to really hurt their characters will not use them. Happily-ever-after is fine, but have them earn it. There’s no conflict in an obvious decision, authors. Characters should suffer, have regrets, feel guilty, make tough choices. And while we’re at it, no fake costs. No fair bringing a character back to life after they’ve sacrificed it to drive the magic. No, Ms. Lackey, not even once. Or as a ghost. Paid costs should stay paid–unless the magic is undone in return… and it matters that it is.

Another thing that is commonly ignored is external costs. That is, the cost to other people of the character using their magic. Call up an earth quake to trap the villains in a rockslide? What about the village a mile down the road? Is it still standing after? Magic nuke that destroys the enemy? What about the innocents caught in its path? Burn down the vineyard the enemy is hiding in? How is the owner going to pay his taxes? Everything has consequences, and those consequences have consequences. Drain this node and the one down the road, and how will the next village’s magic dam stop the flood? But now we’re leaking into logical effects. More on those later.

Summation: Make your costs cost—permanently.

*As in, headaches don’t make fire.  And sacrificing squirrels doesn’t defeat the Dark Lord.  Now, the hero(ine)’s Love Interest… that could do it.

**I love Lackey, really. Not the best fantasy I’ve ever read, sure, but I was using light sarcasm; I don’t bite.  And she gets it right, sometimes.  Lavan Firestorm, anyone?

Next post: On Setting Limits and Why Breaking Them is Bad. Bad. Bad!


Posted by on October 20, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Writing


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The Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding

(and many other First Laws Principles of Good Fantasy)

One thing I mentioned in my previous post but did not expand upon was my “Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding.” That is:  “A character’s ability to solve a conflict with magic is inversely proportional to how well the character understands said magic.”  (I’m looking at you, Eragon!)  Basically, the more you know, the more you fuck up. 


It’s the corollary to Atsiko’s First Law of Magic. Which reads: “An author’s ability to solve a conflict with magic is inversely proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” Because I am egotistical like that… and meta.  Basically, this Law says that the more a reader understands your magic system, the less you can get away with the less useful it will be in solving conflicts(, because you will be working within more limits).  Instead, you will have to rely on your characters’ actual heroic traits.*  In a paradoxical turn of events, my law and Mr. Sanderson’s are equally and simultaneously true.  I think mine is more useful from a plotting standpoint, while Mr. Sanderson’s is more useful from a construction standpoint.  Keep his in mind when you make your magic, and keep mine in mind when you use it.


What makes Atsiko’s Law relevant in fantasy is the Sliding Scale of Magic vs. Science.  (Some of you may have guessed already that I’ve spent too much time on TV Tropes lately.  I blame it on NaNoWriMo.)  Basically, the more you explain a magic system, the more of a pain in the ass it is to actually do something “magical” with it, or do anything at all, really.  (Science is not omnipotent.)  For authors who want their reader to experience a sense of wonder in their stories, this is a rather undesirable trait. 


It can also lead to “necessary” info-dumping–and plot holes.  The plot holes arise when an author wants to do something freakin’ awesome previously forbidden.  But here’s a little secret.  Readers will forgive anything as long as it fucks something up later.  They love that.  Let’s call it delayed consequences gratification.  Just don’t wait too long, or the book will already have hit the wall.**


Which leads us to our next writerly trick: the invisible rule.


That’s right.  Hidden rules.  Because hidden rules rule.  One of the best ways to create a mysterious and yet satisfying plot-buster magic system is to have rules and not tell anybody.  Seems counterintuitive, right?  If we don’t know the rules, how will they know you have them?  Doesn’t matter.  See, in the real world, we learn the rules by observing and formulation hypothesis.  We then apply these as laws until something disproves them.  You can do this in fantasy, too.  Of course, it’s much harder.  You have to avoid really big flashy stuff until the necessary rules have been introduced–but still meet the criteria for Retroactive Consistency we established in the last post.  For skilled plotters only.  But see Atsiko’s First Law.


Now we can address the two major ways in which you can create the illusion of balance through construction, without hemming yourself in with restrictive rules.  This is where you keep in mind Sanderson’s First Law and what you want your magic to do.  Here are your two main tools:


1. The Principle of Limited Application—the magic is not applicable to any situation, and can only meet a few, clearly-defined needs.  Robin Hobb’s magic in Soldier Son has limited applicability.  It cannot throw fireballs, or summon lightning, and while it appears quite flexible, it almost always approaches conflict indirectly.  No stand-offs here.  The “Great Ones” must find other ways to achieve their goals.  Allows for a greater sense of mystery.


2. The Principle of Limited Effect—the magic can apply to a broad range of situations, but there is a limit to how much power can be thrown at the problem.  Lackey’s magic system in Velgarth has limited effectiveness.  Some mages are more powerful than others, and even though you can do pretty much anything with it, if your lightning doesn’t pierce the opponents shields, you aren’t going to damage him.  Allows for a greater sense of tension.


