Magic doesn’t just grow on trees; it’s got to come from somewhere! For example, it could come from the fruit of trees that channel mystical energy from the ancient realms beneath the earth. Okay fine, in that context magic can grow on trees. But what about other sources? That’s what we’re talking about this week: how to decide on a source, how many sources to have, and why lion turtles shouldn’t be included.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Oren: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is Chris and Wes.
So here’s the question: Where does the magic of a podcast come from? Is it from the ancient microphones dug up beneath the earth? Is it from show notes called down from the heavens? Or is it the innate arcane power of voice? Or all three of those at once, for no reason?
Chris: I still have faith in Podcastia.
Oren: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve got to add in the divine source for the various ways that our podcast is magically powered. Because today we’re talking about sources of magic, which is specifically, where does the magic come from in your setting?
And this can go a lot of different ways, you could probably go on forever. Because you could be like, ‘the magic in my setting comes from these magic rocks’ and it’s like, okay, where does the magic in the rocks come from? ‘Well, they get it because they are left out in the sun and the sun’s rays are magic.’ How come the sun’s rays are magic? ‘Well, it says the sun is powered by nuclear fission of the magic big bang.’ It’s like, okay, this could go back a while.
But probably you’re going to stop at some point, depending on how deep you want to get into your setting. Probably before you hit the magic quantum mechanics point.
Chris: It’s the same as the ‘Are gods powerful wizards?’ question. Where did the gods get their powers? Well, maybe they’re also wizards.
Oren: Yeah, who knows?
Wes: So a good source then has a decent stop point, maybe? Or at least one when you would stop asking questions? ‘Cause if you said Podcastia, may she reign on high, gives us her magic for our podcast… I would settle at a god. I could ask that question, but a god giving you magic is a solid source.
Chris: If nothing else, audiences will just accept that, usually, and not ask further questions. Although I kind of like the idea of having a recursive, never ending chain where gods get their magic from each other and eventually it loops back around in a circle.
Wes: Oooh. Yes.
Oren: But if the source of magic and your setting is, say, a bunch of keys, that might leave people wondering, ‘Well, where did the keys get their magic from?’ [Wes groans]
Uh, you know, just pointing that out there for random, unrelated reasons.
Chris: I think it really just has to boil down to something that’s not very well understood. Because that’s, again, the difference between magic and technology, when we can see the difference; in some stories we don’t, really. Magic is – what is it? We don’t understand it in the way we understand technology.
And so I think in the end, what you’re trying to do is boil it down to something that is very distant, or not understood, and kind of mysterious. Whether it’s a mysterious substance from beneath the earth, or whether it’s another realm, or whether it’s the gods and they’re just very unknowable. It doesn’t have to be super mysterious, but I think the more mysterious it is, the less we’ll be asking questions about where it got its magic from.
Wes: There’s a whole point of transference in a way. If it’s a god, then gods just have powers and can give you magic. But back to Oren’s rocks, how do I take the magic energy from the rock into my body? I’m going to ask questions about that. Or is the rock magical, and I don’t cast magic, I just let the rock do its thing while carrying it around?
Chris: Maybe you put the rock inside a magic device that’s meant to harness has magical power. Or you may get it into a wand or something.
Wes: The harnessing component I think is a key thing to consider with the source of magic in your stories.
Oren: And if you want to add extra depth to your magic system, you can have different kinds of magic come from different ways that you harness something. Because a lot of people assume that if they want more than one kind of magic in their setting, they have to add in new sources of magic. But it can often all come from the same source and just have a different way of getting it.
Like, if you eat a small piece of rock you might get one kind of magic, but if you wear the rock around your neck like a necklace, that might be another kind of magic. If you sleep on the rock, that could be a third kind of magic. And this all comes from the same magic rock. It just does different things similarly to if it was a plant, whether you eat the plant or smoke the plant or apply the plant as a poultice, it’s going to have different effects.
Chris: Or it’s a rock and the rock is in the soil, and you harvest the plants that are from the soil where the rocks were, …
Oren: Then you can have magic transference. That’s great.
Wes: So consuming things is a source of magic.
Chris: One that I think is worth noting that’s different – we’re assuming that magic is energy or substance. But in some stories, like The Matrix, there is a magical effect there, but it’s more like the nature of the universe is different and it’s more inherently malleable. And in The Matrix, of course, the explanation is that they’re all dreaming up the Matrix. Within the world of the Matrix, they are basically doing magic-like effects. But the idea is that the nature of the universe is different, and that’s how they’re doing it.
