Unlocking Magic (part 3: Sharing the Power)

Hard magic systems with their strict rules and powerful abilities oft capture the hearts of world builders in search of novel worlds to create. Retaining believably with such systems is the focus of today’s Unlocking Magic.

I have to admit, I am a bit of a softie. I love soft magic, with its subtlety and its ability to make wonder out of the small and innocuous. I find a unique value in the character of a grandfather expertly bringing alive the world of magic for his grandson while the parents are upstairs asleep — a magic which the grandson will keep locked in his heart as his parents return him begrudgingly to the real world. There’s joy in the magic of a young boy’s imagination, standing up alone to vile pirates (or ninjas) to win the princess’s heart. For many, however, this is not where the real fun of magic lives. Many are attracted to its flashy and powerful spells — giant fireballs flung at approaching armies, garrisons of reanimated skeletons protecting the warlock as they seek to enslave life itself in a bid for immortality, and awesome spells to bend steel and splinter wood that leave the magic-less quivering in their boots.

Cool. I can work with that.

(credit: Gerald Azenaro)

It will, however, call for a different approach to Sanderson’s First Law. As we recall from the first Unlocking Magic, Sanderson’s First Law is one of the few rules of magic I recommend keeping hard and fast — all other rules are pliable:

“The ability for an author to resolve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the the reader understands said magic.”

One of the primary points of hard magic is to resolve massive conflicts with the use of magic, so by Sanderson’s First Law, we’re going to need to make sure that the reader has a strong understanding of the magic before the moment it is used. While soft magic can get away with leaving questions at every turn, hard magic must lay a road-map for the reader to follow, so that they are comfortable with your solutions to conflict. This creates a very important balance fundamental to hard magic: you must walk a fine line between ensuring the reader has enough information, but not too much. Too much information causes the conflict resolution to feel like a cheesy Deus ex-Machina (God from the Machine). Too little feels like a murder mystery where you’ve identified the killer by page six.

It is so instinctively alluring to try to write down a set of rules for your magic that work as cleanly as the laws of physics you learned in science class. It seems natural, right? Science gives us rules to predict how everything will happen, from how a transistor will switch a bit from on to off, all the way up to how galaxies collide (spoiler: they actually just pass right through each other, relatively unscathed). If you just make your rules work like science, you can be confident that there’s only one way your magic can go. Your reader has their road map, right?

Go back to science class, and look around. How many people are struggling deeply with the material. What percentage are worried they will never understand it? That science class is full of your readers. Maybe the assumption that everything should be portrayed as scientific rules and principles should be revisited, so that you can better relate to your readers!

(credit: krakuyaaa-kon)

Even in the hardest of magic systems, your reader brings their own inspiration to bring the world alive. They do it in coherence with whatever shapes you give them. No matter how hard you try, you will never completely supplant this sharing of your magic system with the reader. Not only is it mathematically impossible but you shouldn’t want to (there are some brutal mathematical theorems that start to weigh heavy if you try). You should want your reader to walk off with a sense that they have their little piece of magic to take with them wherever they go.

So how can you inspire their little piece of magic? The answer is one of the oldest adages in writing: “show don’t tell.” If you build a hard magic system, and tell them about it, rule by rule, they are stuck with what you tell them. They have to build their understanding of your magic to the exact series of words and phrases you used. There may not be much magic left for them to create. Oh sure, go ahead and tell them a bit of it. There wouldn’t be as much fun to crafting hard magic systems if you couldn’t gloat a little. But you really want the reader to experience it, not hear it like a lecture.