Now, many authors use a combination of mysterious and scientific magic in their stories.  The more mysterious the magic is, the more the Principle of Limited Application is used to keep magic in check.  The magic is a step on the road to solving the conflict, but it requires the character to use other skills and assets to ultimately solve the problem.  Scientific systems can get away with a broader application, but they tend to rely more on the Principle of Limited Effect.  Yes, the character can throw a fireball, but you’re not going to obliterate the foe in one go.  Both of these Principles deal with solving the conflict, but the means to the end are quite different, and a reader can be happy or unhappy with both types of magic.


But there’s another writerly trick that allows you to have mystery and avoid deus ex machina.  The goal here is to create the illusion of logical progression, by adding an extra assumption just before the fact; ie, trick the reader into believing you foreshadowed this all along.  Word-games work great, as Tolkien proved.  “I am no man.”  (Any tropers out there have probably figured out I fall somewhere on the right of this, in regards to my view of “clever” fantasy authors.)




*Atsiko’s First Law of Protagonists:  “Magic does not make you a hero!  Or, magic does not make you Speshul, Snowflake–good character does.”


**Atsiko’s First Law of Delayed Gratification:  “The less gratification is delayed, the more gratifying it is.”



Next post:  On More Principles Tricks of Good Fantasy, or How Authors Screw Up The Third Principle of Good Magic


Posted by on October 18, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic, Writing


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Meeting Your Goals for Magic

Meeting Your Goals for Magic

Last time I talked about the purpose of magic in fantasy. I covered wonder/coolness, conflict, and solutions. Now I am going to talk about how magic can be used to meet these goals.

There are two basic types of magic common in fantasy. The “scientific magic system”, and the way Tolkien did it. The latter has fallen into disuse as a pure system, but there are bastard systems significantly influenced by it. First, let’s talk Tolkienian:

Magic that is left mysterious gets top score in one specific category: awe and wonder. We are naturally more impressed by things we don’t understand. Lightning; auroras; that girl down the hall who can play anything on the piano. (Not that I have any particular experience with that last, nope I do not.) Just wow. Well, it’s the same with magic. The less we understand about how it works, the more we are amazed by it. After all, you know stage magicians are fakes, but that doesn’t make the disappearing space shuttle any less awesome, does it? It’s not about the effect; it’s about the cleverness behind it.

Mysterious magic also allows the author to create conflict. Ha! You thought Mr. Protagonist was safe, did you? Too bad you didn’t know that “every magical action has an equal and opposite disproportionately large magical reaction”. Surprise! This is Atsiko’s Third Law of Magic. And it’s also purpose number two. So far, so good.

But the problem with un-explained magic arises when an author uses it to address a story conflict without. As readers, we don’t mind the first kind of surprise. It’s not piling on the pain that we have a problem with, it’s snapping your fingers and making it vanish… as opposed to, you know, actually making the characters work for their victories. This can result in us readers feeling cheated. The author ratcheted up the tension and threw this character into a difficult spot. We didn’t know how the character was going to get out of it. Great, we love that. We want to discover how the character gets out of it. But if the answer is just to throw magic at the problem—magic you didn’t tell us about, or even hint that the character could apply to this situation—that big balloon of tension and suspense is immediately deflated. It wasn’t the character that solved the problem, it was the author. This is called “deus ex machina”, a Greek term which means “the author is a lazy ass”.

The excitement that comes from stage magic in our world revolves around the magician doing something they shouldn’t be able to do, even though we know there’s a logical reason behind it. It’s supposed to make no sense. The fun is in making sense of it. But in fantasy, where real world rules don’t always apply, we don’t know there’s a logical reason behind it, and we won’t be able to make logical sense out of it—unless the author helps us. There’s more likely an arbitrary reason behind it, anyway: author fiat. Using fantasy magic doesn’t require an author to be clever–only autocratic.  But it helps if they are.

In the real world, there are rules and the world never deviates from them, even if we don’t know what they are. The system runs itself, and it can’t cop out when things aren’t going its way. But in a fantasy world, the author runs the system, and they can cheat whenever they want. In order for us to suspend disbelief as readers, we have to be convinced that the author is following her own rules, and the best way to do this is to establish them early, and have everything follow them. If the author wants to do something the current rules don’t allow, they must set up the proper conditions beforehand. Either they explain the new rule and how it fits into the old system before using it, or we feel like they pulled a fast one.

