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3 Big Reasons to Use Subject Matter Expertise in Your Magic

Subject Matter Expert

Welcome back!

This is Part II of our little discussion on using Subject Matter Expertise with your magic. A couple posts back we took a look at this topic, discussing in broad terms some of the ways it can help you, how other authors have used it, and how to use it yourself. Today we’re going to take a closer look at some of the biggest Pros and Cons of integrating subject matter expertise into your magic system.

Before we start with the big three, allow me to diverge for a moment.

Building magic is hard. WRITING is hard. I know it; you know it. But it’s okay because you’ve got this. If I can get up every morning and browbeat the self-abusive side of my brain into submission, so can you.

That’s a little off track from your regularly scheduled blog content but I’ve really needed encouragement lately and I thought you might too.

Now, back to the topic of Subject Matter Expertise and the 3 biggest things it can do for you. There are lots of good reasons to go this route with your magic, but the biggest three for me are how much it simplifies the process, it can make you look really smart to your readers, and experts are available all around you.

Let’s dig in and see if it’s worth the trouble.

#1: It Simplifies the Process

This first reason is a really big deal. In fact, it’s by far the most important of the three, so get ready to have your mind blown… probably… maybe… just keep reading, alright?

We did discuss this briefly in the last post, but I want to dig a bit deeper. It’s fine and dandy to say it makes things easier, but I want you to understand how it makes things easier.

The last thing I want is for these posts that promise everything but deliver little, like when someone says they hold the key to unlocking the latent telekinetic powers of your brain but it’s not until the end you realize they never knew how to give you that power in the first place and now you’re part of a cult worshiping the great Agamenalogoth who lives in endless rifts between our world and the next… Yeah. I don’t want to do that to you.

Any-who, when we incorporate some outside knowledge or expertise into our magic, we are giving ourselves an existing structure to build your system around. By utilizing a well-known topic from the real world, you are ensuring that your magic system has a higher level of realism and integrity. On the other hand, if you’re not a big fan of reality, a deep knowledge of the topic can also serve as an outstanding launch-point for your system.

Either way, hitching your magic system to a particular subject matter expertise might seem restrictive, but sometimes limiting your number of options is better for you. In fact, it’s one of the best ways I have found to circumvent the dreaded Analysis Paralysis. Because the topic is known and understood, you can focus on the bits you want to create instead of spending all of your time trying to make sure it lines up with reality.

This is tremendously helpful while Generating Ideas in Stage 1

Whenever I sit down to generate ideas, I first identify my Brainstorming Pillars, which for magic happen to be Themes and Mediums, Magical Effects, and Really Cool Hats (my term for any shiny idea you have connected to the magic). Different subjects will connect with the different pillars in a variety of ways, aiding the generation process.

I, for example, primarily use academic or scientific areas as my foundation subject matter (chemistry, physics, psychology, etc). By choosing one of these subjects, I automatically gain insight into the possible Themes and Mediums of my magic.

That’s 1/3 of your brainstorming taken care of right there, if not more!

The more specific your subject matter the easier this becomes, and it doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve got a topic picked out, every little quirk and piece of trivia you possess can be used as fuel in the generation of effects and cool hats.

Focus on the creation and coloring of stained-glass: Theme and Medium

Explore the odd ways the colors blend and alter the final state: Long List of Effects

Understand the process, the people involved, and the associated difficulties: Really Cool Hats

Stained Glass Magic

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Chemistry is a staggeringly broad topic, but it still helps me down-select what my pillars and mediums could possibly be. The more specific your chosen subject matter, the easier this will become.

Pulling in every magical effect or cool hat you’ve ever dreamed of is exhausting. By picking a subject matter and sticking to it, you are simplifying the field of options you have to choose from. Narrowing the field of choices in this fashion can greatly accelerate your idea generation process.

Sound pretty good? Just wait, there’s more.

It also Simplifies the process of Defining Your Magic in Stage 3

This is especially true for the more technical subject matters.