Oren: And you could achieve roughly the same effect in a fantasy setting and just be like, ‘Those of the strongest will can bend reality’. It would have the same mechanical effect, but it would be very different thematically.
Chris: I like the idea that, again, if you have gods that are dreaming up the world, the idea that if you know the gods’ language and talk to them, you’ll make them imagine new things. You could say that okay, well then that means magic has a divine origin, but it’s flavored in a different way.
Oren: So here’s a thought, do you even need to specify what the source of magic is in your setting? And if you don’t, what is the effect of that?
Wes: Do you want your story to be interesting or boring? [all laugh]
Oren: Hot take!
Chris [laughing]: Okay, that was a little harsh there, Wes.
Wes [laughing]: There’s my harsh hard take!
Chris: I would say, not necessarily, but there are opportunities that come with specifying the sources. Specifically, if you’re looking for a rational type of magic system where you want everything to make sense. I think the great thing about specifying the source is, I think this is what Wes was pointing to, is that you can use it to build up the theme and mood and atmosphere of your setting.
But also if you know exactly how magic is harnessed, there’s more opportunities for limits because you can have it break down, which I think is the fun part. Especially the juncture between a source of magic and how we manage to make magic follow the directions and do what we want; and making it an imperfect process that is understood.
Because if you have an arbitrary magic system where you’ve just decided, okay, here’s my list of spells and I’m going to try to keep track of them so they don’t get out of hand, but you’re just making them up independently and they don’t follow a universal set of rules – it doesn’t necessarily matter as much where it comes from. But you have less opportunities for people to understand this process and see how it could go wrong. And then when it goes wrong, that’s something that totally makes sense to them because they understand that logic.
One thing that I think is a huge loss of opportunity for instance, is that there’s a lot of magic systems that are based on willpower. And in some cases we have no other magic source, it’s just pure will. I mean, we could say it’s like that for The Matrix, if you want, it’s like discipline or creative thinking or what have you. But I have seen few of those stories where the characters get drunk and that affects their ability to do magic. Because again, once you understand how it works, you could potentially understand how it feels.
Oren: Those kinds of magic systems are also kind of a problem because it becomes harder to limit what your characters can and can’t do with magic. If it’s just ‘I will it to happen’, it feels like if I just left you alone in a room, you could do almost anything.
Chris: That’s the other thing that is implied besides Wes’ ‘How do you transfer it from the source? And where can it break down?’ There’s also, ‘What makes it more or less powerful?’
Oren: Yeah. And it’s harder to have a satisfying turning point around willpower-based magic because willpower’s very internal and very subjective and might not exist at all. So saying that one character had stronger willpower than another, or something happened that gave them stronger wills – it’s not like you can’t do it, I mean, The Matrix exists and they did a pretty good job, but it’s harder. Especially if you don’t have the background music of a movie and the acting skills of a super talented actor as your protagonist to make that work.
Chris: That’s actually a really good point about willpower, that willpower has quite a bit of problematic baggage around it with the idea of, there are some people who are just weak-willed and some people who are just strong-willed. In real life, if you look at those situations where there are people being accused of being weak-willed, they just have different experiences than other people.
If you took somebody that is supposedly strong-willed and actually gave them the same experience as the people who were supposedly weak-willed, that’s what accounts for the difference, not this thing called willpower. So I think that is a pretty good reason to not reinforce those ideas. But it is an easy way to explain your magic. [chuckles]
Oren: My source of magic is going to be incorrect biases in judging other humans. [laughter]
Chris: Oh no! Your world will be awful.
Oren: I will say that one thing to be careful of is, if you have a first installment of your story that doesn’t specify precisely where magic comes from, be careful if you decide to get more specific later. Because people will have their own ideas that they’ve come up with. And you might, for example, have a really cool elemental martial arts system that has a lot of implications of where the magic might come from, but never specifically says, and then you might decide it was lion turtles and people will be mad.
Wes [groans]: So mad.
Oren: Because it was a bad decision.
Wes: I was so disappointed. It took all the wonder out of the world. Just sucked the air right out of it.
Oren: My head canon was always that it was environmentally-based, because you have firebenders who live near volcanoes, earthbenders who live on a giant continent, airbenders live at high altitude, and waterbenders live in the frozen polar ice caps. It just seemed logical that it was an environmental thing, and that was what I assumed it was. And they can take that head canon when they pry it from my cold dead fingers.
Wes: You’re right, the geography of where these people live possibly informs their bending. But then the maybe-stories that we pick up, about the tides with the water benders, and the dragons and volcanoes, you know, the creatures that can do these things too – that was fun. It broadened the world. And when you just say “It’s lion turtles”, then there’s nothing left. It’s boring. There’s no mystery.
