Three Big Questions

Ten Gentle Opportunities - Jeff Duntemann

Author, editor, and publisher Jeff Duntemann poses the three questions that authors of speculative fiction must ask when designing magic systems.
There are three Big Questions you need to ask yourself as you take on a task of designing a magical system:
  • What is the source of magical power? Where does it come from and how do you obtain it? In Larry Niven’s Warlock stories, magic is an inherent property of the created world, an essence present everywhere but which may be depleted by use over time, like a seam of coal. Aleister Crowley (a real guy, if an unutterable nutcase) created a system of sex magick, which was powered (as best I can figure) by orgasms. In Ten Gentle Opportunities, magical power emerges from a fully-developed pineal eye, which is present in a small fraction of humanity and must be perfected by practice and study. The magical force itself is drawn from primordial chaos, and is inexhaustible. In some systems, magical force emerges from sacred or cursed artifacts, and in others from alchemical concoctions. Can magic be stored somehow for later use, or use by ordinary people? Stypek stores ten nuggets of magical force in stasis inside a wand made of “wereglass,” which is dense and scary and serves a plot point more than the magical system. (Sometimes you have to do that.)
  • Who is able to manipulate magical power? Magic is sometimes the purview of explicitlty magical beings like elves, fairies, pixies, etc. Sometimes it’s a skill that may be learned by anybody. In my system, it depends on a genetic talent that mundanes don’t have and can’t obtain. Spellbenders like Stypek, in fact, are incomplete magicians, in that they can examine and change magical spells but can neither draw magic from chaos nor send it back when no longer needed. (Unwanted or abandoned magic can cause all sorts of problems, like animating corpses into zombies.) Can one magician do things, or does it take some sort of cooperative effort? (One flashes on Crowley’s sex magic.) Can multiple magicians do bigger or more difficult things working together? (This was the case in the classic Witches of Karres.) Are magicians specialists? (Larry Correia’s are; see below.)
  • What are the limits of magical power? This is the big one, kids. Magic that can do anything is…boring. Stories engage us by pitting characters against challenges and their own limitations. A magician who controls magic without limits can’t lose and so isn’t especially interesting. One of the best modern magical systems is what Larry Correia built into his Dark Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. Magical persons are specialists, sorted into numerous categories by the nature and limits of their power. Some teleport. Some command electricity. Some influence weather. Some heal. Some control gravity, and so on. All of these powers draw on personal energy, which the body creates from food and rest, and when that energy is used up, the powers fail for a time until the body can restore its energy levels. All magical/super powers must have limitations. Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s lantern doesn’t work on anything colored yellow. (At least this was the case when I was reading my friends’ comics in the first half of the 1960s.) Sometimes magic is tied to the Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Aether. (Brian Niemeier’s magical system includes but is not limited to this.) You can be as clever as you like, but your magic must have quirks and limitations.

Authors take note. Jeff is dispensing solid gold advice, here. He goes into even more detail on his excellent blog. Read the rest.

NB: Jeff intimated that his post was partly inspired by one of my earlier posts on designing magic systems. When you're done with his, check mine out for a treatment of magic system design that's fully complementary with Jeff's and gets a bit more granular.

Recommended: Jeff's fantastical science novel Ten Gentle Opportunities, in which he puts his money where his mouth is by demonstrating the principles he laid out.

And don't miss the Soul Cycle Spring Sale. Time is running out to get my entire award-winning eerie adventure series for less than six bucks. Get all four exciting installments while the gettin's good!

The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier


  1. Many thanks to Brian here for the signal boost and kind words.

    I have a suggestion for people new to Brian's Soul Cycle: Read it twice. The first time, lose yourself in it and just enjoy the ride. (This will be easy.) The second time, read it more slowly and *watch what he's doing.* This is especially important if you are a new or prospective writer of fantasy. Fiction works the way it does for good reasons. These reasons point to a craft that is comprehensible and learnable with practice.

    This, by the way, is the best time in history to be a writer of fiction. You no longer have to fight your way past bored editors in Manhattan, who will probably consider you a brain-damaged hog farmer once they learn that you live in Omaha or Des Moines. You have to learn a couple of new skills, but the payoff is priceless: You will control your career as a writer completely. I know a fair number of people who are making a decent living as indie writers without any connection at all to traditional publishing.

    Learn the skills. Write the books. Build your audience. Bank the money. It can be done. Brian's doing it. I'm doing it. Hordes of people are doing it. Manhattan is now a historical footnote. #indie is the future.

    1. You're most welcome. Regarding your assessment of the current publishing landscape: hear, hear!

  2. Brian and Jeff,

    A really educational post.

    OK my question:
    Do you need magic in fantasy or does the genre oblige it?
    It's a stumbling block for me as I'm totally clueless on fashioning a logical system.
    I do appreciate your point that you read other authors then create your own and finally have your alpha readers critique it. I'll read Jeff's longer post at his blog and digesthe the advice

    Thanks again!

  3. This post is fantastic. Jeff took a bunch of stuff that I--and I'm sure many other writers--have kinda-sorta intuited and laid it all out. Great stuff.