J. Michael Gonzalez

Magic System Crash

As a Fantasy and Sci-Fantasy author, one of the most daunting and rewarding tasks is the creation of the world's magic system. One of the things that makes it so challenging is that I often come to the table preloaded with bits of imagery or conversations or situations that thoroughly capture my imagination. I want that scene in my book, and when I start to plot it all out, I often find the story shaping itself around that bit of imagery.

Taken by itself, a scene that requires magic to work isn't a problem. But it starts to become a problem when you end up with a dozen bits of disparate imagery, some of which are repeated throughout the story (as an ability of the main character, or as some defining characteristic of the world, etc) and some of which are one-off and localized to a single scene. In addition to the degree to which some bit of magic is dispersed throughout the story, it also matters how important a given scene is, and how much the impact of the magic on that scene reverberates throughout the rest of the story.

For Secrets of Tevithic, I had designed a detailed outline with only a broad definition of the magic. I didn't really dig too deep beyond the broad definitional strokes of "reality-based magic". I hadn't taken the thought beyond "Demon pushes aside the barrier that separates realities, a new reality comes forward, stuff happens, QED. Now...WRITE!!".

This sort of worked until I reached about a third of the way through Secrets. A queasy feeling ran through me whenever I thought about a couple of the character's "magical" abilities, but ignored the warning and pushed forward. The writing went quickly. Then I hit a scene where two or three magic things happened within the narrative, all of which were really interesting...but the more I thought about it, the more I realized they were either contradictory with earlier implicit rules of the world's magic, or they raised uncomfortable questions about the paradigm as a whole. I stopped working and finally thought in depth about some of the contradictions I'd been grappling with.

As I finally confronted my denial of the groaning weight of inconsistency, I kind of felt like the dog in the this is fine meme. I began to realize how deep the problems really were and how fundamental they were not only to the narrative, but to bits of the world that I needed to support the narrative. Within the reality-based magical paradigm I'd been positing, the exemplar was this: is there a reality-frame where this pretty-often-used ability can exist? Can that reality be substituted for the current reality-frame in any way to make this work without introducing other contradictions?

The more I thought about it, the more I struggled to make it work within the established context; once I started pulling the thread, other bits started unraveling, and from there the whole magic system I'd haphazardly assembled (or failed to assemble, really) finally collapsed under its own weight. I needed to scrap the whole system and start from scratch...maybe even start the whole novel from scratch, since the magic was so interwoven with the world and the narrative.

I fought really hard to prezel-twist my head to get the imagery to work. I experimented with a variety of different concepts (realities where everything was identical...except this one little detail; realities that were non-relativistic or non-Newtonian; etc), but the solutions were generally unsatisfactory, cheesy, or (even worse) created other inconsistencies. My thinking finally started to shift when Rick pointed me toward Brian Sanderson's essay about his First Law of Magic. I won't go into detail—the essay doesn't need a critique from me—but his basic view relates to the interplay between a character's ability to rationally solve problems and the reader's ability to understand the magic system. If the reader can appreciate how the character is finding clever and unexpected applications of the ability, the story is enhanced by the magic system. It is an interesting discussion, though not necessarily one I completely agree with.

It reminded me of days past when I used to be a fantasy game designer. One big problem we struggled to solve was: how do you allow players to make up their own spells, so we could tap into their creativity and allow them to define characters around a much more vibrant variety of paradigms. As a game designer, the rules had to be balanced and fair, but not necessarily narratively consistent (i.e., reciting words to make magic happen vs having psychic abilities vs turning into Hulk at need). While it is tempting to balance a magic system through quantitative means—number of hit points healed, hit points of damage done, etc, there were often effects that were not very quantifiable that sometimes introduced annoyingly disproportionate effects. The solution we found was to rate the spells on a qualitative measure of how much it impacted the story.

Without realizing it, I had carried this game-based solution with me into the writing. It worked well in a game, but narratively, I needed more structure for it to be comprehensible to the reader: it needed rules which were comprehensive and comprehensible. Friends I'd spoken with insisted that the reality-based magical paradigm was interesting, and had some really interesting potential. I wanted to keep it, but getting all the bits of imagery to work in a consistent and cohesive manner just wasn't working. The whole story kept falling apart every time I tried to smash it all together.

My head was exploding in slow motion and my book wasn't doing too well either!

Then I had a conversation with my friend Elle. I explained the character's abilities and how I just couldn't. make it. work! She gets impatient with the convoluted headspaces I sometimes get lost in and with her direct, razor-sharp insightfulness cut right through to the heart of the matter.

She said, "Dude, you're trying to make it do something it's not designed to do."

I felt like Roy Scheider in Jaws when the shark attack finally happens. She was right. I had gotten so close to the problem, I had forgotten some of the most basic principles behind any kind of speculative fiction: make a set of assumptions, derive rules from those assumptions, then extrapolate the consequences of those assumptions—sometimes to an extreme to see what interesting things come out the other side. I had been clinging to imagery and bits of narrative which were fundamentally incompatible with the magic system, and my determination to hold on to those bits of imagery was twisting the whole narrative world out of whack as a result.

I immediately tossed the troublesome powers and began formalizing a set of rules, designing Secrets' magic system (note: here there be spoilers) much more systematically, positing a set of rules and then some interesting consequences derived from those rules. In doing so, I realized I had previously written myself into a corner because some of the details I had spontaneously included were hamstringing me. That, plus the troublesome powers had broken down...and broken down badly. I'm still grappling with some of the details, but I've spent the last month editing, making sure all the new world building is reflected in the prose. All in all, the collapse of the magic system (and significant bits of the world that it supported) cost me about 6 months of development time...probably more.

So yeah, in the manner of Kevin Hart's "that's why I was 5 minutes late" monologue...that's why Secrets has been taking so damned long.

Cuz magic.