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Thread: Magic System Critique
February 29th, 2012, 02:40 PM #1
Magic System Critique
I'm still toying with writing an urban fantasy series, and I've been playing around with various magic systems for a while now. I wanted something flexible and fairly simple, and hope this is that, but I could use a bit of devil's advocatery to ensure I'm not missing anything obvious and maybe offer up some suggestions.
Essentially everyone is capable of doing a small thing magically, but it is very unusual for people to ever uncover their tiny magical talent, and many do not ever notice it when it manifests. If someone does discover their talent they can gradually expand upon it slowly broadening it from a single use gimmick to a versatile set of abilities.
The world is our world with real magic, and most magical creatures stem from interbreeding of those with similar talents to produce a new race. So mermaids were the results of hundreds of thousands of years of interbreeding by those with magical links to water and the sea, etc.
For example Brian discovers he can make a spark by clicking his fingers. He eventually learns to use this to light cigarettes, and then with a great deal of practice is able to create small fires. If he is untrained this is likely all he will ever be able to do, but by following an appropriate codex he can see what has helped others with similar abilities to advance and his powers will grow exponentially faster.
Brian might be able to convert his heat energy into kinetic energy broadening his abilities, learn to use other parts of his body or just his mind to apply his abilities, etc. However, there will always be certain abilities he cannot access due to the nature of his magic as his ability to make sparks remains the foundation of his magic.
An appropriate codex for Brian would walk him through the steps another wizard used to develop from making small fires to being able to hurl flames. It might tell him how to think about his power, how to use ingredients and the enviroment to enhance it, etc. But a codex by a wizard who could manipulate water would be useless to him unless it was of a higher level. A weather manipulation codex might be usable by both fire and water based wizards since both would be able to achieve a level of heat manipulation with their abilities, etc.
My hope is that I can have fairly homgenous wizardry at some levels with distinct factions. There can also be wizards with unusual talents who are both helped and hindered by having to develop their abilities outside the norm.
The protagonist I am contemplating is essentially an illusionist from another angle, he has the ability to create and manipulate bubbles which he eventually learns to color and manipulate virtually at will. So he could create a facsimilie of a person that would move and look like a person, but it would essentially be a bubble or balloon and burst on contact. A more normal illusionist would manipulate either light or the mind. Some illusionist tricks would be open to the balloon man some would not, etc., but methods for seeing through "normal" illusions would fail against his magic because the bubbles are real illusions. Does that make sense?
Any thoughts, ideas, critiques appreciated.
February 29th, 2012, 03:49 PM #2
I do like the idea of elemental (earth, air, fire, water) based magic for many reasons. Primarily because you can combine each in a different matter to do various things, which you hit upon.
You lost me with the bubble/illusionist thing at the end though. That is totally different than elemental based magic you initially started talking about. Not that it is a bad idea, and many real methods of "magic" (theurgy, witchcraft, chaos, etc.) all rely on different methods (although they do borrow heavily from each other to be sure) to achieve primarily the same result. So there is a lot of diversity in even the real-world "magical" community .
In the context of a novel, however, you don't want to make it too complicated. One worry is that readers will get totally lost or worse, fed up and/or bored and simply stop reading. While urban fantasy is my personal favorite sub-genre, I used to read a lot of hard sci-fi as well but I've pretty much given up on it for that reason. I'm not a physicist, I don't need five pages describing how a ship obtains FTL speeds, just tell me a story, dangit!
If you can come up with a way to ease the reader into a wide variety of different magical systems and have it flow without bogging down, then by all means go for it. But sometimes the axiom, "keep it simple, stupid" (the last word not directed at you, of course) is the best way to go.
Of course, I'm say this because I'm running into the same problem with a novel I'm working on that has theurgy, alchemy and faery magic existing side-by-side and I keep losing myself! I'm about at my wits end and about ready to trash 60K words and start over. But for now, I'm praying for an epiphany and setting it aside to work on a less complex YA novel that pits steampunk against alchemy. Arrgh! I can't stop!
OK, sorry for the personal tangent. Good luck, and try not to write yourself into a hole.
February 29th, 2012, 06:31 PM #3
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Yeah, that's not simple. But it is, I see your point about wanting to keep it simple. At the heart of each magical "talent" is just one basic skill that a user can expand on or not. How they expand is where the complication comes in, spefically because you are trying to explain the process of how it gets from snapping your fingers for fire to throwing a ball of flames across a room.
You may be over thinking it. Maybe it's just a matter of having enough concentration and will power to control the magic making it possible to go from snapping to hurling?
I think the main things you should concentrate on is how the magic affects the user and who or what is receiving the magic (or ball of flames, is it hot enough to ignite stuff but doesn't have a sustained heat source so it goes out quickly? etc).
Did that make sense?
February 29th, 2012, 10:37 PM #4
Developing a magic system can be difficult, and what you're proposing isn't simple.
The key to making an interesting magic system isn't the underlying principles, but the experience of magic and its effect on the world. Its effects on the characters.
