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The Viral Magic is a Soft-Rational System

Welcome to Part 5 of Building a Viral Magic System

In the last post of this series, we talked through my second iteration of idea generation. After summoning a veritable horde of ideas, I was ready to move ahead. I could have tried Stage 3: Definition again, but I returned to Stage 2: Alignment instead. We worked through the alignment once already, but this time I wanted to resolve something specific.

I’ve got lots of ideas and I have the bones of a story. What I need to know is which type of magic system I need to build… and I suppose you already know the answer because of the post title… Maybe I could have planned that better. Not much reason for you to stick around for the rest of the post, I suppose.

Do you want to hear why I made this choice? What about the logic I used to make it?

Let’s assume you do and I’ve got your absolute, undivided attention. I don’t care if it’s true. Just let me have this.

Hard or Soft Magic?

Whenever trying to determine the type of magic system you need, it’s easiest to tackle it one axes at a time. The first axis describes how hard or soft a system is. If you aren’t familiar with the terminology, I recommend you read Brandon Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic or check out my post on the topic. My version of the terms differs a bit from Brandon’s, but either essay will give you the idea. If you’d rather read them later, that’s fine too.

“The hardness of a system is proportional to the percentage of the system we know or understand.”

Think of the system as an iceberg. If a small percentage of the iceberg stands above the waves, then it’s a soft system. On the other hand, if the majority of the berg is visible, then you have a hard system on your hands.

A mostly hidden iceberg is like a soft system

*Icebergs don’t work that way due to buoyancy and whatnot,
but it’s a metaphor so we’ll let it slide.*

This analysis can get messy quick because the system experienced by the creator is often different from the system experienced by the audience. Fortunately, while the concept can be complex, my process for figuring it out is simple. 

I make a list of reasons to use each type and then decide. 

Let me show you what I mean.

Reasons for a Hard System

Reason #1: If I’m being honest, this system will end up as a hard system no matter what I do. At least from my perspective. To build and use a system to my satisfaction, I need to know most of how it works. That’s just the burden of my wonderful brain.

Reason #2: Nothing complicated here. I love hard magic systems. I like building them, I like using them, and I like reading them. Building it as a hard system will keep me excited
about it.

Reason #3: I might want the magic and/or virology to be a character’s area of competence. A display of knowledge is a terrific way to show that a character knows what they’re doing, and that’s easier to show with a harder system.

Reason #4: It feels like a hard system will help me build the elemental genres of Idea and Issue into the story. I can’t pinpoint why this might be the case, but my instincts are very insistent on this point.

Reasons for a Soft System

Reason #1: I have limited space. The story I’m building should end at 17,500 words, if I do things right. Even if the story gets out of hand, I’m drawing a line at 40,000 words. While that might sound like a lot of words that’s not much space to build up a solid story and display a detailed magic system.

Reason #2: I have piles of cool ideas and can’t explain them all. If I go with a softer system, I don’t have to worry about that. I can just show or mention the different powers and move on with no explanation. In fact, the more I leave out the more I show the reader it is, in fact, a soft system.

Reason #3: The prisoner will be the main user of the magic system in this story. And, for various plot reasons, the prisoner will probably not be a point of view (POV) character, which will make it easier to lean towards a soft system. When the POV character uses magic, it is easier to make it a hard system.

Reason #4: I’m mostly using it to generate plot problems instead of plot solutions.
Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic states

“An author’s ability to solve problems with their magic is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of it.”

By telling the story from the “bad guys” perspective, every magical “solution” the prisoner has will seem like “problems” to my POV characters. A little backward, but interesting.

Reason #5: The elements of Horror and Wonder make liberal use of novelty and uncertainty to generate emotions in the audience. Building a soft system will provide an extra element of “the unknown.”

Soft and Hard Magic Books
The Viral Magic should fall between Harry Potter and Game of Thrones

My Decision: A Soft Magic System

Yes, there are five reasons to use a soft system and only four reasons for a hard system, but this is more than a numbers game. As I examined my reasons, I realized a soft system is more in line with the story I want to build. I don’t have as much experience with soft systems, which will make this a fun challenge.

Now we’ve established I want a soft system, what about the other axis?

Rational or Nebulous System?

As I mentioned before, the hard/soft scale of a system is analogous to the percentage of an iceberg we can see. Taking the iceberg metaphor a step further, the rational/nebulous scale is all about how cohesive the iceberg is.

Let me explain. 

In a rational system, everything runs along predictable lines of thought and patterns, you just have to know what they are. You can take what you’ve seen and learned to extrapolate what else is possible. In that case, the iceberg is one massive block of ice. The more you map it out, the easier it is to predict the shape of the hidden regions

Nebulous systems, are the opposite. Instead of a single block of ice, our “iceberg” is, in fact, numerous smaller bergs floating in the same area. With a nebulous system, understanding one piece does not mean you can extrapolate what other pieces will be or how they will function.

A cluster of small icebergs is like a nebulous system

But enough theory. You can read all about that here, if you’re interested. Let’s look at my reasons.