Everything you know about a given subject automatically provides more definition to your magic system. Managing certain Magic System Variables is difficult on the best of days, but the added structure of your subject can make it a snap. The limitations, rules, boundaries, patterns, and relationships of the subject become the boundaries and limitations of your magic.

You will have to change, things of course, otherwise, it won’t be magic, but the foundation is there.

When you already know the basic structure, it becomes far easier to deeply explore your magic and its place in the world. Anytime you can dig deeper instead of broader, you should. If not because of me, because Sanderson said so in his 3rd law of magic. And you wouldn’t want to upset The Sanderson… would you?

Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic
Expand What You Already Have Before You Add Something New

As if that wasn’t enough, the expertise will help you break and fix your system. Given a deep understanding of a topic, the expert can provide the necessary equations to mathematically prove you have a robust and well thought out magic system.

I’m not saying this is easy, but it certainly is valuable. That said, using a pre-existing structure isn’t all sunshine and acid rain. It carries a pretty hefty downside along with it.

The Downside: You Might Feel Locked In Place

Cutting down on potential options is tremendously valuable for avoiding overwhelm. It can also go to far, making you feel there is no room for deviation and ultimately limiting your creativity.

This happens to me a lot when creating magic systems.

I have one system where the users, creatively called “Chemists”, can increase or lower a reactions energy of activation barrier. In other words, they could control which chemical reactions were able to proceed and when. In this case, the magic was built on top of real-world chemistry principles. Because I’m familiar with the topic, creating the magic and coming up with ideas was as quick as combustion… get it?

The point is, Chemistry was my chosen subject matter for this magic system. The moment this became clear to me, I immediately got bogged down trying to figure out the chemistry solution to all of the effects. Suddenly, my research time shot through the roof, I became increasingly uncertain as to the feasibility of the system, and it stopped being fun to play with.

Fortunately, this downside is easily overcome if you can loosen your restrictions and let parts of the magic simply be magical. Blend in the science and expertise when you can, and let the magic handle the rest. Which leads nicely into benefit number two.

#2: It Makes You Look Crazy Smart

When you use a deeply understood topic as the foundation for your magic, or anything for that matter, the expertise will come across in the text.

By tying your, supposedly, whimsical magic to a single scientific quirk that the reader had no idea existed, you come across as clever but potentially a bit gimmicky. If you demonstrate this level of understanding and connectivity at multiple points through your magic and story, the reader will be blown away.

At least, that’s what happens to me when I read this kind of setup.

This happened the very first time I read Mistborn: The Final Empire. The smooth connection of science and magic was unlike anything I had experienced before. I was giddy to see the obvious marriage between Allomancy and Newtonian physics, but it wasn’t until later that it truly hit me. The level of structure Brandon Sanderson applied to his magic and the way he meshed it with metallurgy almost made me cry.

It was just. So. Good.

It seemed obvious to me that Brandon was a very technically minded individual with lots of knowledge and expertise with regards to chemistry, physics, and metals.

This isn’t necessarily true as all the elements he used only require a surface understanding of the topics. But to me, it felt like he was some kind of genius. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Brandon isn’t smart, but I think my opinions were a little extreme given my limited exposure (read “non-existent”) to the man at the time.

Brandon isn’t the only one who does this

I had a very similar reaction when I read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

In this case, Patrick did a sublime job connecting his magic with fundamental rules of physics and thermodynamics. I could go on and on, but you really should just read the book to see what I’m talking about.

[one-half-first]Patrick Rothfuss[/one-half-first] [one-half][/one-half]

In both these cases, by implementing subject matter expertise smoothly into their magic, both Brandon and Patrick immediately stood out for their intelligence and creativity, in my mental perceptions of them if nothing else.

There is a big downside to this, however.

Downside: You Will Be Wrong

At the very least, someone will think you’re wrong. It’s inevitable. It is going to happen no matter how hard you try.


For one, you’re human… unless you’re not. In which case, stay away from my organs!

You can’t know everything. It’s just not possible. Even if you could or are a full-time, world-renowned expert in your field, mistakes happen. Sometimes you know exactly what you’re talking about but someone else thinks they know better… well, there’s nothing you can do about that.