And thus we come to the “scientific” magic system. What it lacks in awe and wonder, it makes up for in suspension of disbelief. It does this by mimicking a facet of real-world “science”: logical consistency. In the case of magic, I will refer to this as the Principle of Non-Retroactive Consistency. That is: “no new rule may invalidate an old solution, or (and this is the important one) invalidate an old conflict. That’s the secret of maintaining suspension of disbelief in us readers. If a new power could have been used to greater effect during a previous conflict and was not, then it is clear to us that the either the author withheld this rule to create more tension, or else has now found themselves in a corner that they are too lazy to think through or incapable of getting out of using their old rules. In the first case, they artificially created tension and suspense to make a scene more exciting. This is not nice. It tricks readers, and we do not like that. In the second case, they artificially extricated the hero from an unwinnable situation so that the story could continue. This is not nice. It’s a way to avoid good plotting, and we do not like that, either. One way or the other our suspension of disbelief is broken. Bad author! No royalties for you! Word of mouth shall bury your book. (And that could ruin your career. As an author, you don’t get to make that sort of mistake—not if you want to keep writing under your current name, anyway.)

So what system is best for you? We have established that magic can be divided into two categories. Here’s a condensed description of both:

1. Magical— This form of magic is usually not practiced by the heroes. The author does not explain its rules, except in very general terms, and its pros and cons are not revealed. Most useful for providing a sense of wonder and awe. It is not used to get a character out of a tough spot. Rather, it is more likely to create conflict than resolve it. Or else it balances solution with creation. The real solution comes from the characters’ other strengths. Like courage, or compassion. You know, the things that make them a hero.

2. Scientific— This magic is generally explained in detail. The rules especially are known, and it has a clearly defined set of limits and costs. Most useful for direct application to plot conflicts, and is most often wielded by one or more of the protagonists and their allies. It can be used to create and resolve conflict, because it does not deceive the reader with a false sense of tension. But it is not awe-inspiring. Usually. magic systems can fall anywhere in between these two extremes, and a balance is generally best for what most authors want to accomplish. It’s like distributing stat points. You’ve got to make compromises. You can’t be both a powerful wizard and a powerful warrior… Or can you? (See below.)

Next time, I will examine in detail how magic can be used to create and/or resolve conflict. That entry will be slightly more snarky, however. Many authors have screwed this part up. Beware: Names will be Named.

Secret bonus snark: Remember that Law I mentioned in the last post? As a special bonus, I will explain it–and a few other nifty gewgaws.


Posted by on October 16, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic


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What Can You Do With Magic Anyway?

No, this isn’t about throwing fireballs and calling lightning.  Today, I’m going to be talking about the goals and purposes of magic in fantasy.

Many people would argue that the fantasy genre is defined by the inclusion of magic or other supernatural spirits.  This definition covers the vast majority of fantasy.  But a lot of books don’t quite fit into a specific genre, and they are lumped in with fantasy.  Mainly, these are secondary world historical fictions stories, which aren’t “historical” fiction by virtue of taking place on a planet that is not earth.  Because this discussion is about the uses of magic in fantasy, I hope you won’t mind if I ignore this sub-genre for the sake of simplicity. 

So, magic.  What is it good for?  Pretty much everything… if you use it right.  But here are a few specific uses with examples: 

1. Creating Wonder—

One of the major enticements of magic is the sense of awe and wonder it can create, the feeling of whimsy.  In a purely escapist sense, it allows you to do things you couldn’t do in real life—or, at least, it allows your proxies to do these things.  

Magic lets a character create fire and lightning, wipe out monstrous hordes with the wave of a hand.  In many cases, it is a balancer.  A mage might be weak and frail (or not), but magic lets him stand his ground against the most accomplished fighter.  In the most basic sense, it grants a character power above and beyond the abilities of a normal person.  It means you don’t have to be strong or fast (or smart!) to make a difference.  Magic can create a sense of control, and this is quite attractive to many characters—and readers. 

The Lord of the Rings uses magic to create a sense of wonder.  Vast landscapes, deep history, and the magic behind them create a fantastic picture of Middle-Earth.  And Tolkien doesn’t explain it.  One of the common arguments against scientific magic is that it isn’t magic anymore if you explain it.  And, in a sense, this is true.  But then the other side will argue back that you can’t generate real conflict unless the reader knows what’s what.  Later, I will talk about the Inverse Law of Utility and Understanding.  (Here’s hoping I get credit for this on TV Tropes!)

2. Generating Conflict—

In plot terms, this is one of the most important uses.  The Dark Lord uses his magic to conquer the world, and the Hero uses his to save it.  Of course, there are other ways to generate conflict with magic.  In Mercedes Lackey’s Mage Storms Trilogy, a magical cataclysm echoes back across time and threatens to destroy the world.  This is not the conscious action of an enemy power.  This is a Man vs. Nature conflict.  Magic can also cause internal conflict.  A character with uncontrollable powers can fear hurting others or themselves.  The uses are pretty much endless, but those are the big three.

