Building Marvelous Magic
Stage 3: Defining Your System
Maybe you woke up this morning with a brand new magic system bursting from your skull. Or maybe you’ve been working on a specific system for years and just want it to be the best it can be. Then again, maybe you have a kick-ass story and the only thing missing is some equally kick-ass magic. Regardless of the origin, you’ve got a magic system in need of help.
But where do you start? What do you do? How can this twisted mess ever become what you need it to be?
Don’t worry. I understand your pain, and I’m here to help.
The Journey So Far
Whether you’ve been following this series from the start or just stumbled on this post, there are a number of milestones you’ve surely passed already. Tell you what. I’ll cover them again real quick, just in case you want to revisit a stage.
You set aside time to enjoy your delicious brain-candies and now you’ve got ideas… LOTS of ideas. So many ideas that you can’t possibly fit them into a single book without becoming an encyclopedia, your computer groans as it’s forced to load the file, and your friends question your sanity.
Fear not; that’s exactly how many ideas you need. If you’re having trouble getting to this prodigious volume of ideas, you might want to backtrack and get with the brainstorming again. If you’re really struggling, contact me or someone you know for help.
Burdened by the sheer number of options, you’ve made peace with the fact that not everything will make the cut. You’ve asked the important questions, analyzed the consistency, shape, and tone of your story (horror, fantasy, mystery, etc), and you’ve decided exactly what type of magic system you want (Hard vs Soft, Rational vs Irrational, etc).
Well done! Narrowing the scope of your system is a vital, and often ignored, step in the process. Even so, your magic is a nebulous blob of scenes, odors, and ideas.
What it really needs now is some structure.
It’s Time to Start Defining Your Magic
Up to this point, my advice has been to avoid details like a plague-pit and keep focused on the bigger picture. Now, at long last, we get to turn this jumbled collection of molecules into a beautiful and organized crystal.
This’ll be tough, but it’s all about the approach.
With a mess of scientific data in my face, confusion, overwhelm, and frustration often take over. Building magic systems causes the same problem. In either case, I’ve found it best to break the process down into more manageable steps, something I’m sure you know about me by now.
Let’s get scientific with this beast!
Step 1: Identify the Variables
Variables are the points of data and information that make up your system. Identifying the variables that you do and don’t know is the first step towards a solution. If it’s a textbook problem, this is easy: write down any values they give you or ask for and you’re good to go.
Of course, it’s won’t be so simple in real life or when defining your magic; identifying all the variables can be a nightmare. Fortunately, there’s a trick I’ve learned to help spot them.
Variables are often disguised as questions.
You know the kind I’m talking about: Where does the magic come from? Does it require training? How do they access the power? All of these questions, point you straight to the variables that make up your system. What’s more, these types of questions are great to use and easy to find with wonderful sites like SFWA and Mythcreants.
Sound great, right? But there’s a problem. As great as these types of resources are, and they are great, they don’t help you find the answers you don’t already have.
Don’t worry; that’s exactly what the other steps are for. So gather all the questions you can carry and move along.
Step 2: Set the Boundary Conditions
If you aren’t careful, even the most rudimentary of problems can become monstrously complicated.
What’s that? You want to know the product yield from a chemical reaction? I can’t tell you because the reaction will never run to completion, the scales aren’t perfectly calibrated, my measurements won’t be exact, I don’t know the purity of the compounds involved, and on and on and on.
In order to prevent your simple chemical analysis turning into an effort to define the universe as we know it, you need to constrain the problem a bit. With just a few assumptions and the removal of a few variables, this turns from an impossible problem to a back-of-the-envelope calculation.
This isn’t the technical definition, but boundary conditions are sets of information and decisions that make up the edges of your magic. To keep it simple: boundary conditions are the limitations you place on your system. Once they’re in place, magic can only occur within the domain outlined by these conditions.