Most of the rules of your magic system will be ones that the outside world never sees (not in their hard, harsh forms, anyway).
When I created mine, I kept it simple with a few simple rules. Mages require: some training and a wand (implement), concentration, and an incantation (words of power). Virtually anything can be done if the mage is capable of concentration long enough, knows the incantation, and has an implement. The longer a spell remains in existence, the more anguish it causes the caster until he collapses.
Thus, total "hand-waving" healing is impossible and permanent magic cannot be done (from the base system, at least). The current series lays down those rules and explores the ways the rules can be broken, a subplot in and of itself underlying the whole conflict.
The simpler the system, the easier it is to maintain consistency and appeal.
February 29th, 2012, 10:38 PM #5
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I think you've got a good blend of simlicity and complexity.
You begin with a simple idea: each person has a single magical talent, usually so small that they don't even know it or are able to access it. But, of those who learn of it and are able to use it, they can pretty much only do one thing. In the beginning.
From there you grow and expand it. I can see how you would go about exploring the magic, growing and developing the system in the reader's eyes as the character himself learns about it. Nicely done!
February 29th, 2012, 11:01 PM #6
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I forgot to address the issue of consistency. As Brian said, creating a system of magic can be incredibly difficult. My advice to you is: keep notes! Lots of notes.
For each of my stories I keep what I call an Outline document. Others call it their story's Bible or an encyclopedia. I just title mine as [Serie's Name] Outline. So that's what I call it. Anyways, it has pretty much what you would expect. A list of all the characters and a short description of each, locations/settings and their descriptions, historical events, clothing details, cultural references, that sort of thing.
The reason I bring up my Outline is that, originally, in my current serie's Outline document, I had also included my magic system. But I had to make it into its own document for quicker growth and easier searching and updating. My system may be a bit easier to take notes on than yours as it is a commercial magic (that is, spells are bought and sold and, thus, every single one has to have a name and details for the buyer to know what it is he/she is getting). But I think that if you were to write out all of the most basic talents and then make a diagram that shows how they all grow and expand that it would help you keep things straight. I can't remember the specific name of the diagram I'm thinking of, but its the one used in sporting events and competitions where you have a large pool of teams/contestants and, after many games, you end up with the best two. Except, for you, in reverse order of that. Start small, then grow big.
If you as the author know a highly complicated thing in all its detail, then that will come across in your story. No matter how much of the detail you include.
Though, that said, you do have to give some thought as to how you share the detail that you do share with your readers.
March 1st, 2012, 02:50 AM #7
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For the record, the rather popular anime series "Full Metal Alchemist" has a character who can generate fire by snapping his fingers in a rather iconic fashion.
Not saying that is where you got it from, I am just saying that there is a very popular fictional character that already has a similar feature and is already reasonably known.
For example, you could come up with a character that is a robot from the future, send to kill someone. Regardless of whether you even ever saw the Terminator movies, people are going to attribute that as a rip-off from the Terminator.
Having said that, the magic system seems a bit vague. Not that that is wrong, but it feels like, depending on what the author needs, that is what the magic can do.
It doesn't feel like a very strictly defined set of rules that is so defined that even the author can't break it.
That is just how it feels, I don't have the nitty-gritty details. It also doesn't mean that it is bad, it is just a different form of magic. Gandalf doesn't use a strict magic system either.
March 1st, 2012, 01:45 PM #8
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personally i think the system you have is just fine. if the magic system builds from a simple snap to some really crazy stuff i think you'll be okay as long as it builds gradually with the story. if people read it from start to finish then they will be learning how this all works right alongside the character and you wont have to do too much going back and reexplaining the system every time his or her talent takes another step forward in development.
i also like the bubble character idea if you can do it well. from what you said about certain people having talents that dont exactly fall into the norms of your pseudo magical community, you have an opening for a lot of conflict as well as a lot of interesting situations where his strange talent is all that can work to save the day or what have you. then again if done wrong it could burst in your face (pun totally intended, judge away)
March 1st, 2012, 03:06 PM #9
Zalz, I am a huge FMA fan, but Col. Mustang was not the first to snap his fingers and cause a spark. Early versions of Pyro from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (X-Men) did it, before the Marvel powers that be decided that he could only control flames, not actually create his own. The Human Torch did it on a few occasions as well, like when he was at a disco and someone pissed him off and he wanted to let them know who he was (the FF having public identities and all). I don't think that should be that big of an issue because it makes sense; it's a organic flintlock-style lighter.
March 1st, 2012, 03:22 PM #10
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But like I said, imagine if someone wrote about a robot from the future, send to kill a person, but he has never seen the terminator movies.
People would still call it a rip-off, even if that person couldn't possibly have known.
He shouldn't change if he likes the idea of snapping fingers to create fire (it makes a lot of sense, there is the heat, the friction, and it can be stylish and practical).
Just saying that if he doesn't want any accusations of copying something, he should think about changing it.
I am not saying it is a crime. Most authors are thieves. It is just that snapping your fingers to create fire is an iconic move by a rather popular anime character (and a few others as you mentioned).
