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

18.42: Creating Magic Outside of a System

How do you write about magic? How do you build a world with magic and spells and potions? We dive into the rules and laws behind magical worlds. We often think of magic as being with a system, but what if it’s not? What opportunities and challenges do intrusive magic/emergent fantasy and fabulism create for writers and stories?

Our writers and publishers talk about cultural differences across magical systems, and how you can build a fantasy world that is believable. We also talk about surrealism, dream logic, and how sometimes the belief in magic is enough. 


Write a scene that brings an element of magic into a mundane place you know well (grocery store, bank, etc.), Try to make it impactful without explaining how it all works.

Thing of the Week: 

The World Wasn’t Ready For You by Justin C. Key

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Does magic need rules to work? You don’t need to build a magic system ahead of time. Just dive in and let things happen. But… Humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and we will make a magic system out of everything. Does magic have to have a personal cost? Is magic consistent, in terms of costs and consequences? Some technology might as well be magic. Fantasy stories tend to personalize cost.  Technology stories tend to make the cost less personal. It’s less about the cost of magic, and more about consequences. Folk magic, magic beyond our understanding and control, is a force on the story, not something exerted by the protagonist. Use SMART as scales to think about magic (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based). Build a try-fail cycle around ordinary things, which magic as the danger in the pit. When you make the choice of a SMART magic system or not, how do you decide? If it feels technological, put rules around it. What is the premise of the story? You don’t always need to understand the rules, just roll the thunderstorm in. Science, learning, civilization can coexist with magical thinking, understanding, and folk logic. Instead of X or Y, what is the Z in between?

[Season 18, Episode 42]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Creating Magic Outside of a System.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Erin] I am so excited to talk about magic outside of magic systems. Which is one of my favorite things to play with as a writer. Two of the stories that I had y’all read were… Had magical elements in them. I mean, wolfmen are not real that I know of. Conjuremen actually are real, but that’s a type of folk magic that’s very different than the way we think about magic a lot of times, where it’s like you say, “Alakazam,” and something happens. What I really enjoy about these is that I think sometimes we think we have to come up with rules in order for magic to work. But I would say that we really don’t. I have a theory as to how we can determine the type of magic that we’re using in our worlds. But before I do that, you, Mary Robinette, I keep thinking about you because you actually have worked in a magic that has more of a system. I’m curious, like, do you like it, do you not like it, how do you feel about it?

[Mary Robinette] Um, so I… Hmmm, this is hard, because I don’t agree with your central premise, and I agree with your central premise, simultaneously.

[Erin] Love it.

[Mary Robinette] So, I don’t think you need to do any building ahead of time on a magic system. I think you can just dive in and let things happen. Which is actually the way I did that with the Glamorous Histories. I dove in, I let things happen, and then I was like, “Well, you better not let that happen because now you’ve accidentally invented telephones. Let’s roll that back.” So I found the magic system as I went. But then I also made some very deliberate decisions about it. I’ve also written stories that are much more in the fairytale mode of magic system where it’s just like magic things happened, and there’s not… But, here’s where I disagree with it. Humans are pattern seeking creatures, and we will make a magic system out of everything. Which is why, like, what is the one magic spell that works perfectly for hiding something in the real world. You put it anyplace safe. What is the counter spell for that? You buy a duplicate. Everybody knows this spell. Right? We make systems. If you walk away from the bus stop, the bus is going to come. If you say that Wolfy Things doesn’t have a magic system, but it 100% has a magic system. The wolfsbane is a magic system. It’s just not the kind of thing where you sit down and you turn it into… I think when people think about magic system, they think about something that you can turn into basically an RPG.

[Erin] Yeah. I think that’s exactly it. When I think magic systems, I think things with rules that can be codified easily and always work the same way. One of the reasons that I often push back… There are 2 rules that I was taught about writing magic, neither of which I like for my own writing. One is that magic always has to have a cost. A personal cost. It is often the way that it’s described.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] I mean, I guess I understand where it comes from, because magic can’t just be unlimited. But like…

[DongWon] The desire to work magic into the logic of capitalism, though…

[Erin] Yeah.