If you’re a follower of Brandon Sanderson, then you know limitations are of greater interest than the power itself. This is exactly what your boundary conditions should do for you. These conditions can be scientific in nature or completely arbitrary. The point is they add constraints and eliminate variables.
By now you should begin to see the vague outlines defining your magic system, or at least what it will become. Now you need to get into the guts and decide how things connect.
Step 3: Find the Functions and Equations
You’ve got your data; you found your variables; and constrained the problem with boundary conditions. Now you have to figure out how it all works together. Obviously I’m talking about functions and equations. Otherwise, what are we doing here?
Don’t worry. I’m not going to turn this into a math lesson. Equations and functions are just different ways of expressing how certain variables relate to one another. If you were baking a cake, the individual ingredients would be your variables and the recipe would be your equation you follow. By understanding these relationships, it becomes much easier to understand the gritty details of your magic and allows for extrapolation, both for you and the reader.
Some of your equations will be real and others will be contrived generalities, much like your boundary conditions. Hell, some of them will even come from your boundary conditions. In fact, that is usually the best place to start, especially if they are scientific in nature.
If you’re not so lucky, then you’ll have to put in some extra work. Take a closer look at your variables from Step 1. Look for patterns, commonalities, anything that will let you group them together in interesting ways. See where the different parts are alike, where they are opposites, and where they intersect.
By the time you’re done with this step of defining your magic, your system will not only have a shape, but some structural integrity as well.
Step 4: Solve for Unknowns
At this point in a textbook problem or research project, you resolve the final details. All missing variables are solved for; values are determined; and the answer becomes clear. This is the stage in defining your magic that the pieces come together in crystalline clarity.
Everything you need for defining your magic system is finally in place; now you just have to solve the variables from Step 1. Steps 2 & 3 might have uncovered additional variables for you to consider, so make sure they don’t get missed. Fortunately, all the previous groundwork should allow answers to flow easily. Follow your boundary conditions, equations, and patterns as necessary to solve as many mysteries as possible. The more variables you solve, the faster the others fall into line.
This step may take some time to work through all the unknown variables, but all that hard work should be resolving the fascinating details of your magic. It’s tough, but you’re almost done. There’s only one step left.
Step 5: Stress-Test Your System
All this work into defining your magic has finally paid off! You have a beautiful system constrained yet provides countless opportunities for conflict and exploration. I’m sure you’re tempted to jump right into any one of the stories threatening to split your soul in two, but you can’t jump in just yet. You need to test your system and see if it can survive. If you don’t, you run the risk of missing important flaws, flaws your readers will never forget.
Don’t worry, this step is both fun and easy. All you’ve got to do now is start daydreaming. Just try to stay at least a little focused.
Start by running scenarios in your head. You want to make sure you, and by extension your characters, have enough room for creative solutions to story problems. At the same time, you don’t want everything to become too easy, or you lose the conflict in your story. If you’ve used actual equations in Step 3, then run some numbers to understand what is and isn’t possible. If you have patterns, see how far they go running into one another or a boundary condition. Take all those variables from Step 1 & 4 and start tweaking them and start answering them
Make sure the magic doesn’t break your world. I love playing D&D, but if you look at it, there are plenty of races, economies, and religions that would crumble in the face of the world’s powerful magic. Everything needs to be balanced so no character becomes too overpowered. Remember: the magic was build to serve your purposes and your story, not destroy them.
Give yourself plenty of time in this step to experience the results of defining your magic.
Don’t Drive Yourself Crazy!
Don’t get obsessed with any one step of the process. Don’t worry if you’ve still got unanswered variables, missing boundary conditions, half-completed equations, and fractures in the bedrock of your magic; that’s what the next stage of building magic systems is all about.
Now, Share the Power!
I hope this has been helpful. I’ve worked for years to build and identify this approach, and I’m thrilled to help you any way I can. Share this lesson with another author or magic nut you know and keep the knowledge flowing.
Next time we’ll get familiar with Stage 4: Iteration. Until then, get to work and have fun. Rowenson, out.