7 Global Variables You Need for a Marvelous Magic System
In the past, we’ve talked about variables for your magic and their value in defining your system. Lately, people have been asking for more information on global variables and how to develop them for their system. Today we’re going to look at seven unique and powerful Global Variables and briefly examine how they can be altered.
Before We Start Digging
I want to discuss a few things about magic variables before we really get going.
“Present” is better than “Good”
Not every system needs to include/explain all of these variables. Of the variables we do explore, it is better to have an answer than a brilliant answer.
Let’s say we’re defining the “True Source” variable and you decide the magic comes from the planet itself. You can leave it at that or explore a couple layers deeper. Maybe the earth was infused with power by a transcendent divine being. You can take it even further to say the being gained its power through the worship of an extinct species that evolved with a special connection to the universe around them.
You can go as deep or as shallow as you like. In the end, having an answer is more important than having the best answer.
Your Answers Will Change
Just as the nature and nuances of your magic can change from story to story, so too can it change over time. The answers and definitions you develop for your system and world won’t stay the same throughout all history. Human understanding and assumptions can change, magical creatures can die off, and magic can fade or be reborn.
Just be aware of that as you work through these seven variables and see what awesome things you can come up with.
“Global” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Planetary”
I call them “Global Variables” because they can apply beyond the rules and confines of your magic to a much larger portion of your world. Depending on the world you build or even the story your telling, “Global” might refer to a continent, a country, or even just a city.
Set your own definition of “global” to whatever you like. Their purpose is to stimulate high-level exploration and get you thinking about how the magic affects the world itself. Heck, you might not even need all of them.
That’s about it for the intro information. Let’s take a closer look at some of these variables I keep talking about.
The 7 Global Variables
1. Ubiquity of Magic
The witch, wizard, and superhero populations will have a massive impact on the world around them and how it functions, which is exactly what the Ubiquity of Magic is all about.
Higher ubiquity means a larger percentage of the population has access to magic. The distribution of power among those individuals may vary as well, but the very presence of magic users can and will impact the characters and their cultures.
For example, having a small number of high power individuals like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe leads to ample conflict between the Users and ordinary people of the land. As the percentage of Users changes so too does the perception of them. It can even lead to new cultures and subcultures.
In Harry Potter, the ubiquity of magic was just high enough for a secondary world hidden inside the first.
By altering this variable, we can indirectly influence how the magic is viewed by the world, the availability of instruction for our characters, the kinds of character and plot conflicts that can arise, how different cultures and societies form and function, and much more.
Here are a few of those open-ended questions I hate so much. Eventually, I want to discuss all the ways you can answer them, but the questions will have to do for now.
- What percentage of the population has magic?
- Is the magic limited to a specific species, race, or gender?
- Is magic present in all parts of the world, or just in a specific region?
- When was the last time a magic User was discovered/known?
- What laws, systems, or organizations exist to find, aid, or capture new Users?
2. Magic Flux
In Physics, flux is defined as
“The rate of flow of a fluid, radiant energy, or particles across a given area.”
In Chemical Engineering, our use of flux centered on the transportation of mass and energy into or out of a defined system. Working with Magic Flux is exactly the same but we are only concerned with magical energy and your personal definition of “global.” We’ve talked about this in the past; let’s explore this a little more.
Given the definition of flux, there are three states we should be most concerned with.
Positive flux occurs when magical energy, power, and/or users are flowing into your system.
What exactly this means is completely up to you. Positive flux can lead to the birth of new powers like we see in the early years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or it can be the resurgence and return of old, forgotten magics like in Game of Thrones or The Stormlight Archives. Maybe the number of Users isn’t changing at all, but their power continues to grow with each passing year.
In the case of negative flux, the net energy in your world is declining.
The Lord of The Rings is one such case of negative flux. In this case, we see the old magic is dying out, the elves are leaving, and powers such as Gandalf are going with them.
If you want a story about the slow decline and decay of a once powerful, magical empire, negative flux is likely the best choice. As with positive flux, this can manifest as a change in the total number of Users, ubiquity, or the magic itself can be growing less potent over time.