[DongWon] It’s a desire to work magic into an imperialist possessive extractive mode of thinking that I think is sometimes very fun. I love playing Dungeons & Dragons which is absolutely in that mode. But also there are other ways to think about the numinous and the magical that I think can be rule-based and consistency-based, but aren’t necessarily highly systematized in a hierarchical way.

[Mary Robinette] Again, Nikki pays a cost for gathering the wolfsbane. He talks in the beginning about the prickles and the stings of gathering it. Like, there is a cost there, whether or not it’s a monetary or economic cost. It’s not… I agree that it doesn’t necessarily have to be there. But there is… If we think of it as an effort, that there is something that is… Something happens. There is some sort of exchange.

[DongWon] One of the things… Where I’m going to push back on consistency.

[Mary Robinette] Consistency?

[DongWon] Yes, there can be a cost. But what one character pays in one moment versus one another character pays in another moment doesn’t always have to be the same. Right? Think about this in terms of Studio Ghibli movies. Right? So there is consequence and cost. If you eat the food, then you end up turning into a giant pig. Right? There’s a certain logic to that, a certain cost to that. But what one character experiences won’t always be the same as what the next character experiences. Even though there’s an underlying logic to it. Right?

[Mary Robinette] That is…

[DongWon] So I think when we’re talking about systems, for me, at least, that’s kind of like where I start to push back on the idea of like this has to be systematized in a concrete way. But I also understand what you’re saying, that there’s an underlying logic to how these things work.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Also, I mean, in the real world, when you’re looking at systems, people do not pay the same costs under any…

[DongWon] Exactly. Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] So that’s why I’m like I understand, but I think that whether or not you intend it, the reader is going to find a system and the characters will find a system. That systemizing will happen.

[DongWon] I’m going to push back a little bit. I’m sorry to keep pushing on this…

[Mary Robinette] No, no, this is…

[DongWon] But I do think that…

[Howard] Erin and I are having a great [garbled time?]


[DongWon] I do think a Western reader will want a kind of rigor and system to it that is different from what readers from other cultures might [garbled think]. Right?

[Mary Robinette] Sure.

[DongWon] I think… I just want to be cautious about generalizing too much. I think the experience of an American reader or a European reader tends to be slightly different from the experience of a reader who is coming from a different culture, and has different expectations of what the logic and implied costs and consequences of magic could be in that world.

[Erin] Well, I think that…

[Howard] If I could address the technological…

[Erin] Sure.

[Howard] Elephant in the room. Erin, you began by saying to of these stories have magic in them, and one of them doesn’t. I’m sorry, the technology to remove… Transfer… Manipulate… Bank, not bank memories might as well be magic. It is a technology, and you may have technological rules and costs associated with it, but the story does nothing to explore that beyond the most superficial level. It could just as easily have been a wizard did it.

[Erin] What I… This actually gets to one of the things about costs that I find really interesting, which is a slight pivot from what we’ve been talking about. But I think a lot of times, fantasy stories tend to personalize cost. It is your finger, your soul, your whatever, your blood. Technology stories tend to make the cost more like the way we think of cost. Electricity has a cost. But it’s a bill, not like my soul. You know what I mean? Like, ultimately, that cost changes, and there are some people who can’t pay their electric bill and have to deal with the consequences of that. But I think some of the desire to make fantasy really individual… A lot of times bloodline oriented in a weird way, like inherited, makes the cost really like about the actual person wielding it and not the systemic cost. Because, like, there’s something going on… The memory tech is very magical, but it is something that is run by a company outside of, like, individual people, and the choices they’re making are how to use that system, not that they have to create it themselves or sacrifice part of themselves other than their morals in order to do something with it.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, I completely agree with all of that. I think, as we’re talking, something that is clarifying in my mind is that part of the reason we say magic… I suspect that part of the reason the magic must have a cost arose as a rule is because what we’re really saying is for your protagonist to succeed, they must exert effort, and that frequently people were doing things where… It’s like, “And now we do magic.”