Oren: It doesn’t help that that’s also the worst season of Korra, and the lion turtle bits are very rushed, so that that’s a whole mess. Anyway, moving on.
Chris: It’s also hard to separate those things from the way the lion turtles are depicted. If you say there’s no sense of mystery left, that also implies there’s nothing mysterious about the lion turtles, which can be a problem of execution there.
Oren: So here’s another thought: At what point do you start including multiple sources of magic? Why should you do that? Because I’ve definitely noticed a lot of stories have multiple sources of magic, in ways that it doesn’t seem necessary.
The novel Three Parts Dead, which I really like, has this whole thing about how magic comes from human souls, and that’s why it’s all based on legal contracts. Because everything is about getting different people to give you a percentage of their inner magical energy that by itself isn’t very much, but if you can get enough of it together, you can do cool stuff with it. And that’s cool. I’m way into that. And then it’s like, ‘oh, also magic comes from the stars, I guess. You can also get magic that way.’ And it’s like, well, that’s less cool.
Chris: I would argue that the only extent in which you should do that is when they are linked together in some way. So if we talk about the magical rock and that magical rock has been in this soil and a plant grows in the soil, then the plant is magical too, those two things are linked. Or if you have a whole Pantheon of gods, they’re linked, thematically.
I guess if we said everybody was reincarnated stars, then maybe soul energy and stars would be thematically linked somehow. But yeah, otherwise I think you’re just making things feel arbitrary and diluting whatever theme you have.
Oren: What about if you have a plot based on conflict between two systems of magic, like in Dragon Prince, where the elves use environmental magic, as far as I could tell. Their magic comes from the moon and the sky and all that stuff. And then humans use magic that they get from plants and animals, which is bad, for reasons.
Chris: I would argue those are thematically linked.
Oren: You think so?
Chris: Yes, because basically what’s happening is, all of the rest of the life on this world gets magic from the environment, kind of elemental – moon, air, what have you – and the humans steal it from other creatures, is what it’s supposed to be. It’s just like the plant that grows in the soil where the rock is.
Wes: So it’s that the humans don’t have the right receptors when they’re born, so they have to find other ways to transmit the energy into their bodies.
Oren: Which is bad! ‘Humans should know their place, and not try to use magic like the inherently superior elves’, apparently is the message of Dragon Prince.
Wes: Yeah, the innate magic person Is bothersome.
Oren: That was a plot in the TV series they made out of the Sword of Truth books, which is very bad. There’s one plot where they go to a town where people have figured out how to get magic from potions. And the whole story is about how magic is bad and corrupting. And it’s like – they have a wizard in their party who just uses magic constantly.
Chris: Didn’t you know that magic is supposed to be inborn and only then is it good? Know your place, people.
Wes: Oh no.
Oren: When he uses magic, it’s not a drug metaphor. It’s fine. [laughter]
I was watching this cartoon called High Guardian Spice where there’s this conflict between old and new magic. And they kind of hinted at the idea that old magic was taking magic from yourself and new magic was taking it from the environment. So new magic was easier and people liked it more, because you didn’t have to exhaust yourself to do it, but it was also causing environmental problems.
They kept hinting at that – and then just steered away from it, like, no, we’re not talking about that in this season. I was like, come on, man. That’s the most exciting part of your world! What are you doing? This is what happens when you have a plot of magic conflict, but your main character is a fighter. Why is the main character the fighter? Why isn’t it the maids? That’s the way more obvious choice anyway.
Wes: I think maybe something else to add to your question, Oren, about different sources: It probably all just is the same source in the grand scheme of things, but I like what Chris was saying at the beginning about how you harness it maybe just is more representative.
If you had a plane of shadow and a plane of light overlapping on this word, and they have themed the magic to their needs and they’re vying for influence accordingly – that’s fine. Even if it’s all the same type of magic, how they’ve learned it and manipulated it has almost turned it into something unrecognizable from something else. I’m fine with something like that, even if it’s all from some atmospheric magic wind or whatever.
Oren: So here’s another question: At what point does your source of magic become too narrow? Like if I say that magic comes from plants – okay. Seems reasonable. But what if I’m like, ‘All right, magic only is this one specific flower. It’s the only magic one.’ Is that too narrow? Are people are going to be like, why that plant?
Chris: I don’t think it’s the narrowness that’s the issue, it’s the fact that it feels arbitrary. Why that plant? It feels like a contrivance now. But you could have an origin story for this plant, where it’s like, oh, this god was killed, and they changed into this magic dust, and when the dust fell to earth, this plant grew from it. So this plant is the remains of this dead god. And then make it seem magical when you describe it. Now it no longer feels arbitrary.
