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Welcome to Part 4 of Building a Viral Magic System

How I Generated More Ideas for Our Viral Magic

Last time we talked about the viral magic I explained why, instead of demonstrating Stage 3: Definition, we discussed research and iteration. 

Turns out I had a nasty mental block. So nasty that when I tried to explore and define my magic system variables, the process came to a complete halt. 

In part 3 of the series, I walked you through how I identified the block, why I skipped Stage 3, how I knew what to research, and general information about what I got from the process.

Today, we will look at how I took my new knowledge and used it to develop more ideas for the viral magic system. That’s right, we’re talking iteration of Stage 1: Idea Generation

There’s a lot of information here, so this post is on the long side, so brace yourself. You ready? 

Let’s talk viruses!

My Research showed me where to start

Learning so much about viruses was a blast. I discovered lots of facts, patterns, and terms that will help me as the system continues to take form. 

The important piece is that the research broke me out of my funk so ideas were forming again. And since the majority of the new ideas were in the two pillars of the Pillars of Brainstorming( Theme/Mediums and Really Cool Hats), that’s where I started. 

And if you’ve forgotten about the three brainstorming pillars, don’t worry. You can brush up on them here, but you should be fine just following along.

Themes & Mediums

Whenever I build a magic system of any kind (technology, magic, or whatever) I always like to break the system into smaller parts for me to analyze and build. The moment I can find a pattern or classification guide, it is ten times easier for me to come up with ideas. It’s just how my brain works. 

Throughout my research, I learned several classifications and categorization systems for viruses… Unfortunately,  none of them worked for me.

Some, like the Baltimore Classification which groups viruses into families based on their specific genome and method of replication, were way too scientific and detailed for me. Given time, I’m sure I could learn enough to use it, but even then I don’t think I could explain this structure to my readers in a clear and succinct manner. Other structures, like the Holmes Classification which grouped viruses by the organisms they attack, failed to break things down enough to be useful. 

Even though different classifications exist, I would still have to make my own that fit my needs. So that’s exactly what I did.

Initially, I thought it would be cool to group the viruses by the organs they targeted. While that could have worked, it didn’t feel right for some reason. Best I can figure, it’s because that would have been another classification based on specific details of the virus. This felt too dry and scientific for my purposes.

Believe me, I’m just as shocked as you are that those words just came from my mouth. Don’t tell anyone.

My next thought was to make viruses spread in different ways. One type could spread through blood, another through saliva, and a third through sweat. This idea really stuck with me, but it wasn’t enough to categorize the system.

Then another thought struck me. If I wanted it to be more of a magical classification, I could make classifications based on the kinds of effects produced. So I generated options and connected the strains to the effects instead of the other way around. A small distinction, but it made things a dozen times clearer for my brain.

In the end, I came up with three viral strains to focus on.

Vector Strains

These are the most complicated of the three strains. The virus starts by infecting a single person, the primary host, making them sick as expected. After a time, the vector strain mutates, turning the primary host into a vector for the new strain, causing them to infect others. The secondary hosts are then subjected to specific magical effects, and not necessarily in a good way.

I love this idea so much! 

This chaining nature of the magic immediately adds an interesting balance for any mental influence effects I add to the system.

Environmental Strains

These magical virus strains generate magical effects around the infected host. Alternatively, the strains could produce effects only when they are outside the host in the surrounding environment. Either way, these effects will probably be the most direct way an infected user has to manipulate their surroundings.

Host Strains

Compared to the other two strains, these are simple in function. These viruses change the way a host’s body works or reacts in magical ways. These could blend with environmental effects if I’m not careful, but I really like the direction these effects can go.

Really Cool Hats

Most of the cool hats I came up with this time centered on the new themes and mediums we just discussed. Mostly I expanded on the ideas into areas outside the magic itself, looking at how the different strains could affect plot, character, and setting. 

Honestly, I didn’t spend much time on this pillar. I’d already come up with a ton of cool things in my first iteration of Stage 1 and what I needed more than anything were some new Effects.

Unfortunately, the research didn’t help much on that front. Rather than bang my head against the proverbial wall, I turned to another trick I like to use. I pulled from the results of my Speed-Dating exercise in part 2 of the series.

Whenever you complete the Speed-Dating Exercise, it’s a good idea to look beyond your favorite story component. In fact, it’s advisable to identify 2-3 of your favorite components as they can keep you focused on what you love about the story/system and, in times like this, help generate ideas.

The plot was my second favorite story component, so that’s where I turned for inspiration.

Growing Ideas from the Plot

When you’re stuck like I was, there are many ways to milk your plot for new ideas, but most of them come in one of two variants. 