[DongWon] I think it’s less about the magic having a cost, and more about the characters choices having consequences.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[DongWon] Right? So when Nikki’s picking the berries, he is feeling a cost, but that cost is his choice to engage in this act of hunting, in this act of violence. He’s giving blood to do that. I think that’s a part that’s so interesting to me. More than necessarily like magic works in a certain way.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. One of the things, going back to what your thing about electricity is, I will often tell people like electricity is a spell that will does one thing, and we figured out how to do a lot of really interesting things with this one spell.

[Erin] I love that. I also think a lot about folk magic. I thought a lot, because I did a lot of research into folk magic in working on Snake Season and, like, the conjureman has all of these different potions and things and… Do they work? Do they not work?

[DongWon] I love the conjure bag. Yeah.

[Erin] It’s not clear. I think that’s true of a lot of folk magic. I was talking with someone the other day who said, like, “Does it work to paint your house [garbled] blue, so that the spirits don’t come in?” It’s like, well, who’s going to not paint their house that? Like, you don’t want to be the one person that paints your house green and now the spirit’s in you. So we believe, and sometimes a belief in something is its own magic. It doesn’t actually have to work. If you paint your house blue and a ghost gets in anyway, you just figure you did something wrong with that. But you don’t have to codify it. It’s not like I didn’t mix the paint correctly and do the right spell. It’s more like, “Oh, well. I guess something happened, and, oh, well, they got in another way. Like, I’ll have to deal with those consequences.” I think that’s where you see cultural differences. The idea that like ghosts are real, that there is just kind of magic around us that is beyond our understanding, beyond our control, is something that I find really interesting, because then it just becomes a force on the story as opposed to something that is being exerted by the protagonist within the story.

[DongWon] Well, it lets you draw on a cultural component in a really interesting way. Right? So, the fact that everyone paints the roof of their porch a specific shade of blue is a regional cultural thing. It is also superstition, it is also part of maybe a magic system of sorts. But it’s also… It’s a people saying this is who we are. We are people who paint our porches this color. Right? I think that is where folk magic intersects with narrative in ways that I find really rich and exciting and fun.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, I have a daft theory to propose, and I want to see what you think of it.

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[Mary Robinette] I recently read a short story collection called The World Wasn’t Ready for You by Justin C. Key. I was blown away by this. It’s his debut collection. It… Like, from the very first page, I was like, “Oh, this guy knows how to tell a story.” Each story feels different. Also, warning, they are horror. Like, this is heavy stuff. The way the publisher described it was Black Mirror meets Get Out. So you’re dealing with science fiction and horror and fantasy to examine issues of race and class and prejudice. It’s fantastic. I highly recommend this. The World Wasn’t Ready for You by Justin C. Key.

[Erin] Okay, I promised a theory, and here it is.

[Howard] You promised a daft theory.

[Erin] A daft theory.

[Howard] I’m here for the daft.

[Erin] I was thinking about how do we think… Like, if you’re creating magic, if you want to make a more systemic or otherwise, how do you describe how magic works within your world? I started thinking about the acronym SMART that people always tell you to use for goalsetting. That your goal should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based. I decided that each of these could be a scale to think about magic.

[Mary Robinette] Ooo…

[Erin] So, is your magic specific, as in, like, it does one thing, or is it general? Is it measurable, like you can actually, and sort of controllable in that way, or is it more kind of broad? Is it attainable by certain people, or by everyone, or can only certain people wheeled it? Is it realistic or does it just do gonzo…


[Erin] Wild stuff that you wouldn’t expect? Is it time-based or is it always available to you? So this was my random theory. I’m curious, does any of that make sense for you guys?

[DongWon] Oh, my God, I love it so much.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. I’m so excited by that. I’m like…

[DongWon] My love for you is melting.