Wes: Have either of you seen Mary and the Witch’s Flower?
Oren: Yeah. That was a movie.
Chris: That movie was a movie. [laughs]
Wes: That was a movie, but I mean, that’s what you’re talking about, right, Oren? Mary finds that flower that happened to grow and gets all this magic power.
Oren: I wasn’t doing that on purpose. But yes, that is a description of the plot of that movie. It is a very beautiful movie… and, oh God, it’s story is so bad.
Wes [laughing]: It’s so bad.
Oren: I can’t even really remember what happens in it. What was happening in that movie?
Wes: Yeah. It definitely was something where whatever magic academy or wherever Mary ended up, one of the magic users there wanted to get the flower to basically juice people up or something like that. I mean, it was an exploitive story about resources or something like that, but it failed. It failed on a lot of accounts otherwise, but I don’t think it bothered to explore anything, other than to just kind of do that ‘Oh, it only grows once in a generation, la la la’, to add mystery to it. Which might just get plenty of people to accept that, but it is contrived otherwise.
Chris: Another source of magic we haven’t talked about is when it’s magical tech. Nanobots is a popular one. It’s like the nanobots can just do anything, they’re basically magic at that point. Steampunk also definitely veers in this territory. And certainly in some stories you have an inventor character that will just make random items that can do random things on the spot. At this point – okay, you’re just a magician. Because there’s no rules around all of these devices that you happen to invent.
Like in Star Trek, where every show they invent some new technology that’s never been seen before in order to get themselves out of trouble. It’s like, nobody has invented that yet? Apparently not.
Oren: And no one will invent it again, because we will forget how to do it at the end of this episode.
Wes: They solved the problem. There’s no further need of that thing. So strike it from your memory.
Oren: Although it’s funny to me that we tend to talk about how like, oh, well, that technology is just magic now. But in practice, in fiction magic is actually easier to make rules for than technology, because with magic, you still have to think about it. It can feel really arbitrary if you don’t theme your rules properly, but it’s fairly easy to say in magic that a spell can do this, but it can’t do that.
Whereas in technology, it’s much harder because technology is a real thing that exists. So it’s harder to say that once you’ve created nanobots that can stitch a wound closed, why can’t they do other body-related things? That also can be a problem with magic, thinking of The Magicians, where ‘healing with magic is impossible, we can’t do it’. And it’s like, last episode, we turned all of our students into geese. But healing wounds – nah, that’s not okay. We can’t do that.
But it happens faster with technology. It’s harder to limit who has access to technology and it’s harder to limit cross-potential of technology.
Chris: Especially since we’re not making it up, like you can only do magic if you have a certain bloodline. [laughter] Technically your nanobots maybe do only follow the orders of people of a specific blood line if you want.
Oren: Yeah, you could do that. That might work for a little while. But people will wonder why haven’t we broken the DRM on these nanites yet. It’s like, someone will take care of that.
Chris: That’s where the nanites become alien nanites. We don’t know how the aliens made them. Don’t ask any questions. No reverse engineering.
Oren [mockingly]: “My protagonist at the beginning fell into a pot of alien nanites. And now they only do what the protagonist says and nobody can figure them out because they’re very weird and alien!”
Chris: I do think that having a source of magic that feels energy-based In some ways can be useful because of the associations with, again, the question of what makes magic more powerful. What is the difference between a spell that can level buildings and can crush a single rock? And people did a survey and found that people had a general sense of what magic should be harder than other magic, that was based on what would be harder in real life, or based on science.
Oren: I really, really liked that survey. It just feels like it should be harder to turn a frog into a squirrel than it should be to change the frog’s coloration – even though it’s all magic, technically there’s no reason it has to be that way – It feels like it should.
Chris: But when you have an actual energy source, it’s very intuitive that some things take more energy than others. Whereas when you’re praying to a god for a favor, you have to set up, okay, well, the god is more likely to change the color of the frog than change the frog into a squirrel. But a lot of times the idea is that the god can just change into a squirrel just as easily. Or anything that it’s about confidence or willpower. It’s like, why don’t you just have more of that, and just blow up the planet if you want to.
Oren: Find us the world’s most confident mediocre white man. [everyone laughs]
I will say that when you’re having a source of magic, generally, you want to go one of two ways. You want to either have a tangible limit on it. Not like ‘I get tired’, or ‘I run out of magic juice’ or what have you. It should be something you can see. If it’s an actual magic resource, it can be, ‘I only have three magic rocks left’ or what have you. Something that you can easily communicate to the reader.