That covers positive and negative flux. There is a third type of flux, which I’m sure you have already guessed.
This situation arises when no magical energy enters or leaves the system, or the amount leaving is equal to the amount entering.
Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher is an excellent example of a neutral system. Nearly everyone in Alera possesses the ability to Fury Craft, and there is no sign of the numbers swelling or dropping off. Magic is a known and anticipated part of the world and seen as an inherent, unchanging gift of the people.
Another example I like talking about is the Force in the Star Wars universe. There is speculation how it all works, but I think it functions as a distinct power or entity with a finite amount of power. During periods of decline, the individual users are far more powerful than anyone might expect. As the Jedi, or Sith, ranks increase, there is less power available for the individual to use.
I’ve talked about my theories in the past, and I’m not sure if they are correct or not. Either way, this interpretation of the Force allows for a new and interesting use of neutral magic flux.
Changes in this variable can have a fascinating influence on your magic and your world. Depending on the kind and strength of magic flux, civilizations may become dependent on the magic or be forced to relearn “ancient” or “primitive” technologies. Many of the factors influenced by your Ubiquity of Magic will also be altered by your Magic Flux. There are so many potential applications of different flux that I can’t stop giggling.
Here are a few magic building questions tying into the Magic Flux Variable.
- Are there a finite number of Users in the world? Is that number increasing or decreasing?
- Were any previous cultures founded on magic?
- What determines the power level of a User? Is it a random attribute or is it correlated to the power in the world?
- Is the magic being experienced for the first time ever, or is it simply returning?
- Does the magic wax and wane in a cycle?
3. The True Source
Understanding where your power originates is fundamental to building a strong magic system. There are lots of ways to address this variable; as it is a Global Variable, any answer you have should relate to the world itself and not just the user. Power for the user might come from inside themselves, rituals, or objects. For the True Source, we need to examine where the power is located before the User calls upon it.
How you define this variable is likely to heavily influence religious and cultural beliefs in your world. Proof of a terrifying being granting power to its chosen emissaries is hard to deny as an object of worship. Just saying.
We discussed some other examples earlier when looking at why “present” is more important than “good.” If you’re still confused, here are more questions you can think on to understand your True Source.
- Where does the magic come from?
- Is magic a finite resource?
- Is the magic inherited, earned, or given?
- What beliefs might rise around the source of magic?
- Is there any way to eliminate the source?
4. Awareness of Magic
This variable is, quite simply, the degree to which an average person in your world is aware of the magic around them. They can be oblivious as in The Dresden File or Geekomancy, completely aware as in Codex Alera, or fall somewhere in the middle. There are all sorts of room to play with this variable. People might know the magic only as a vague and mysterious force, as in Lord of the Rings. Awareness of Magic carries tremendous weight in how the average person will view and respond to it.
Different genres of fiction require varying levels of magical awareness within the population. If you want to write “hidden world” stories or “urban fantasy” then you are looking at a lower level of awareness in your world. Currently, setting low awareness is very popular in YA books.
There is no reason to limit yourself; it’s valuable to understand how this variable is already being implemented.
Just as ubiquity examines how many people can use the magic, awareness centers on how many people know of the magic. Keep that in mind as you take a crack at some of these common magic building questions
- Does the average person know that magic exists?
- Does the average person know how the magic works?
- How frequently would a person witness magic performed?
- Is the magical world hidden or simply ignored?
- How do people feel about the existence of magic?
5. Magic Homogeneity
A system or solution is homogeneous if all parts are the same or alike. In terms of magic variables, your system has global homogeneity if the same system applies everywhere. Adding multiple systems to a world makes it heterogeneous. This is totally fine and doesn’t really impact your this magic system, but it is an important variable to understand for your world as a whole.
If you decide to build a world with multiple magic systems inside, you can get away with building just one at a time. For example, maybe you want a different system for each continent on your map. Well, if your story only takes place on one of them, then only one system needs to be developed.
Once you know what you want, it is important to complete only the work that needs to be done. Unless your Brandon Sanderson, three complete magic systems in a single book is usually unnecessary.