[Howard] It makes sense, and I’m going to need… Let’s see, what was the T for? Time-based?

[Mary Robinette] Time. Yeah.

[Howard] I’m going to need a big time-based spell in order to unpack it. One of the thoughts that I had about the magic… In Wolfy in particular, we talk about the wolfsbane as something that will work for killing a wolf.

[Mary Robinette] Very specific.

[Howard] Yeah, it was specific. But the effort that needs to be put in by the protagonist in order to kill the wolf that way has nothing to do with the wolfsbane, and everything to do with coaxing, using things that are real to all of us, the wolf up to the edge of the pit, and then pushing, using tools that are available to all of us, the wolf into the pit, and then let the magic do its thing. That aspect, when you’ve got a magic where the try-fail cycle is not focused on the magic, because you don’t want to have to build all those rules, you have the try-fail cycle around can I get the wolf up to the edge of the pit and push it in, and then let the magic do the rest. It’s a very simple… It seems very simple to me, anyway, a very simple toolbox for taking non-rule-based, non-systemic, non-gamified magic and working it into the familiar and useful structure of a try-fail cycle.

[Mary Robinette] As you were talking, Howard, I was going back to the SMART. I’m like, Yep, specific, it does this thing. Measurable? Yep. The wolf is dead. Accessible? Anyone can grab it. Then I was like, “What was R? What was R?”

[Erin] Realistic.

[DongWon] Realistic.

[Erin] Is it realistic? That’s what gives space for like gonzo magic. Right?

[DongWon] Totally. Totally.

[Erin] So, is it like the wolf falls in and turns into like [a blues?]

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] Like, there is like that sort of surrealistic way of approaching magic where it never does…

[DongWon] The big dream logic.

[Erin] Yeah. Exactly. It doesn’t do what you think. It does something, but it doesn’t do what you would expect it to do. It probably isn’t very repeatable, which is another thing that R sometimes stands for.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah yeah yeah.

[Erin] In that because the next time you do it, it might lead to a completely different effect. Which makes it harder for you to like wield it as a tool. Because every time, you’re sort of taking a chance that it would do the thing you wish it would.

[Howard] That was in Iain Banks Against a Dark Background. The MacGuffin is a weapon called the lazy gun. All we know about the lazy gun is whatever you’re pointing it at, when you pull the trigger, it’s going to die. For small targets, it might be a tele-portal opens above it and jaws come down and chomp them. Totally gonzo. For large… The larger the target tends to be, is, the more likely it is that you’re just going to get a boring explosion. I loved that magic system, and the whole story, once they get their hands on the gun, has nothing to do with how the gun works, and everything to do with hanging onto it long enough to point it at something.

[DongWon] So I guess my question for you is, Sour Milk Girls has a very specific, let’s call it a magic system quote unquote, that is systematized, that has hierarchy, has all these consequences. Right? It fits most of the categories of SMART in those ways. Then, Snake Season definitely does not. Like, for you, when you’re making those choices of what kind of magic system you want in this story, when do you want something hierarchical and rigorous, and when do you want something that’s more fluid and numinous?

[Erin] Well, that’s interesting. I think that I… The more it feels technological, for me, the more I want to put rules around it.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] Because that’s just I assume that technology has rules in a way that I’d never assume that magic does. So, the more… The closer it comes to tech, the more I think about it that way. I think it also comes down to, like, what is the premise of the story. So, in many ways, when I came up with Snake Season, the premise was, what if this… What if there’s a woman living on the Bayou whose kids are messed up? Like, you know what I mean? Which has nothing to do with magic. But then the Bayou in that culture has so much magic infused into it that it like kind of leaks into the story. Like, even if I didn’t mean for it to be there, it did. It was. Something I find… This is a complete aside… Very interesting about folk magic of sort of the Bayou New Orleans all of that area is that it actually mixes like traditional folk magic with Catholicism in a really interesting way. Catholicism is very rulebound, and folk magic is very not. I found something really interesting in that. Maybe a parallel to the ways in which Marie’s trying to figure out like where she fits within the rules of something she doesn’t fully understand.

