Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.10: Magic Systems

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

Let’s design magic systems! We talk about how we do it, and how the principles of magic system design apply to the science fiction systems we create, and vice-versa.

NOTE: In this episode we’re talking about “hard” magic systems, where there are well-defined rule sets (even if the reader isn’t shown them explicitly.) Next week we’ll talk about “soft” magic.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take a “soft” magic system, and turn it into a “hard” system. Give Gandalf rules.

Thing of the week: The Third Eye, by Mahtab Narsimhan.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you go about designing magic for a book or story? With younger readers, you can get away with a softer magic system. I drew on Indian mythology, but then change or craft it to fit. Hard = rules, crunchy. Soft = more free-form, less description. Take something from mythology or folklore, and turn it into a system. Think about what the readers are looking for — wish fulfillment, fun, aspirational geewhiz. They want escapism, a world of new experiences, but where they can still identify with the problems and conflicts. Don’t forget the flipside, the speculative what if and social exploration. Why do we like favorite magic systems? Essentially giant puzzles. A visual component to the magic. The immediate combination of “it would be cool to do this” and “Oh, wow, the implications are really frightening.” Surprising, yet inevitable fulfilling of promises. Collecting plot coupons! Knowing what it would be like to experience or confront the magic.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 10.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Magic Systems.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard. Why are you laughing?

[Mahtab] And I’m Mahtab.


[Dan] I’m laughing because she copied our vocal intonation.


[Dan] It was really funny.

[Howard] Okay. You know what I do when I’m traveling in a foreign country? I start to sound like them. We are aliens and… Welcome, Mahtab.


[Dan] [garbled cool aliens house]


[Howard] One of my alien powers is to invent magic systems.

[Dan] Ooo… Talk about that.

[Howard] Did that bring us back on topic, Brandon?

[Brandon] Yes, it did. Before we started this, Howard looked at me and said, “Brandon, you’re not going to just talk this whole time, are you?”


[Howard] Because you could.

[Brandon] We decided together…

[Dan] Probably what the listeners want. Tough.

[Brandon] No, it’s… We… I have written a bunch of essays on magic systems. We’re not going to touch on the things in those essays. Because we’ve covered them in episodes of Writing Excuses, I’ve talked about them at length. Instead, we’re going to kind of talk to the side of them. So if you want to read those essays, Sanderson’s Laws, you can go find them. You can read them. Instead, I want to ask… I’m going to start with Mahtab. How did you go about designing the magic in The Third Eye or in any of the stories you’ve worked on?

[Mahtab] Well, first of all, because I’m writing for middle grade, I do not need to have too many hard facts or go at extreme length in terms of describing the system. I think you can… With younger readers, you can get away with doing a softer magic system, where… So one of the influences that I had was the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. That was one of my absolute favorite novels that I read. Things are not really explained. When Aslan sacrifices himself to save Edmund, and then he dies, and he’s on this Stone Table which breaks, and that is some deep magic related to Christianity and sacrifice. I didn’t know all of that. I totally didn’t understand. But, I mean, I felt that wonder when he came back alive, and the kids went back with him. So, as far as mine, when I was writing The Third Eye, I drew a lot on Indian mythology. So one of the… Well, the main character’s Tara, who is a young child, but the mean villain is Zarku, who is an evil character and he hypnotizes people with his third eye, which I borrowed directly from the god Shiva, who has a third eye. Except that Shiva uses it to burn evil things, whereas I actually gave that quality to my evil protagonist, who could hypnotize people and make them do things. I had a couple of really gruesome scenes which kids kind of love and the parents hated. Which is fine by me, as long as they picked up the book to read.

[Howard] But, you know what, that’s the mark of a really good book for kids.


[Howard] Kids love it, and their parents hate it.


[Howard] You’ve done society a great service.

[Mahtab] Thank you. That’s actually the one book that won the Silver Birch, which is a reading program in Ontario, and it kind of kick started my career. I was really happy about that. So I drew a lot on Indian mythology. Even when Tara has to solve problems, she prays to Lord Ganesh and she has… Lord Ganesh is supposed to have a helper in the form of a little mouse. That is what comes to save her. So, my magic system was soft, but it was based a lot on drawing from Indian mythology, and then kind of changing or crafting it to suit the story.

[Howard] It’s worth pointing out that next week we’re going to talk about magic without rules. So…

[Dan] That’s kind of what we mean by hard and soft.

[Brandon] Right.

[Dan] She was throwing those terms around. If it has a lot of rules and is very crunchy, that’s a hard. If it’s more free-form…

[Brandon] Yeah. There is sometimes this sense, like, when I start talking about these, people assume that I don’t like soft magic systems. You’ll be disabused of that next week.


[Brandon] I really like a good soft magic system. I like magic in all its different varieties, and what it does in stories.