While we’re on the topic, there are ways you can camouflage a single system to look like many. Lately, I have taken great joy in taking the core of a magic and building a new structure on top of it. Nothing fundamental has been changed about how the magic works, but the Users have taken different perspectives, adapted their abilities, and altered the nature of how they use it.
It’s absolutely fascinating, and I can’t wait to tell you more about it in the future.
For now, just take a look at some questions relating to Magic Homogeneity.
- How many systems of magic exist in your world?
- How can the system be altered or redirected?
- Is the system itself consistent across the entire world? Do the rules change in specific places?
- Does the magic break down into smaller components or sub-systems?
- By learning one part of the magic, how much can a User extrapolate?
6. Magic in the Wilds
This variable is all about extending your magic into the world beyond the User. Depending on the flavor of magic you are building, a magical world around it might fit very well. By extending your magic into the wilds, you open all kinds of options for magical creatures, terrifying monsters, enchanting forests, and mind-warping terrain.
The possibilities are endless.
Then again, you might not want unicorns and jabberwockies galavanting about. That’s totally fine. It’s your story and your world. You can make it as earth-like and rational as you want; you can even include bizarre and wondrous creatures without making them inherently magical.
It’s all up to you in the end. Regardless of what you choose, it is important to understand how much magic exists in the wilds beyond the city walls.
If you’re not sure what you want, here are some questions to get you rolling.
- Do you want fictional creatures/beings in your world?
- Do these creatures have actual magic abilities?
- How do the abilities of the creatures tie into the abilities of the Users?
- Are there places of magical energy or magical nature in the world?
- Do you want classical creatures, or do you prefer creatures of your own creation?
7. Natural Laws and Magic
The last of the seven global variables just so happens to be one of my favorites. It also carries some of the most baggage and work associated with it.
Natural Laws and Magic are all about the fundamental rules of the universe and how closely your magic follows or how bad it breaks them. This includes everything from the astronomy and geology all the way down to chemistry and quantum physics.
Wait. Don’t Panic!
You don’t have to learn all of these things if you don’t want to. If you like understanding how the world works and want to give your magic that scientific edge, this is one way to do it.
Take some time. Learn about a science of your choosing and dig into the laws and theories surrounding it. Take a hard look at them. Decide which bits you want to follow and which you want to break. The possibilities are limitless.
If this is a little overwhelming, then just take a breath. Here are a couple of questions that might help you get started
- What field of science do you know the most about?
- How are the physical laws different in your world? (I hate this question so much. We’ll cover it better in the future)
- Of the scientific principles and theories you know, which does the magic break?
- How does the magic break, subvert, or redirect these natural laws?
- Does the magic interfere with peoples understanding of how the world works?
Seven Global Variables
- The Ubiquity of Magic: the frequency of magic and magic Users in the world
- Magic Flux: the flow of magic into or out of your world
- The True Source: where the power originates in the world
- Awareness of Magic: the population’s familiarity with the magic
- Magic Homogeneity: the magic’s place amid all the magic of the world
- Magic in the Wilds: the presence of magical creatures and forces outside sentient Users
- Natural Laws & Magic: obedience of magic to the natural laws of the world
While exploring and defining these variables, remember:
- Global Variables don’t have to apply to the entire planet.
- It’s more important to have an answer than to have the perfect answer.
- The definition of the variables can change over time.
Check out this SFWA page for more magic building questions.
That’s all for now
Obviously, there is so much more we could talk about with each and every one of these variables. The seventh one alone could relate to textbooks of information. Fortunately, I don’t plan to leave it here.
In the future, I hope to dive deeper into some of these variable and really explore the options the present for you, your magic, and your world. And there are still other Global Variables beyond these seven to explore, not to mention the System and User Variables.
There’s so much good stuff to cover here, I can’t stop smiling. If you liked this post or are interested in any or all of the things I just mentioned, be sure to get your free guide to building magic systems. Just follow the link here, or summon a celestial messenger to get the guide now.
We’ll talk again in two weeks. Rowenson, out.