[Mary Robinette] So I think the thing that… Sorry, my brain is exploding over here.


[DongWon] Yeah. Same.

[Mary Robinette] I think that… Circling back… Taking that, and then circling back to what you said, the more it feels like tech, the more it feels like a system, I think what you’re actually getting at is the more mainstream it is. The more it has been monetized and become a technological system then something that is… Where it is all self-taught. So in the self teaching of it, the non-rulebound, that’s where it’s like, “Well, yeah, I do it this way.” In the same way that when you’re looking at art, it’s like, well, you have to have perspective, and you have to have this. Then you see folk artists, you see outsider artists who are not doing it that way at all, who are exploring totally different things.

[DongWon] You see this around like tarot and arcana. Right? Like the massive industry that surrounds that at this point in terms of specific interpretations, specific things like that.

[Howard] If you look at our understanding of weather, climate, and ecology in, like, the 12th century. There are cycles of the moon, there are ann… Our passage around the sun, there are tides, there are seasons. But they don’t always align and it’s difficult to tell why. Moss grows on the north sides of trees. What is it about the windward and leeward sides of mountains? We didn’t have an understanding of the water cycle, of where rain comes from, and we obviously didn’t have satellites to predict thunderstorms. But we had this magnificent experience of a thunderstorm rolling in from nowhere and doing things that, in the context of the 12th century whoever is a huge force that… Did it come from the moon, did it come from the things we did, what did it have to do with the trees and the mountains and whatever else? So I look at that, and I map that onto how would I build a magic system where maybe it has rules, but I don’t need to understand them. I just need to roll the storm in.

[Erin] In truth, I think we take comfort in the idea that we can understand it all in a way that is not true. I keep thinking about like… I can’t think of a very specific example right now, but there are cases where there will be a village that relies on folk magic. They’re like, “We are eating this thing or doing this thing, and it has this effect.” People will come in and be like, “That makes no sense. It doesn’t fit in. We can’t codify it. We can’t understand it. Stop doing that.” Then there will be some tragic consequence. Then, later, they’ll be like, “Oh, it turns out that actually you eating that mushroom did inoculate you against the thing we didn’t realize was happening around you.” Because there’s this idea that we have to be able to put something in a box in order for it to make sense to us. I think part of that is the pattern seeking nature of humanity, but I think the fact that those patterns have to be kind of in written form or really measurable form in order for them to work for us is kind of the capitalism impulse.

[DongWon] Yep.

[Erin] It’s why, for me, the more technological something is, the more systemic it feels like it needs to be. Like, the more systematized it feels like it needs to be, because I associate it with needing… With capitalism, and I think capitalism, like, abhors a vacuum and uncertainty, because you can’t monetize uncertainty.

[DongWon] I think this conversation’s been so wonderful because it’s unlocking a certain thing in my brain about how I think about this. I think one thing I realized about why I find this dichotomy to be a little bit of a frustrating one, between like highly systematized and folk magic in certain ways, and kind of even going to how Howard was sort of explaining people trying to understand natural phenomena, is it sets up science and learning and kind of civilization almost as opposed to magical thinking and understanding and folk logic. When, in fact, I think they coexist beautifully. Right? I mean, also, science is becoming more and more a magical thing. Like, you can spend 30 seconds thinking about quantum mechanics and you are in magic land at that point as far as I’m concerned. But…

[Howard] I think the GPS.

[DongWon] Exactly. But I think folk or magical thinking, dream logic, can exist in a way that doesn’t negate that this is how the storm works, this is why the moss grows here. It can both be there are magical reasons for that, there are spiritual reasons for that, that are important to us as a community, as a culture, and also, water flows this way, storms work this way for reasons. Right? So I think when you have that in a story and when you’re making your magic highly rigorous and systematized in a very Dungeons & Dragons way, you’re telling a story that is more science fictional about systems, about abstraction, about society in a certain perspective, and when it’s more dream logic, folk logic, more numinous in that way, it is more about the character growth and development and personal experience. Right? It’s sort of the scale of the lens… I’m making a very broad generalization.