Everyone wants to experience the magic for themselves (credit: kimberly-castello)

“Show don’t tell” is typically a writer’s trick, and I’ll leave it to them to describe how to write to a reader’s mental image of your world. However, there is one area where “show don’t tell” is very easy to implement during your world building efforts: building the minds of the people in your world. Usually it is the writer who has to get into the mind of the reader, to make certain their story takes hold. However, when a reader is reading about a character in the book, the relationship is reversed. When reading about a character, the reader is subconsciously looking for clues about the world in the character’s mind, just like we look for clues in real life interactions! If you can put clues to your magic system in how people think and act, readers will subconsciously pick it up. To make your life even easier, we humans are trained to build our hypotheses about others’ minds slowly, over time, giving you a great deal of time to build your world without the reader knowing! This gives you a way to describe your magic without having to lay it all out on stone tablets. You can let them build their understanding of your magic system alongside your characters!

Take, for example, a jilted character in a love triangle. This character may simply be part of your normal plot. Both you and the reader understand what motivates this character. Thus, when you show a magical device in the vicinity of this character, their actions and response will say a lot of not just about them, but also about how magic is viewed in this world by jilted lovers in general. If they show no more than a passing curiosity, that may indicate that magic is not very effective in issues of love (for example, genies that can’t grant Love). On the other hand, if they approach it with a morbid curiosity, that starts suggesting that not only can magic kill, but it can do so in ways that would be satisfying to a jilted lover. Voodoo lore is full of darker powers like that. The best part is, this is a very natural process. All you have to do is make your character consistent and believable, and human psychology does the rest! You don’t have to spell it out, merely have your characters act consistently with what they know!

Magic doesn’t always get you what you asked for (credit: montiray)

The reader of course, has to make their own interpretations, but the beautiful thing about embedding your magic system’s rules into the characters is that we are usually not offended when we guess a character’s motivation wrong. It happens all the time while we walk down the street! You think they’re going to turn left, they turn right and bump into you. It’s not an epic battle for the ages — they simply say “excuse me” and trudge on. Any understanding of your magic has to have the same level of flexibility as we exhibit when we bump into someone, so they can’t be too frustrated when they get something about your magic wrong. You, however, know your entire hard magic system, and you can make your characters as aligned with that knowledge as you please. You can even have some of your darker characters actively trying to deceive others about the power of magic. This consistency with your mind’s version of the magic will naturally draw in the reader, because they see it everywhere they look. Every single character’s subtle unconscious reactions to the world around them is an opportunity to breath life into your hard magic system without sacrificing the wondrous feel!

Business relations is also a very powerful place to hide an understanding of magical rules. Business is cutthroat. If something is good for business, it is almost always done. This makes it particularly effective at detecting inconsistencies with magic that breaks laws of physics. Let’s play with a world where wizards can manipulate fire. Many wizards learn the art, and vie for a chance to be heroes, explorers of the realm, but not all get a chance to be heroes. The wizards are fun and the story will focus on them, but let’s explore the mind of a successful blacksmith in this age. How expensive is it to use coal to heat his forge with coal? Might he be able to run his business cheaper by hiring a wizard to make the fire rather than paying for fuel? Depending on your world, it might actually be cheaper to find an unemployed wizard just trying to put some food on the table and employ them. If so, you would rationally expect to see wizards employed as heating elements. How does this matter? Look at how your people approach fuel. If there’s a scarcity of fuel, and wizards aren’t being used to replace it, there has to be something else preventing it from happening. Maybe the wizards are too proud, in which case you should see starving wizards. Who would have thought the price of fuel to heat your characters’ houses could have an impact on the acceptance of your magic system! Sources of warmth often factor into building up the childhood of a character. You might be able to build some understanding of your magic system into your backstory, which you needed anyways, without wasting a single word or a single frame of video! That’s efficient use of resources at hand!

Sometimes what really matters is just a steady paycheck

If you’re building your world while writing, you’ll want to pay attention to all of this at once. However, if you’re building a world before writing the story, you may merely need to make sure your world wont fall apart once you start storytelling in it. In this case, I recommend an approach I call “the intelligent adversary.” The idea is simple: make one of your characters devote their entire existence to breaking your magic system. If a character whose sole purpose in life is to ruin your magic system can’t do it, then it is unlikely they will break it later when they have other purposes in mind as the novel starts to unfold. Don’t be stingy, let your character be aware of any rule of magic which isn’t a protected secret (and even then, explore giving them some of the secrets). See where it leads. The more you give them to break your system, the more secure you can feel.