I gave it a few seconds of thought, but wouldn't it already be a lot more unique if he made the spark with his feet? I suddenly get a lot of images of someone that fights with a lot of sweeping, almost dancing motions, constantly sweeping his feet across the floor to create fire.
It isn't like this is any big copying. Even if people saw it, they would forgive it. People even accept the 1:1 copying of races like elves/orcs. Established concepts can work.
I just want to (I am repeating myself) point out to him that there is a character that has snapping his fingers as an iconic trait. Not even suggesting that he got it from there. Just a heads up.
Some people really don't want any accusations of having copied something. I wouldn't mind if he left it like that, just pointing out the possiblity to him.
March 1st, 2012, 03:32 PM #11
I gotcha, I didn't mean to come off as a know it all, and if I did, sorry.
And I like the idea of the dancing flame creation you mentioned. That has my creative gears turning now. It would have given "Black Swan" a much cooler edge instead of just being "Fight Club" for girls! (No offense, Aronofsky fans, but I still think "Pi" will never be topped.)
March 1st, 2012, 10:28 PM #12
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I think this has gotten off topic from what OW was asking. Maybe I'm mistaken but the finger snap was just an example. His idea for a protagonist wasn't using fire.
I actually am curious as to how you were going to fit that in with the elemental scheme. Were you going to use his as one of the "other" talents you talked about? I was trying to fit it into a category but all I could come up with was it being somehow water based which I like because in my unprofessional opinion people don't give water nearly enough credit in the admittedly limited amount of fantasy that I have read. Its always fire or sometimes earth and water can totally beat both of those in an elemental rochambeau.
Sorry for the tangent but please let us know what you end up deciding with this whole thing.
March 2nd, 2012, 03:55 PM #13
Thanks for all the feedback folks, very much appreciated!
Fire guy was very much an example, something intended to be a bit generic for the sake of ease. And while I was not really thinking about Colonel Mustang I do love FMA, honestly I was sort of picturing Fire Fist Ace from One Piece, but only in a very vague what can fire guys do kinda way, lol.
I'm aiming for a fairly bombastic story where the protagonist gets involved in a Wizards fight club to draw him into the magical community. The idea being that Magical governing bodies have been consistently destroyed - que scary evil guys - after a few centuries of existence making them either weak or anemic in most countries. So magical society in England, where the Council of High Mages was wiped out some ten years ago, is very much on the rough and ready side - with just a pinch of Mad Max.
I do worry about the system offering me too much freedom, I might pinch off a few areas that no magic user has been able to develop a bridge to. I am intending to create a somewhat tiered system with there being many wizards capable of utilizing their talent in the obvious ways and a much rarer class of masters who have reached a point where their abilities can extend to virtually anything - obviously such individuals will be extremely rare.
Copious notes and branching diagrams sound like excellent ideas, and since I want a lot of the after effects to be broadly sensible scientifically speaking they will give me a nice jumping off point for research.
Last edited by Ornery Wyvern; March 2nd, 2012 at 03:59 PM.
March 2nd, 2012, 06:18 PM #14
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Hi OW (this is my first post on these forums).
I think the thing you've done which would be attractive to readers is the concept of everyone having a hidden talent. So many SF/F books are about chosen ones or special people - the idea of everyone having special potential is very cool and under-represented in fiction.
As far as developing a coherent system that makes sense is concerned - as others have already said, if you understand it yourself really well, that will come out in the writing and doesn't need to be tediously explained. If there are problems or lacunae with the system, simply have the characters advert to them and the problem disappears. The reader just wants to be reassured that you are aware of the inconsistency yourself - that's how to deal with it.
The other point I would make is don't get too hung up on the magic system - the story is always the most important thing and all the magic system does is enable the story. If the system gets in the way the story will suffer (and if the story is strong enough, the readers will either not notice or ignore small problems with your magic system.
Good luck with it.
March 2nd, 2012, 09:05 PM #15
Thanks THEM, and welcome to the forums, yes I like the everybody has magic thing and I wholly agree that story is much more important than these sort of details. I'm also rather fond of the notion that magic does not automatically show up in your teens allowing older folks like me to get in on the whatifthiswasrealwould'ntitbenicing .
I'm toying with how this effects magical creatures in the world and am considering all living things having a small magic, and very occasional interbreeding of individual creatures with similar or complementary gifts creating true breeding species. So mermaids might have resulted from a sort of unnatural selection with say seafaring folk on some isolated islands encouraging such traits, etc. Vampires from inbred european nobility perhaps .
Does not seem to allow for the kind of physical dymorphism (sp?) that griffins and the like would require, but it would be nice to think such things could crop up as one offs occasionally without having to justify a proper breeding population existing in the "real" world. Nessie could be an eel with the power to expand its size or some such... Not that I think I'm going to be using such beasties, but it would be nice to have it figured out for world building purposes, etc.
Am I comfortable with suggesting there is a genetic elements to such powers though? Hmmm. Could be interesting, but also potentially offensive - though that certainly would not be my intent.
Hehe, got a bit off track there