[Brandon] So let’s talk about building… You said you reached into Indian mythology to get a lot of your ideas. I do this too. A lot of my ideas for magic systems will come from something from mythology, or something that… Like, I love the idea of spontaneous genesis, right? That things get… They used to believe that frogs were born out of mud, because you always find frogs around mud. That idea is so cool…


[Brandon] And so interesting. A lot of my magic systems are born out of me looking back at some sort of folklore or myth, and then saying, “Well, can I make that into a system?”

[Dan] One of the things that I have started to value more and more, every time I try to write magic, is the idea of wish fulfillment. That what readers are really looking for, even though they don’t always admit this, especially adults, is magic that is fun, that they would want to use. I think that’s one of the major reasons that Harry Potter has been so successful, is because everybody wants to go to Hogwarts, everybody wants to be using those cool spells. So while there’s certainly a place for magic that requires sacrifice or that causes pain or something like that, I think there’s a lot of aspirational geewhiz in fantasy, where the reader wants to be able to go, “Oh, I want to write a dragon. I want to use all these metals and then fly through the sky. I want to be able to do that. That looks awesome.”

[Brandon] That comes into something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is the draw of fantasy. What is it? How is that maybe different from some other genres? I hadn’t even really put this together, but if you look at like movies, some of the big ones, what is the difference between the superhero movies and Star Wars? Star Wars is a lot more fantasy, right? Even though it’s got science-fiction trappings. You see with Star Wars, people… They don’t necessarily just dress up as the characters in the movies. They go get their own Storm Troopers costume and become a Storm Trooper and things like this. I saw this a lot in The Wheel of Time fandom, that people didn’t necessarily when they would do costumes, not necessarily want to be one of the characters. Sometimes they would, but often they would want to put themselves into the setting, and dress themselves like a character and come up with a persona from that world. That’s a very kind of distinctive thing, I think, for fantasy.

[Dan] It really is.

[Mahtab] It’s a lot to do with escapism. I mean, most people who read fantasy, they’re just so bored with… Well, bored or whatever. They just want to go into a whole new world, be the characters, live with them, experience totally new things that they wouldn’t, and then they kind of come back to their lives. For me, science fiction and fantasy is exactly that. Just getting out into a different world, yet being able to identify with the problems, with the conflicts that the characters face, so that there is something that I can feel, I mean, it should be something that I feel is relatable to me. But it’s still… It’s a whole new world.

[Howard] Well, there’s a flipside to that, which is the speculative fiction aspect of fantasy and science fiction. At risk of calling the elephant in the room an elephant, Brandon’s Steelheart takes the social concept of absolute power corrupts absolutely and wraps that… Or maps that onto a superhero universe, and asks us the question, and it’s a socially important question, what happens if there are superpowers and absolute power corrupts absolutely? That question, whether or not there’s escapism involved, it’s a fascinating read for the social reasons. I think that’s kind of the other half of magic systems. We talk about wish fulfillment, we talk about escapism, but we also talk about how the ability to obey a different set of rules, a set of rules that are not the laws of physics as we understand them, but are themselves rules, how will that change us as people? If it doesn’t change us as people, how will it change our relationships with other people? That’s… So that was really deep and maybe way to crunchy, but…

[Dan] No, that’s something that a lot of urban fantasies in particular get into. The TV show called Lost Girl, The Dresden Files series, they both get very heavily into that idea. The Magicians, as well. If you have all of this power, and can get away with stuff, you’re going to start getting away with stuff, which I think adds another really cool dimension to the magic system, is there are people who use it well and there are people who don’t. People who use it for evil.

[Brandon] Let’s stop, and our book of the week is actually The Third Eye. So, will you tell us about it?

[Mahtab] Absolutely. This is actually the very first novel that I wrote. I think I sweated blood and tears over it. It’s about a young girl, Tara, who slowly… I mean, she is living in this village with her father and her stepmother, and slowly, as the story progresses… There’s a new healer in town who has got three eyes and just about everyone’s enamored with him, but she’s the only one who can see behind that façade of his and realize that he’s evil. The story is about her journey in trying to find her grandfather, who’s the only other person who’s kind of strong… You could call him a Dumbledore kind of thing. Who is strong enough to fight Zarku and defeat him. But throughout the journey, what I try and do is take away the entire support system, so that eventually, Tara is just relying on herself, and a little bit off the soft magic system based on Hindu mythology that I talked about earlier, to try and defeat Zarku.

[Brandon] It’s a delightful book.

[Mahtab] Thank you.

[Brandon] I’m really enjoying it, although I will tell you, I did not expect it to be as much of a horror book as it is.


[Brandon] That’s not where I thought I was going.

[Howard] Brandon loves it, his parents do not.


[Brandon] It is genuinely creepy in a lot of places in a really delightful way.

[Mahtab] It’s a different horror. I was just telling Dan on the way here, saying I’m delving back into horror, but, yeah, there are some very graphic, gruesome scenes which I really enjoyed writing. I often get teachers saying, “What were you thinking?” But then, it’s like, the kids like it, and there isn’t anything else that shouldn’t be in there, so let them enjoy it.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s ask you guys, favorite magic systems in books or films that you’ve experienced, and kind of why? What made this magic system work? What made you enjoy the story?