[Can we push back…]

[DongWon] Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I am a… Obviously, I’m down for that. But, like, I think there’s a reason why I think we tend to want the magic system in one type of story, very broadly speaking, and a little bit more of a certain kind of logic and character growth in a different kind of story.

[Mary Robinette] So, the reason I’m like, yeah, yeah. The Glamorous Histories are totally about exploitation. I mean, I’m like… I write… Like, Glamorous Histories are highly systematized, and you’re telling me they’re not about character?

[DongWon] No, I’m not saying they’re not about character. What I’m saying is the Glamorous Histories are also very concerned with societal questions of how society is structured and oriented in the way the Jane Austen books are. Right? Her books are as much a critique of money and power and social dynamics as they are personal character driven romance stories. I’m not saying these are mutually exclusive categories. I’m saying scale of lens comes into play. I do think the glamorous histories That books have a lot to say about the world in a very broad lens way.

[Mary Robinette] But one of the things… Like… One of the things that I actually do use the magic system… Specifically use the magic system for is that… In book 5, is that James and Vincent have grown up with this very systematized, very European, and then they are encountering people who use Glamour but have been trained… Who’ve grown up Evo and come at it from a different way, and they been told, “Oh, that doesn’t work that way. That’s not how Glamour works.” They’ve been like… They have been treated as if the way they use magic is folk… Is not real. Even though they’re using exactly the same tools. But it’s just the language that they use to talk about it has been pooh-poohed.

[DongWon] One thing I love about this conversation and one thing that… You can tell we keep wandering into like slightly prickly corners of this conversation, is because so many different valences have been attached to these currents. Right? So even me talking about a more systematized versus character driven way sounds like I was making a value judgment between commercial and literary in some way, or something along those lines. I wasn’t doing that, but it comes off that way. You know what I mean? We talk about, like, Western versus non-Western, like hierarchical versus non-hier… There’s all these like cultural judgments that get caught up in this. I think that is part of what makes this conversation so energetic and fascinating. Being live to those assumptions about what is better writing, what is better fiction, how should magic work, should it be SMART or not? Right? Like you… There’s a valence in that, too. Right? I don’t know, I love it. This is a super fun conversation for me.

[Erin] I actually… One of the reasons I had fun with SMART, other than, this is what I do when I sit in my house…


[Erin] Is that… My cat’s used to it… Is that, like, thinking about ways in which you can separate letters that seem like they would go well together… So, specific and measurable feel like, okay, that’s your systematized versus your sort of generalized, like, uncontrollable. But what happens if you have something that’s both specific, but uncontrollable? Or highly measurable, but very general? Like, what happens when we play with… Get rid of the idea that were actually talking about it either has to be X or Y, and figure out what’s the Z that lives between…

[Mary Robinette] I love this.

[Erin] And has elements of both.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. I really love this.

[DongWon] What a great system.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Just thinking about that as a set of sliders that you can push back and forth… It’s very yummy.

[DongWon] It makes me want to, like, map every piece of fiction I love to that right now.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Yeah.

[Howard] The readerly can of worms here is when someone reads one of these speculative fiction pieces, however the magic was, however the characters were, what is the piece that they come away from and tell you, “Oh, I have got to tell you about this book. It’s so cool because the magic does…” and then they tell you all about the magic, versus them saying, “Oh, I love this because these characters do…” For me as a writer, whatever it is that gets me excited about it, is… That is the important piece. I hope that’s what the reader comes away with. But as often as not, I’m just wrong.


[Erin] Well, this has been such a fun conversation. But to think about SMART in a different way, now we have some homework for you.

[DongWon] So, your homework is to write a thing that brings… Write a scene that brings an element of magic into a mundane place that you know well. The grocery store, a bank, whatever. Try to make it impactful without explaining how it all works.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

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