1) Identify the major plot problems in your story and develop magical solutions.

In my case, the prisoner has some specific problems to overcome. She needs to trick her captives so they don’t know which strain she has or how she can use it. She will also need a means of escape. Finally, she will need a way to learn of and expose the companies dark secret. 

True, there could be non-magical solutions to each of these problems. But the whole point right now is to help generate ideas, so focus your attention where you need it.

The other approach I take is the exact opposite.

2) Hunt for ways the magic can cause problems.

What magical abilities can I give the prisoner that will confound or complicate the job of the interrogator? What abilities could the interrogator have to complicate the prisoner’s escape plan? Are there any effects that someone thinks will help them but makes everything worse instead?

If you’re squirming in your seat right about now thinking, “What about Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic?”, don’t panic. For the moment, don’t worry about it. We’re just exploring options and the 1st law is most while writing the story itself.

This was the last spark I needed to ignite the idea-explosion I desperately craved. Some solutions/problems I developed were good and others not so much. In the end, the point was to generate a whole mess of new effects, and there’s no denying that happened.


After working through that plot, ideas were spilling from every orifice faster than I could write them down or clean my clothes. I threw out some effects the instant I thought of them. That said, I’ll share them with you anyway so you can see how and why I made the ruling.

The Ideas I Cut

One idea was to have the viruses magically infect inanimate matter. This was one of my original ideas, and I still think it’s super cool. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mesh with the style of system I’m building. I want each of the strains to feel like a real virus right up to when magic appears. And because of how viruses and their symptoms work, I couldn’t see a way to maintain this effect while staying as close as I wanted to natural behaviors.

Another related idea I had involved the transmutation of matter. I thought the virus could infect a table, chair, or door turning it from on material into another, but this didn’t work for several reasons. For one, if they can’t infect inanimate matter, then it will be hard for them to change the molecular composition. On top of that, this kind of alchemy flagrantly violates a plethora of natural laws I didn’t want to break, not to mention that kind of ability can break your system in a heartbeat.

There was one last idea I cut the moment I looked closer at it. I toyed with the possibilities of a virus allowing a person to connect with and control technology. It would have solved one of my story problems allowing the prisoner to broadcast her message from the confines of her cell.

Once again, this ran too great a risk of breaking my system. Such an ability would be so useful it would have a staggering impact on my world, which is something I wanted to avoid at this point.

Fortunately, I have lots of other ideas

There is a ton I like. Most importantly, they feel much more creative, interesting, and fun than the ideas from my first pass. In fact, a couple really have my brain churning and are begging to be put in the story somewhere.

For example, I’m loving the idea of a virus that turns matter into dust. This is similar to the transmutation effect, but simple enough that I can make it work. And it gives so many cool options!

Oh, and then there’s the sweat armor. 

This is a host effect where the contagious sweat hardens into a tough shell as it dries. There are limits on its strengths, but the utter grossness and complications of this ability have me bouncing in my seat.

And let’s not forget about the remote viewing. Imagine if you had a god-awful ear infection. Only now you can smear blood, sweat, or saliva onto a surface and hear any sounds that hit that surface! 

Cool, right?!

Sorry, I’m getting carried away here. The point is, I have more effects than I started with. Too many, in fact. There’s no way I can fit all of them into my story.

And that’s exactly what I needed.

Well, I’ll Tell You

If I wanted, I could jump back to Stage 3. I have enough ideas now that defining the system would be helpful. That would also get us back on track on our journey through The 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic

But I think I want to do something different first. 

Since we’ve taken the time to go back and iterate Stage 1, why not iterate Stage 2 as well? 

This isn’t strictly necessary, but I think it will help me further clarify the system before I get to the actual definition portion. In fact, we could use Stage 2 to decide exactly what type of magic system I want the viral magic to be.

Yeah. That’s what we’re going to do.

That’s all for now

Thanks so much for joining me as I develop this system. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting really excited about the magic I see emerging. The only thing that could make this better is your engagement. 

I say it a lot, but this whole exercise really is for you. Yeah, building the system was totally for me, but the documentation of the process, that’s 100% for you. 

Let me know what you think. Is there anything I haven’t covered that you want to see? Something you’ve seen but want more clarification on? Or are you simply using my system as a template for your own arcane, biochemical madness? Whatever it is, I want to know about it!

The more you and others get involved in the series, the better it will become. So leave a comment, send me an email, share the post with someone. Whatever you think will make this series more useful to yourself and others.

Thanks again for sticking with me through this unexpectedly long post. We’ll talk again soon. 

Rowenson, out.

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