You Should Break Your Magic System Right Now
Last time we talked about setting boundary conditions for your magic system. We’ve been through a lot together, what with all the brainstorming, aligning, and defining of your magic system. Have no fear, for the hard work is paying off and you are nearly finished with Stage 3 of Building Marvelous Magic. The exact state of your system will vary depending on how many iterations you’ve completed, but the next step after defining boundary conditions is to test your magic system.
“Why break my system?” you ask. Simple. Just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, no magic system survives contact with your readers.
But What Does It Mean for a System to Be “Broken”?
A magic system is broken the moment it loses continuity, contradicts itself, or generates plot holes. This can damage the story, disrupt a reader’s immersion, and in extreme cases, stop readers from finishing the book.
We stumble across broken systems all the time, though it isn’t always obvious at first. Something will feel off, a logical progression will be absent, or the characters will fail to properly exploit the tools available. As avid readers, we all have instincts telling us when something is amiss. Sometimes it drives us up the wall and other times other aspects of the story compensate for the weakness.
Look at Harry Potter
Don’t worry, this isn’t a Potter-bash, just hear me out
Specifically, I’m talking about book three: The Prisoner of Azkaban. While one of my favorites of the series, this book also introduced a device capable of breaking the entire Potterverse. I’m, of course, talking about the Time-Turner.
Don’t let its charming appearance fool you. When extended outside the confines of book three, this tiny artifact burns plotholes into the rest of the series so fast it would make a Snitch dizzy. While there are plenty of videos and essays explaining and condemning the Time Turner, the fact remains that it was very disruptive for a large number of reasons.
More importantly, with the proper application of boundary conditions, this damage could have been avoided.
To prevent such an occurrence with your magic, we need to test your system as rigorously as we can. Namely, we need to break in the most terrible ways we can.
**Note: Rowling very well might have built-in boundary conditions, in advance or retroactively, to solve these problems, but these limitations were NOT discussed in the books. The boundary conditions your readers know are just as important as which ones they don’t. But that’s a topic for another time.**
If We Don’t Break It, Someone Else Will
Odds are high that someone, somewhere will find a way to break it regardless of what we do, but by breaking it now we can find the weakest points and fix them.
Remember, most broken systems happen by accident. The creator throws in some cool effect here and a creative rule there but misses some vital concept, and before they knew what happened the internet was tearing their beautiful system to shreds. This doesn’t mean they’re a bad writer or even bad at building magic systems. It simply means we must take extra steps to guarantee we are building the robust and powerful system that functions exactly the way we want it to.
Sometimes weaknesses become obvious the moment we begin looking. More often, time is needed to test the limits of the system, explore all possibilities, and to dig underneath any boundaries that may be in place. Testing and breaking your system is all about hunting for those conflicts, loopholes, and feedback cycles that we never want anyone else to find.
It sounds painful and time-consuming, but it can also be a tremendous amount of fun. This is your chance to think up all the awesome, overpowered, and ridiculous ways someone could use your magic.
In a lot of ways, it’s a return to the daydreaming and wild speculation of Stage 1, only this time we are expanding and researching what we’ve got rather than developing anything new.
Here are 3 Basic Questions to Ask
All of these questions center around building an unstoppable, overpowered character. As we’ve discussed previously overpowered characters are boring. Not only that, they can sap the strength, vitality, and tension from your story. Each question focuses on a different way of developing overpowered characters.
1. How Easily Can a User Kill?
Being able to stop opponents with a word and destroy invading armies with a wave of the hand seems awesome, but it takes your magic dangerously close to the breaking point. Find the most creative and efficient ways the magic can kill, and you will be plugging lots of plot holes along the way.
2. Can a User Become Immortal/Invincible?
While there is a difference between the two terms, the result is often the same. If a character can’t die, then tension and conflict drain from the book as your plot bleeds a slow death. The only thing more frustrating than an impossibly-competent killer is a character that has nothing to fear.
3. Can The User Generate Unlimited Wealth?
The methods may vary, but if the magic itself can be used to make a character exceedingly wealthy, there might be a problem. Limitless piles of money can be just as overpowered as unbreakable skin or a killer touch, just ask Batman.
After the Open-Ended Questions, Look At Specific Scenarios
This is my favorite approach angle. Open-ended questions seldom have enough context or information for me to make full use of them. At least, not until I have thought through a couple of different scenes in my head. Whenever dreaming my way through a hypothetical scenario, I like to imagine how a User might resolve it using the most and the least amount of power available to them.
Breaking Into or Out Of Prison
Does the character blast through the wall, showering the street with bits of steel and stone? Do they deftly manipulate the minds of other prisoners to start a riot, covering their escape in the chaos? Can the character manipulate their surroundings in such a way that, not only do they escape, but nobody even realizes they’ve gone?
This scenario offers limitless potential for creativity as well as physical conflict. It’s the perfect place to explore a magic system.
Whether hemmed in on all sides or being tracked through the wilderness, there are of options for magical Users. Can they shake their tail with an illusion, or can they flee into the skies? Is it necessary to kill their pursuers? How difficult would that be? Again, focus on achieving a character goal with the minimum or maximum power possible.
Getting Something They Want From Someone Else
Whether it’s a stranger, a coworker, or a lifelong friend, look at the different ways a character could implement magic to get what they want. Will it be subtle threats and demonstrations of power, or must they resort to more brutish methods?
While you are exploring the scenarios or answering these concepts, be on the lookout for anything that seems too easy. Watch for those quirks or talents that, if applied in a slightly different way, lead to unstable results. As with anything else, it takes practice to properly break a system, but knowing how it breaks is half the journey to fixing it.
Today we covered a lot of ground on how to test, break, and fix your magic system. We took time looking at…
- Defining Broken Magic: any system that loses continuity contradicts itself or generates plot holes thereby damaging itself and the story.
- Why You Should Break Your System
- To do so before someone else does
- So you can build the exact system you want
- To find weak points in your system and repair them
- Questions to Ask
- How Easily Can a User Kill?
- Can a User become immortal/invincible?
- Can the User generate unlimited wealth?
- Scenarios to Explore
- Breaking into or out of prison
- Escaping Pursuit
- Getting something from someone else
And that’s all you need for now
If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment below. Does something still confuse you? Are there questions and scenarios you like using? Whatever it is, let me know. I’d love to hear from you. I hope this was helpful and we’ll talk again in two weeks.