So this feels a bit odd to say, but if you want people to think you are smart, you have to be okay with others thinking you’re stupid. But look on the bright side: there will be people that think you’re stupid and a terrible writer no matter what you do. Even if that person is just you.

If you can handle the occasional person thinking you’re stupid, the benefits can certainly outweigh the costs. And if you’re terrified that you don’t know what you’re talking about, fear not, because here’s benefit number 3.

#3: Experts Are All Around You

First and foremost, there is one major resource you forget to tap…


You don’t have to be a chemist, an engineer, a doctor, or a career cultist in order to be a subject matter expert. Everyone has different strengths, weaknesses, experiences, hobbies, and passions. All of these things can be distilled and infused into your writing and your magic. That’s what people mean when they say “Write What You Know.”

You don’t have to know everything because I can guarantee that you know something.

Honestly, any topic, collection, or odd trivia category you are familiar with can be made useful for your magic. It doesn’t matter if stamps, insects, WWII battleships, or the art of mummification. Literally, anything you know can be useful. If you don’t believe me, we’re going to talk about this more in a future post.

What’s More, this is true for everyone around you.

If you don’t know about a topic, chances are that someone close to you does. It may not be what you expect, but everyone has these hidden parts of themselves you won’t ever know about unless you ask.

There is a downside to all of this, though.

Downside: The Expert You Want Might Not Be the Expert You Get

There might not be anyone in your circles with the deep understanding of toe-fungi that you need. In such a case, you need to be ready to do some legwork. Even if you don’t know an expert doesn’t mean you can’t find an expert. In fact, we will be talking about exactly that in a couple of weeks.

On the other hand, you might know exactly who you want to talk to, reference, and pursue until you become friends through endurance or Stockholm Syndrome, but they refuse to connect. There isn’t much you can do about this, at least not legally. Sometimes you have to pack it in and start chasing the next person on your list.

Pro-Tip: don’t tell them they are your second, third, or fourteenth choice.

Finally, you may be faced with a simple case of incompatible personality.  If you take pride in your herd of guinea pigs you might not get along with someone who routinely eats guinea pigs for breakfast and tells you about it in great detail alongside a powerpoint presentation.

Whatever the reason, finding the right expert can be a real challenge. You can always dig in and become an expert yourself. The effort may be worth it if even a passable understanding is so vital to your magic and story. If you’re not up to it, then maybe it would be better to base your magic on a different subject matter.

In Summary

  1. It Simplifies the Process
    • It Helps You Generate Ideas
    • Defining Your System Becomes Easier
    • Downside: You Might Feel Locked In
  2. It Makes You Look Crazy Smart
    • It Influences How Readers See You
    • Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss are Perfect Examples
    • Downside: You Will Be Wrong Sometimes
  3. Experts are All Around You
    • You can be the expert
    • Any Subject can Serve Your Magic
    • Downside: You Might Not Get the Expert You Want

Be sure to consider each of these pros and cons carefully before committing yourself to a subject matter oriented magic system. There are great rewards along this path, but it does bring some extra struggles along with it.

That’s All for Now

I know this is a lot to chew on, but if you ever get stuck, I’m here for you. I’m happy to help however I can. There’s still more to cover on this particular topic, so you can expect more in the coming months. Next time, we’re going to discuss all the places you can find your coveted subject matter expert.

C. R. Rowenson: Author, Literary Sadist, and Power JunkieIf you’re serious about this whole magic building thing, you should seriously consider joining the Marvelous Magic Builder’s Mailing List. Upon joining the mailing list, you will receive monthly updates from me and be the first to know of any projects, giveaways, or services in the future. Join now and I will put in a good word for you with Agamenalogoth. You could go far among its chosen… I can also just email you the updates if you wish.

If that’s not your thing, no worries; upon its arrival, we shall all suffer the wrath of Agamenalogoth. Regardless of your decision, we’ll talk again soon.

Rowenson, out.

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