Or you should just be prepared for the fact that your characters magic is effectively always on. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s no real limit to bending. They’re never going to run out of firebending, except for when they have an existential crisis and lose their emotional sense of self. But that’s not super common. For the most part their firebending just works and the only “limit” on how much they can firebend or for how long is physical exhaustion, which is the same, regardless, for a little bit of firebending or swordbending.
Chris: We’ve definitely seen stories where the limit on magic is supposed to be that it makes you tired, but it ends up feeling very arbitrary in the story.
Oren: It’s not really satisfying.
Chris: Right. It feels like, okay, well, the author just decides when magic works or not. I do think is possible to make that kind of limit work, but you would have to be really disciplined about it and really set your limits lower. If people can just do a bunch of magic and then at some arbitrary point they’re tired … Whereas, if every single time they do any magic at all, they’re tired for the rest of the day and can’t really do any more magic or if they do, they’ll go unconscious, and that’s really consistent – that’s not going to feel contrived anymore. But the way that being tired is usually applied just doesn’t really make it feel like a limit so much as a contrivance.
Oren: And it gets more obvious the further you go, right? Like when I first started reading The Dresden Files and I was told the main limiter on magic is that Dresden gets tired, I was like, okay. I mean, that seems reasonable. He’ll get too tired and you can’t use magic anymore.
And then as I read further, it was like, oh, okay, that was code for ‘he can’t use magic when Jim Butcher doesn’t want him to be able to use magic, but he can when it’s convenient for the plot’. Because, you know, it just always happens that he can always just manage to summon one last reserve of stamina to get the magic that he needs. [Wes laughs]
Chris: Is this a turning point where he has a battle of will to use more of his energy to do another spell? Because I can totally see that happening.
Wes: I did like what you were saying though, Oren, about if it’s something tangible, then we could maybe accept that. Because tiredness is just like, okay, you’re tired now. But when in Supernatural, Sam guzzles demon blood for power and magic, it’s like, okay, the more he drinks, the more powerful he gets. We get that.
Sidebar: He apparently has a bottomless stomach, because there’s no way he drinks two Home Depot buckets worth of blood, and then doesn’t stomach cramp or pass out.
But anyway, the consumption aspect of it, it’s like, it runs through him. So it seems like less contrived to me. It’s like, yeah, you had a really big, magical sandwich and it can’t stay in you forever. So now you’re out of magic.
Oren: Yeah. If I was going to write a book with something like that,I would definitely have to establish a demon blood-to-spell ratio, because the problem with Sam is that we have no idea how much demon blood he’s got in him. We can’t measure that. He doesn’t have a fuel meter on his demon blooded-ness.
Chris: I would also make it expire, so if he drinks demon blood he has to do magic the same day and if he drinks more demon blood he can do more powerful magic, but he still has to do it the same day. And after about a day it wears off, therefore we don’t have the demon blood meter [laughter] lasting an indefinite period of time, and we’re asking how full his tank is all the time when he’s drinking demon blood.
Wes: That’s talking about a written story. Because in episodic stories like that, it’s like, in this episode, he has a vial of demon blood and can do this. And then the next time we see him, he’s drinking more. But in a prose story, you guys are both right; you’d have to really establish some certain parameters around it.
Oren: Especially if it was a magic that the character was going to be using to solve problems. Sam’s magic gets away with more because he’s actually not supposed to use it. If Sam uses his magic to solve a problem, that’s a failure on Sam’s part.
Chris: It’s him taking the easy route.
Oren: And it has bad consequences. He’s not supposed to. Whereas if this was magic that the story was actually going to have him using on a regular basis, it should probably establish some stricter limits.
One more thing real quick: If you are going to use spell components, those can work. However, you need to really limit them. I’ve worked with several authors who have based their spell components off of things like Dungeons and Dragons, where each spell has a bazillion flavor components that you never use because they’re just flavor. But what that means is that narratively it’s basically impossible for the reader to remember which components the character has and which ones they don’t.
So if each of your spells has six components and you know 30 spells, it’s like, oh, well, yeah, I guess you might have that component. Who knows? I don’t have my spreadsheet open. So just keep the number of components limited, or your audience won’t be able to remember it. And they might as well just be able to cast magic for free.
So I think that’ll go ahead and be the end of the episode. As we have run out of podcasting components, which we kept a very close watch on and which was definitely a very rational system for sure.
Chris: Our Podcastia faith meter has gone down and is now running on empty.
Oren: We’ve lost too much faith in Podcastia.
But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory and Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]
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