Congratulations! You’ve generated oodles of ideas and optimized alignment, and you’re finally ready to start defining your magic system. Stage 3 is where your magic system should start taking on shape, becoming more awesome and more unique with every step. This stage is also massive, so we’re just going to take it one piece at a time.
That starts today as we take a closer look at the basics of magic system variables, what they are and how they affect your magic.
What Are “Variables?”
Unfortunately, the resources available on building magic are limited, and the few I have found focus on lists of open-ended questions. These lists, like the those featured on the SFWA website, can be valuable. Extremely so. These kinds of questions can just be ridiculously difficult, if not impossible, to answer without enough context and experience.
In other words: the questions are the most useful to those that no longer need them.
This is why I like to think in terms of variables instead of just questions. Magic Variables are descriptive qualities of the system itself. In some ways, they are more like a state of being rather than a single idea or answer. As difficult as they are, the questions provided by SFWA, Mythcreants, and others do have their place. Whether they know it or not, each question is actually designed to help address certain system variables.
Does that make any sense?
It didn’t really for me at first, either. Thinking in terms of variables can be difficult at first, but it will become clearer the more we talk about it. So, let’s jump in and start with the chatter.
The 3 Types of Variables
In the past, I called these “primary, secondary, and tertiary” variables. As I continue to teach and learn about magic systems, I realized they didn’t really follow that kind of structure. After several days of brainstorming and mental-flagellation, I realized they instead group themselves based on the topic they address, leading to the Global, System, and User Variables we are going to discuss.
Global variables are all about how the magic interacts with and fits into the world around it. If you want, you can think of this as the worldbuilding portion of your magic system.
For example, some variables to consider are Magic Flux, Magic Ubiquity, and Global Homogeneity.
Sorry about the word choice. I swallowed some science textbooks back in college and terms like that never really leave your system. If the sciency word-vomit is too chunky for you, don’t panic. We’ll chew it up and break it down together…Sorry again, that got weird fast.
*Ahem* Enough about that. Let’s take a closer look at some of these variables.
Magic Flux is the state of magic flow into or out of your world.
As we discussed before if the magic is slowly fading, leaving the world a barren waste, the magic is in negative flux. On the other hand, the growth of never before seen powers is an indication of positive flux. There are even systems with neutral or stable flux. The state of flux can influence the types of stories you can tell, attitudes towards wielders of arcane powers, and even the state of magic-based societies.
Magic Ubiquity is all about the frequency of magic in the world and population.
Whenever someone asks, “who can use magic?” or “what percentage of the population uses magic?”, what they’re trying to figure out is the ubiquity of magic throughout the world. This should have an obvious impact on the world you build, the nature of your cultures, and even how hard it is for a newborn mage to learn about their power.
Global Homogeneity focuses on the conformity of the magic across the world.
If there are a number of different magic systems across the world, you don’t have to know what they are yet, then the world is not homogeneous. If you built one core system on top of which all other systems are derived, the homogeneity is high. Remember, you don’t have to know everything at once. If there are multiple systems, don’t get stressed just because you don’t know what they are yet.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, experienced a large positive flux as more and more “enhanced” individuals were discovered. It also possessed low ubiquity and low homogeneity as the number of special individuals was relatively low and each had their own talents.
You might have noticed how closely these three variables can come to one another; that’s the beauty of it. Each variable impacts the others in a variety of ways, sometimes small and sometimes massive. But we’ll talk more about that later in the post. Let’s move on to the next type of variable.
These are the most familiar type of variable. System variables focus on how the magic functions as an entity separate from the rest of reality and how it interacts with itself. Personality, Inheritance, and Source are common examples. If you are developing arbitrary rules and structures for a magic system, they are likely a result of system variables.
Let’s look at these variables a bit closer.
Personality is exactly what it sounds like.
“Does the magic have a distinct personality?” “Does the magic behave erratically in certain situations and predictably in others?” Magic can be a rigid and impersonal part of the universe, a fluid and benevolent force that is difficult to harness, or anything in between.
Inheritance focuses on exactly how magical abilities are achieved.
Depending on your preference, magic can be linked to genetics, like in Harry Potter, or simply be a result of random chance. Looking at inheritance will provide invaluable information on the kinds of characters you can write as well as some of the struggles they may face.
Source has close ties to the question “Where does the magic come from?”
