Let me see if I’ve got this right.
You’re building an extraordinary system for your book, game, screenplay, or interactive blood-puppet show. Thanks to some previous reading, you know the importance of building your magic and story to support one another. You’ve also done the work and decided if you need a hard magic system or need a soft magic system. After everything you’ve been through, you can’t decide whether your system should be more rational or nebulous and the blood-puppets have broken their mental bonds and are slaughtering the townsfolk.
I can help you with that… with your magic system, I mean. Once those blood-puppets get free, the best you can do is stay clear and let events run their course.
Let’s keep things simple and start by looking at rational magic systems and what they are.
What is a Rational Magic System?
While Brandon Sanderson introduced me to the concepts of hard and soft magic with Sanderson’s 1st Law of Magic, something always felt off about the binary definitions. How could Spiderman and Mistborn both be hard magic systems and still feel so different?
With some help from Mythcreants, I realized the magic of Mistborn was more rational because I could take presented information and predict what pieces would come later. Successful extrapolation of unrevealed portions of the magic is the heart of a rational system.
Think of your system like an iceberg.
A rational system exists as one cohesive block while nebulous systems might seem like a single iceberg but are actually several smaller ones clumped together. Because the rational iceberg exists as a single piece, the more you examine and understand what is visible, the more you can understand and predict the rest. Just like I could have predicted your blood-puppets inevitable escape, but hey, you didn’t ask me.
Confused? Don’t worry; you can always get a much more detailed explanation of the different types of magic right here, or see if a nebulous system is right for you. For now, let’s look at some of those reasons you may need a rational magic system.
Reason #1: You Want Your System to Feel Scientific and Rational
Some stories demand a system that seems other-worldly, bizarre, or well, magical; your story might need something different. Whether you want pieces of your system to be commonplace like cellphones, or your story revolves around the bleeding-edge of some magical research, you may need your system to feel more like technology than magic.
To evoke this scientific feeling, the system needs to be consistent, predictable, and well defined. In that case, a rational system can give you what you need.
Reason #2: You Want Consistency Across Users
If you want your audience to feel all the characters exist in one system, you will need consistent rules, limitations, and patterns for the system itself. A consistent system is the best path to consistent users.
Don’t worry about this if each user will have their own flavor or style like in Uprooted or Avengers, but if you want a special class of people differentiated by their skill alone (like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn) then you will need a rational magic system.
Reason #3: You Want Deeper Exploration of the Magic System
There are lots of writers out there building extraordinary systems into their stories. Kevin Hearne does an amazing job with his Iron Druid Chronicles, melding the druid magic into the other natural aspects of our world. In each of his books, Alistar Reynolds (check spelling) amazes me with creative, internally consistent, and interesting science fiction technology. Amidst this fierce competition, there is one thing I think Brandon Sanderson does better than anyone else.
No. Not the summoning of infernal minions from the corpses of his enemies. Exploration
None of his systems stop at the surface level. He digs deep into the guts of what they do, how they work, and how it affects the world around it. If you want to explore on this deep a level, you will end up with a rational system whether or not you want one.
Reason #4: Rules of the Magic System are Important to the Plot
The more important any aspect of your system is to your story, the more you need to think it through.
If your characters are exploring a strange anomaly in their technology, like the ghost in the machine, a well-defined system is required to display the quirk. In a similar vein, if a specific facet or quirk in the magic is responsible for the final success of our heroes like in Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum, it must be clearly set up in advance.
Here’s another example. If your life was a book, you would have built in some clever weakness early on so you could go forth and vanquish your rogue, blood monsters.
In any of these cases, and in dozens more I haven’t even considered, you will need a rational magic system to hold it all together.
Reason #5: You Want to Emphasize Character Intelligence
When looking at reasons you might need a hard magic system, we talked about character competence. While competence and intelligence may seem similar from a story perspective, they require different support to shine.
Competence can exist anywhere a character is experienced in a craft, career, or topic. Intelligence requires understanding a topic and the details of how it works. Therefore, a character can be a master martial artist without understanding the physics of joint manipulation, possess the knowledge without the skill, or even a mix of the two.
When displaying intelligence, there must be patterns, rules, and trivial for the character to show their mental capabilities. A rational system is the best kind of extraordinary system to help you do exactly that.
Reason #6: You Want Your Audience to Feel Smart
Creating a story, we need to consider our own ideas and desires besides the components and needs of the story itself. It is also important to test the needs and experience of your audience.
Speaking as an avid consumer of stories (be they books, games, movies, or shows), few things are more satisfying than having my logic and intelligence reinforced. When I’ve correctly dissected and predicted hidden aspects of a magic or technology system, I want to stand up and dance. Sometimes I even do…
If you want to produce this kind of response in your audience, making them feel smart, perceptive, and clever, you will need a rational magic system to help pull this off.
Reason #7: That’s How Your Brain Works
From my perspective, this is the most compelling reason to build a rational system, but that’s my chemical engineer shining through.
The point is, we all think different. Some of us are better at generating veritable blizzards of ideas, each one being independent and unique. Others of us struggle to get out of bed and into work without lists and routines to fall back on and can’t help but extrapolate from presented data.
If you’re a freak like me, then a rational system might just be the easiest type of system for you to create. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You can always try pushing yourself and try building a nebulous system, but if rational systems are your strength, then stick with them.
Rational Magic is All About Extrapolation
These are not the only reasons you might consider a rational system for your story. Regardless of how you got here, the key to taking your extraordinary system and making it rational is the extrapolation.
Take whatever pieces you have and expand them. How far can that affect spread? How could it be used or abused by the Haves and Have-Nots of society? If a piece of technology produces Effect A, can they can misuse it to create Effect B or C? What if you combine aspects of your system? Do they reinforce one another or generate destructive interference?
The key is experimentation with what you have and following each piece to its logical conclusion.
It’s hard, but that’s all there is to it. Sit down right now and see what you can come up with.
That’s All for Now
Just to recap, the 7 Big Reasons You Need a Rational Magic System are
- You Want Your System to Feel Scientific
- You Want Consistency Across Users
- You Want to Explore Your System Deeply
- Rules/Anomalies are Important to the Plot
- You Want to Emphasize Character Intelligence
- You Want Your Audience to Feel Smart
- That’s How Your Brain Works
And if that’s not enough, I’m here to help. In fact, I built other posts just like this I centered my whole business model on helping people like you craft and repair the extraordinary elements of their stories. I offer one-on-one coaching to help with any of your magic or tech system needs.
Should the price seem a little steep, don’t let that scare you off. I’m happy to work with you and see what we can make work. If this still isn’t interesting to you, then don’t sweat it; that’s not the only way you can help me. Turns out I need some new blood-puppets of my own, so I may see you real soon.