If that test works, try to break the political structure of the world, using your magic. If you have sources of limitless electrical energy, what would a great king do after enslaving all of the wizards and making them generate power for him. If you can violate gravity, how many weapons of war can be created to kill your main character without them having a fighting chance of spotting it before it was too late? Might wizards unionize? Might wizards’ apprentices unionize? Might the rest of the world fight violently to prevent wizards from unionizing, because a wizard’s union would have been too powerful? These are all great tests to make sure your political structures are believable within the realm of your magic rules.

When checking your magic system against an intelligent adversary, always be on the lookout for loops: sets of rules which permit limitless use. The harder your magic system is, the fewer tools you will have in place to stop these loops. Consider a case from Magic: the Gathering. M:tG is obviously a very hard magic system, because the entire game is built around magic combat. There are many viscous combos in this game, such as this pair of cards:

A pair of M:tG cards which creates a loop (credit: Wizards of the Coast)

Both Stuffy Doll and Guilty Conscience are powerful cards on their own. However, put together, they become infinitely powerful. You can enchant the doll with Guilty Conscience (which is usually cast on your enemies, not your friends), then use Stuffy Doll to do 1 damage to itself, which does one damage to your enemy. This triggers Guilty Conscience, doing one more damage, and the pattern continues.

So how does M:tG deal with this? It doesn't. Diving into how and why it doesn’t is a valuable exercise for world builders making hard magic systems. The game actually painted itself into a corner trying to make the hardest magic possible. They tried to fix the infinite combo, with a rule known as 104.4b which basically states “if you try to make an infinite combo, it becomes a draw rather than a win”:

104.4b If a game …somehow enters a “loop” of mandatory actions, repeating a sequence of events with no way to stop, the game is a draw….

However, this carefully worded rule was usurped by two other rules which affect the way these cards resolve, causing the “players who hit 0 life due to a ‘whenever …’ clause lose” rule to happen before the “infinite combos are a draw” rule:

104.3b If a player’s life total is 0 or less, he or she loses the game the next time a player would receive priority….
112.3c Triggered abilities … include … the word “when,” “whenever,” or “at.” Whenever the trigger event occurs, the ability is put on the stack the next time a player would receive priority …

These rules demonstrate a risk all hard magic system face. They took great care to define concepts like “triggering,” “priority,” and a “stack.” These definitions have been carefully honed to where they cannot possibly be altered. Doing so would break hundreds of other nuanced scenarios. If they fixed this scenario, they’d break others. They became too rigid to stop this combo from taking effect.

This is the basis for my own rule of thumb for hard magic, to go alongside Sanderson’s First law: When the hardness of a magic system is much more pronounced than it’s softness, loopholes in the rules become more powerful, and harder to stop, because it becomes too rigid to adapt.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the cases where magic can create intelligent creatures. Everyone should remember our favorite wizard as he sought to get out of doing work by creating magical beings to do his bidding. Fantasia continues to be a beautiful portrayal of what goes wrong when you allow these sorts of things to happen, and it only resolved the issue by the introduction of a stronger wizard to tame the wild brooms.

Intelligent magic always seems like a strong idea at the time…

I would always recommend putting some soft magic in alongside the hard magic. For all the flash, pomp and circumstance hard magic provides, it’s often the soft magic side that saves your skin as a world builder by helping you deal with the extreme cases that arise as you nail your hard magic system down, rule by rule.

The depiction of hard magic is often quite a lot softer than the magic itself. Through clever placement of behaviors of characters, you can convey a remarkable amount of understanding of your magic system. Often, you needed to portray behaviors like these anyways, so this effort can be almost free from a cost of word count or frames of video. As an added bonus, this approach naturally lends its self to testing your magic system for loopholes. In all, “show don’t tell” continues to be the message for the best way to portray things you need.

-C