[Dan] Well, at the risk of over inflating Brandon’s ego…

[Howard] It’s now an inflatable elephant in the room.


[Dan] The… I love the Mistborn magic system, but for two very specific reasons. First of all, they’re essentially giant puzzle games. Where, here’s all of the pieces. You know how these work. How are they going to solve the problem at the end of the book? For me, reading any of the Mistborn novels is essentially just a cool puzzle to solve. Okay, this guy can do… Here’s, in the Alloy of Law series, here’s the girl who only has the one weird power that she doesn’t think is of any use, she likes slows time down or something. How is that going to be valuable, because you know it is? I love ciphering those puzzles.

[Brandon] They are slightly Asimov Laws of Robotics books, stories.

[Dan] Exactly.

[Brandon] Where you set up several laws, and then you show they’re not working or that there’s a hole in them somewhere, what are we not understanding? Then you kind of put it together at the end.

[Dan] That’s not what every magic system has to do, and shouldn’t. There needs to be variety. But I like those for that reason. One of the others, though, and this is another one of the rules that I’ve kind of set for myself as I develop my own, is that magic should have a visual component to it. I always used to try to make magic very mental, very cerebral. I think a lot of aspiring fantasy writers do the same. But adding that visual element… So again, back to Mistborn, you’ve got things as simple as being able to pull or push on metal, and you don’t need a visual component, but you added the blue lines. The blue lines bear so much weight in these stories, and they serve such a powerful function, even though it’s a very simple thing. Because that gives us a sense of what it looks like, and what it would feel like to do it, and it helps us understand what’s going on. Just because of these dumb little blue lines.

[Brandon] I love magic systems where, when you start reading it, you both see why it would be so cool to have this magic and also, are instantly worried and frightened about the implications of it. Right?


[Brandon] A great example of that is our former professor, Dave Wolverton’s Runelords series, in which you can take someone’s strength and brand it onto yourself with a branding iron, and that person loses their strength and you have it. You’re twice as strong. But now, you have this person that you need to take care of, because if someone can get to them and kill them, you lose your magic strength. The social implications of that are just staggering. The moment you read it, you realize, “Oh, man. This changes society in some really dark ways.” He goes there.

[Dan] Yeah. He follows through on the ramifications. Like, every evil thing that you think as you’re contemplating that, he comes… He deals with at some point or another. It’s a really great example of how to show the effects of magic, and how to show a society shaped by magic.

[Brandon] How fantasy can, as Mahtab was saying, can take some our world element and in some ways by exaggerating it really kind of bore down into that issue. Like with the Runelords, the fact that the strong become stronger and the weak become more and more subject to the strong, is really well exemplified in that story, to ways that make, I think, you start to realize this is kind of how our society works, and that’s an ugly underbelly to it.

[Howard] Deadbeat by Jim Butcher. The… I suppose I’ll just spoil it, because…


[Brandon] Do it.

[Howard] That’s what we’re here for and it’s an old book. The name of the book is both a reference to our detective, our wizard, Harry Dresden, who is kind of a deadbeat, and this idea that necromancy works best when you have a rhythm to which all of the dead are marching. I don’t remember the exact details, but the older the bones are, the more powerful a thing you can raise. We end up with a guy dressed like a one-man band drummer riding a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton through town. It is surprising, yet inevitable. It fulfills all of the promises of necromancy as he set it forth. It was a lot of fun. I mean… Undead dinosaur, you can’t go wrong with that.


[Brandon] Any other favorites?

[Mahtab] I have one which is… I read it a few years ago. But, The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Where Will Stanton, on his 12th birthday, realizes he’s one of the Old Ones, and he has to collect these six symbols of… I think they’re called the Champions of Light, which is… Is to circles made of wood and bronze and iron, fire, water. Then that… He has to collect it, it makes a powerful object, then he repels the Dark with it. But it’s just so beautifully written. It’s kind of a coming-of-age, a fantasy, there’s wild magic, high magic, but it’s really, really good. The Dark Is Rising, Susan Cooper.

[Dan] I also wanted to mention, just to have like a really soft magic system in here, the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. I love the magic as he presents it there. Because there’s maybe one or two rules, and I don’t know anyone who could name them off the top of their heads, but it has a distinct flavor to it. Like, there’s no… We don’t know what the rules are governing it, but we absolutely know what it feels like. We absolutely know what it would be like to experience or confront the magic that we find in those books. I loved the way he pulled that off.

[Brandon] All right. So, I’ve also got our homework for this week. Now, next week we’re going to be talking about soft magic systems. What I would like you to do is kind of… Make you take some sort of soft magic system that you’ve read about or you’ve loved. The example we came up with was… Is Gandalf. Gandalf’s very soft. We never know what Gandalf can do, specifically, we just know he’s awesome. Well, I want you to take a soft magic system, and apply rules to it. Give Gandalf rules. Take a soft magic system you have written and give it rules. Flip it on its head, and see how the magic works differently if you explain exactly how it works and have it work according to those rules. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.