Brainstorming Your Magic: 4 Important Questions You Need to Ask
Welcome back to the series on How to Build/Understand a Magic System.
Last time I showed you how important planning is to a robust magic system. We also talked briefly about what constitutes magic and how this series can help you even if you aren’t designing a system of your own.
At first glance a post on brainstorming seems tailored for those creative types looking to build something new and wondrous… and it is, but it also serves another purpose. If you’re a consumer of one kind or another (gamer, reader, or what have you) understanding the pivotal questions the creator asked will give you more sand to play in. If you’re right, then you feel satisfied, smart, and excited to see more. Even if you’re wrong, you get to work your brain and come up with a few ideas along the way.
Now that I’ve convinced you— Hey, I totally convinced you!
Well, I’m going to snuggle my dog and pretend that I did. That’s practically the same thing anyway.
Let’s Collect Ideas
Before we can make any ground on developing a system, we need to have ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. So buckle up and batten down the hatches, cause it’s brainstorming time. There are a lot of different ways you can go about this. Whether you go mental over mind-maps or live for lists, there are a few areas to focus on that should help get the thoughts flowing.
Be warned: Throughout this process you will face horrible temptations. You will want to take a specific idea and begin working on the details.
Fight it. You’re stronger than that!
That is a trap that will ultimately slow down your creativity. Believe me, I have chronic bouts of magic building sickness (a specific strain of world-builder’s disease), and you just have to push through. If you don’t you’re more likely to end up with a debilitating case of Analysis Paralysis rather than coming up with anything useful.
Keep it vague, keep it light, and keep it moving.
Oh, and if you aren’t looking to make your won magic/technology, try applying these brainstorming questions to some of your favorite novels and see what you come up with. It might be just the catalyst you need to get moving on a system of your very own.
Now allow me to say the exact opposite. If you find a killer idea and you have to run with it, go ahead. It is your system after all. If my process doesn’t work for you, then create your own. And don’t feel you have to follow these questions in order. Jump around as much as you need to get things done.
On to question number one.
#1 What would be really, REALLY Cool?
It’s simple, just start writing down anything that comes to mind. Try to picture a situation, scene, or event that is just gratuitously cool. I want your mind to be blown by the shear awesomeness that is this idea.
Got it? Write it down. Now do it again, and again, and again.
Don’t hold back. It doesn’t matter how massive and frightening, small and silly, or petty and unrealistic it is. Let your imagination run wild. If there’s something that makes you perk up, then write it down.
In the end, that’s all brainstorming really is. Just don’t limit yourself. It doesn’t just have to be about magic either. If anything cool comes up that might be tied in later, make a note of it. Even if you don’t use it in this magic system, you might use it in another, or maybe it’s part of an unforeseen plot-twist.
Who knows. It doesn’t really matter. Just keep going until the grey matter drips from your ears.
Personally, my ideas tend to be very visual and violent. I picture great battles, deadly duels, and general mayhem. What do you see?
Still having some problems? That’s okay. This can be a herculean task if the juices aren’t already swirling in a tumultuous tempest of creativity. It’s tough, it really is.
You want my advise? Well too bad, cause here it is anyway:
Don’t worry about it. Brainstorming isn’t always easy.
If the ideas aren’t coming right now, then just move ahead to the rest of the questions. There is nothing saying that you have to do this in order. I mean, the voices and the sentient coffee mold force me to do it this way, but YOU don’t have to. Jump around and come back later. It really doesn’t matter.
Just remember, when the ideas do start coming, make sure they are cool. The cooler they are, the more everyone will love it. For now let’s move on to number two.
#2 What Effects do you want?
The point here is reel your mind in from the eye of the brain-hurricane and focus a little bit. It’s time to start thinking in terms of specific abilities and results.
What do you want this magic to do?
Not your speed?
Maybe you want your spaceships to be molded out of living tissue carrying a hive of life-sucking aliens like in Stargate Atlantas. Then again, maybe not.
Are people creating energy and flame from nothing? Can they control computers are readily as lifting a finger? Do the ships have faster than light capability? Does an untrained wizard hold the power to make new lifeforms or destroy a planet. Maybe the arcane masters are regulated to logistical problems.
Does the magic warp the very laws of reality every time it’s used? Is it only a force of destruction, or can it create new realities. Are the repercussions. Does it involve blatant displays of light and power, or is it a more subtle art only visible to practitioners? Does the earth tremble at from the roar of a thousand explosions or is it more like a whisper lost in the wind?
Once you have some ideas, try to make it more visceral. What does it look like? What does it smell like? Does it have a funny taste? Does it hurt? Does it leave the user paralyzed? Can I use it to get these perfectly normal stains out of my trousers?
Whenever I do this my brainstorming centers on physical conflict. The doctors say that’s perfectly normal, but that might just have been a ploy so I would put the knife down… Whatever.
Who uses the magic?
Is this something available to the common people or is it found only among the wealthy? Are people using it in everyday life, or is it a rarity hidden away behind mythology and lore? Can it solve simple problems or will it only create more?
Spend some time thinking about who can and cannot use the magic. Identify why. Think about how it might be abused, desired, or feared. There are so many options here to dive into.
One method that has proven especially useful is this: Choose a certain type of people in the world (actors, thieves, children, soldiers, spider monkeys, just pick anything). Now what abilities would be useful to someone like that? What kinds of things would make their life more difficult.
Hopefully things are beginning to come to you now. A list of possibilities should be building in your wake. If it’s not, that’s okay too. Either way, you better hold on, because this is about to get rocky.