Reasons for a Rational System

Reason #1: Truly nebulous systems are hard for me. Rational systems are much easier for me to understand and build. I struggle to be creative without patterns, categories, or the ability to extrapolate. It’s not good or bad, it’s just how I am. 

Reason #2: It will be rational for me, why not for the reader? Like I said, I work better with rational systems. Yes, I could weave it into the story so the audience sees a nebulous system, but I don’t think I want to do that.

Reason #3: It’s easier for me to test and repair a rational system than a nebulous system. This goes back to the extrapolation bit. If I can extrapolate, I can follow the logic to make sure it doesn’t break. With a nebulous system, if I don’t think of it, I can’t find it, increasing chances I will break things accidentally.

It’s much more fun to break thing on purpose

Reason #4: I want a magic related plot twist. Making a twist that comes out of nowhere is easy. Revealing a twist that comes out of nowhere but is so obvious the reader feels they should have seen it from the beginning… that’s hard. Having a rational system supports such twists extremely well.

Reason #5: The prisoner must be able to plan and predict their use of magic. From the beginning, I knew the prisoner was playing some kind of long-term con on their captors. In order for them to plan and use the magic with such precision, it will need to be more rational than nebulous.

Reason #6: I want to show what a Soft-Rational system can look like. Not much else to add here.

Reasons for a Nebulous System

Reason #1: I can go crazy with cool effects and sensory displays and not have to worry about a thing. If I don’t have to worry about the logic that makes things much easier for me from a story perspective.

Reason #2: The effects aren’t actually connected. Each virus already exists as its own entity. I have some patterns, but this disparate nature of the effects leans the system closer to the nebulous side of the scales.

Books with Rational Magic and Books with Nebulous Magic
The Viral Magic should slightly more rational than X-Men

Reason #3: A nebulous system will allow me to keep the focus on the story and the characters. If it doesn’t have to be logical, then I don’t have to spend time explaining it. The fewer words spent on the system itself, the more words I have to reinforce the other components of the story.

My Decision: A Rational Magic System

This one is simple. There’s already a lot of experimentation going on with this magic system. There’s no reason to stray so far from my strengths it fails completely. Plus, after all the work I’m putting in, I really want to share it with the readers.

What does a Soft-Rational System Mean for the Story?

Because of how my brain works, I will have to build more than I show. To make this work, I need to build a Hard-Rational system and then display a Soft-Rational system. 

It shouldn’t be difficult. With a little effort the audience will understand the pieces they see are only a small part of the whole. This makes the process less efficient, since some pieces will go completely unnoticed by the audience, but it’s worth it.

The complicated portion will be carefully extrapolating how the magic fits into the plot, the setting, and with the characters. I can’t just wave my hand and have everything be copasetic. I will have to work hard to make sure I don’t break anything.

Again with the breaking. My bad.

Here’s a perfect example.

Originally, I wanted the prisoner to tear down a company doing unethical research with the magical viruses. Well, a friend pointed out that a company researching viruses would have the facilities to keep the prisoner and their infections contained.

I mean, why would people researching magical viruses walk into a room with a sick prisoner? They’re a research facility, for crying out loud. They must have a nice, hermetically sealed labs available, right?

With a single question, my friend showed the original plot contained an obvious break in the logic. That or the bad guys were just stupid. It became clear cracks existed in my twist ending and an overhaul of the plot was necessary… Thanks, Bob.

I could just declare “magic viruses!” and be on my way, but that wasn’t the system I wanted. I had to re-evaluate and select my ideas with care to ensure the story works without things feeling forced.

Fortunately, with the help of some other friends, we found a simple solution to keep my original plot and be logically consistent. Which, as a side-note, is why having others to review your story is priceless. 

So in all seriousness, thanks, Bob!

That’s All for Now

Whew, that was another beast of a post but it only took about an hour to work through all the logic. Regardless, I appreciate you sticking through it.

 In the next part of the series we will finally start into Stage 3: Definition. It’s been a while coming, but I’m finally ready to give it a go. I should warn you, this stage will probably require multiple posts. There’s just too many moving pieces for it to be otherwise.

Artwork by Tomi Väisänen

I don’t know about you, but I’m really digging this series so far now. If you’re enjoying it half as much as I am, then I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The good news is I’ve finished the series! Yup. The system is built and all the posts are written (all the 1st drafts at least). The bad news is I’m only publishing one new post in the series every four weeks, so there’s no way for you to binge-read the rest of the series.

Unless you happen to be a member of the Marvelous Magic Builder’s Mailing List!

Here’s the deal. If you’re on the list, send me an email asking for the series (be sure to give the email address you used for the list) and I’ll send it to you. I’ll warn you, not everything is edited and tidied up just yet, but the core information is there so you can binge and study to your heart’s content. What’s more, you’ll have a chance to shape the unpublished posts. Send me questions and thoughts you might have and I may alter the relevant posts to address them.

I feel like I’m selling this kind of hard, but a lot of work went into this and I don’t want to wait a whole, stupid year to hear your thoughts and share your excitement.

Anyway, that’s enough from me. Thanks for showing up. Rowenson, out.

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