3. Solving Problems—

This is probably the most controversial use of magic in fantasy.  Many argue that solving problems with magic is somehow “cheating”.  If magic can solve all problems, what’s the point of putting the heroes through so much pain?  Blogs and books and articles on magic for the past twenty years have tried to answer this question, and many would argue they still haven’t succeeded.  We’ll delve into this issue more in the next post.

On the other hand, if the hero has magic, doesn’t it make sense that they should use it?  What else is it there for but to do something?  Why should magic only create conflict, when it has the ability to resolve it as well?  Personally, I think it is perfectly fine to use magic to resolve conflict.  But it should do so in a way that makes sense in context.  Having a God–or a powerful spell or artifact—is a commonly used method to solve problems in so-called “bad” fantasy.  And if all it takes to solve the problem is the application of a quick spell, then maybe the plot had some issues in it already.  But again, that’s for the next post.

So, to sum up, this post is not so much about what magic does in the story as it is about what magic can do for the story.  Next time, we will discuss how to design a system with the desired proportions of these three effects.


Posted by on October 13, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, Ideas


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System? What System? I Don’t Need No Freakin’ System!

You’ve heard it again and again, and from your favorite authors.  Magic has to follow a system.  If it doesn’t it is confusing, it is cheating, it is deus ex machina!  That’s right: breaking your own rules is not allowed.  If you do, you are a bad writer.  Well, yes, breaking your own rules is a rather silly way to keep a reader’s suspension of disbelief.  Lying is dishonest.  No argument there.  If you say magic cannot bring back the dead on page 34, and the hero revives his dead love interest on page 52, it doesn’t give the reader a whole lot of confidence in the rest of what you tell them.  Since a book is just a bunch stuff you tell them, it’s not very good for them to be ignoring every word out of your mouth.

But see, that’s where all the confusion comes from: a set of rules is not a system.  A system is generative.  It takes a comparably small number of processes that are then used to generate an infinite set of products.  From Wikipedia: “A system can also be viewed as a bounded transformation process, that is, a process or collection of processes that transforms inputs into outputs. Inputs are consumed; outputs are produced. The concept of input and output here is very broad.”  Most magical “systems” are actually a set of rules or principles.  I’m re-assigning some words here but hey, a set of known terms makes a complicated discussion a lot easier.  So here are three terms I will be using and my definitions for them:

  1. System- a set of processes used to convert inputs to outputs.
  2. Principle- an overarching and generally accepted concept; a fundamental law
  3. Rule-  an arbitrary limit on possible effects
  4. Process- a series of connected events that lead to a new product.


  1. System- the water cycle
  2. Principle- the Laws of Sympathy and Contagion
  3. Rule- “magic may not bring back the dead”
  4. Process- photosynthesis

Now, I am going to make several assumptions, but they are fairly accurate, and for the purposes of this post, sufficient to support my argument.


  1. No author has ever used a system of magic.  I think this is self-evident according to the definitions above.  If anyone can explain to me the actual process of any magical act in fiction, I will dance naked on top of Everest. retract this statement.  I know I can’t give such an example.  If you do make the attempt, you must provide evidence and from canon sources produced by the creator of the system.
  2.  “Systems” in fiction are made up of a combination of rules and/or principles.
  3. Rules provide the feeling of science in the vast majority of “scientific magic systems”.
  4. The more specific the rules and principals, the more “scientific” the “system”.

Right off, we have discover that there is no such thing as a “system” of magic.  So, clearly, magic does not have to follow a system.  No magic has ever followed a system.  Nit-picking, you might say.  What does it matter?  Who cares about these abstract definitions?  Everyone should.  Definitions let you cut through the crap and find out just how exactly your favorite form of magic is constructed.  And how you should design your own form.

Now we get to the point.  Magic does not follow a system.  It follows a set of rules and principles that the author manipulates to create interest and a sound plot.  This can be tough.  Too little power means the hero cannot succeed, but too much means that the hero can succeed too easily.  It also leads to plot holes and a lack of tension.  The idea of having a “system” is to define clear and logical parameters that allow the hero to move forward, but also allow the book to develop suspense and emotional depth.  A “system” also helps the author avoid “deus ex machina”, which is a fancy phrase which means skipping out on the bill.  The reader gives the author respect and an income, and the author gives the reader an interesting and satisfying story.  The reader expects a character to succeed or fail on their own merit.  That’s what makes a story satisfying.

What magic really needs is not a system but consistency.  Consistency is satisfying.  A system could create consistency, but there are much simpler and more efficient ways of doing so.  Authors know this, and that is why they don’t really use systems, no matter how much they tell you they do.  And that is why you have to be careful about what you choose to believe.  Authors may not be intentionally lying, but damn it’s hard on you when they don’t express themselves properly.  And it makes them look bad.  They’re Authors god-dern it.  They ought to be able to get the meaning across properly or they shouldn’t be writing books.


Next time, we will talk about the goals of magic in fantasy and why magic has these goals.


Posted by on October 8, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, Writing


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