#3 What Themes or Mediums can you use?
Unlike the first two questions, I feel this one might need a little explaining. When I talk about a “theme” for the magic, I’m referring to some core aspect that the system itself centers around. The “medium” is where the magic comes form. In many cases the theme and medium are so closely knit as to be inseparable. I only draw the distinction so that it might knock loose additional brainstorming cells.
Let’s take my favorite example: Mistborn. All three (that’s right, three) of the magic systems in this series are centered on metal as a theme. This theme is further strengthened by the fact that specific metals and alloys lead to different magical effects. Brandon Sanderson did a lot of careful planning around this theme, ultimately developing the nearly scientific atmosphere that I adore.
In this case, one could argue that metal is also the medium of the magic. All of the powers are tied specifically to the metal and the effects are derived from them. At the same time, I might argue that the medium is different for each of the three systems. One draws the magic from the User, another from the power in the metal themselves, and one from the power of blood. It’s all how you look at it.
Let’s take another example. How about Harry Potter. There are a number of mediums in this series, but the most common and well-known is the wizard’s wand. There are plenty of magic effects, like potions, that can be achieved without it, but a wizard’s wand is a major source of power. At the same time, the characters themselves serve as the mediums of their own magical powers. That’s why a muggle like me can’t just pick up a wand and wreak havoc.
One more example. Last one, I promise.
In the Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher, the men and women of Alera derive their power from their relationship with elemental beings called Furies. Within their culture there is some debate as to what these Furies actually are, but little doubt remains that they are the source of the Aleran’s power.
Is this starting to make sense?
What mediums or themes might you use for you magic? If not a medium, is there a theme that you might follow. The colors of light maybe? How about a particular style of art?
Take a moment and look back at all your answers to the first two questions. Are there any objects or concepts that keep coming up? That might be your theme right there.
Don’t think for a second that you can only have one of each. Each of the examples I gave has multiple interpretations of each that layer on top of each other like a syrup soaked pile of fluffy pancake goodness.
Fictional technology is particularly interesting. Any effect that is manifested is a direct product of the technology, meaning that the device itself is the medium. The theme is also easy to find with technology. It can be as simple as identifying the manufacturer, the civilization of origin, or class of technology. There are lots of options.
Stargate is a great example. The majority of the technology comes from alien races and cultures, especially in the early stages of the show. Each race provides their own theme and easily recognizable style of technology.
Take the Wraiths. Their technology is either organic in nature or centers on taking targets alive for feeding. The Ancients handle things differently, building force fields, cloaks, and power generators that require a particular gene for activation.
Still nothing? Really?
Then riddle me this: What do you know a lot about?
Fashion? Leather? Stamps? Music? Slight of Hand? Finances? Summoning demons from the horrible great beyond?
It really doesn’t matter what it is, if you understand it then you can use it for your magic. In fact, such topics can serve as a perfect theme for your magic. Something well demonstrated in the Mistborn series. Whatever it is, just write it down and move onto the next question.
#4 How is everything Connected?
At this point you should have a list of cool ideas, a handful of magical effects, and a plethora of potential mediums or themes.
Now it’s time to start putting it all together.
Take a closer look at your themes and mediums. Are there any effects that reflect the concept? Remember, a theme isn’t just some philosophical statement like “happiness can only be found within,” (though it certainly can be). What you’re really looking for is some sort of underlying structure that you can build upon.
Let’s take another look at Mistborn. Brandon Sanderson easily could have picked metals on a whim, but he didn’t. He realized the the science of metallurgy would proved him a foundation to build from. Upon examining metals and their respective alloys, he was able to add more structure to what could have been a chaotic magic system.
If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that things are always more complicated than they appear. Take that thing you know so much about and hunt for the structure and pattern behind it. Then start connecting you different effects to different parts of that structure.
So What’s the Pattern?
There are a couple of questions I ask to identify patterns in the messy wake of brainstorming. Take two objects within the theme. Make them as similar or as different as you want. Now start asking questions. What makes this different from that? Why is object A better or worse than object B? What variables went into it’s creation?
It will be hard at first, but the patterns should start building on themselves.
That’s all there is to it. Take what you have, what you want, and what you know, and see how many combinations you can come up with. In a way, that’s the root of creativity, mixing bits of the strange and the familiar into something new and interesting.
Technology is great for this. You can tie virtually any effect you want to any object. Want to turn a fingernail into a weapon, no problem. Want a smart-pillow to smother its user, that’s simple programing.
Again, don’t get caught up in the details. We will work on figuring out the specifics later. Right now your job is to come up with a cornucopia of combinations.
Got ‘em? Good.
You’ve Done It!
That’s it. You’ve made it. Brainstorming complete.
Of course, it’s not as simple as all that, believe me, I know. Hopefully you got some interesting ideas while reading through this post. If not, don’t sweat it. Creativity is hard work and it takes time. If it doesn’t come to you right away, then just let it stew for a while.
Oh, and make sure that you are taking in new ideas. Don’t just stare at a blank wall waiting for your breakthrough. Go to the internet, read books (I have several conveniently listed on the Resource Page), watch movies, read comics, do whatever it takes to ingest some new ideas. You can’t just copy it straight out, but you never know what you might come up with.
Here’s the good news: you have a full two weeks to a month before the next post comes up. So just relax. You’ll be buried under an avalanche of ideas before you know it.
When the storm finally does strike, I want to know about it. Tell me your favorite idea in the comments below, hop over to the Contact Page and shoot me an email, or just share and link in your preferred social media. And don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter and never miss a post again.
Until next time, get creating and have fun.