How to Make Building Magic Easy with Subject Matter Expertise
Even with everything we’ve discussed in the 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic, building a new system is always a bit daunting. Experience helps. It helps a lot. But that sense of dread and overwhelm doesn’t ever go away completely… at least it never has for me.
Fortunately, there are still a couple of things you can do to make the process easier.
Taking the time to generate ideas, align your system, define your system, and iterate the process are part of the solution, but I want to spend some time talking about subject matter expertise and subject matter experts (aka: SMEs).
With the proper expertise at hand, any subject can be used as the foundation and framework for building your magic system.
This was originally going to be a single post, but before I knew what happened it was over five thousand words long… and it wasn’t even finished yet… So you’re going to get another mini-series instead, and this, naturally, is just an introduction to the topic.
If you still don’t know what I’m rambling about, just put down the sword and bear with me.
Subject Matter Expertise is Extremely Useful
In its simplest form, expertise refers to sufficient knowledge, proficiency, or competence with a specific topic or skill set. Having the appropriate expertise can take the messy and confusing process of building a magic system and simplify it greatly. Not only that, it can drastically accelerate the building process.
The best part of all this: expertise is helpful regardless of whether your magic is Hard, Soft, or In-Between.
When utilizing a specific subject matter, a whole slew of things become easier. When you know what you’re talking about, ideas will flow more freely during generation in Stage 1. Magic system variables, boundaries, and limitations become easy to develop, manipulate, and follow while in Stage 3. In general, the more you can build off what you already know, the less you have to make from scratch. This frees up your mind to be more creative in other areas of your magic and your story.
Applying subject matter expertise can make the magic building process easier, faster, more engaging, and result in a more cohesive system.
Sorry, I just couldn’t resist a final swing at that particular dead horse. Let’s move ahead.
Do You Even NEED a Subject Matter Expert?
Much like shooting acid from your bellybutton, the usefulness of a SME is situation dependent. You can easily build a magic system without any particular expertise. In fact, some systems (mostly soft systems) perform better without any expertise setting limits and holding them back. Using a SME isn’t for everyone, even if the SME in question is themselves.
In the end, you have to make the choice that is best for you and your magic.
Let’s say you really want a SME. What then?
When You Should Bring the SME into the Project?
Having the expertise at hand can be useful at any stage in the magic building process. Maybe you just want the help during Stage 3 while you’re pinning down all those pesky rules and limitations. On the other hand, maybe you don’t even want to think about the details until the magic and the story are almost complete.
Personally, I rely heavily on subject matter expertise (whether mine or someone else’s) during Stage 0 and while generating ideas in Stage 1. Knowing how something works is essential for me to build a logical system surrounding it.
The best time to use a SME is when you’re stuck. Whether you can’t generate any more ideas, your fingers won’t type that 1st draft without a sanity check, or you just need to know how something works for a particular plot point… when you can’t go any further, see if a SME can help.
So you understand how a SME can be useful and you have decided if you need one or not.
Find a subject to use.
It’s not necessary to be as hardcore as Charles Stross to make this work, which we will discuss further shortly. You don’t even have to geek out over chemistry the way I do. There are a plethora of ways you can implement a particular subject matter expertise into your magic.
All three of the magic systems in the Mistborn Trilogy are reinforced by a basic understanding of metallurgy. The Iron Druid Chronicles does a terrific job building off chemistry to make parts of its magic work.
Literally, any topic will work. Aerodynamics, gardening, model trains… Anything. Just check out any one of these book series and you will see what I mean.
How to Use a Specific Topic for Your Magic
1) Pick your topic
As I mentioned previously and at great length, any topic will do. In one of my own systems, I chose chemistry…
2) Identify some core rules and principles of that topic.
This will involve a little research, but you don’t have to learn everything, just some of the basic tenets.
3) Select one of those rules or principles and change it.
There were lots of things I could have chosen to alter within the massive topic that is chemistry, but I settled on magic that manipulates the energy of activation barriers. Many chemical reactions require a certain amount of external energy (often thermal energy) before a reaction can proceed. By magically changing how much energy is needed, the user can effectively control which chemical reactions happen as well as where, when, and how fast.
If that didn’t make any sense to you, don’t worry about it. It’s just to illustrate the process of altering a single, specific principle within a much larger topic.
Once you’ve got all that, you’re ready to jump into Stage 1.
Still not convinced subject-matter expertise is worth all the trouble? Let me show you what it can do for your magic when well implemented.
Lovecraftian Horror + Mathematical Theory = The Laundry Files
This series, written by Charles Stross, centers around England’s solution to supernatural, arcane, and extra-dimensional threats known only as “The Laundry.” In addition to being creepy, funny, and all around fun to read, The Laundry Files also have an awesome magic system.
Within the series, our world is just one of many, and with the appropriate knowledge (advanced mathematical theories) and appropriate tools (computer hardware and software), it is possible to interact with these other worlds. By contacting, or at least agitating, beings from beyond our reality, vibrations and various energies can be manifested, channeled, and controlled. The inexperienced or unexposed simply call this magic.
And there are so many different awesome effects and applications. We’re talking iPhone apps that generate protective wards, Medusa inspired camera systems, necromantic circuits, and lethal powerpoint presentations. And none of this even touches on summoning grids or the vast, unspeakable horrors they can unleash.
I honestly can’t say how well Charles follows the rules, but it sure seems to fit together nicely. I’m not a mathematician, but Charles’ background and expertise is a palpable part of the magic, the characters, and the world.
Awesome, right?! This is such a fun series and I’ve re-read the first several books at least five times.
That’s All for Now
We’ll talk more about this topic over the next couple of months. I want to explore the pros and cons of using subject-matter expertise in your magic and really show you how many options you have. (I’ve got a long list of interesting and underused topics you can choose from.) And finally, we will discuss what to do if you don’t have the expertise you need.
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.
If you’re serious about this whole magic building thing, you should seriously consider joining the Marvelous Magic Builder’s Mailing List. Join now and I will send you a personal notification written in the blood of your enemies whenever a new post goes live… I suppose email is also an option if you insist. Upon joining the mailing list, you will also receive monthly updates from me and be the first to know of any projects, giveaways, or services in the future.
If that’s not your thing, no worries; minions will be dispatched promptly to replace you with a more cooperative version. Regardless of your decision, we’ll talk again soon.