Both the question and the variable itself have many layers to them and it’s horrifyingly easy to get lost in the details. Source as a variable is about more than just a description of how magic came to be. It is a trace of the arcane energies as they move through your world and your users. By manipulating the source, a vast array of textures and tones can be added to your magic.
The Force in the Star Wars Universe offers an interesting case study as it demonstrates the variables don’t need one definitive answer. Not only does the force have clear indications of autonomy and personality, the rules of inheritance and source are fuzzy themselves. All individuals seem to be born with a connection to the force, but certain lines are stronger than others.
We never understand if the Force grants Jedi power if they feed on it, or exactly how the source functions. Nothing is completely clear, but there are still answers. Sometimes, that’s enough.
You might be noticing a pattern. Global variables looked at the magic’s place in the world and influenced your worldbuilding. They are useful but don’t necessarily uncover much about the magic itself. System variables take care of that, digging deeper into the mechanics and the qualities of the magic, but they mostly focus on how the magic works. User variables explore how the magic is used and appears to the characters themselves.
Some example variables include False Knowledge, Personal Influence, and Exploitation.
The False Knowledge variable, explores how well humanity understands the magic.
Defining the System Variables should have demystified the magic for you, but you knowing something is not the same as your characters knowing something. If you have any doubt, just look back at our own history and the things we didn’t understand 100 years ago. If your magic has deep roots in science, or even just scientific limitations, misinterpretations are sure to happen at least once in the history of your world. There’s so much room to play here. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.
Personal Influence describes how the magic is influenced by the individual using it.
The best example I’ve got is from Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Through the course of the novel, we meet a variety of wizards, each with their own unique brand of magic. Some us nature magic while others funnel their power through crafting weapons. Each character brings their own personality to the ring, but underneath there is a common structure. Not only will examining and altering Personal Influence make your system unique from others, it can make the magic of each user seem a completely different system from the last.
Exploitation toes the line between focusing on characters and focusing on the world.
To understand this variable, you must understand how people can use the magic to their advantage. This includes everything from mind readers siphoning intel from enemies to pranksters convincing squirrels you’ve got acorns in your pants. Taking the time to understand all the ways your magic can be used will help cut down on the magically-induced plot-holes down the line.
Brandon Sanderson took full advantage of these variables when building the magic in the original Mistborn Trilogy. The individual users barely changed the system at all, but the level of false knowledge and exploitation in the story are incredible. Entire systems of magic were forgotten and hidden while other aspects of power went undiscovered. The upper class and the God-King exploited their power to maintain their rule while others used their powers to run cons and steal.
By themselves, each variable gives you valuable information on your system, your world, and your characters, but they are more than just pieces of information about your system.
Your Magic Variables Are Your System
Just as your variables are more than a single idea or answer, your magic system is more than a cluster of disparate qualities. Your system is the result of these qualities acting together, blending and harmonizing into something truly unique and beautiful. I know that sounds overblown, but hear me out.
Imagine a massive soundboard. On that board, you will find dozens of knobs, buttons, dials, switches, and sliders. Each piece has a function, and each piece can be manipulated individually, but together, they allow a sound engineer to do amazing things with the simplest of inputs. Done right, a song can be become hauntingly beautiful, an upbeat hybrid, or a discordant mess.
Your magic system is that soundboard, and all those knobs, switches, and sliders are your variables. This is the best metaphor I’ve discovered to describe the relationship between your magic system variables and the system itself. That gives you a massive number of opportunities to explore and exploit. By twisting a few knobs, the system you built for an epic fantasy will be perfect for a hair-raising horror story. Move a slider or two and you can generate a drastically different system without changing any of the core mechanics. Alter, adjust, and redefining even the most basic components to explore new aspects of the system in a countless number of sequels
If this sounds melodramatic or over the top to you, it’s just because I’m fascinated with this part of the magic building process. You can be certain we will have more discussions in the future about the different variables, how they affect your system, and how to tweak them to get exactly what you want.
That’s All for Today
Hopefully, I’ve been able to transfer some of my excitement to you along with a better understanding of magic variables. If you’re still confused or don’t know where to start, that’s totally okay. Just explore my examples as best you can and check out what SFWA and Mythcreants to say on the topic. The important thing is to keep asking and answering questions to better understand the scope and characteristics of your magic.
When you’re ready, you can move on to defining some boundaries for your magic. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to share with another magic lover in your life. We’ll talk again in two weeks.